This Charity Auctions Business Leaders’ Free Time For Worthy Causes
It’s no surprise to hear that entrepreneur Aaron Lee grew up in California. From the Generation T lister’s relaxed approach to office wear to his infectious enthusiasm for technology, he could be a poster boy for millennials from the Golden State.
But Lee hasn’t always felt part of that privileged tribe. “I was born in Hong Kong but my family moved to the US when I was a child,” he explains. “I was a minority there. As an Asian kid living in the suburbs, I was probably one out of 200 kids who were different. I was smaller—I was bullied. But I always learned to fight back and I learned from being different. In life today, what that means is that with everything I do, I’m disrupting the bigger guy. With my businesses, I’m picking fights with the bigger guy.”
And in the corporate world, Lee has always punched above his weight. He started his first business, an events company called Extravaganza, at the age of 17. While bartending at one of Extravaganza’s parties, Lee met Danny Yeung, the founder of Groupon Hong Kong. The pair hit it off and Lee was soon director of the e-commerce site. He was just 22. Lee didn’t stop there. He left Groupon in 2013 to found a string of other companies, including Snapask, an app that pairs students with tutors, and Dash Serviced Suites, a chain of affordable serviced apartments.
These businesses are still growing, but Lee has also turned his attention to giving back. He’s now strategic adviser to Time Auction, a charity that asks leading business people to donate an hour of their time—usually over a meal—to meet aspiring entrepreneurs looking for mentors. But instead of paying for the privilege, mentees earn their seat at the meeting by clocking up hours volunteering for local charities. Most meals require the mentees to have volunteered for at least 10 hours.
Time Auction was founded by Fion Leung and Wong Suet-yi (in 2014. “Aaron was the first mentor we ever approached,” Wong remembers. “Our pitch to him was, ‘Would you be willing to volunteer one hour of your time and indirectly contribute 150 hours?’ And his response was, ‘Yeah, definitely. It’s 150 times return, so why not?’”
Leung and Wong got Time Auction up and running with no outside investment. “In the first two years, I think we invested only HK$6,000,” Leung recalls. “That was for renting the website, printing flyers, doing outreach at schools. And we raised 6,000 to 7,000 volunteer hours for charities. The model was really lean in terms of the input and the takeaway. So we were thinking, ‘How do we scale this?’”
It was at that point, in mid-2016, that Lee stepped in. Having already been a Time Auction mentor, he decided to take on the larger role of strategic adviser to help boost the charity to the next level. The first step he took was to invest in Time Auction so Leung and Wong could give up their corporate jobs to run the charity full-time.
After that, Lee helped them reach out to more mentors. The list of Time Auction mentors now reads like a who’s who of Hong Kong business, with everyone from “father of Lan Kwai Fong” Allan Zeman to former legislative councillor Christine Loh and Gen.T lister Yen Kuok donating their time. Tycoon Lau Ming-wai recently hosted a particularly special meeting, surprising his mentees with a private, behind-the-scenes tour of Ocean Park’s aquariums after dinner.
With Hong Kong’s top entrepreneurs on board, it’s only natural that Lee, Leung and Wong are hoping to expand Time Auction internationally (their wish list of mentors includes Elon Musk and Airbnb founder Brian Chesky), but Lee insists that there’s still plenty of work for the charity to do here.
“Every year, people spend 400,000 hours volunteering for charities in Hong Kong. We could raise that by 10 per cent just by having four mentorship sessions a week,” Lee explains. “Imagine the kind of impact we can have on Hong Kong as a society if we start empowering young people now. Imagine the awareness of social issues that these people who have been volunteering will take into their full-time careers. The positive impact could be huge."