Listening to Do Good

by Karen Tee
05 Apr 2021

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has spurred billionaire entrepreneur and philanthropist Calvin Lo to step into the spotlight to urge others to give back.

When Calvin Lo visited a children’s home recently, he noticed something peculiar. The young children were wearing masks that were too large for them, leading to significant gaps around their faces.

“We were asked if we could help to modify the masks so that they would fit better. The orphanage had requested donations of small masks, but most people did not know these existed and instead sent adult-sized ones,” says Lo, group CEO of his family business, R.E Lee International LLC, a life insurance broker.

“We use masks every day now, so providing children with the right fitting ones should have been a simple thing — but only if we would listen to what is needed before acting.”

(Related: Joel Low's pioneering spirit in agriculture)

This mismatch between the needs of the home and the donations it received led the 44-year-old tycoon and philanthropist to a Eureka moment.

“Why don’t the people who have access to resources start listening to different perspectives? If we can humble ourselves in that sense and start learning, maybe we would be able to get a better picture of what is going on around us and be better able to allocate resources so that they don’t go to waste,” he says.

So Lo, who has set up multiple charitable trusts worth US$245 million for his philanthropic initiatives, spearheaded the launch of The 195 Project, a global think tank to address the inequalities that have been thrown into greater relief due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

He admits that he too had once reached a point in his life where he was just content to simply “rubber stamp” decisions instead of taking time to learn about the issues that needed to be addressed. But his interactions with beneficiaries convinced him that listening before acting would allow for a more compassionate and thoughtful distribution of resources. He shares that he soon discovered that other people in his circle had experienced similar frustrations with making a philanthropic impact too.

So through The 195 Project, which is named for the 195 countries in the world, he aims to empower scientists, doctors, researchers, and other experts in their fields to share their knowledge with prominent business leaders and philanthropists in order to inform the latter’s giving.

“By sharing this information, the hope is to get more mileage out of it. The end goal is to encourage everyone to think responsibly as to how you give your money or your resources,” he says.

This passion for philanthropy has been inculcated in him from a young age as his family has always been involved in charity work in Hong Kong and Southeast Asia. But what really opened his eyes to the need to make the world a more equitable place was a school visit to an orphanage when he was a teenager. “You think you know everything and that pimples are your big problem, but there are so many more problems existing in the world,” he says. “The reality of meeting kids with no parents really sank in. Who do they talk to if they need a listening ear or a shoulder to cry on?”

Calvin Lo with Jane Goodall

Since then, he has committed his time and efforts to furthering a wide range of causes, including animals, community, the environment and issues faced by children and the elderly. From 2006 to 2018, he was a board member of the Jane Goodall Institute, a global community wildlife conservation organization founded by the famous primatologist.

This sense of compassion for others is something he hopes to inculcate in his ten-year-old daughter as well, which is why he brings her along on visits to the children’s home. “I want her to learn about the world,” he says.

It was on one of these visits that he made another unusual observation — he noticed unopened boxes of fancy gadgets like Nintendo sets and iPads that were meant as gifts for the children. Curious, he asked why the presents were untouched. “I was told that the kids just wanted stationery like rulers and paper that they could call their own and not have to share with everyone else,” he says, tearing up at the thought that their simple requests had remained unfulfilled for so long. “I thought I was smart giving them what I wanted, but it turns out that was not what they wanted.”

In fact, this is one of the reasons why Lo, who has long been known as being elusive and media shy, is finally granting interview requests to spread the word about The 195 Project. “I think this is a really important issue. Just like when I speak to potential clients and they ask if I do my own estate planning, when I am advocating for philanthropy and giving back, I have to show that I am involved too.”