Since middle school, Leo Wong has found himself drawn to social innovation and looking for novel ways to address social issues.
As part of a junior achiever group in middle school, Leo created products using upcycled material and pitched his creative product ideas to classmates. While his denim binder covers didn’t make it big, his early entrepreneur venture created a spark for Leo. He didn't know it then, but it was the beginning of what would become a mission to bring a social focus to the business world.
His journey of entrepreneurship and community development, however, has not come without setbacks and challenges. For decades, the business world has been driven by profit. The cash is king mentality has been etched into our minds as the way to do business. As a business student pursuing a Bachelor of Commerce degree, Leo faced a challenge—he cared about people more than profit but was being instructed to focus only on revenue.
“Can I do my project on blood donation?” Leo remembers asking one of his undergraduate professors. “I wanted to create a marketing plan on how to increase the number of people that were donating blood. My professor came back to me and said ‘I would rather you focus on something where there is a profit bottom line.’”
The challenges faced during his undergrad studies remained during his PhD. Social responsibility was barely an idea at the time and even the thought of it challenged the fundamental thinking of his professors and faculty.
“I remember being in my 4th or 5th year of my PhD and the PhD coordinator called me to my office,” Leo says.
“He told me I was very involved with the community, which was great but that I wasn’t focused enough on my research...Basically, I was told I couldn’t be involved with community work and be an academic at the same time.”
Despite being asked to remove himself from his PhD candidacy, Leo pushed back and stuck to his credo. He went on to teach business at NAIT, the University of Alberta and MacEwan, educating students on another way to do business—one that puts people first.
In 2018, Leo founded the Social Innovation Institute, alongside its partner coworking space, Roundhouse. What was non-existent in his own days as a student—workshops on human-centered design, social innovation, and building social enterprise—are the norm in this space. Week-long events like Changemaker Week, give hundreds of people the opportunity to learn about putting people over profits.
“Despite what other people may say to you or how systems try to clamp down on your interests or desires, there's always an opportunity for a path forward. It just requires a bit of creativity to get yourself there."