‘Moonshot philanthropist’ on a mission to bring glasses to the poor

Hong Kong-based investor James Chen wants to tackle the global crisis of poor vision, a problem that affects 2.2 billion people worldwide.

Shu-Ching Jean Chen
Published Mon, Aug 29, 2022 · 05:50 AM

JAMES Chen is a third-generation heir to his family’s Wahum Group Holdings, a Hong Kong-based manufacturing business that has maintained a long tradition of giving back. And that is what he has been doing for the last 20 years as he remains focused on a single cause – to deliver quality eye care to the world’s poor.

Chen himself had eye problems at a young age. As a teenage student in New York, he wanted to apply for a driving licence, but failed the eye exam. That was a wake-up call, and he counts himself fortunate to be able to get proper glasses to help correct his vision before it got worse.

With an estimated 2.2 billion people around the world needing spectacles but cannot afford them, the task facing Chen and his team is a daunting one, to say the least. But he is determined to give it his best shot. He is the founder of Clearly, a London-registered non-government organisation, as well as the Hong Kong-based Chen Yet Sen Family Foundation, named after his late father who, on his deathbed in 2003, gave his blessing to this charitable foundation.  Chen calls his venture “moonshot philanthropy”, and he often refers to himself as a “moonshot philanthropist”. A moonshot involves a high aim, intense effort, huge investment, and a certain amount of risk.  Speaking to The Business Times in a video call from London, Chen explained: “If someone is inspired to go on a moonshot philanthropy journey, and is passionate about an issue and wants to solve it, there’s a way forward. But be prepared that it will take at least 10 years to pursue that journey and a big bet of at least US$10 million.”  He draws inspiration from a 2017 Harvard Business Review article. In that report, the Bridgespan Group in the US identified 15 breakthrough initiatives of the past century, including the eradication of polio, car seat safety for children, and tobacco control, describing them as “audacious philanthropy”. Each of these, the report noted, was an inconceivable moonshot back in its day. Among Chen’s biggest moonshots, in dollar terms, are a US$10 million pledge to the UK’s Vision Catalyst Fund, a £3.5 million (S$5.73 million) joint research fund with Wellcome Trust, and a pledge of more than US$200,000 in prizes to startups with innovative technologies or solutions.   Last year, Clearly’s advocacy arm was merged into the global coordinating body for vision health, the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness, at which he now serves as a global ambassador. As part of the merger, the association disclosed it had received unrestricted funding from Clearly of some £274,000. The other half of Clearly’s operations, which focuses on eye-care research, continues to function independently. Chen’s mission has taken him to all parts of the globe, even Africa. There, he distributed low-cost eyeglasses through his Vision for a Nation Foundation. The effort was first launched in 2008 in Rwanda to some success, and there were plans to expand it to Ghana in a big way, but a significant funding shortfall – due to the withdrawal of 2 donor partners – forced him to reluctantly abandon this project. Over in China, Chen says research by his family foundation shows that as many as 720 million people – or about half the entire population – suffer from poor vision.

“In recent years, it’s been a real struggle to operate in China, so we had a strategic rethink,” he says. “Also, I’m running a vision journey outside of the foundation. That’s my personal journey. Now I’m trying to make sure all our philanthropy is integrated. Most likely, we’ll focus on moonshot philanthropy in China going forward,” he said. Of late, there has been a switch from conducting fieldwork to seeding donations to vision-related startups with innovative ideas. Chen has pledged £50,000 to UK social enterprise PEEK Vision, and a US$50,000 donation to London-based EYElliance.

“The research and experiments done by my staff have determined that over a billion people only need a simple, low-cost pair of glasses to ensure they have good enough vision,” said Chen. This research, however, was conducted before the Covid-19 pandemic, which has since given rise to more vision-related problems through the prevalence of remote work and the increased use of electronic gadgets as part of home-schooling.

As his philanthropic work continues to grow, Chen said he plans to cede control of Wahum Group Holdings at some point, but still remain chairman. Chen’s audacious philanthropy journey is far from over, but he is spurred on by his moonshot ambition to help as many people with poor vision as he possibly can.

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