As a teenager, Charles Chen Yidan already tasted the full force of stress in life. Nearly three decades ago, he found himself in trepidation every time he opened his textbooks to revise for the national college entrance exam of China.
With subtle but palpable hints from his family of the importance of university education, Chen pulled out all the stops to prepare for the notoriously competitive exam, spending countless sleepless nights to revise everything that needed to be revised one year in advance. He did well in the mock exam and was picked by his teacher to stand up in the class and share his secret of doing well in the language tests. But it all went downhill afterwards - he eventually failed the real language exam.
“Fortunately my grades for other subjects were able make up for the low grade and I was eligible to go to university. That was how I chose to study chemistry,” he said.
That turned out to be one of the best decisions he has ever made, for he met his wife through the chemistry programme. She would become Chen’s soulmate, giving her the most solid and important form of support whenever he has a big decision to make in life, such as setting up a global education award.
Sitting in his minimalist office in Hong Kong, the 45-year-old man, who was a core founder of Tencent Holdings, cuts a composed and confident figure. But as soon as he starts talking about education, he becomes very enthusiastic.
Education is perhaps not the typical topic of interest for a businessman. But then Chen is not your typical entrepreneur.
Over the past few years - and especially after stepping down as Tencent’s chief administration officer in 2013 - Chen has been increasingly involved in philanthropic activities, including investing RMB 2 billion (US$306 million) in Wuhan College, a non-profit university in China. In recent years, he started to incorporate his vision on education in the college, with a view to exploring new possibilities.
Chen has also established, together with his Tencent partners, Tencent Charity Foundation, with the mission of funding non-profit groups’ projects that encompass everything from education to disaster relief. One of the projects involves joining hands with the Futian government in Shenzhen to set up the Shenzhen Mingde Experimental School, a privately managed public school that offers 12-year full-time education designed to make studying more interesting and less stressful for students.
“We are making changes but are still exploring different ideas at the same time. There are many challenges along the way. But actions have to be taken to make changes. This school can be a role model. If it is sustainable, other schools can learn from it, and that would be quite something,” he says.
Despite having achieved so much, Chen would not rest on his laurels. Of all the philanthropic causes, education is a field of interest closest to his heart. A Guangdong native who grew up in China, he has always been aware of how education can change one’s life for the better, and it is this belief that forms the philosophical bedrock of his latest brainchild, Yidan Prize.
On May 22nd, Charles announced the launch of the Yidan Prize, of which the mission is to create a better world through education. The world’s largest education award of its kind in pecuniary terms, it aims to empower the change makers in education, build a global community of education leaders and, ultimately, create long-lasting, enlightening impacts on mankind as a whole.
In a way, the origin of the idea of the prize was born in Chen’s bed. One bedtime three years ago, he wrote down a wish in his diary: “Establish a prize that goes beyond religion, race and nationality. Encourage reflections on the universe and contributions to humanity.”
Given on an annual basis, Yidan Prize reaches out to the world to recognize individuals with outstanding achievements in education research and development. An international judging panel formed by a respected team of independent and authoritative experts will review each entry according to rigorous criteria in order to identify the very best individuals.
“For this prize to be successful, it should be able to inspire others to take reference from it and be influential. Our focus is on the future. The prize should be able to shape the future. This is most important,” he says.
The philanthropist stresses that his education vision will not have any bearing on the decisions of the Judging Committee, which supervises the judging panel. The Judging Committee, together with the Global Advisory Board of Yidan Prize Foundation, will be responsible for assessing entries and ensure fairness and authority of the assessment process.
“My job is to set up authoritative committees and a fair, healthy mechanism. I leave this mechanism and the committees to take care of the rest of things,” Chen explains.
This is a project that amounts to Chen’s most ambitious philanthropic endeavor thus far, not least because the prize intends to position itself as the most prestigious education award in the world.
“In my days as a student in China, university education was the key to opening a door that would alter one’s destiny. My grandmother was illiterate, but she believed strongly in education even though she didn’t articulate that in words. She managed to raise a son, my father, who made it to university and then went on to live a fairly pleasant life. She was an inspiration to me,” he says.
Yet the power of education goes beyond an individual level. It can also lead to positive changes to the world, as Chen has come closer to understanding over the years. “I’ve been reading a lot of books about Chinese literature, Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism just to learn more about life. But what I’ve learned from these books is that education is of extreme importance to society, and we’re talking about not only institutional education but also family education, and education related to religions and faith,” he says.
“When a society is dictated by self-interest and profit-making, it is because it lacks faith education. Eventually, everybody thinks they can harm others and keep themselves from harm’s way by being rich. But in the end, everyone suffers,” Chen says.
“This is all because we lack faith. By faith, it can be faith in traditional Chinese culture or a religion. You choose what you believe in. But we need faith, and faith comes from education. Meanwhile, over the past decades, our education system is designed to meet vocational needs. But we are heading into a future where everyone has to bring into play their skills and talent. We need an education system that is more individualized. We need to look at how to cope with the change.”
If all this sounds grandiose, that is because Chen is not a man who thinks small. He likes to keep a low profile and work patiently toward big goals.
After completing a bachelor’s degree in applied chemistry at Shenzhen University and then a master’s degree in economic law at Nanjing University, Chen became a civil servant in Shenzhen. Yet not long afterwards, he joined four friends to launch a startup called Tencent.
“At the time my goal was to have my own business as I wanted more freedom at work. I didn’t care so much about the business nature as the opportunity for us three to do something together. If it was a bakery that they set up, I would have joined them!” he quipped.
Chen and his partners soon saw the startup grow by leaps and bounds, capitalizing on the rapid growth of China’s information technology. Today, Tencent is China’s internet giant and a publicly listed company in Hong Kong.
The idea of giving back to society is appealing to many, but executing it is another matter. Being in the money is often a prerequisite. For that, Chen is acutely aware of his luck.
“I grew up in a family that didn’t have to struggle to make ends meet, so I never thought about the meaning of money until I started working. Money is a very useful tool. I feel extremely lucky to have caught the fast train of the internet and have made some money that can more than satisfy my basic needs. Somehow the power that be decided to pass on these resources to me, but then the world’s resources go around from one place to another. They just happened to fall in my hand for a while, and I ought to put them to good use. I’m grateful to have the opportunity to do so,” he says.
As for Yidan Prize, Chen’s expectation is simple. “I hope this prize can be given every year and last for a long time. I’m not going to set a framework for its future direction. I’ll leave society to decide.”