Chen Yu-zhu, who graduated from National Taiwan University, gave up the benefits and prestige from an American company and founded Impact Hub Taipei instead. His income plummeted by three quarters, and had to delay paying his employees at one point. He worked so tirelessly that he was hospitalized vomiting blood. Simply because “doing this is more meaningful than making money.” Why?
Such an exaggerated story is not the plot of a movie, but the real life of Chen Yu-zhu, the co-founder and CEO of Impact Hub Taipei.
At the age of 34, he had left the famous medical company five years ago and introduced Impact Hub from the UK with his friend Zhang Shi-ting, and thus embarked on an entrepreneurial journey of blood and sweat.
“I won’t regret my decision because doing this is more meaningful than just making money,” Chen Yu-zhu said frankly.
This meaning behind is to promote the ideal of sustainable development and social innovation.
This is the purpose of Impact Hub. The global network established in London in 2005 aims to promote social innovation and sustainable development around the world through diverse roles such as space sharing, business incubators, and social innovation community centers. Connected with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Impact Hub now has more than 104 physical locations around the world.
Impact Hub officially entered Taiwan in 2015 becoming the first Impact Hub in the Chinese-speaking world, and the first shared space and influence incubator in the country to obtain the B Corp certification.
Space sharing and incubation Courses
“The headquarters have a space-oriented and course-driven incubator business; Impact Hub in various countries develop suitable businesses based on local conditions,” Chen Yu-zhu explained.
Co-working space is the starting point of Impact Hub in Taiwan. Shared office space has been developing globally in recent years. However, Impact Hub is not recruiting general companies for sharing, but social enterprises and non-profit organizations (NPOs) that promote sustainable development. It’s not only limited to office space, but also small-scale exhibitions, lectures, creative workshops and other activities, aiming to become a space where impact and business meet.
The Taipei NPO settlement, run by Impact Hub and opened in 2019, is their masterpiece. This 4-storey building at the corner of Chongqing South Road and Ningbo West Street in Taipei City was originally a teacher’s dormitory. They won the bid for zero dollars in 2018 and took over the refurbishment of this long-abandoned dormitory. They are responsible for internal renovations, and then the surplus will be returned to the Taipei City Government in a fixed proportion.
It took them half a year to emphasize the concepts of sustainability, environmental protection, and responsible consumption to create the first exclusive NPO office settlement in Taiwan.
Renovation of Old houses, Introduction of Circular Economy
Walking into the building with an eye-catching yellow exterior, it’s impossible to see that it is an old house with a history of 52 years. On the first floor you will find the cafe operated by Yimei and the Carrefour concept store, which mainly sells sustainable products. Divided office spaces are found on the upper floor. The open public space is coupled with bright, clean windows and large wooden tables. Under the chandelier exudes the yellow lights, embracing a Nordic minimalist style. There is also an intimately designed “independent phone booth” in the corner of the wall. When you need to think or work quietly without being disturbed, just open the door of “Call for Change” and sit down, and the sign of “On Air” will light up on the door, just like the studio of a radio station.
There is also a large shared kitchen, and the American-style kitchen counter with a large oven is particularly eye-catching. From design to supervision, Chen Yu-zhu and Zhang Shi-ting worked side by side. This design is catered to cooking instructors, who will be able to face students directly when hosting sessions and other activities in the future. In addition, the air-conditioning for the entire building was obtained from Daikin Air-Conditioning in the form of “renting to own”, which is the first case in Taiwan.
“In this space, we have implemented the concept of a circular economy.” In keeping with the spirit of the old dormitory which was once a residence for teachers who nurture talents, Chen Yu-zhu also hopes to turn this space into a stronghold for promoting the sustainable development of Taiwan.
Nights of Messing up, Learn from Failure to Succeed
This renovated public space has won the Taipei Old House Newborn Award in 2019. It also allowed non-profit organizations and social enterprises to enjoy affordable rental prices with a world-class working environment. It was a big step up for these organizations as they were used to less than ideal working environments for their profitability. At present, 17 non-profit organizations and social enterprises have entered Impact Hub, including the Awakening Foundation, A Good Life, City Wanderer, and Taiwan Youth Association for Democracy.
Their first transformation experience happened in Heping East Road in Taipei City, where they turned two original private houses adjacent to each other into a comfortable shared space in 2015. It immediately attracted units that promote sustainable development, including B Lab Taiwan and DOMI, the green energy company, as well as One Forty, an organization concerning international migration. Some organizations have grown and moved away, as new units will be stationed in the future.
Various activities were organized in the beginning, such as social enterprise gatherings, Creative Mornings and FuckUp Nights, inviting the business community to share creative ideas and failed experiences. The purpose is to introduce innovative thinking to further the business landscape in Taiwan.
“Our society has always prioritized success in learning, but in fact, we can learn more from failures.” Chen Yu-zhu wants to compile stories of failures into a book and turn it into teaching materials.
Life Victory: Poverty Alleviation to a Successful Business
What’s interesting is that Chen Yu-zhu came from a life of privilege. His father was an architect who undertook many projects for industrial plants. Chen grew up in a safe environment, and studied at Yanping High School for 6 years, where he won the championship of Taiwan Geography Olympia. Admitted to the Japanese Department of National Taiwan University, he double-majored in International Relations.
During his studies, he actively participated in extracurricular activities and founded the Taiwan-Japan Student Exchange Association at National Taiwan University to provide a platform for communication between Taiwan and Japanese students. Because of his father, he joined the Rotaract Club of Taipei Northwest at the age of 20 and became the founder of the Northwest District Youth League in Taipei. He hosted the 10th Asia Pacific Regional Rotaract Conference. He also organized a bike tour with his classmates to travel through Taiwan. Through the introduction of a schoolmate, he met Zhang Shi-ting, who is also a member of the Youth League. The chapter of fate began as the two started the business together. After graduation, he remained active in the Youth League and defeated 5 countries (Australia, India, Costa Rica, Germany, the Netherlands) in 2014 to bring back the power to host the World Rotaract Club Conference for Taiwan in 2017.
Chen had the dream of being a diplomat when he was still studying. However, since he felt that he might not be suitable for the strict and conservative diplomatic system, he gave up this idea. Upon graduating he worked as a soldier, and after the journey, he landed himself two opportunities at the job fair. One is to work as a reserve cadre at Mos Burger, and the other is to work as a business representative at the well-known medical company, Medtronic. He liked the idea of getting in touch and helping people; coupled with better benefits from a medical company, he chose Medtronic despite his lack of knowledge in the field.
Seeing the Fragility of Life Made him Reflect on Life
“How come they would hire me? The supervisor said that he thought I had the business ability, but I didn’t actually agree at that time.” Chen Yu-zhu, who seems to have his life managed now, recalled how immature he felt at that time.
In order to prove that he can do this well, he would become a good student again and immerse himself in reading medical books and reports. He learned from doctors by asking for advice. Eventually he Introduced Zhang Shi-ting to the company to manage the CSR department. Although the two were in the same company selling medical equipment, they did not forget the spirit of the Youth League. After work, they launched the “Exchange Laboratory” project for urban and rural learning in 2015, and received a 100,000 dollar sponsorship from the Project Imagination.
Even though the company’s welfare was excellent, Chen Yu-zhu began to feel much pressure. On one hand, colleagues competed with each other for better performance. On the other hand, they had to enter the operating room to assist the doctor in preparing medical procedures. The life and death of patients happened before his eyes. The discomfort urged him to rethink his career choice.
“I used to wait nine hours inside the operating room and saw brains or hearts being opened. There were patients who couldn’t survive the operation. The pressure was really too great.” Seeing the fragility of life, Chen Yu-zhu couldn’t help but reflect deeply on his own.
Part Time to Full Time, Landlords to Shareholders
Zhang Shi-ting had read about Impact Hub, and soon after, the two decided to introduce the organization to Taiwan. In the beginning, it was just a part-time hustle as they were working full-time jobs. However, after applying to the headquarters in 2014, they knew that this would have to become a full-time job since the intermediate process would require several review levels, including two endorsements from Impact Hubs in two cities. The two then headed to different countries separately, such as Singapore, South Korea, Japan and other countries, to learn about local practices. They finally obtained the authorization from Seoul and Kyoto to start a chapter in Taipei. Just before that, they had both formally resigned to start the business.
It is not easy to start your own business without the benefits from a traditional company. Therefore, funding becomes the first priority. Chen took out more than 700,000 dollars of savings from his work, and found support from the elders at the Rotary Club. He even tried to persuade the landlord to become a shareholder for the first contracted house.
“In the beginning, the homeowner didn’t understand what we were going to do. It only so happened that his daughter had visited Impact Hub in San Francisco, the United States. They eventually agreed with our philosophy, and were willing to reduce the rent and extend the lease in addition to buying shares,” Chen said.
Surprisingly, the first objection came from his parents. Chen’s father was very disapproving at the time. Fortunately, his parents had adopted a liberal approach to education since he was a young kid. Despite their opposition, they let him do it, and contributed some funds to become an underground shareholder.
“When I selected my major in high school, my father wanted me to study architecture, but I’d like to go for iberal arts, and he asked me to give him ten reasons. I told him that the current leaders all majored in liberal arts, and those who go for architecture are just like you, who still have to draw pictures with their own hands. Those who go for medicine need to do surgery with their own knives. My father can only agree with a smile. After starting his business, he kept asking me when I would quit. But when there is a real crisis, he would still help me.” Chen’s deeply grateful for the support from his parents.
Novice on the Road with Poor Turnover
Although he has accumulated a great deal of leadership experience in organizing activities in his student years, he is a novice in running a business. At that time, as the expansion was too rapid, they ran into difficulties with cash flow during the renovation of the second house. The salary of employees had to be postponed. Fortunately, his father lent him another 2 million dollars to get them through the hard times. Later, in the reconstruction project of the NPO settlement, his father also helped draw the construction blueprints.
“We told the employees that we would need to postpone their pay. They could only say keep going. Later, some of them left their jobs, which is somewhat related to our delay,” Zhang Shi-ting recalled the predicament at the time.
Due to this experience, Chen learned a very important lesson in running a business: cash flow! Up to now, the first thing he does when he gets up every day is to check how much money is left in his account, “I have to make sure that the company has at least 6 months of cash.”
In the beginning, they focused on being a “second landlord” and organizing activities. In addition to that, they also undertook corporate and government-related projects. Some from the sustainable industry thought they would become public relations companies. Chen admitted that he did face such challenges in the early stage; but because he was unable to incubate in the early stage of his business, he could only continue such activities for survival. But as they were showing faces everywhere, more and more people knew them, which also laid the foundation for them to develop youth training.
“These two young people are very serious, enthusiastic, and insistent on their goal,” Xiong Yixi, director of the research center of Commonwealth Magazine, who is responsible for the selection of the Excellence in Corporate Social Responsibility Award, said with a smile that they would be seen “on any occasion.”
From Shared Space to Youth Training
In 2017, they expanded their business reach and began to enter the field of youth training, including running the Yilan Youth Hub, conducting CSR training for foreign businesses, Tzu Chi’s “Fun Vision for the Future” project, Carrefour’s Real Food Award, and Art Season among other ventures.
Take the Yilan Youth Hub as an example. Originally, the Yilan County Government hoped to use this to provide youth career training. However, upon investigation, it was found that entrepreneurship was the driving force for young people to return to their hometowns. They then changed the direction of training from employment to entrepreneurship, offering free courses. In the beginning, there were only 4 or 5 people participating in each class. Now it has grown to about 40 people. It is expected to accompany 10 entrepreneurial teams in 2020.
“At that time, the Yilan County Government came to us because they heard that there is a young team in Taipei doing something similar. After years of hard work, our greatest sense of accomplishment is to see the Yilan County Government finally set up a Youth Affairs Division.” Chen said with a smile.
They invited teachers from different companies to plan training courses, and introduced the spirit of SDGs and the concept of CSR, extending the concept of sustainability to enterprises and youth entrepreneurship. Even if it is a competition-type event, they would suggest companies to not just give out bonuses but also training courses.
For example, the Carrefour Real Food Award initially consisted of online voting plus professional jury selection. With the team’s suggestion, it included the winning team’s training course. In the second session, they also suggested that the team that passed the preliminary review must first participate in the training course before entering the final election in order to strengthen their abilities.
Income Drops Sharply, Vomits Blood in Panic
Like any start-up company, Chen Yu-zhu and the team are each almost taking up twice the workload. In addition to capital, communication management and other business management challenges must be dealt with at the expense of health. Two years ago, Chen vomited blood at the venue after the first real food awards ceremony had ended, scaring his colleagues who eventually took him to the emergency room. At first, the hospital could not find the cause of his bleeding, but later it turned out that he had high blood pressure. It may be that he was too tired and stressed, which led to a red light on his health.
“Later, the doctor said, fortunately, the bleeding was in the tonsils. If it was in the brain, it might be a stroke.” The tall and strong man now has to take medicine regularly to maintain normal blood pressure.
After experiencing these challenges, the company’s operations are finally relatively stable. In 2018, it made a small profit. In 2019, it evened all the losses of the previous years. The number of employees has also changed from the original single digit to more than 10 people. Employees who perform well even get a salary increase every three months, and they also receive a two-month year-end bonus. Even if he has made a profit now, Chen confessed that his current income is still only a quarter of his previous job at the medical company.
From Zero to One to Achieve his Dreams
Why don’t you want to give up? Chen smiled and said that the creation of “from zero to one” gave him a sense of accomplishment. Although starting a business is hard, this is his dream. He also knows that it is the right thing to do, although he is tired yet content. It is this spirit that has touched many seniors, who became willing to reach out for help. Chen revealed that Taiwanese businessmen have invited them to go to Southeast Asia to help them make impact investments in the region.
“In the first two years, we focused on the space, and later campuses, with courses and incubations, etc. In the future, we hope to promote the ecosystem, and have the ability to make impact investments.” Like all entrepreneurs, Chen Yu-zhu has already looked far into the future.