Tony Verb Might Be One Of Hong Kong’s Most Inspiring Social Entrepreneurs. Just Don’t Call Him That

Leadership

November 3, 2017 | BY Lee Williamson

Ahead of the release of his documentary on domestic workers, Verb talks to Gen.T about the importance of making a positive impact

“I came to Hong Kong for love, but I stayed to create,” says Gen.T lister Tony Verb in a 2013 TEDx talk, which is a passionate defence of the city and its potential. Back then, Verb was a veteran of the entertainment industry and CEO of ticket platform Ticketflap.

“I’m just another person who wants to make a difference,” he goes on to say in the talk, which he called Project Hong Kong. The speech offers insight into the boundless energy, optimism and philanthropic spirit that in the following years led Verb to leave entertainment behind to focus on projects that more closely align with that desire to make a positive impact.

Recently, this culminated in the release of The Helper, a crowdfunded documentary he produced with director Joanna Bowers about Hong Kong’s domestic helper community. This month, the film is on general release in local cinemas for the first time—a major milestone for the project.

Little did Verb know at the time, his TEDx talk would be a crucial catalyst for all that was to follow.

“In the speech, I highlighted [fellow 2017 Gen.T lister] Janice Leung-Hayes, who’s the founder of Island East Markets,” says Verb when he sits down with Gen.T in a sun-drenched meeting room at Metta, the members-only “entrepreneur club” he launched last year. 

Tony Verb at Metta. (Photo: Michaela Giles/Hong Kong Tatler)

“I highlighted her as one of the examples to follow in the city. Janice was in the audience and came to thank me. We later did a project together and it was clear we shared the same thinking about social impact. She was already part of the World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers Community, and I think that shared mentality triggered her to invite me into the community.”

“Once you become a Global Shaper you have a responsibility to carry its values forward. We pledge to support each other’s projects. If we are collectively contributing our skills, our networks, our experiences and our resources we represent a fairly strong force. By combining that energy we can amplify initiatives.”

Indeed, it’s clear within a few minutes of meeting the Hungarian native that he strongly believes in the power of the collective spirit. “Every business I’ve built in my life has been very complicated because I’ve always thought in ecosystems, in matrix—in how things relate to one another and how those relations can be synergised and optimised.”

It’s clearly a mindset that informed his work at Metta, but Verb has taken a backseat on day-to-day operations at the “connectivity platform” to focus on a new project, GreaterBay Ventures and Advisors. “It’s an investment firm addressing the mega-trend of urbanisation from an angle of positive impact,” says Verb.

The group is dedicated to “modern development, smart cities, transportation—all the relevant industries that can contribute positively to the development of cities”, focused on the Greater Bay Area, the Chinese government’s initiative to link Hong Kong, Macau and nine cities in Guangdong province into an integrated economic hub.

Hong Kong's link to Shenzhen is a crucial part of the Greater Bay Area project. (Photo: Shutterstock)

It’s no wonder Verb has gravitated towards the initiative — the Greater Bay Area is arguably the world’s most ambitious interconnectivity project. “It’s 66 million people, a US$1.3 trillion GDP and 170 million flight passengers annually,” says Verb. “Put that into perspective – it’s ridiculous. It’s not happening anywhere else in the world, and it won’t happen anywhere else. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime process.”

Verb’s late-stage investment firm is “identifying technologies and solutions” that can be of service to the initiative. “We want to contribute to the integration; help it happen smoothly, efficiently and sustainably,” says Verb.

The 33-year-old may be on a mission to identify investments that will make a positive impact on the area, but don’t call him an impact investor—or a social entrepreneur, for that matter. For Verb, these terms can be misleading, or even disingenuous.

“Social entrepreneurship and impact investing have a strange aura as a lot of people label them ‘charity’. I’m going to refrain from using [these terms] because it’s really not about that. I think these names have become tainted by previous practices, and a new terminology needs to be introduced.”

“I want to change the narrative to ‘investment with a positive impact’. I think that’s a little bit different from ‘impact investment’, because with impact investment the return expectation is different. In our case the return expectation isn’t different [from any other investment].” 

"It’s very important for me and my partners to be on the very same page when it comes to the challenges for humanity. Am I building an impact investment fund? No. But am I cognisant of the importance of it? Yes. Even if I’m being absolutely capitalistic, that’s the only investment philosophy that actually makes sense long term.” So it’s actually very practical while also being in line with my morals. And whoever is not on the same page, we are not ready to work with. Long term that’s the only way to create positive impact, and the only way high returns on investment can be created.”

Photo: Michaela Giles/Hong Kong Tatler.

“That’s our job. Our goal as fund managers is to make money, and our goal [at GreaterBay Ventures and Advisors] is to make money by creating a positive impact through modern urban development.”

For Verb, this is much more than opportunism; it’s a childhood dream. “I’ve only wanted to do two things in life. Until I was nine I wanted to be Luke Skywalker. At the age of nine, Maxis, a video game development company, launched SimCity 2000, which is a game about building cities. From that moment onwards I wanted to be a mayor. That game left a huge footprint on my personality and my thinking. [I realised] you cannot build a city if you’re not collaborative. You can’t build a city successfully if you’re individualistic; you need to think in systems.”

"I don’t think philanthropy is defined by how many schools we build, but how we carry ourselves in life"

It’s perhaps this “it takes a village” mentality that shapes Verb’s commitment to philanthropy, as well as his investment portfolio. “I have a very strong belief that we are here on earth to create, and as a collective of energy we have the option to choose whether we waste this energy or turn it into something,” he says.

“I don’t think philanthropy is defined by how many schools we build, but how we carry ourselves in life—whether you’re conscious about other people and the world around you, and give at least a portion of yourself to causes that matter.” It’s this mentality that saw Verb begin what he describes as “the most rewarding project and process that I have ever experienced in my life”: The Helper.

“Every expat that arrives in Hong Kong thinks the same thing when they walk out onto the street on their first Sunday: What is this?” says Verb, referring to the crowds of domestic helpers who convene in public spaces around Central every Sunday. "Some people ask the question and don’t care about the answer, and some people are intrigued by the situation, start asking more questions and then want to do something about it. Joanna [Bowers] and I are two of those people.”

“We were introduced by a mutual friend because both of us had expressed an interest in making some kind of content about domestic workers in Hong Kong,” says Bowers. In 2015, the timing seemed right. Tony’s a member of the Global Shapers Community and their focus was on domestic helpers, so they connected us to the domestic helper round-table. Erwiana’s employer had just been prosecuted, and there was such a feeling in Hong Kong that people wanted to show support.”

Director Joanna Bowers teamed up with Verb to change perceptions of the domestic worker community. (Photo: Courtesy of The Helper)

Despite the media attention around the trial of Erwiana Sulistyaningsih’s employer, who was charged with serially abusing the Indonesian domestic helper in 2015, Verb and Bowers decided to avoid what was perhaps the more obvious route of making a gritty documentary about the difficult truths within the domestic helper community.

“It’s been done to death,” says Bowers, “and frankly it falls on deaf ears now.” Instead, the film focuses on a few uplifting narratives, interweaving the personal stories of several domestic helpers. The film also follows the fortunes of a volunteer choir of domestic helpers, The Unsung Heroes, with the group’s performance on the main stage of Clockenflap 2015 providing the film’s heartfelt, inspirational finale.

“We’re trying to create a shift in perception,” says Bowers. “We wanted to humanise the domestic helper population and make people stop seeing them like disposable household appliances.”

Making the movie was a challenging two-year project. Verb describes the Kickstarter campaign, which finally exceeded its target of US$80,000, as the “hardest thing we did in our lives”. There were also a few other bumps along the way—literally.

On the day of the Clockenflap performance—the film’s grand finale—Bowers was in a hospital bed, hours away from going into labour with her first child. “I was watching the livestream from hospital on my laptop, directing via WhatsApp!” says Bowers.

The Unsung Heroes choir rehearse ahead of their Clockenflap performance in a scene from The Helper. (Photo: Courtesy of The Helper)

Thanks to the success of the film at AMC Pacific Place, where all 25 screenings sold out, The Helper is scheduled to screen across a number of Hong Kong cinemas in November. After a successful premier in Singapore last month, Bowers and Verb are also in the process of applying to international film festivals. “It’s not about ego,” says Verb. “We feel it’s our responsibility to show the film to as many people as possible.” 

“I believe in the power of media and storytelling to make an impact. The world is very big so this story needs to be told in many places. But there are so many more stories to be told, and I’m absolutely planning to do that.”

The very real impact of Verb’s philanthropic projects and investments seems a world away from the virtual inspiration he found in a video game over two decades ago. So does he still play The Sims? “When I was 17 I decided not to play video games ever again. I realised where we live and what we do is actually a video game with real rewards and real emotions, and I want to dedicate all my energy in life to this reality.”

The Helper is showing at several cinemas across Hong Kong throughout November.