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Celebrating women entrepreneurs

This International Women’s Day, we want to shine a spotlight on women entrepreneurs, in particular social entrepreneurs. So we sat down with Bonnie Chiu, winner of the 2014 Hivos Social Innovation Award, to see what has changed - and what she has changed - since then.

Bonnie Chiu - Forbes 30 Under 30 Social Entrepreneur, Forbes contributor and CEO of Lensational - started her entrepreneurship and social impact career making mugs.

Bonnie’s beginnings

Bonnie’s roots lie in Hong Kong and in Indonesia, where her family experienced poverty first hand. But when opportunities came their way, and the family prospered, Bonnie realized not everyone gets the same chance.

While still in high school, Bonnie started her first company, making customizable coffee mugs. But mindful of her childhood experiences, she thought, “Every company ought to have positive social impact,” so she donated part of her earnings to charity. So for her, giving back to society came naturally.

How we met

Today, Bonnie is a driven social entrepreneur, gender equality advocate, social impact consultant and inspirational speaker. Our paths first crossed in 2014, when she submitted a “promising innovative idea”- Lensational - to the Hivos Social Innovation Award. The award wanted to foster social change by turning innovative ideas into concrete initiatives that sustain human progress.

Bonnie says, “Back then I lacked confidence, and Lensational was still pretty much an idea. I was also a bit naïve, maybe even reckless, in not realizing the challenges of bringing development innovations. But the pitch training I got during the Award process was transformational, as well as learning from experienced development practitioners and fellow contestants.”

An idea born by chance, partly

Lensational is a non-profit social enterprise based in Hong Kong and London. It gives underprivileged women and girls cameras and photography training to empower them emotionally and economically. The idea for it came to Bonnie by chance, but owes a lot to her experiences as a girl and young woman.

social entrepreneurs
Bonnie (right) teaching photography. Photo courtesy of Lensational

“I went to all-girl schools until I was 16, so I was not aware of gender inequality,” she explains. “But later at university, I woke up to the fact that women are given fewer opportunities, and life treats girls and women very differently from boys and men.”

Bonnie started reading about the history of women in China. It was then that she realized how women were oppressed – and how hard her grandmother and mother had to fight for their education and rights. Empowering women quickly became her passion.

While traveling in Turkey, a couple of girls asked Bonnie to show them how to use a camera. “I suddenly realized that the majority of illiterate people were women. I recalled that my grandmother, illiterate herself, had used photos to capture her life, share emotions and document memories.” Bonnie connected the dots and Lensational was born. She founded it on International Women’s Day, 2013.

Lensational

Lensational aims to give women more than a way to make a living. Its holistic approach is also about emotional empowerment. Underprivileged women in 22 mostly Asian countries receive training in technical skills, but also in storytelling, self-recognition and confidence building. The training combines lessons from gender studies, journalism and psychology.

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Selecting photo's during a workshop organized with domestic workers in Hong Kong. Photo courtesy of Lensational

Local partners who work with Lensational identify the women candidates and the pressing issues they face. As Bonnie points out, “Our focus is on South Asia because gender inequality is especially entrenched in this region.” Lensational provides expertise, but most of the activities are led locally.

However, Bonnie does keep an eye out for stereotypes that might creep into the images. “I want to break all these stereotypes and see women portrayed as strong and empowered.”

The pictures the women take tell their personal stories. The photos are sold on Lensational’s website, and the stories are shared on social media. Half of the revenue goes to the photographer, and the other half to Lensational to be invested in training more women.

How Lensational makes a difference

Bonnie tells the story of a woman from the Philippines: a domestic worker in Hong Kong and a Lensational trainee. “She was so into photography that she became a trainer herself in no time. After a couple of years, she told me she wanted to move to Russia. She said she had gained so much confidence and made so many friends through Lensational that she could take the next step and go off into the unknown!”

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Nargis from Bangladesh. Photo courtesy of Lensational

A girl from Bangladesh, who was unable to continue her education because her family couldn’t afford the tuition, used the money she earned from her photos to go back to school.

Lensational has over 15,000 followers on its social media platforms, which means their stories travel far. Bonnie gives an example. “In 2017, we trained five daughters of Bangladeshi garment workers in video-journalism to explain their daily lives in short documentaries. Their films were screened at the Frontline Club in London, and the girls received the UN’s storyteller award in March 2018. Not bad for seven to fifteen-year-olds!”

A last look back

Hivos’ Social Innovation Award prize and coaching trajectory meant a lot to Bonnie. “I learned so much - how to deliver a pitch and work in developing countries, how to measure social impact and avoid harm in the communities where you work, and how to expand your network.” She is also still in contact with her fellow contestants. “I have received more awards since then, but none of them provided such an intensive training as this one.”

Now that Bonnie has claimed a solid spot in the world of social entrepreneurship and social impact, we wanted to know how she views Hivos today. “I greatly value your focus on local development and understanding local dynamics, and your focus on empowering women and girls. Hivos is also different from other funders. You look at system change and really put gender at the heart of development. You don’t shy away from taboo subjects and you’re bold in your choices. I realize this more and more as time passes.”

A fast look forward

Bonnie would love to see a change within boys and men as well. She involves male volunteers in Lensational who care about women’s empowerment. She calls them, “living examples of why men should care.” Furthermore, men often feature in the photos, and Lensational encourages its trainees to teach the boys and men in their lives the skills they have acquired.

But she stresses …

“Unless men and boys also join the cause of women’s empowerment and achieving gender equality, we will always take one step forward, two steps back. Men need to understand that gender equality benefits them, too.”

Her ultimate goal is to shift gender norms and she hopes Lensational will contribute to this.

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Observing Bangladesh, by Shobe. Shobe is 12 years old and makes and sells jewelry on the beach to help support her family. She is the fastest runner and is often challenging the boys for a race on the beach. Photo courtesy of Lensational

Supporting frontrunners and social entrepreneurs

In 2014, Hivos saw that Bonnie Chiu was an innovative frontrunner whose idea had great potential for creating social change. Today, we still scout for pioneers and help them realize their most promising solutions. Social entrepreneurs are prime examples, from those involved in green entrepreneurship to creating sustainable employment. This is how we keep looking for new and creative solutions to persistent global problems.

Header photo courtesy of the Chinese University of Hong Kong