Intern x CEO of Social Career |In Conversation with Matthew Tam

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September 9, 2022

From an investment bank to a NGO

“Achieve things. Go and try it rather than complain and say you cannot do it… all those are just excuses for yourself. No one will pity you.” -CEO of Social Career Matthew Tam on trying new things

By Yola Ngan
CUHK|Social Career Intern

He had a well paying job at an investment bank, but one day everything changed. He explains why he gave that all up and why you should take the unconventional route too. 

Just like you and me, Matthew Tam, CEO and co-founder of Social Career, also faces harsh realities like the unpredictability of the future. He had not predicted the 2008 Financial Crisis; he had not predicted spending half of his savings only a few years into building his own company; he had not predicted the hardships of the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the heaps of uncertainty ahead, Matthew still chooses to push through and maintains his can-do attitude towards life. How does he do it? And what can we learn from it?

In the banking industry, everyone is replaceable

One can only dream of landing a job as a professional in an investment bank - with that kind of pay, you would be set for life. But Matthew had other bigger things in mind. He was determined to take control of his fate and be the person behind the wheel.

It is of the general impression that professionals in the banking industry are well-respected and exude a certain air of prestige. Yet, Matthew begs to differ. “It is true in general that banking professionals are highly paid for their effort,” but “I doubt that it is a highly respected job,” he surprisingly notes. Matthew initially entered into the banking industry in 2005 for the good pay, “I thought I’d be a banker for the rest of my life.” He witnessed the growth of the industry and watched it reach its peak for 2-3 years until the financial crisis hit in 2008. “I realised that for me, banking was really all just about the money. It was not about loyalty or culture. Everyone is driven by making more money. That’s the key motivator for staying in the industry.” He noticed a drastic change around him when the volatile world of banking was presented with downturns. “Even though people seemed close and hung out all the time, in reality, banks will fire you no matter how much you do for them,” he explains.

As a junior in the bank, although he was able to keep his job, some once highly respected managing directors who worked in the bank for 25 years who even helped the bank to build their Asian franchise were let go due to the crisis. This made him doubt the respectability of the industry since contribution did not equate to loyalty- at the end of the day, everyone is replaceable. The crisis acted as an eye-opener, he asked himself, “Is this really something I want to do? Do I want to be replaced one day just like that?

Become a CEO after 2008 Financial Crisis

The inspiration to start his own company came to him only after the 2008 crisis. “I would rather build something on my own where I can control my own fate,” he admits. With his own company, Matthew could do business the way he wanted; decisions could be made quickly and new ideas could be implemented to use. In his own startup, there was more creative freedom to move projects forward. “I want to be in my own driving seat. I want to control my own fate and make my own decisions,” he confesses. The larger sense of autonomy and control that he would possess in a startup is what motivated him to step out of his comfort zone.

However, his path to transition was not an easy one. Given that he gave up his well-paid and established job at an investment bank to start his own startup company, which at the time had no guaranteed income and stability, he faced a lot of scepticism from his family. “My family had huge concerns about me leaving my well paid job and creating my own thing from zero. They weren’t the most supportive from day 1. They understood why I wanted to do that but they were very concerned,” he admits. Matthew even admits to having moments where he doubts his own decisions, but he does not dwell on the past too much. “Yes, learn from the past, understand why you made those decisions and try to make better decisions in the future. Focus on current problems instead because at the end of the day, (dwelling on the past) is not going to help you down the path,” he explains.

Facing doubts is an inevitable reaction to when something does not go your way. As a young person with high expectations, you might be especially hard on yourself. However, the key is whether you trust yourself. “Understand why you made that decision in the first place. It really comes down to personal judgement. Do you trust yourself to be capable of handling the pressure?” He emphasises the importance of being able to deal with pressure as a CEO. “Some people would break down, stop thinking and freeze while others drive and accelerate through stressful situations.” With first hand experience, Matthew recounts that the pressure you face as a founder of a company is much higher than any job. “If you are the founder and have 100 people underneath you, you are responsible for them. Every decision you make impacts your employees. If I can’t raise funds, I can’t pay my staff.

To start a business , all-in or not?

Despite such massive financial pressure, when asked his thoughts on the saying that one should keep their paid jobs if they want to start a business to ensure a source of stable income, he completely disagrees with it. “That was not the case for me,” he says with conviction. “If you keep your paid job, that means you are not all in and not… putting all your effort into helping your business succeed… There is no way you can just start something half-heartedly and believe you are still going to be successful against all your other startup peers who are 100% devoted to their startups. It is wrong to believe you are smart enough to only spend half of your attention and still be on the same level with the rest. So I would say if you really believe in your business go all in.

A few years into starting his company, Matthew had unexpectedly used up more money than he had planned, “I had already spent half of my savings,” he says as he recalls. “I had to really think about it: Did I really want to continue down this path to go back to banking?” Fortunately, he decided to go all in for Social Career to blossom into what it is today.

Among all NGOs, why Social Career?

Besides working well under pressure, Matthew also stresses the importance of adaptability as a CEO. It is evidently important to set clear goals every year and plan ahead, but at the same time, it is just as crucial to be able to adapt quickly when something does not go as planned. Social Career did not initially start off as a volunteer matching platform. It was only with the support of some of their early NGO partners that Social Career morphed into what it is today. Matthew recognised the lack of usable technology in the social sector. “We are trying to offer a platform that helps non-profits thrive and grow in terms of their operations and impact, leveraging on tech”. Compared to other sectors like commercial, technology is truly under-used and developed socially, “We want to be one of the key driving forces in that path,” says Matthew hopefully. 

Moreover, “Covid in the past 2,3 years made a huge impact on us.” Social Career is a volunteer matching platform where volunteers would need to have direct interaction with beneficiaries and go to community centres to perform their duties. Yet with Covid restrictions, all such activities had stopped and were moved online instead. However, online volunteering presented many limitations as certain hands-on volunteering needed physical interaction and were irreplaceable with online platforms. Under this peculiar situation, Matthew had understood that “no matter how well planned, there will always be external factors you cannot control. What matters most is how quickly you are able to adapt to these changes and make changes yourself."

There are always going to be disagreements here

Matthew also sees the benefits of working as a team. He works closely with his partners Antony Wong, the Chief Operating Officer, and Kelvin Luk, the Chief Product Officer. He admits that “there are always going to be disagreements” but the key is to “be objective about it”. He clarifies by saying, “All our discussions and arguments are for the better good of the company. It is important to have those meetings even if they are not the nicest ones.” He also believes that a health company culture is one where employees can voice out their opinions, “Those who want to create an impact can create an impact. (Employees have the ability) to drive and bring their ideas into reality if they want to.” To him, this is what defines a successful company and one that drastically differs from what he experienced in investment banks.

Young Entrepreneurs & University Students are changemakers

Matthew sees immense potential in the market for young entrepreneurs. Compared to when he created his first startup in 2012, there is more knowledge within investors for investing in startups. “There is also an increase in experts and better mentors in the market. The market is easier for people who want to create their own startup since there is more funding from the government and other parties with programmes to support your launch.” He also sees the potential in university students, “They are positive and have the ideal thought of being able to change the world.

Gen Z, don’t expect everything will come to your lap

However, it is not uncommon to find young people these days, who have had their whole lives planned out for them, or feel as though they lack the passion or desire to make unconventional decisions to step out of their comfort zones, whether in business or in life. A lot of university students have only had lives that consisted of studying, with a goal to go on to do conventional office work. Yet, in the eyes of Matthew, such an attitude is a huge misuse of the glory years. “As a student, you don't have any burdens, so go ahead and do it, there is nothing to regret and there’s nothing you have to lose.”

One of the major concerns of Hong Kong youths these days is whether they can afford an apartment. To Matthew who grew up in Switzerland, this is a large cultural difference, “My classmates weren’t thinking about buying an apartment,” he says with a tone of slight disbelief. “In Hong Kong, you need to buy an apartment for the next step of your career. Whereas in Europe it’s really about following your dreams and doing what you want to do. All the other things will come later at a certain stage.” It is this world view and diverse cultural understanding that he possesses that allows for him to be bold and make risky decisions. He also advises university students to go out and explore the world, “Think a bit more outside what the city can offer you. It helps to travel to other cultures and cities.” This allows for young people to be exposed to different cultural mindsets and perhaps even adopting it. While Matthew understands that university students are concerned about their finances, he believes that “there is always a way to help you achieve what you want. But at the end of the day, you need to put an effort into it.

Matthew’s story exemplifies the importance of taking control of your life. “These days, a lot of people expect that everything will come to their lap, that everything will be thought up for them. But it’s not, it’s your own life, so take it in your own hands!” he exclaims. So, to those who are afraid to step out of their box, who have rigidly stuck to convention, just go ahead and try it out; do the thing that makes you happy. “If you don't try it out, you will never know if you succeed or not, you will never know if you like it or not,” he remarks matter-of-factly, “At the same time, understand that everything has its own price. For instance, to attain my goal, I need to work at a job I may not exactly find pleasure in. Yet, I know that I am still striving towards a better purpose personally.

There are sacrifices one has to make to actualise their dreams, but as long as you trust yourself, believe in your decisions and take control of your life, you will find your path eventually.

Words from Yola

My biggest takeaway from the interview is to be the driving force behind your own fate. Despite the fact that one has no control over external factors in life, everything that you want to achieve should be actively initiated by you. To those who lack the motivation to achieve the extraordinary now, be comforted by the fact Matthew had only desired to create his own startup after the 2008 financial crisis. Maybe you’re just missing a little bit of inspiration.

Nonetheless, always be on the lookout for new opportunities, be open to change and willing to learn. There is always a way to achieve what you want, it all just depends on whether you have the drive.

Related Article:

「做義工唔係叫抵得諗。」專訪社職共同創辦人Antony Wong|Intern x COO of Social Career