Hubert Burda Media

Cover Story: Elisa Khong and Khailee Ng On Merging Philanthrophy with Technology

Elisa Khong and Khailee Ng tell us what makes them the ultimate dream team especially when it comes to their inimitable approach in life and love

As individuals, Elisa Khong and Khailee Ng have made their mark in their respective fields, leaving behind a wake of inspired bright young leaders and entrepreneurs. Before Khailee made his way to Silicon Valley as managing partner at 500 Startups, a venture capital firm, he co-founded and exited two different tech companies in Malaysia – Groupsmore and SAYS.com. Today his professional investing career has reached 1,800 startups in 60 countries. On the other hand, Elisa formerly served as Executive Director of China Overseas Petroleum Corporation and spent a significant amount of her fundamental years volunteering at Kechara Soup Kitchen. She is currently involved in a project to convert two of her heritage homes in Penang for Lemme Learn, an organisation that works primarily with autistic youths.

We find out how the couple merge their strengths and interests to be a bigger force for good.

LIVING A SUSTAINABLE LIFESTYLE

ELISA
By pledging to live a minimal, sustainable lifestyle, both Elisa and Khailee have made a conscious decision to adopt a cruelty-free approach to life, which encompasses all aspects of their daily consumption from fashion to food. “As we met more people, watched more documentaries, explored deeper into more industries, I realised the extent of how much the world has become increasingly more fragmented and disconnected. We don’t know where the food on our plate comes from, who made our clothes nor what chemicals are in our facial wash. There was something fundamentally unsettling about that disconnect,” Elisa voices out disparagingly.
“Everything we eat or buy affects someone else, it’s easy to forget that the cow we’re eating was killed in a windowless slaughterhouse or the clothes we’re wearing were made in a sweatshop in Bangladesh. I started to question myself, what was the real cost from my short-term satisfaction of buying that new dress or drinking that glass of milk? Was it a win-win situation or was there someone else on the losing end of my decision?” she muses out loudly. A full-time vegan for almost two years, Elisa is constantly in search of cruelty-free alternatives that fall in line with her philosophical belief. Whether it is vegan food hunting during her frequent travels, signing up for eco-friendly indigo dye cloth workshops, shopping for vegan designer wares at Stella McCartney or even getting rid of 85 per cent of all her worldly possessions including her home, she acknowledges that it has been an early yet unforgettable ride that has brought so much lightness and happiness in their lives.

KHAILEE
In 2016, Khailee embarked on an extreme personal transformation, which included embracing veganism full-time as well as sporting a brand new hairstyle and living out of a minimalist suitcase while he travelled the world to spark an entrepeneurial revolution. He confesses that prior to the transformation, he used to harbour an addiction for eggs and meat as well as a weakness for shopping. “Veganism and minimalism for me is about re-programming my mind and exercising self-control. It’s a daily reminder that if I can beat a lifelong habit then I can take on anything!” he says, citing those habits as distractions from things which really mattered.
Cultivating new habits and positive changes also played a fundamental role in his mindset transformation. With a significant reduction in material consumption and what he deems as ego-stroking activities, Khailee found himself with a renewed sense of purpose while directly impacted his work at 500 Startups. “For me, it is a joy to support passionate people who are solving problems that capitalism may not be designed to solve. Travelling around the world in a suitcase is a function of my global startup investing practice, and a convenient forcing function to travel light,” he remarks.

 

WHEN TECHNOLOGY & PHILANTHROPY CONVERGE

ELISA
No stranger to philanthropy, it comes as no surprise that Elisa attributes her fervent passion in the philanthropic sphere directly to her spiritual advisor HE Tsem Tulku Rinpoche and her mother Dato’ Ruby Khong. She spent five years of her youth actively volunteering at Kechara Soup Kitchen where her mother formerly served as president. “They’re both great reminders to always do good by others, at scale and in depth,” she shares.
While it is the norm for many of her peers to post photos of indulgent experiences and OOTDs on social media, Elisa is strongly aware that these posts will further drive consumerism habits and lifestyle decisions. Hence, she has made a conscious decision to utilise social media platforms as a tool to reach out to more people, encouraging them to embrace a more positive way of life by making small lifestyle changes and giving willingly to others. “I guess the conscious decision that comes with my sharing is that I do ask myself, does this post encourage more consumption or giving? Does it encourage more positivity or negativity?”

KHAILEE
A profound rise of young technology entrepreneurs such as Khailee is sweeping through the nation, aspiring to make a positive impact on the lives of others, as they measure success with a social conscience. Call them digital experts or innovative thinkers, the new generation of entrepreneurs are now being handed a precious opportunity to use their clout and blur the lines between the cut-throat world of business startups and the non-profit sector, all by harnessing altruism through the power of technology.
For Khailee, his work with 500 Startups involves equipping talents and regions of the world with Silicon Valley level of knowledge, network and financing. He dispels the notion that technology startups do not generate social value, adding that his mission goes beyond creating wealth for their investors as it is truly about creating wealth for individuals around the world and their economies. “Seeding technology startups kickstarts the new economy and the world will be a better place if everyone can benefit from this,” he says while confessing that he still has much to learn about how best to utilise other talents and opportunities for philanthropy.
The traditional philanthropic model is also undergoing a new paradigm shift as the ascent of mobile apps, high-speed Internet and the rise of crowdfunding have unfolded disruption and innovation. With over 1,600 investments in 50 countries, Khailee reveals that his investments include social crowdfunding sites such as Kitabisa.com in Indonesia, which currently channels over US$1 million a month to micro-causes and charities, and EngageSpark in the Philippines, which provides mobile technology and services to charities to execute fieldwork.

 

A DIGITAL WEDDING

ELISA
Earlier this year, Elisa and Khailee tied the knot in an intimate closed-door ceremony, attended by only three close witnesses in a quiet room. The couple chose to mark and celebrate their union in the most unconventional way by donating RM1.5 million and launching a unique wedding project. “It will be the first official step that we’re taking together as a married couple. We want to use our energy and youth to be a bigger force for good,” Elisa enthuses.
The wedding project will involve an app designed for other couples who want to follow suit and donate money instead of hosting a lavish celebration as well as an online wedding. “I was inspired by a father in India who opted to build 90 homes for the homeless in celebration of his daughter’s wedding and a Turkish couple who gave food to 4,000 Syrian refugees for their wedding. The scope of their care is so inspiring and it made so much sense,” she elaborates on their decision to host an online wedding. Elisa acknowledges that while both the donated amount and the idea are unconventional, especially when the couple’s Asian culture encourages big and multiple celebrations, they strongly believed that their decision falls in line with their beliefs and it simply felt like they were taking a right step in the right direction.
As the wedding project is still under development, Elisa reveals that they’ve managed to rope in help from a few friends who have been instrumental in building the wedding site. She does, however, let us in on a spoiler alert, the invitations for the online wedding will be out in the coming months and guests will be able to attend the wedding from the comfort of their own homes.


KHAILEE
The online wedding project seemed like a sensible idea to Khailee as he wanted to find a way to include more people in the celebration without making his friends spend copious amount of time and money on travel. The idea will also eliminate the unnecessary traditional wedding expenses on their part as other parties will be able to benefit immensely from the money saved. “We plan to create an online wedding experience that recreates the fun of weddings without the overhead costs and to include our guests in a giving experience to channel all that love and abundance to more people thus creating a bigger impact,” he explains in depth.
With that aim in mind, his message to young couples out there is “we inherit traditions and norms from society. But we also inherited independent thought, intuition and inner truth. This means you can both respect society, and unite around your deepest beliefs to design a life that is unique to you”.