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The Pitch: Priyanka Gothi sets out to re-invent retirement

Priyanka Gothi, founder of senior employment programme Wise At Work, quizzed industry veteran Dr Alice Yuk about how to sustain a successful social enterprise.

Priyanka Gothi’s mother worked as a teacher in India for 35 years. After being forced by her employer to retire at 60, she felt compelled to continue contributing to society but couldn’t find anyone to hire her for meaningful and challenging work. Watching her mother struggle, Gothi was inspired to help an entire population of senior citizens with the stamina, intellect and drive to pursue a second career after retirement.

Soon after moving from India to Hong Kong in February 2017, the digital marketer launched Wise At Work, formerly Retired Not Out, a job-matching platform that connects companies with a huge talent pool of skilled retired professionals. Since launching, the platform has grown to include more than 1,000 applicants, who have been placed at companies such AIA Group, Zegal, and Fair Employment Agency.

In addition, Gothi runs training programmes for corporates to drive age diversity and for seasoned professionals to add new skills to their repertoire and stay relevant and employable.

To help Gothi navigate the world of social enterprises, we invited Dr Alice Yuk to join the conversation. A veteran in the industry, Dr Yuk is the president of Hong Kong General Chamber of Social Enterprises, the CEO of Ebenezer School and Home for the Visually Impaired, and a board member of a number of schools, NGOs, and government advisory committees. We’re sharing the conversation, which has been edited for brevity, as part of Ariana’s mission to inspire collaboration and social progress.

Priyanka Gothi
Priyanka Gothi

PRIYANKA GOTHI: Thank you so much for meeting with me today! I run a social enterprise platform called Wise At Work. It’s been about 18 months since we started. During that time, we’ve been able to build a community of experienced professionals over 50 who are in job-seeking mode but face a lot of ageism. If they retire at 60 and live until 90, that’s 30 years of work that they could lose if the social perspective doesn’t change.

DR ALICE YUK: It’s so nice to meet you – I love what you’re doing. Operating a social enterprise in Hong Kong is actually very challenging. You have to have financial sustainability and balance a social mission. At the same time, we are working to educate consumers about social enterprises and why they should support them.

PG: As you said, operating a social enterprise isn’t straight-forward because there’s no legal status for it in Hong Kong. You can either operate a non-profit, which is still charity, or a private for-profit company. But social enterprises sit in the middle. So would you recommend I convert to a charity?

AY: It’s hard here, because you have to have charity status if you want to get any sponsorship from foundations or the government. Over 80 per cent of all social enterprises in Hong Kong are actually registered charities as most government funds and foundations stipulate. Most operate under a mother organisation that’s a charity. So Cedar Workshop, for example – where we tailor-make training programmes for corporations, NGOs and public institutes – is a social enterprise under Ebenezer, a charity agency. That’s the trend. It’s not the best way nor the healthiest way, but this is the case here.

Dr Alice Yuk
Dr Alice Yuk

PG: Why do you think that is?

AY: I think we lack an ecosystem of social investors. So a lot of people who aspire to run a social enterprise end up setting up a charity as the umbrella organisation. That way, they can have access to government support, such as grants and sponsorships.

PG: I did actually apply for a few grants, but was told that I had to be a charity. So that’s always been on my mind…

AY: There’s no harm in being registered as a charity. We have to face the reality. Just because you’re a charity doesn’t mean you can start spending frivolously, right? You will still have a business strategy and be very prudent. And your product has to be better than others in the market.

PG: Right, and then people would get the tax benefit as well.

AY: That’s correct. Also, there is a new form of financing. For example, a foundation or corporate will give you HK$1 million to buy a certain number of your products, which could be a training programme or a number of non-engaged youths successfully placed with a job. Then you have to prove your product works. In your case, perhaps you hold 100 training sessions for older people and show your results. But this type of foundation can only give money to charities. 

PG: Yeah, good point. I’d love to learn more about Cedar Workshop as well, and how you’re convincing organisations to hire people with disabilities. That’s something that we face every day – a lot of employers are openly ageist. No one even hides it!

A lot of employers are openly ageist. No one even hides it!

Priyanka Gothi, Wise at Work

AY: Cedar is a medium for us to connect with potential employers. Essentially, we develop custom training programmes to suit the needs of corporations. We actually train visually impaired young professionals to run the programme, so that’s one way that we differentiate ourselves from other social enterprise training programmes.

PG: And how do you successfully place visually impaired professionals?

AY: Well, if I just call [a company] and ask them to employ visually impaired people, nine times out of 10, we will never hear back. We use Cedar Workshop as a tool to approach corporations, universities, health authorities, and even the government. Once we have worked together and established a relationship through Cedar, it’s easier to approach them.

PG: How do you select the organisations to reach out to?

AY: I would say that international corporates are easier to approach because they already have a culture of corporate responsibility. Many already work with people with disabilities. Secondly, we approach universities, especially the education and social services departments, because they have a very open mindset. That said, local companies are catching up.

PG: What types of businesses are you targeting?

AY: We look for corporates that need a lot of manpower, such as hotels – the staff turnover is really high and they always need more people. Of course, not every job is senior or highly paid, but they need people in the back office, marketing, IT, registration, customer service calls… there are many roles. Overall, you can’t approach small business as successfully, because they’ll say the budget is too small or jobs are limited. 

PG: So one thing we focus on when we’re placing older professionals is fair salaries. Often, organisations will try to pay less than the market rate. How do you ensure that the rates are fair and competitive?

AY: One way we have approached this problem in the past is to place an employee on a probational salary for a couple of months. If he or she does the job and they decide to confirm [their role], then we will renegotiate the salary. Overall, if you’re placing someone in a social work position and they are performing well, then the wage should be the same as other social workers.

Left to right: Dr Alice Yuk and Priyanka Gothi discuss social enterprise strategies.
Left to right: Dr Alice Yuk and Priyanka Gothi discuss social enterprise strategies.

PG: Do you think that works for people who have already worked for 40 to 45 years of their life? Paying them the same as a university graduate, let’s just say, doesn’t reflect the wealth of experience.

AY: It depends. How much is his or her past experience going to contribute to the job? If this is a job any fresh graduate can handle, then you really can’t say the applicant deserves to be paid more if their past experience isn’t directly valuable. We believe that many job skills are transferable, but it might not be possible to negotiate in that case. A positive, open mindset is important with employment training and matching.

PG: Just like you have the SE [Social Enterprise] mark for accredited businesses, do you think it makes sense to reward organisations that are more inclusive with a mark of their own?

AY: Developing a method to recognise non-mainstream employees and encourage businesses to promote inclusion is a good idea. But perhaps it could be an annual recognition event instead of an accreditation system. An annual event is much more relaxing for companies, as they don’t have to spend as much time going through an assessment process. They just nominate employees or corporate programmes, attend the events, and that creates a sense of community. 

PG: Even though there’s no mandatory retirement age in Hong Kong, a lot of people have to leave their jobs after 60 because many organisations have fixed retirement ages. Without government support and in the absence of any legislation against age discrimination in Hong Kong, how can my social enterprise continue to support this community? 

AY: I think you’ve been very smart already. If you wait for the government, it will be years and years! But that said, I still think you need to collaborate with parts of the government, such as the Equal Opportunities Commission. Go and talk to them. Ask them to advocate for the elderly, build the ecosystem, encourage older people to come out and work. You also need to keep putting out good news stories – tell the media amazing stories about older workers, the inconsistent retirement policy, issues associated with a rapidly ageing population and how this will affect the GDP and the community.