elow is the transcript of an interview with Tencent Co-founder Charles Chen Yidan. The interview will play out in CNBC’s latest episode of CNBC Meets: Defining Values on 6 July 2018, 5.00PM SG/HK (in APAC) and 22.00 BST time (in EMEA). If you choose to use anything, please attribute to CNBC and Tania Bryer.
Tania Bryer (T): Charles, it’s lovely to meet you here in Hong Kong.
Charles Chen Yidan (C): Welcome to Hong Kong.
T: Thank you so much. Of course, your focus now is on philanthropy and education. It’s your lifelong passion. Where did the interest come from?
C: Education, I thanks to my grandmother. My grandmother, she was illiterate, but she raised my father, from a countryside child, to be a university graduate. So my father, from countryside to the city, and he met my mother, and I was born. So, education changed my family fate. Sure, I am one of a million lives that transformed by the power of education. So, today, as a philanthropist, I want to support education, that can influence others.
How important do you think your grandmother was to you, as a young child?
C: My grandmother is the respected person for me. She was kind to the others, like neighbours, friends, and someone he knows who wants to have help. So, she considered the others with no condition. That influenced me very much. So she strongly believed the value of education. That is this value instilled in me completely.
T: And Charles, what was it like for you? At school, you had the stress of exams. What was the feeling like there for you?
C: It’s a challenge, in college entrance examination. In China, it’s called “Gaokao”, that is a college entrance. Actually, my biggest failure is in this important examination. Because, I have big pressure. So, I fail, in my favourite, Chinese language. I don’t pass! Fail! Luckily, the other majors still have enough scores, I can enter university, Shenzhen University, I grew up there. So, I enter Chemistry major. So, this is my first failure. But when I enter the school, I promised myself, I need to work hard, and graduation, and the other time, how to do? I need to find out which one I am interested in. So, I put more time on student service. So, this biggest challenge, it also changed my life. Because this failure made me put more time on student service. And in Chemistry, I do a lot of student service, like to support the new students, Through this service, I met my schoolmate, a girl, a pretty girl, in Chemistry, now is my wife. So I thank for Chemistry, I thank for examination failure, that made me be the luckiest man. And, I also met my middle school classmate, the future co-founder of Tencent.
T: Charles, you said you met your wife, while you were studying Chemistry. How important was that moment for you, and what influence has she had?
C: Um, you give me a good opportunity to praise my wife. When I, met my wife, yes, I think her character, it attracted me, because she is very kindly to the others. Consider others. I can feel her kind heart. Actually, I can find my grandmother’s spirit. Sometimes, I will say to my wife, thanks for her, because two person, together, in the life, you make the burden half, because you share it. And your happiness doubles, because you share it.
T: Tell me about those early days, of Tencent. Because I also read, Charles, you didn’t tell your parents, because you were in a government job, and for three years, you hadn’t told them about your new business.
C: We founded Tencent in 1998. Actually, our five founders have a stable job, when we come together to start Tencent. Tencent is our second jobs. But the future is unstable. I don’t dare to tell my parents, because when I tell them, I know they will worry, but, I think one or two years, they heard from the other friends, they tell me, “Is it right?!” I said, “Yes.” Okay. They are worried, yeah, at that time, but I tell them, I explain what I want to do, and, “Okay, now the company is not bad, VC has entered, don’t worry.” They are hesitant, but they still support me. So, I tell them later. Sorry, dad and mum!
T: What kind of confidence do you think it took for you to start the company, with your friends and to keep going, even though the first year or so was not so successful?
C: I think have good attitude and trust each other, very important, because when we were beginning, we cannot imagine the future. Cannot imagine it, if you fail one day, and cannot imagine Tencent will grow up like today. So, we just, at that moment, just work hard, and try our best. In China, we face a new tide, birth of internet. So, it’s a new issue to everyone. So, open mind, and learn from it, it’s very important. And so, during this journey, five founders support each other, and continue to make a common value, is very important. I think the common value is about the relationship and mission. Because we are schoolmates and friends, so we are being honest.
T: Could you ever have imagined, the five of you, that you would become so successful?
C: When we started Tencent, we were just thinking how to be alive. How to struggle for the difficulties faced to us. This situation, until IPO, we still keep this attitude, because, after IPO, it’s not an end. It’s a new beginning.
When we set up the WeChat in the mobile phone time, we meet a lot of opportunities, and also challenge, ’til today, need to face the AI, new technology, automation. Big data, how to do? A lot of opportunity.
T: Of course, Tencent believed a lot in philanthropy, and you became the Chairman of the Foundation. Why did you feel, as a business, it was so important to give back?
C: When we start Tencent, from 1998 ’til 2004, we IPO in Hong Kong, we always thinking, “It’s time for us to feed to the society,” including our many young users. So, in 2007, we set up the Tencent Foundation, and every year, we will take some profit to transfer, and donate to the Foundation. We became the first non-profit charity foundation of the internet.
T: The Wenchuan earthquake, in 2008, where over 70,000 people lost their lives, seemed to be a turning point for you and Tencent. How did the company respond?
C: When earthquake occurred in Wenchuan, Tencent, like the other companies, donated, 20 million yuan to the people. But from Tencent, we think “We are internet company, we can do more, use our advantage to do it.” At that time, we have some products, business products, like payment, like QQ platform, something like that. We set up this platform, let the individuals, through the internet pay, to donate to the Wenchuan. They also donated more than 20 million yuan, but it come from individuals, many individuals, whether they donated 1 dollar or 1 cent, they have put a positive influence to the society. So, it’s great. From that, we think, for a long time. We use the advantage to set up a charitable platform. Connect NGOs and foundations and individuals become our Tencent Foundation strategy.
T: Do you think that philanthropy has now become part of the Chinese culture?
C: Chinese traditional culture encourages people to benefit to the world, to the others. Many ideas from the culture encourages people to give more, have more. But how to do it? Because in the past time, it’s seldom, or way to do it, just put a donate box to do it. But internet made it easy to donate, that this traditional culture burst in this new technology, because in America or Europe, they are easy to pay. Cheque, credit card. But in China, no cheque. And credit card, just a few people, in cities. But internet can let anybody can pay, so it will have a birth time for Chinese philanthropy.
T: Charles, in 2013, you chose to step down from Tencent, to focus on philanthropy, [yes], and education. Why did you make that decision?
C: Education is an idea - need many stakeholders to devote to it. And education not only belongs to a country, it belongs to humanity. So, how to do it? I always am thinking of it, after I stepped down. One day, at night, I write my wish in my diary. I have a wish, establish a global prize, beyond religion, race and nation, to help people realise the universe and distribution humanity. Then I closed the book.
T: In 2016, Charles used his own money to set up the Yidan Prize Foundation. Its mission is to create a better world through education. The foundation awards two annual monetary prizes – the Yidan Prize for Education Research and the Yidan Prize for Education Development. Each winner receives a gold medal and a total sum of almost 4 million US dollars. It’s the world’s largest monetary award for education. Why is it so important for you to have this prize?
C: From my heart, philanthropy and education is very important, and I believe education is the ultimate answer to social progress. Yidan Prize, just put the spotlight on the global best education and research, and best education practice. So, I think we can imagine a picture, in the coming 20 years, or 50 years, many projects across global can benefit from big ideas, from Yidan Prize laureates. So, Yidan Prize is not only an award, it’s also a global educational platform. Every December, we have Yidan Prize Summit. Through this summit, we invite policymakers, teachers, educators, come together, to discuss educational problems and the way to solve education problems, to exchange and communicate.
T: You had this vision of the Yidan Prize. How important is it for you to see the results?
C: For me, success is not a result. Success is this journey, a lifelong learning, that is very important. So, success is not about comparing myself to the others. It’s about myself, to be better.
T: What values would you like education to teach the next generation?
C: How to be a good person, or a happy person, or a leading person, to cooperate with technology of the future, is the most important. So, education, not only for teaching, and about cultivating.
T: There are many people that are very worried about where artificial intelligence takes us. How do we balance the technology taking us to a place that could be dangerous?
C: Technology, in the end, will be enhances to the product of people. The challenge is that, why we are worried, why are we anxious? Because we don’t know what’s the future of the developing of the country, and what will we be? And what will our next generation be? So, education is most important. Through the education, one is generating the future talents, they know what, at that time, in the future time, what talents will be, and what they cooperate with the new technology. And, on the other hand, education systems will be changed by technology, whether automation, big data, or artificial.
T: What are the most important values you want to give to your family?
Keep the good relationship, and lifelong learning relationship, supportive relationship between wife and husband, is very, very important. And to the next generation, I am very simple. Bless they are happy and culture them, be independent by themselves.
And what keeps driving you to give?
C: I am grateful to have this opportunity to do philanthropy, to support the others, and do education to support the others. Everyone has a dream. Mine is to support more people to realise theirs, through education.
T: Charles, thank you so much for talking to me today, it’s been such a pleasure.
C: Thank you.
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