Aside from being a successful lawyer at Osler, Hoskin, & Harcourt LLP, Steven Ngo is also a self-described "social entrepreneur". He co-founded a chapter of the Federation of Asian Canadian Lawyers (FACL) in Alberta and also founded Healing Using Music (HUM), a musical not-for-profit organization that helps disadvantaged and at risk populations attain happiness and joy through music.
We chatted with Steven about his various roles and why volunteering is so important to him.
You call yourself a social entrepreneur, can you tell us what that means to you?
To me, being a social entrepreneur means creating a charitable initiative and building a strong team of people around you to help bring the idea to life. Whether it is using music as a way to bring happiness to the community or promoting diversity and inclusion, I find that there will be people around you who are looking to be part of something bigger than themselves and willing to volunteer their time to give back to the community. It makes life incredibly fulfilling.
You co-founded a chapter of the Federation of Asian Canadia Laywers (FACL) in Alberta. What inspired you to get involved with the particular group?
FACL is an organization that is near and dear to me. I first got involved with FACL when I was a law student at the Allard School of Law. My dad was a refugee from Vietnam and my mom was new immigrant from China. Neither of them knew anyone in law and I was the first in my famiy to pursue law as a career. Thankfully, FACL was around during my student days, I couldn’t have reached where I am today without the various mentors and people that I met through the organization.
When I moved to Calgary to start my articles, FACL did not have a presence in Alberta so my colleague and I were inspired to start up a chapter in Alberta called FACL Western to work with future generation of lawyers and give back to the community. This Chapter has since grown exponentially and we now have over 380 members across 4 cities (Calgary, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Winnipeg). We are one of five chapters of FACL across Canada .
What Challenges have you faced in setting up FACL Western? What have been your greatest achievements?
The main challenge when starting up a non-profit organization like FACL, is simply getting your name out there. When we started in the early days, we encountered some resistance by those who felt that the organization wasn’t needed in Alberta. These people even tried to warn and caution us that our initiative would fail. Getting this initial buy-in was a challenge, but I believed in the mission of FACL and knew that if we just persevered, it would work out somehow.
We have grown leaps and bounds ever since our launch. We gained support from the judiciary, key leaders in the community and various law firms, including my own law firm, Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt, who have been very supportive of my initiatives from day one.
Our greatest achievement so far was securing Mayor Nenshi as our keynote speaker at our “Diversity in the City” gala last year; he has been instrumental in boosting our organization’s profile. We even opened up the TSX markets in October last year, which was a neat experience. We are in the midst of planning our second annual “Diversity in the City” gala on Thursday, March 23, which is expected to sell out and be even bigger than last year.
In addition to being involved with FACL, you are an active volunteer and an avid musician. Tell us about some of the other initiatives to which you’ve given your time.
Music is my creative outlet and has been a passion of mine ever since I was young. During my time at the Allard School of Law, I founded a music not-for-profit organization with a number of other UBC Alumni called Healing Using Music, or HUM for short. The purpose of HUM is to provide free music performances to disadvantaged and at risk populations to spread happiness and joy through music. HUM has grown across Canada and has also spread to Asia. I recently gave a TEDx talk to showcase the power of music.
One of the most touching moments for me with HUM was at a community event we held along the Canada Line in Vancouver for Father's Day. There was a woman in the background who appeared to be crying; I approached her to see what was going on. It turned out she was on her way home from the hospital. Her brother got into a car accident and had been a coma for over a week. She had been depressed for many days, but listening to us perform was the highlight of her day and it had been the first time she smiled in a long time. It is remarkable how something seemingly small and insignificant like a song can trigger such strong emotions and it’s stories like this that gives meaning to what we do as an organization.
How do you engage people in volunteerism? What specific strategies do you employ to see an idea come to fruition?
The key thing to engagement is understanding what motivates that person, why they want to volunteer and tapping into that emotion. At the end of the day, people want to get involved with something that gives them meaning in their life and is rewarding, whether it is volunteering at a legal clinic, drafting advocacy papers or simply organizing events to meet new people. The best way to start is to develop a rough vision of your idea and meet with people one-on-one who seem to be interested and get their buy-in. Once you have a core group of people around you who are on board, it is much easier to scale and expand to bring the idea to fruition.
I once heard a management quote from a marketing agency called TAXI, which I have applied to both HUM and FACL. ‘The maximum number of people in your core team should be no more than the number of people that can fit in a taxi.’ I am a strong believer in keeping your core team small. This way, decisions get made faster and allows you to stay nimble and grow.
What impact has volunteering had on your career as a lawyer?
In order to a better lawyer, I believe that you need to have a range of experiences outside of the law to develop interpersonal skills and build your brand in the community. With volunteer work, there are certain skills that you get exposed to that you might not necessarily develop within the law firm setting where you are often working alone or with a smaller team.