Still early in her career, Winnie Sun has already debunked the myth of what she calls ‘skills philanthropy’ — that you first have to gain expertise in the private sector to then be able to ‘donate’ it to a social cause you care about. Her volunteer experience with Toronto+Acumen helped to inspire her and accelerate her transition to the social sector. She now works for Acumen to help grow the reach of +Acumen, the world’s school for social change.
Born in China, Winnie moved to Montreal when she was 11. Growing up, she did performance dance for eight years and had ambitions to become a theatre director. It was during this period that she watched Eve Ensler's A Memory, a Monologue, a Rant, and a Prayer, a collection of powerful monologues that expose violence against women, and fell in love with the simple idea of working ‘within the existing system’ to address bigger issues.
After graduating from business school, Winnie had the same eureka moment when she discovered social enterprise: “I thought this was the holy grail — it’s working within the system, with proper businesses, but to serve a social purpose.” In her role with the Centre for Social Innovation and Impact Investing in Vancouver, she supported growth stage social enterprises to scale, a job that she quickly fell in love with.
But, like all ambitious 20 somethings, she wanted to jump-start her career and continue to do what she felt passionate about, but on an exponential scale. Winnie admits: “My thought at the time was: if I could become an absolute expert in marketing in the private sector, then I could take that learning and expertise back into the social sector."
“So I did that, I moved to Toronto and joined a huge advertising agency. Part of the reason why I chose them was that they were Canada’s largest Google partner at the time, so we had a lot of training.”
During her time there, she gained the marketing skills she was after but felt like she was working against her future self. “I was working such long hours and putting a lot of thought into how to do this advertising job better, but at the end of the day I was just thinking that I was perpetrating a status quo that my future self will work hard to destroy,” she said. “It feels awful when you know what you want to do with your life and don’t do it because you think you have to pay debt first.”
Slowly, the idea of trading ‘time’ for ‘skills’ working in advertising started to crumble. “I think that if you have that much energy and that much heart, you should just do it and not throw it all into something else that you don’t believe in.” So she started looking for ways to keep in touch with what was happening in the social space. That’s when she found the +Acumen community in Toronto. “Meeting them, I just had the feeling that these were the people I was seeking out in my move to Toronto.” What made them stand out was ‘care and curiosity for the world, a deep care and desire to understand how things work and make a difference.’
Winnie began volunteering as an executive member of the +Acumen Toronto Chapter in 2014 and helped it to grow into one of the most vibrant chapters across the +Acumen Chapter network. Their mission to ‘educate, invest and connect’ translated into free monthly events, to share knowledge about social investing and alternative ways to fight global poverty, grants awarded to local social enterprises, and opportunities to network and engage with like-minded people.
I am really proud of our chapter, what it has done and the legacy it leaves!
The most rewarding aspect of her volunteering experience, which she repeatedly highlights, remains the people she met. “Everyone was so wonderful in their own way. We all come from different industries, we all have different reasons for being here, but we share a common ground”. The common ground, Winnie believes, is deeper than simply agreeing on ways to solve global poverty: “It’s the way they question the world, their curiosity, their perseverance and sheer intelligence. And I learned so much from all of them”, she adds, “it’s not like we’d sit there for hours and talk about life, but it’s the inspiration you get from just working with these incredible people.”
Drawing inspiration from the +Acumen community, Winnie quit her advertising job within a year. She started freelancing full-time, doing more of what she loved and in 2015, after participating in a weekend-long hackathon for social good in Pakistan, she helped found Ammi Service, a social enterprise delivering maternal health information over the phone to rural areas in Pakistan. Similar SMS services existed in the country, but their reach was limited by the high illiteracy of the population, particularly women. What made this initiative unique was using voice recording, translating the messages into five regional languages and making sure the translations were culturally sensitive.
The experience was challenging as Winnie had to understand and operate in a cultural environment that was completely new to her; but this was also what made her more receptive to the creativity and perseverance of her Pakistani peers who, despite the systemic obstacles they would face, particularly around gender equality and cultural norms, didn't give up. “Just because you have one problem that you can’t fix doesn’t mean you can’t fix other issues. I just loved this spirit of persisting and doing whatever you can in spite of the circumstances”, she explained.
Around the same time Winnie also started consulting for Acumen, which led to a full-time role in 2016 as an innovation associate to help grow the reach of the +Acumen network of social change leaders. “Initially, Acumen was an ideal, it was this wonderful ideal on a pedestal that I thought one day I could work towards. And now, working full time with them made me challenge and discover what’s really important for me.”