Bonnie Chiu


What do you do at Lensational?

I started Lensational three years ago. The idea was to equip underprivileged, marginalised women in developing countries with cameras and photography training. Photography is a universal language that transcends cultural barriers.

When did you decide to set up Lensational?

I had an encounter in Turkey where four Turkish girls and I were taking pictures. We started chatting and I realised we communicated so much through photography. It allowed us to share emotions and memories.

I thought it could be an accessible tool for some of the most unheard voices in the world, and allow to see the world through their lenses.

What was your first project?

I started it in Hong Kong, where I’m from. Our first project was with foreign domestic helpers from Indonesia and the Philippines. They are often treated as second-class citizens. Photography gave these women, who are often portrayed as victims, the agency. Now they were the ones telling their stories. That shift was very powerful.

I then volunteered in Pakistan and I brought the project there. In a country that is so often misunderstood, women’s perspective can cast a different light on how we perceive this country.

Then I moved to London to pursue my an MSc in International Relation at the LSE. Being at the heart of the arts, social enterprises and feminism provided a good base for Lensational to scale our work.

Now we have programmes in nine countries: mostly South Asia and South East Asia, with the exception of Kenya. We organise exhibitions; we put the photos on our online platform... Through corporate partners, we sell the pictures. Part of the revenue goes back to the women.

It’s still a very young organisation, run by 60 volunteers across 18 countries. I see it as a movement lead by young people. We are a 21st century organisation - without social media we wouldn’t exist.

What are you most proud of having achieved with Lensational?

We have dedicated volunteers from developing countries where we have the programme. We have achieved a model whereby bottom up change is possible. I created this philosophy of empowering women through photography, and people on the ground reach out to us. They get together, we help them find organisations to partner with but it’s up to them to make it sustainable. In international development, you rarely see this model where local people take ownership of an intervention and then sustain it.

How do you get the cameras?

From individuals. We are broadening our model to teaching mobile photography as many women own smartphones. We get donations from individuals, as many people in the developed world have moved from using point-and-shoot cameras to using smartphones or more advanced DSLRs. So we collect second-hand cameras and then take them to the programme location.

How are you planning to take Lensational forward?

Through partnerships.

We have three key activities:

- Collecting cameras

- Photography training

- Selling pictures

As an organisation, our focus needs to be on the photography training as it is our key interaction with the women. For camera collection and selling pictures, we need to collaborate with corporate organisations that can help us achieve our aims.

Right now, we have a Partnership Officer and every team is trained in partnership. We don’t aim to be a huge organisation doing everything on our own, we think we need to do what we are the best and happiest at doing, and leverage the rest through partnerships.

How can young people change foreign policy?

They will humanise it. We grew up in a digitally connected world. With social media, you get to know everything about your friends, from what they eat to their political views, and this wasn’t available before.

Young people have a yearning for knowing the human stories. This is missing in foreign policy currently. When I studied IR, it was about the relationship between countries - but countries are made up of people. Young people are more adapted to telling stories and are interested in the human angle of every single issue.

How do you manage to do your full-time job and run Lensational?

I learnt time management from a young age. I have always been involved in a lot of extra-curricular activities. We, as a generation, are quite blessed: we have been given so many opportunities. Education for most of us in the developed world is taken for granted. With these opportunities, we are driven to achieve a lot in a short time. A lot of young people are attracted to social impact but it might not be a financially sustainable option so they have to take a good job to do a lot of things on the side.

The other key thing is to understand your purpose, as it can be quite tiring to do so much and work so hard. Knowing your purpose will make things easier. It might be daunting when someone says find your purpose. Some people are luckier; their purpose is obvious to them.

To find your purpose you need to ask yourself three questions: what makes you sad? What makes you happy? What makes you angry? The third question is interesting. We think a lot about what makes us sad and happy but it's rarer to channel anger into something positive. If we understand what our answers to those questions are, we can understand our purpose. Having something you really believe in can take you a long way. It can be specific, like animals’ rights, or more general, like world peace.

What’s your own purpose?

It is empowering women and girls in using different models: the bottom up, lead by volunteers models I spoke about through Lensational, but also social enterprise, youth-lead change… It’s breaking the boundaries for women and girls in different ways.

What do you do for the Social Investment Consultancy?

It’s a very small social sector consultancy. I work with charities and social enterprises to help them maximise impact. We mainly work on their social impact measurement, business planning and becoming financially sustainable. I joined two years ago, a year after moving to London. I didn’t know anyone here before doing my MSc at the LSE so it helped me build my network and to have the financial security I needed to build Lensational.

My boss transitioned to something else so now it’s me and my colleagues running the consultancy, which gives me a lot of flexibility as to what I do. In small companies, if you are lucky to be in an environment that is merit-based, you can take a step up quite quickly if you can demonstrate that you are capable and ambitious. My clients range from very small charities to huge organisations like Save the Children.

At the beginning, I was daunted by my age. But people don’t necessarily define you by your age as long as you show maturity through your work and you bring something relevant to the table. Age should never be a limiting factor.

You work in an all women’s team, which is quite rare in the consultancy world.

It used to be run by a man. He’s a champion for human rights, including women’s rights. When I joined the company, I asked him why it was all women aside from him and he said he hired whoever is the most capable. He was almost gender blind.

We just recruited some freelance consultants, and they are all women. We don’t exclusively look for women but it turned out that the most capable were women. It might be that the social investment consultancy sector focuses a lot on cross-sector collaboration and perhaps we have come across more women who have worked in different sectors.

It’s a great workplace because we are a bunch of empowered women. It’s very rare, especially in social investment. It’s more common in pure charity consultancy as women crowd the sector, even though at the top level it’s still male-dominated.

Why did you decide to leave Hong Kong?

When I went to Pakistan I discovered that I learn most when I push myself outside my comfort zone. So that’s something I consciously make myself do. To achieve breakthroughs, I had to leave HK and start my career somewhere I didn’t know anyone.

What is the most useful thing you’ve learnt?

There’s only so much that one person can do, no matter how brilliant or talented. So you need to build a team, collaborate with other organisations. It shouldn’t be focused on you; it should focus on the cause or the purpose. It takes a movement to really change the world.

What would you recommend to a young girl who would like to start a movement like Lensational?

Don’t compare yourself with other people. When I was young I never thought I would be an entrepreneur. As a young girl, I remember being quite daunted by the stories of wonderful women. I thought it was too out of my league. Be inspired by other women who have done great things, but don’t compare yourself to them. Everyone has a different own path to create change. Other people’s stories can teach us lessons, but don’t feel intimidated. If we are too intimidated we won’t take action. Don’t feel scared. Just do it. 

Bonnie Chiu | Co-Founder and CEO | Lensational

Five years' experience

CV in brief

Studied MSc in International Relations and Affairs at London School of Economics and Political Science | BBA in Global Business Studies at The Chinese University of Hong Kong

Previously worked as Consultant at The Social Investment Consultancy | Research and Advocacy Officer at Future First Global | 
Research & Campaign Intern at Equality Now | Administrative Service, Security Bureau at Hong Kong SAR Government | Campaigner at Amnesty International Hong Kong | Junior Research Assistant at Pacific Economic Cooperation Council (PECC) | Director of Talent Management at Hong Kong 200 Association | Marketing Trainee at HSBC | Marketing Assistant at The Dairy Farm Group

Find Bonnie online LSE interview | TSIC profile | LinkedIn | @bonniesychiu

Inspired by Bonnie's career? Check out these related opportunities: Career opportunities at The Social Investment Consultancy | Get involved with Future First Global | Job opportunities at Equality Now | Job opportunities at Amnesty International Hong Kong | Opportunities at Pacific Economic Cooperation Council

Exclusive Skype interview by Lucie Goulet, 16 April 2016

The Picture Through Her Eyes | Bonnie Chiu | TEDxGoodenoughCollege