My unexpected entrepreneurial path

February 1, 2020 -- Living City

My unexpected entrepreneurial path
How an entrepreneur discovered his call to live spiritually in the business world

By Lawrence Chong

Two years ago, my wife threw me a lovely surprise party to mark my entry into the 40s club. Besides being quite surprised, I was stunned by the people that she had thoughtfully invited. It was a very small group of close friends from different moments of my life.

Some say that just before a person passes away, they get a flashback of the people they loved and who mattered most. If I were dying, it would be those people at my surprise party who would certainly appear in such a flashback.

It got me thinking about how I discovered this work that I do now.

I believe that everyone has a special place and plan on earth. But the problem for most of us is how to discover it. I know I had struggled with this in the beginning. So it is interesting that one of the definitions of vocation is “a strong impulse or inclination to follow a particular activity or career.” If it is an inclination, how can we be sure that it is the right one?

Focolare founder Chiara Lubich, whom I admire very much, used to say, “If you do everything out of love, then soon you shall understand the plan that is meant for you.” In a sense, I tried to follow this approach and it has worked for me. Here are my three key discoveries.

Discover your passion

When I met the movement of unity that Lubich founded, I was taken up by this whole idea that young people can change the world by bringing about unity wherever they are: in schools, civil societies, religious communities.

In attending an international youth event in 1992, with thousands of youth from all over the world, a revolution in my 14-year-old heart was ignited. As I listened to adolescents of every creed and race share how they were concretely changing and influencing society, I became hooked by this big idea.

That moment of 1992 never left me. I think it is absolutely important for everyone to have this passionate discovery of a great idea — a falling-in-love moment, with something to dedicate your life to.

Find meaning in unexpected turns

Pursuing this impulse to bring unity to the world, I often wondered where I could best do so. I was extremely active in my parish church community, involved with youth formation, assisting the priests during liturgies and holding several leadership positions. I even got into design at a young age because I wanted to do more for the parish community.

So naturally I was drawn to join the priesthood. Since I was familiar with the processes to do so, I actually imagined a “career path” that might increase my chances of becoming a Catholic bishop. Or so I calculated.

Then in 2002, a chance encounter with a group of friends began my journey as an entrepreneur. We even prepared a business plan as a sales pitch to a prospective investor — with grand ideas for a unique business model and a nice office.

When that fell through, I thought it must have been a distraction and I should better be on my way to the seminary.

However, my friends suggested that we still try it out completely, even though the chances for success were dismal. Another six months passed — we were pitching to many companies, but nothing happened.

At the end of the sixth month, with no income to bring home to my family, my Dad asked me to think twice. That very morning — a day that I remember very clearly — I prayed to Mary to ask that she intercede with God and show me the way. In fact that day, we were about to pitch to one of the largest confectionery companies in Singapore.

In any branding and business pitch, one is expected to present a preliminary idea. But we did not present any idea, but rather our approach and scope of work. After listening to our presentation for an hour, the boss glanced at the manager who had invited us to do our presentation; then he looked at me and asked, “Is it possible to have a discount?”

Since I wanted to get an answer for my question about my future, I challenged him and said politely, “Sorry, it is not possible.” The boss again glanced at the manager before turning to me, saying, “Okay,” whereupon she left the room. I was a little stunned and did not know quite how to react, so I asked the manager what happened.

He simply congratulated me on having obtained the job. Then I asked him if it was normal for the boss to agree so quickly to a project after meeting a consultant for the first time. He told me that this never happened before.

That first project launched me on the unexpected path of entrepreneurship and took me to unexpected places to work on projects of a great variety. It was an unexpected turn, though I later understood how my skills in discernment, community building, facilitation and design had given me certain advantages.

Above all, my impulse and desire to want to shape a better world continued to urge me on. Another client of mine would explain to me years later that the reason why we had left a deep impression during a meeting and got the project was because I spoke differently and with purpose, almost coming across like a pastor.

Stay committed to the cause

Over the years, as my core team kept faith with me despite the uncertainty — occasionally losing projects because we didn’t want to be doing business as usual — this commitment to our purpose to build a different type of consultancy that shapes a better world became our saving grace and our inspiration for creating a whole new method for transformation. Even though we all come from different faiths, we share the same belief that each one of us is uniquely called to make a difference.

It still amazes me how every single month, we receive emails from all over the world, from talented people who seek to partner with us and bring our work into their countries so as to shape a better world. This year, we will experience another major wave of expansion.

Last year after a strategic retreat, a client told me: “Lawrence, I believe in this idea of having a Purpose Core so as to bring about unity and shape a better world. And I have made this my personal mission, too.” I was deeply moved.

I have understood that these individuals are like confirmations of the vocation that I have discovered. It is really true that if you are on the right path, then the right people will come along too.

One day in February 2017, I was in Italy and was sharing in private the journey and experience of our company Consulus — the effects of unity that we experienced in our company and in our projects for companies and cities — with Professor Piero Coda, the Dean of Sophia University, who is also a Catholic priest. After an intense hour of sharing, I decided to share with him a regret of mine: not having become a priest.

He looked at me and told me that he felt from my experience that I did not become a priest because I was asked to be another Christ in the business world.

It was an unexpected answer and a gift! Then I understood what it meant to do everything with love and that subsequently the plan for us would be revealed in time.

I thank God for this vocation, and also for everyone I have encountered along this great adventure, which still continues today. I also pray that for those whose plans have not yet been revealed, that it may happen to you soon, and that all of you may live out your calling with courage and joy.

It might not be easy, but I can assure you that in following your purpose in life, you will have the best adventure ever. 

Lawrence Chong lives in Singapore and is the founder and  CEO of Consulus, an innovation consultancy firm with business management and multidisciplinary design capabilities. His thoughts on innovation and creativity have appeared in media such as Fortune, Nikkei Asian Review, Business Insider, Business Times and Marketing Magazine. In 2020, he was appointed by Pope Francis as a consultant to the Pontifical Council for Interreligious  Dialogue.

If you are interested to read more articles like this: