Talking to Calvin Lo is a lot like chatting with an old friend whom you’ve never met in years. When he pops into view on my Zoom screen, he is full of warm smiles and intense warmth, apologising profusely for being slightly late because he was grappling with technological issues.
Even though we were both in different countries, separated by thousands of kilometres between us, the 44-year-old has this innate ability to create a genuine connection within minutes. It probably explains his success in business. The Hong Kong native has many interests, but he specialises in life insurance, specifically jumbo-sized “$100 million plus deals for ultra high net-worth individuals”.
Lo says, “Asians are good buyers of life insurance. We like the idea of buying something that we can pass onto the next generation.”
This idea of legacy continually pops up in our hour-long conversation. Growing up, Lo understood that he had won the genetic lottery. He studied in a boarding school in Canada and was surrounded by wealth his entire life. Those experiences shaped his worldview and also made him think about how to pass on the right values to his daughter. He admits he doesn’t have the answers, but is open to suggestions.
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It’s the same approach that he’s taken to philanthropy. Lo recently built The 195 Project, a global think tank created to address global equalities exacerbated because of Covid-19. “I believe everyone innately has a charitable mindset. When I set up my charity foundation 20 years ago, I gave money to the causes I believed in. Over the years, my busy schedule didn’t allow me to look into the organisations that received the money. I just rubber-stamped the documents,” says Lo.
“Covid-19 made me realise that there are a lot of problems in the world that we’ve never thought about, and I started thinking if there was a better way to distribute our donations.” The successful business owner realised that if he was grappling with this issue, others were probably also thinking the same thing. He chatted with his clients and business partners, all of whom expressed similar concerns. A few Zoom discussions later, The 195 Project was born.
Lo doesn’t want to change philanthropy. He believes, however, that there can be a better, more efficient way to calculate the ROI on charitable donations. The 195 Project is his way of achieving that. Thanks to his extensive work with The Jane Goodall Institute, Lo has connected with many scientists, doctors and researchers. Many of them have contributed their work to the new think tank.
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More importantly, Lo is planning to minimise his involvement in The 195 Project, which might sound strange. But Lo’s reasoning is simple: it’s time for the wealthy to stay quiet and listen. “I think there is an issue now where the reputation of the rich has diminished because of this snooty, proud attitude where we think everyone has to listen to us. I think it’s more important for us to sit down, listen and learn because I want people to tell me what is wrong and how to solve it.”
It also explains why he believes the GameStop incident at the start of the year, when a short versus long opportunity became a class movement between the rich and the poor, indicated
a bigger problem. “It’s a huge wake-up call for the hedge funds and the billionaires. In the past, you could bring in huge amounts of capital and dictate the market but this strategy will need to be reexamined. A guy on the street can mobilise people on a forum to be part of a movement. Ultimately, as long as everyone is playing by the rules, I don’t think there’s anything wrong, although the lawmakers might need to look into how to make the system more fair,” says Lo.
In a world fractured by growing inequality between the haves and have nots, Lo’s rhetoric makes sense. And he sincerely walks the talk. Without prompting, at the end of the call, even despite the massive disparity between our net worth and connections, Lo says that he would love to meet for coffee with me once the borders reopen and he can travel to Singapore. “Just to chat,” he smiles. Like an old friend.