If the name Wong Nga-lai does not ring a bell with you, then her English name—Leona Wong—probably will. Or you may have read her blog ‘Despite Such Small Hands’ and remember the nimble touches in her depictions of startup characters. Having recently set up her own public relations company, she has morphed from a writer of entrepreneurial legends into a legend in her own right.
Leona hails from an intellectual family with generations of scholars. Her father, who grew up on the mainland during the Cultural Revolution, ‘was a literary type in his youth born in the wrong place at the wrong time. When seeing early glimpses of writing talent in his daughter, he was overjoyed and did all he could to encourage me, developing my interest in writing.’ Two days before this interview, Leona, always wont to elucidate her thoughts through writing, had begun posting about her own life on Facebook.
She confessed she only had a hazy idea of her future when applying to university. She enrolled in CUHK’s School of Journalism and Communication where she could put her writing skills to good use. After five years of undergraduate and master’s studies plus a few years of work experience in the business sector, she joined the opinion page of the Hong Kong Economic Times. ‘I was just trying my hand at different tasks to see if I could find a more ideal way of life,’ Leona recalled.
While opinion page editors typically commissioned commentary articles by phone, Leona preferred to meet with the commentators to learn from them in person. She also frequented seminars organized by various universities or chambers of commerce featuring famous speakers or major writers and then wrote about these encounters in her column ‘Five-minute Titbits of Talks’. As she got to know more people and their stories, she began drawing in her own blog verbal portraits of these characters—big and small—who have come into her life.
One day in 2007, she was 10 minutes late to a seminar at a chamber of commerce and took a seat next to a young man. During the break, she presented her calling card and asked him what she had missed in the first 10 minutes of the talk. He took a glance at the card and blurted, ‘Oh, I have read your blog!’
His name is Greg Sung, the founder of aNobii, a newly established online community of book lovers at the time, and one of the founders of the online House News. The two hit it off immediately and he then introduced Leona to other young tech entrepreneurs. After establishing ties with these up-and-coming players, she went on to interview them one by one. The feature series not only won her Grand Award in the Print Media category of the Fourth Chinese University Journalism Award but also formed the basis of her first book, The Magnificent Six in Cyberspace, published in 2008.
Mostly unknown at the time, many of these young minds eventually made it big. David Lee was one such entrepreneur who did a demo of his basketball app at Apple’s keynote event in September 2018. ‘We’ve known each other for more than 10 years. Back then tech entrepreneurship was still under the radar, unlike nowadays,’ said Leona.
While many appreciate the verve and substance of her startup stories, Leona was, as she modestly put it, ‘just trying to tell complex stories simplistically’. ‘These guys in the tech business have the smarts for it but few people understand what they are doing. So I try to figure out their products and write in layman’s terms. That’s it.’
Her flair for communicating complex ideas was recognized by To Cheung, then chairman of the Hong Kong Wireless Technology Industry Association (WTIA). She was then invited to be the Association’s executive director. ‘I think what he valued in me were my communication skills and cross-industry networking ability, which would help getting more people to know WTIA’s members, namely, local tech companies and particularly the new players emerging around 2008.’
Her last job before setting up shop was fundraising for startups at a financing company. That was how she came to realize the enormous value of public relations for startups: ‘For two startups offering similar services, the one with more positive publicity will be more appealing to investors, more trustworthy to consumers, and more likely to attract talents.’
Though she had got everything it takes to set up her own business, what spurred her on to action were the words of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan: ‘The three most harmful addictions are heroin, carbohydrates, and a monthly salary.’ She explained, ‘Working as an employee, I can receive a monthly salary. But if I am captain of my own ship, with a few projects lined up each year, I don’t need to get paid every month. So long as I don’t make less on a yearly basis, why would I make myself go to work every day?’
Now that Leona Wong Consultant Limited has been in operation for over a year, she has rented a small office in a business centre in Tsim Sha Tsui but has yet to hire any full-time staff. She characterized her work as that of a contractor. For instance, to organize a press conference, she will scout around for freelancers to help with writing, photography and video production. ‘As more and more people are becoming “slash workers”, once I have nailed a project, it’s very easy for me to collaborate with them. Gone are the days when a new company had to rent an expensive office, with its shingle hung out and a receptionist sitting at the front desk. Now the set-up can be really minimal.’
Ever since her days as a student at CUHK, she has always relished venturing out of her comfort zone. For the general education programme, while others chose more familiar subjects for easy marks, she insisted on opting for such obscure ones as astronomy, alternative medicine and politics. ‘I got very low marks for all the subjects as I didn’t give a toss about grades. But that’s how I developed my curiosity and pure passion for learning.
‘Since then I’ve developed a value system that it’s OK to explore; it’s OK to lose; it’s OK to try different things, or even to feel lost about what we really want.’ While ‘feeling lost’ was a refrain in this interview, Leona has been able to—time and again—find light at the end of the tunnel, thanks to her refusal to settle for stability and her unusual readiness to start all over again.
Reported by Christine N., ISO
Photos by Eric Sin
This article was originally published on CUHK Homepage in Dec 2018.