Why I Quit Banking to Revolutionize Rural Education

A brush with disaster convinced me to set up a charity teaching much-needed life skills to deprived country schoolkids.

I was visiting the United States in September 2001 when the attacks on the World Trade Center happened. Just days before the blast, my job in investment banking had taken me to New York City, where I stayed in a hotel right next to one of the twin towers. Fortunately, I had moved on to Washington, D.C. by the day two planes were flown into the buildings. When they came crashing down, the hotel next door was buried beneath the rubble.

By a hair’s breadth, I avoided an early death at the age of 30. At the time, I was working as a senior executive at China Merchants Securities in Hong Kong. My reflections in the aftermath of 9/11 made me question the value of remaining in my profession, when much more pressing social issues were raging around me — not least the question of how poverty could turn people away from respecting diversity and toward violence against one another. By 2007, I had had enough. I gave up the high-flying job, converted to Buddhism, and became a career philanthropist.

My foundation, Adream, was created as a nonprofit education organization based in Hong Kong. The idea was to furnish impoverished Chinese schools with “dream centers”: converted classrooms equipped with books, computers, and audiovisual facilities. Our first two dream centers were built in the Ngawa Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture in southwestern China’s Sichuan province, an area where education infrastructure was sorely lacking. It was also, coincidentally, my Buddhist mentor’s home prefecture.

In the 10 years since then, Adream has raised 400 million yuan (around $60 million) to build dream centers in more than 2,500 schools across China. We have more local outlets  in the country than McDonald’s, not to mention the 100,000 teachers and 3 million students we have helped along the way.

More than two-thirds of the schools we serve are located in poor areas of China’s western hinterland. Key to our success has been the fact that we care as much about what we teach to our children — and how we teach it — as we do about whether China’s schoolkids have the raw materials to succeed academically.

To ensure that rural students could learn in a supportive, inspiring environment, we drew up a tailored “rural curriculum” with Cui Yunhao, an educationist affiliated with East China Normal University. A year after Adream was established, Cui told me that over 99 percent of the country’s school-age children were attending school . Indeed, against the backdrop of rural-to-urban migration, rural Chinese schools actually have more than enough capacity to accommodate the shrinking student population.

The news forced us to shift our attention away from getting kids into school and toward what they actually learned inside the classroom. I believe that a rich, varied, and inspiring curriculum is essential to quality education. Central to Adream’s ethos, then, is the aim of supplementing the official curriculum with one conducive to helping children from poorer backgrounds build confidence and lead dignified lives.

So far, we’ve developed 24 classes on self-awareness, teamwork, respect for nature, art, drama and performance, and computer skills. In all of our partner schools, every child from first to ninth grade will take one such class per week. By the end of their compulsory education, they will have had 300 hours of exposure to diverse, tolerant, creative, and imaginative teaching. We have also helped students visit their parents who have migrated to the city for work.

Throughout Chinese imperial history, education was a key means through which those from poorer backgrounds could elevate their social status. Parents enrolled their kids in schools in the hope that one day, they would pass the rigorous civil service examinations and be given a job at the imperial court. To a certain extent, this tradition even persisted beyond the collapse of dynastic rule. As late as the 1990s, university graduates were habitually considered for work in the state sector, a field that promised job security and social prestige.

However, a significant rise in the number of students enrolling in universities has put an end to that trend in recent years. Between 2000 and 2015, the number of Chinese college graduatesincreased sevenfold. Many rural families who lived frugally for years so that their children could go to college saw them graduate without a secure job with which to support the family. Others have chosen not to go on to higher education at all.

The system works so long as educational achievement is linked to better job prospects, but with more and more graduates falling into unemployment or menial labor, we have lost sight of what we are educating our children for. Concerned by an ever more competitive job market, schools are teaching to the test instead of incentivizing students to explore their interests. Students memorize answers but don’t ask questions. They are told to earn as much money as they can, but not to find jobs they enjoy. They have access to one of the largest economies on the planet, but live in only the 84th-happiest country in the world.

Most kids enrolled in Adream classes are part of a generation of emotional orphans, marooned in the countryside far away from their migrant worker parents. I fear for children deprived of the happiness that comes from a secure, stable family environment, and I worry that many of them will limit their life goals to mere subsistence instead of realizing their dreams, no matter how modest or high their ambitions are. That is why Adream classrooms encourage children to be true to themselves, to love one another, to recognize the beauty and diversity in the world, and to find fulfilling future places in it for themselves.

As Adream does not have the resources to staff every classroom ourselves, another key aspect of our approach is teacher training. We currently have 100,000 so-called dream coaches on our books, all of whom are full-time teachers at partner schools. We encourage them to embrace alternative teaching methods so that their classes are action-packed, child-centered, and free from the drudgery of rote learning that permeates most kids’ school days.

Part of our success has stemmed from the fact that our curricula are designed to dovetail with existing education regulations. In 2001, China scrapped tight central control of the school curriculum and devolved powers to localities and individual schools, allowing them to have more say in what they teach local students. In each new location we reach, Adream first visits the local education bureau. Once we have the bureau’s support, we target the neediest schools and lay down plans to build and sustain dream centers over five years.

Unlike other organizations, we deliberately leverage government support to realize our goal as a charity. This is not to surrender our autonomy as an NGO, but to ensure the long-term stability of our work. Our willingness to supplement, not replace, existing curricula takes the risk out of local government decision-making. After all, which government would choose to deliberately prevent local kids from getting the best education possible?

Intentionally courting official support has allowed Adream to build a 2,500-strong network of dream centers stretching across the country. Not only that, but municipal education bureaus in cities like Zunyi and Qidong — in southwestern China’s Guizhou province and eastern China’s Jiangsu province, respectively — have added us to their public procurement lists. This means that the local governments cover all the costs of setting up dream centers, allowing us to reach more schools in their jurisdictions with the revolutionary curricula we promote. This tactic has also allowed us to make the transition from being a Hong Kong-based private fund to being a Shanghai-based public fund, which has broadened our access to partnerships and donations.

To me, any charitable donation is an investment in the future. Focusing on the years to come is especially important in the context of a Chinese education system struggling to prepare its students fully for the challenges ahead. While Adream’s impact on education is only in its infancy, I feel confident that in 20, 30, or 40 years, today’s most disadvantaged children will look back on our work and say, “Yes, they helped make me the happy, fulfilled person I am now.”

Editors: Lu Hongyong and Matthew Walsh.