Never Too Young to Start Doing Good

Before he even turned 30, Chen Shi-wen left behind a lucrative technology job and opened a coffee shop. Yet instead of giving full attention to his business, he devoted himself much more to philanthropic work. For him, some things just couldn’t wait until he was more financially established.

Chen Shi-wen makes coffee for a customer at his coffee shop. This is rather rare, because he spends more time outside his shop carrying out his charity projects or taking part in Tzu Chi activities.

Chen Shi-wen (陳璽文), 33, is not a typical young man. Instead of holding down a good job and dedicating himself to securing a stable future, he spends most of his time doing charity work and serving others. Most people tell themselves that they will dedicate themselves to volunteering and serving society after they retire, but Chen feels that by the time one is financially secure and has free time to volunteer, he or she may not have the required energy or stamina to do so. He epitomizes the spirit of “Just do it.”

Chen’s resume is impressive. As a student, he displayed a knack for the sciences. When he was in high school, he was chosen to participate in the International Physics Olympiad, a competition for scientifically gifted students. He graduated in sixth place from the Department of Electrical Engineering at the prestigious National Tsing Hua University, northern Taiwan. He even won three international patents while a graduate student at National Chiao Tung University, also in northern Taiwan, from which he earned a master’s degree in electronics in 2010. He was conscripted after graduation, but he opted to work for a private company as a legal substitute for his compulsory military service. His stellar performance as a student attracted the attention of the top three tech companies at the Hsinchu Science Park, Taiwan’s equivalent to Silicon Valley. They vied for his service. He picked one of them—United Microelectronics Corporation (UMC)—and began his R&D work in lieu of military service.

When he had served the required three-year term, UMC offered him a full-time job with a substantial salary, but he declined. Instead, he opened a coffee shop. That was five years ago. “Coffee is my hobby,” Chen explained, “but I chose to work in the coffee industry because I wanted to help juvenile delinquents. They typically don’t have the skills to land jobs after their release from prison. If I teach them to make coffee, they may find work at coffee shops or restaurants.”

Tzu Chi Collegiate Association

Chen visited coffee plantations in Africa, Central America, and South America to secure quality coffee beans and to learn coffee planting and processing techniques. After that, he visited coffee farmers in Hualien, Pingtung, and Nantou in eastern, southern, and central Taiwan, to show them how to plant and roast quality beans.

When he buys coffee beans, he prefers products that are environmentally friendlier and sanctioned by fair trade organizations. He runs his coffee shop as a for-profit enterprise out of necessity, but he does so while trying to help former inmates, support environmental preservation, and encourage fair trade practices.

He is definitely not your typical run-of-the-mill coffee shop owner. He is more like a devotee to social enterprise. He readily confesses that he has not always been so public minded. He was once just like most other young people, busy pursuing activities that would bolster his chances of a lucrative career. He only began to change his mindset after he met a teacher at a cram school.

That teacher was a Tzu Chi volunteer. “He often told us in class what Tzu Chi had done to help the needy,” Chen recalled. At the suggestion of that teacher, Chen joined the Tzu Chi Collegiate Association (TCCA) chapter at National Tsing Hua University during his freshman year there. He got more involved with the group’s activities as he progressed in his studies there, and he eventually became a core member of the organization.

He continued his involvement with TCCA when he began his master’s program at Chiao Tung University. Despite the heavy burden of his schoolwork in college and graduate school, he actively participated in the work of the association, gaining in-depth knowledge and hands-on experience of what Tzu Chi does.


Chen teaches a workshop on coffee-making at a Tzu Chi facility in Hsinchu.

Environmental appeals

One of the things that Chen did as a TCCA member was to advocate for the reduction of one’s carbon footprint. For example, he and his fellow association members called on people to avoid using disposable beverage cups and paper napkins, and to adopt a vegetarian diet.

Chen noticed that college kids were big consumers of drinks that came in disposable to-go cups. These one-use containers left a huge carbon footprint. In response, he started a “One Cup for Life” campaign in 2008, urging students to carry with them a reusable cup for their beverage purchases. Chen and other TCCA members also pleaded with beverage shops to give discounts to customers who brought in their own containers.

After that campaign, they appealed to people to use handkerchiefs instead of paper napkins.

Chen and other TCCA members also went into traditional marketplaces to promote a vegetarian diet. As expected, their reception spanned the gamut: Some people readily accepted the idea while others gave them the cold shoulder. “I considered our action as planting a seed,” Chen said. “There was no telling when or whether it would ever sprout, but at least I tried.”

To Chen and the other youths, difficulties in the process of doing the right thing were nothing to get discouraged about. They kept up their efforts, and at times they were pleasantly surprised. “Believe it or not, my counterparts in Chiayi and Yunlin, central Taiwan, won over butchers to support their vegetarianism drive,” Chen said. “I had butchers support my drive in the Hsinchu area, too.”

It seems incredible that someone whose livelihood depends on meat consumption would support vegetarianism, but Chen believes that some butchers ply their trade more as a way to make a living than for the love of meat. They are willing to support meatless diets for the benefit of the Earth and as a gesture of compassion for living creatures.

Looking back to his school days, Chen said that he was very happy being a TCCA member. “There were a lot of events to organize. I was under a lot of pressure juggling both schoolwork and extracurricular activities, but that high pressure helped me grow, so much so that I didn’t feel it tough at all after I graduated and started work.”


Chen (second row, first from right) on a visit to a coffee plantation in Guatemala. Courtesy of Chen Shi-wen

At the tech company

After obtaining his master’s degree, Chen worked at UMC, the tech company mentioned above, in lieu of military service. He submitted 30 patent applications for the company during his three years there—a really impressive performance. But work was far from his top priority during that time. He made sure he had enough time off so he could do things to benefit society.

The tech company had started a foundation to do philanthropic work. Yen Po-wen (顏博文) was a senior manager at UMC at the time. He knew that Chen liked to volunteer, so a week after Chen started work at the company, he decided to introduce him to the head of the foundation. “Much to my surprise,” Yen recalled, “Chen had already met the head and begun participating in the work of the foundation.”

Near the end of 2011, the foundation sponsored a tour of stage play performances by employees of the company, including Chen. They performed in 23 elementary schools in remote parts of Taiwan. They also read picture books to the children during their visits. “I spent much more time on these children and on Tzu Chi events than on anything else during that time,” Chen said. “I often worked just three or four days a week. I got paid less than others as a result, but I didn’t care.”

Give a man a fish or teach him to fish?

In the process of his philanthropic work, Chen came to realize that simply giving the needy help might not be the best way to help them. The question of “Give a man a fish or teach him to fish?” rose in his mind.

When Chen had moved to Hsinchu at the start of his college career, he, his fellow TCCA members, and some other Tzu Chi volunteers in Hsinchu had visited Shih Guang Educational and Nursing Institution, a Catholic care facility for people with disabilities. They helped the residents exercise and entertained them. In due course, Chen and the other college students graduated and began their careers, but the Shih Guang residents remained as much in need of care as when the TCCA members had first started visiting them. Chen realized that they needed to do more for them.

“I asked myself how much longer I could help them. If one day I left and the residents’ situations remained the same, was this really helping them?”

As a result, Chen and some friends initiated a plan eight years ago for the institution: They set up an organic vegetable farm and taught Shih Guang residents to plant in the hope that they would grow vegetables to support themselves. Many residents of the institution, though impaired in some ways, were physically capable of working on a farm. They just needed some training.

“To teach them to do things would take some time,” Chen explained, “and we also needed to explain the situation to their parents.” He and a few enthusiastic friends worked closely with the institution to get the initiative started. Their work involved taking care of some paperwork, holding meetings, and scoping out land for the farm. In April 2010, the farm officially opened.

Residents began working on the farm under the watchful eyes of institution staffers. Surprisingly, the participating residents became emotionally more stable. They became less volatile and less inclined to scream or throw fits. They even harvested enough vegetables to not only feed themselves but to give to others.

“They delivered some vegetables to the Hsinchu police department in mid-2016,” Chen said, “and they also gave their labor of love to the Genesis Social Welfare Foundation. They were once care recipients, but now they can help others.”

Chen pointed out that if he had not started the vegetable farm project a few years earlier, the residents at Shih Guang would still have been as dependent on others’ help today as they were before. “You need to help them move toward self-sufficiency. Only when you can tackle a problem at the root is it possible to see real light showing,” he concluded.

Now that Shih Guang residents are better able to care for themselves, Chen has moved on to another project.

When he was working for a tech company, Chen and his colleagues put on stage plays for children in remote villages. They also took the youngsters to Hsinchu to visit college campuses. Courtesy of Chen Shi-wen


Clean and abundant

One Sunday in January 2018, Chen and his team drove about 80 kilometers (50 miles) up into the mountains to the Zhenxibao tribal village in Jianshi, Hsinchu. There they met village elder A-dao at the local church. After warmly greeting the visitors, the elder got down to business. He told the visitors about the traditional tribal farming method.

“People here used to rotate three or four tracts of land,” said the elder. “They grew crops on one plot for three years. Then they’d plant trees there and move on to another tract of land to farm, and so on. About ten years later, they’d return to farming the first tract again.”

But farming in Zhenxibao today no longer bears any resemblance to the old way. The impact of a modern economy and civilization has all but severed the tribal villagers’ ties with their Atayal tradition. (The Atayal are an indigenous group of Taiwanese aborigines.) The village looks about the same now as any other town down the mountains, and residents farm in a way that accommodates the needs of buyers from down the mountains too. For example, they use chemical pesticides and fertilizers to increase harvests and improve the shelf appeal of their crops.

Chen saw a problem though. The Dahan River is a source of drinking water for residents in some points north of Hsinchu, but the source of the river is in the town of Jianshi, where the village is located. If village farmers use chemicals that drain into the Dahan River, the river can become contaminated for those that rely on it. Chen wanted to do something to help.

Cabbage is a popular crop in the village because Taiwanese love cabbage grown in the highlands. “I can’t ask village farmers not to plant cabbage,” Chen said, “but I can try to convince them to forego chemical pesticides and fertilizers. To achieve that aim, our project here would need to start with soil improvement.”

But how? Chen realized after visiting the area that the solution might lie in the bamboo plants that grow everywhere in the mountains.

Bamboo grows rapidly. “If you cut it down in autumn, come April the place is blanketed again by new bamboo,” elder A-dao said. Abundant and quick growing, bamboo plants can be an inexhaustible material for a good cause. Chen figures that they can cut down bamboo plants older than one year and make them into organic fertilizers which can supplant the chemical substances that local farmers are using today to improve the soil.

The use of local bamboo plants can be further extended to improve the livelihoods of the villagers. Chen once asked a local farming family how much they earned a year growing vegetables. They told him their annual income amounted to roughly NT$240,000 (US$8,000), not much money. What’s more, the market price of cabbage can be driven pitifully low during times of excess supply, when crops are plentiful. Chen wants to help villagers improve their livelihoods.

He said that they can heat bamboo plants that are less than one year old into charcoal. Adding such charcoal to textile fibers makes the fibers more capable of absorbing toxins and odors. Such fibers can be woven into products such as masks and socks for sale. The process of heating to convert bamboo into charcoal also distills a liquid that can be used as a cleaning or disinfecting agent.

“The important thing is that villagers must be able to sell whatever products they make,” Chen said. “Therefore, we must help them create and open marketing channels so that they can produce, sell, and support their families.”

Not only does he plan to help them sell their bamboo goods to outside people, he also plans to use bamboo to attract people from out of town to visit the village.

“We can build traditional bamboo dwellings of the Atayal people and use them as B&Bs for out-of-town visitors,” Chen said. “We can organize in-depth tours for visitors to allow them to experience life close to nature. This will be a place where man-made things like plastics are absent and all utensils come from the local mountain area.” That being said, he intends to make electricity and Internet connections available. The plan is to capture the heat from making charcoal and reuse it to heat water and generate electricity.

“The ultimate goal of this project is to attract young Atayal people to return to their home village and run these things so that they can carry on their Atayal heritage,” Chen concluded, as he explained his plan for Zhenxibao village.

Chen (left) and a farmer scout land that might be used for an organic farm. Chen plans to help villagers in Zhenxibao farm using earth-friendly methods, without chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

Marching on

Chen’s schedule is packed every day. Besides his charity work and his coffee shop, he occasionally has to return to his former employer, the tech company, to help them with some patent and technology issues. “I haven’t fallen ill in quite a few years because I just don’t have time for that,” said the young man, mocking himself.

In the high-tech circle in Hsinchu, a fair number of people have quit their jobs to pursue philanthropic endeavors, as Chen himself did. But unlike him, most of them did so when they were in their late 40s or even 50s—at a stage when they were more financially established. Chen quit before he even turned 30. His decision befuddled his family and friends.

Chen explained his decision. He believes that the best time to do things that you want to do is now, not later when you can financially afford it or when you have the time—because by that time you might not have the energy to do it.

Helping disadvantaged people to become more independent has been Chen’s overarching objective. He points out that it takes no less money and energy to initiate a project to help disadvantaged people become more self-sufficient than to start up a new for-profit company. He is also quick to point out that the return on investment for the former is far, far less impressive than for the latter, if your yardstick is merely monetary metrics. But he knows that there are other metrics that such a yardstick cannot possibly fathom. How, for example, do you quantify the joy you feel when a person, with your help, begins to live a better life?

As Chen pushes ahead with his various projects, he does one other thing that may be equally important: cultivate younger people who want to follow in his footsteps. He has delegated smaller projects to younger people on his team in the hope that they may one day strike out on their own.

“The value of life is to contribute what you have to help create a better world,” Chen said, summing up eloquently his life’s work. 

With his brains and expertise, Chen could have easily landed any tech job with substantial paychecks, but he chose instead to pursue charity projects to help underprivileged people. Though others may not understand his choice, he marches forward on his path, sure and confident.


July 2018