Entrepreneur Charles Chen Yidan changed the internet in Mainland China forever as one of the co-founders of Tencent—now he’s giving his money, energy and time to transforming education around the world
“My grandmother is the inspiration for my lifelong dedication to education philanthropy,” says Charles Chen Yidan, one of the co-founders of Tencent and creator of the Yidan Prize Foundation. Although she was unable to read or write, Charles’ grandmother’s strongly-held belief in the power of education saw her encourage Charles’ father to attend university and transform his life. This, in turn, had a profound effect on Charles, as did his grandmother’s trust in “the importance of kindness and of giving by setting an example.”
Charles studied applied chemistry at Shenzhen University as an undergraduate before earning a master’s in economic law in Nanjing. His association with institutions of higher learning would not end there. In 2009, Charles founded Wuhan College, a private university in China that focuses on “whole-person development”—it’s one of the many ways he’s helped address the need for an education system geared towards the future.
Shaking things up
When Charles left university, he became one of the core founders, along with his high school classmates, of Tencent. The company, which was established in 1998, is one of China’s leading technology corporations, and in his role as Tencent’s chief administration officer, he was tasked with ensuring the company was optimised for growth and diversification. In 2007, he established the Tencent Foundation to invest a portion of the company’s profits in charitable initiatives. It was a pioneering move for a Chinese technology company and set an example in corporate philanthropy.
The following year, the Wenchuan earthquake struck in Sichuan province and marked a turning point in Tencent’s philanthropic efforts. The Foundation donated RMB20 million to the affected areas, and also used its technology platform to connect NGOs, foundations and individuals. Tencent facilitated digital donations totalling more than RMB23 million towards relief efforts.
Fifteen years after co-founding Tencent, Charles stepped down. He had other plans—tinged with a philanthropic slant, and with more focus. “I remember it very clearly,” he says. “On May 24, 2013, shortly after I had stepped down from my role at Tencent, I wrote in my diary a wish to establish a prize that goes beyond religion, race and nationality, and to encourage reflections on the universe and contributions to humanity.”
This wish would manifest itself as the Yidan Prize.
“I wanted to set up a platform that would allow the global community to share new ideas and discuss issues related to the current and future development of education and its effect on future generations,” he says. “To me, education is the fundamental driving force for social progress.”
The Yidan Prize
The Yidan Prize was established in 2016 to give educational innovators the recognition and support Charles felt they deserved, but with a wider mission of both advancing global social development and creating a better world through education. The Yidan Prize is the world’s largest educational prize—it comprises two awards, one for Education Research and one for Education Development, each worth HK$30 million.
“Its main point is never about the money,” says Charles. “Its focus is to put the spotlight on the best and the brightest the world has to offer so that their groundbreaking work will become available to all and benefit the many.”
This vision has become ever more apparent as the Yidan Prize’s scope has expanded. Not only is it an award with an associated ceremony aimed at gathering like-minded individuals, but it has also spawned a number of other initiatives, including research in the form of the Worldwide Educating for the Future Index (WEFFI), a benchmarking tool for policymakers and a resource to highlight best practices from across the globe; and events such as the Yidan Prize Summit, a conference that gathers global change-makers in education together to engage in conversation and to play a role in educational philanthropy.
This year’s Yidan Prize winners are Usha Goswami—professor of cognitive developmental neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, who receives the Yidan Prize for Education Research for her work in the field of literacy, neuroscience and education that enables transformative educational interventions to benefit millions of children worldwide—and Fazle Hasan Abed, founder and chair emeritus of Bangladesh’s BRAC, the world’s largest NGO. Abed wins the 2019 Yidan Prize for Education Development for his project Play Labs, which revolutionises how the poorest and most vulnerable children can access high-quality, affordable early education.
In a rapidly transforming world, education, broadly speaking, has barely changed, but Goswami and Abed’s initiatives seek to establish how it must develop to meet the needs of tomorrow, addressing both the fast pace of technological change and increased longevity. Essential in Charles’ view is also a focus on lifelong education, of which he is a committed proponent.
Learning is a lifelong journey
Charles tells Tatler that grit and perseverance are the keys to achieving dreams, and he values the importance of staying open-minded in an increasingly globalised and diverse world.
“By embracing my unexpected path of education, the lesson I learned is to keep an open mind in every opportunity because you will meet people and things that shape your life,” he says, crediting his journey through education not only with meeting his fellow Tencent co-founders but also the woman who is now his wife, whom he met at university and who makes him feel “like the luckiest man alive.”
Most of all, Charles values continuing education—earlier this year he earned a doctorate in business administration from the Singapore Management University. “Our educational journey does not end when we leave school,” he says. “It is a lifelong journey.”
“Education unlocks endless possibilities,” he adds. “With ongoing learning, this increasingly globalised, connected, diverse world will always be your oyster.”
Wendy Lee at Wend's Workshop