Young Guns: Christina Wong is lifting up entrepreneurs in the Downtown Eastside through Employ to Empower

Vancouver charity ETE offers programs for low-income individuals facing financial, mental and physical challenges.

Christina Wong grew up feeling like a misfit. “My parents split when I was young, and I moved eight times between families,” she recalls. “I never quite knew where I belonged.”

The first time she did feel a sense of belonging was when she started volunteering with the Killarney Youth Council at 14. One day, she was handing out care packages in the Downtown Eastside when one of the recipients told her he needed a haircut for his job interview more than he needed toiletries. “That taught me the lesson of listening to what people need rather than assuming,” says Wong.

Skip forward 16 years, and life seems to have come full circle for the executive director and co-founder of Employ to Empower (ETE), a Vancouver charity that works to support entrepreneurship in the Downtown Eastside. Wong, who earned a psychology degree from SFU in 2017, is set on using entrepreneurship as a tool to cultivate confidence and community in the neighbourhood—she always encourages entrepreneurs to marry passion and skill first.

ETE’s programs are designed for low-income individuals facing financial, mental and physical challenges. There is a 10-week skills program to help participants build a business foundation, and a mentorship program that offers one-on-one and group sessions, microloans and more. Its advocacy arm, meanwhile, gives entrepreneurs opportunities to sell things and share stories, and hosts community initiatives like the Street Store, a free annual pop-up market for Downtown Eastside residents.

Wong still remembers a business skills graduate saying, “Before I began the course, I identified as a battered woman of domestic abuse. Today, I identify as a businesswoman.”

ETE just received federal funding to scale its services, allowing for a seven-person team and a 1,500-square-foot office. What started with one entrepreneur and five volunteers in 2018 is now sprinting uphill with 70 entrepreneurs and 30 volunteers. Wong’s mother regularly volunteers herself, which is surprising given her initial reaction to the charity.

“I come from traditional Asian roots, where I’m encouraged to choose a path that would have a full-time salary with benefits,” explains Wong. Before ETE, she briefly worked at local event management company PDW Inc. “When I quit my corporate job, I also had to leave home because my mom was not on board.” But now, after seeing ETE’s impact on the community, Mama Wong is the “biggest advocate ever,” according to her daughter.

A good way to help people facing barriers is to get to know them first. “Entrepreneurship is a powerful alternative in the Downtown Eastside,” Wong maintains. “You can work at your own pace and then eventually become the resource and help others.”

In that regard, she follows what she preaches—or at least tries to.

8:30 a.m.

To tell herself—and actually believe—that she can do hard things, Wong listens to “Lift Me Up” by Rihanna first thing every morning. Even in just conveying the message, she can’t help but sing along to the tune.

After a smoothie, she prepares a quick lunch (which has been turkey soup for the last 21 days, and omelettes the month before that) before heading wherever she’s needed.

10 a.m.

“It’s like putting on different hats but never knowing which hat it’s going to be,” Wong says with a laugh.

Monday, Wednesday and Friday usually involve corporate meetings, be it to prepare for ETE’s new 200-square-foot pop-up store in Vancouver’s Bentall Centre (in partnership with Hudson’s Bay) or to meet with Hootsuite to discuss how they can support entrepreneurs with digital marketing.

There’s no dedicated time for Wong to have lunch—only unsurprised remarks from her team: “Turkey soup again?”

7 p.m.

Wong takes a break in the evening to meet friends, go to the gym and, once a week, play volleyball.

After she gets home and has dinner, she’s back to work by 11 p.m. “I cannot go to bed without seeing the ‘all done’ notification in my Gmail,” she says. “Being an ambivert, I need quiet to work, so I usually crank it out until 2 a.m.”

Wong admits that while it’s not the “sexiest” routine, not everyone thrives in a nine-to-five. However, she adds, as a leader she’s trying harder to model self-care for her team—so she listens to “Lift Me Up” at least once more before turning in.