In school, Calvin Woo was considered to be a mediocre student. Studying mostly for the sake of studying, he spent his early years trying to meet other people’s expectations – and becoming really unhappy in the process.
Everything changed, however, after he decided to take control of his life.
Woo decided to forge his own future by pursuing social entrepreneurship, a subject he was really interested in. He became actively involved in social entrepreneurial initiatives, helping many underprivileged young people, in Malaysia and beyond, to develop their own potential.
It was a journey that ultimately paid off when, at age 21, he was presented with the Queen’s Young Leader Award by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II herself in London.
“It was amazing. I was very nervous, because the royal family and a lot of dignitaries and celebrities, like Prince Harry and David Beckham, were there.
“It was very surreal; I was practising my bow a lot!” Woo, now 22, recalls during a recent interview in Kuala Lumpur.
“The queen seemed to be this very kind, very loving woman. It was like she was just glowing, and I had a sense of peace when I met her. I told her about my work, and she told me that what I was doing was crucial for young people and the country, so please don’t ever give up!”
(The Queen’s Young Leaders Award selects 60 exceptional young people from Commonwealth nations every year and awards them with mentoring and online education from the University of Cambridge, as well as a week-long residential programme in Britain, at the end of which the young leaders will receive their awards from the queen. Woo was the first Malaysian to win the award.)
The incredible story of how Woo went from his hometown in Muar, Johor, to the halls of Buckingham Palace can be found in his book, succinctly titled How I Escaped The Rat Race And Met Queen Elizabeth II.
Published by MPH Publishing last month, the book is an exploration of what it means to leave the expected path and strive to have a positive impact on lives around us.
According to Woo, the book is not a step-by-step guide to success; rather, it is his story about the values in his life that have brought him thus far.
“My greatest vision has always been to fulfil the purpose that God has for me,” Woo says. “When I was young, my dad told me that it was important to have a purpose in life, and to use the gifts that God has blessed you with to bless other people,” he adds.
Woo is a member of the Successor Generation Initiative (SGI) Advisory Board, an initiative by the British High Commission that brings together Malaysian youths to discuss issues relevant to young people. He also recently co-founded NexGenImpact (NGI), which aims to mobilise the millennial generation and inspire the corporate and social scene.
Woo was also chief coordinator of the National Unity Youth Fellowship organised by the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (Ideas), and part of the Young South-East Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) Academic Fellowship on Social Entrepreneurship and Economic Development at the University of Connecticut.
His book contains the story of his life so far, from the days of his youth to his university life at Sultan Idris Education University, and then to his experiences with Ideas and YSEALI. It also explains his passion for socioeconomic issues and the events that led him to pursue his goals in his life.
“I have a strong belief that people can realise their potential, but at my age (he was 20 then), people were telling me it’s impossible. Along the way, I had to face many challenges and pitfalls too, but I always reminded myself that the ultimate stand is where I stand in times of challenge,” Woo writes in the book.
Producing this book, Woo says, was an interesting experience, as he had to recall all the experiences he has had in life so far.
One of the most poignant parts of the book, Woo says, is his recollection of a painful incident that occurred in Primary Five: His Mathematics teacher had screamed at him in front of the whole class, telling him he would never make it in life as he had missed an A grade by two marks.
This was a turning point in Woo’s life, as began to realise that there had to be more to life than scoring in exams and earning the approval of others.
“We often look for things that only give us short term gratification and not long term satisfaction. Our parent’s generation was taught to take the safe route. Study, get a job, work hard and you’ll be secure. But things change very fast, and if you are stuck in a particular mindset, you won’t get anywhere,” Woo says.
“I think today’s young people are concerned about more than just achieving financial freedom.
“A lot of people are more socially conscious nowadays. They want something more meaningful in their lives, whether at work or at home, or anywhere.”
Woo is going to be busy in future: in August this year, he will be joining the Asia School of Business-MIT Sloan as an MBA candidate.
“A lot of people are a bit surprised – I talk about escaping the rat race and here I’m going back to school! But I have a bigger vision of what I want to achieve in my life and my MBA is a part of it. I feel I need to equip myself with more knowledge and skills, for the future,” he says.