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Charles Chang: Entrepreneurial Instinct

A historic gift from SFU Beedie School of Business alumnus Charles Chang underscores the school’s commitment to entrepreneurship and innovation.

June 17, 2016
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Charles Chang, founder of leading plant-based natural health and performance product Vega, and a Beedie School of Business alumnus, is making a definitive statement about the importance of entrepreneurial talent in today’s shifting business landscape.

On June 17 he donated $10 million to the Beedie School of Business—the second-largest gift the school has ever received— to establish the Charles Chang Institute for Entrepreneurship.

Designed to help students discover their economic and social potential, the institute will foster their ability to discover, evaluate, and actualize opportunities that positively impact their communities.

“I want to lead by example through this gift—to inspire and equip others to benefit from entrepreneurship the way that I have,” he says.

The institute will host the Charles Chang Certificate in Innovation and Entrepreneurship, an interdisciplinary program that allows undergraduate students from any faculty at SFU to add entrepreneurship training to their education.

The gift was announced during a ceremony on June 17 at the Charles Chang Innovation Centre, a new facility in downtown Vancouver that SFU has named after Chang in recognition of his gift.  

Beyond these groundbreaking initiatives, Chang intends for his gift to establish both the Beedie School of Business and B.C. as a hub for innovation.

“I would love to see this help create more entrepreneurs,” he says. “But beyond that I want to bring the business community at large together, be it academics with the actual business community, with research, or with government. I want to give Vancouver an advantage to be competitive in entrepreneurship on a global level.”

Vega – from basement to boardroom

As a successful entrepreneur, Chang is well placed to comment on the importance of entrepreneurship to B.C.’s economy. Prior to Chang selling the company in 2015, Vega employed more than 180 people, with revenues of well over $100 million a year.

Yet like many good start-ups, Chang’s journey to success with Vega began in less auspicious circumstances—working out of his own basement.

Chang’s story could have turned out very differently had he not had the courage to follow his entrepreneurial instincts. He quit a successful career as a sales and marketing executive to start his own supplement business, after saving $100,000 to self-fund his venture. Little did he know that this money would last only five months.

“I had to put a second mortgage on my house, I maxed out five of my credit cards, and I sold my truck for $27,000 just to stay in business,” he says.

“I built it through literally knocking on doors, calling every ma and pa health food store from B.C. to Nova Scotia. I basically clawed my way into building a business that had very few employees, doing about a million bucks a year in sales.”

It was when he met ironman triathlete Brendan Brazier that business really took off. Following Brazier’s guiding principles on nutrition, the company created a line of vegan supplement products that have evolved over the course of the past decade to become a successful brand name across North America.

Chang marketed the product aggressively, running a PR campaign from city to city across Canada based on Brazier’s success as a vegan triathlete.

Chang’s hard work paid off, with sales roughly doubling every year before he decided the time was right for him to move on to new endeavours.

“I felt it was the right time to sell when there wasn’t much more I could add on a day-to-day basis,” he says.

“I always wanted to see it through from start to finish, and over the last two or three years I was no longer involved in the day-to-day. My management team was killer, and all the functional areas were taken care of. I knew I wanted to exit the business so I could do others.”

Chang has since founded Lyra Growth, a venture growth equity company. With a goal of helping aspiring entrepreneurs succeed with their ventures, Chang is further ensuring that the next generation of  innovators benefits from his success and experience.

“I love working with companies that inspire me, and I wanted to work with people who are where I was 10 years ago,” he says.

“Lyra Growth is about encouraging and supporting, and guiding and mentoring these people who are driven with amazing vision. I wish I had had that help—maybe I would have made fewer mistakes. They just need a little bit of mentorship, some connections, some dollars and they’re going to be greatly successful.”

Family values

Vega was not Chang’s first foray into entrepreneurship. While working on a co-op assignment during his fourth year of studies, he co-founded a computer business along with two friends. Though the venture ultimately failed, Chang insists that the experience was vital in preparing him for future success.

“We crashed and burned and lost everything, but looking back it was a good experience—I call it my MBA within my co-op within my bachelor’s degree,” he says.

“When I failed there I said I’m not ready yet, I need some experience out there. Failing once is fine if you minimize your losses. Failing multiple times at the same thing is not. I look at failure like R&D. It’s part of innovation.”

After experiencing such significant success, one could be forgiven for assuming that Chang’s entrepreneurial talent was molded during his years as a business student. Yet although he did flex his entrepreneurial muscles during his student years, Chang’s drive and ethics were instilled in him from an early age by his parents.

Originally from Taiwan, Chang’s parents moved to California when he was three years old so that his father could attend graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley. The family then moved to Vancouver where, despite being highly educated, his parents struggled to find work.

Over the years his parents worked a multitude of jobs to make ends meet—such as nursing, janitorial work, bartending— and were ultimately able to buy their own house and provide good educations for Chang and his brother.

Yet despite the hardships he and his family endured, Chang recognizes the sacrifices they made to ensure that he had the best chance at succeeding in life—all of which paid dividends.

“I look at all the hardships they had to go through and I look at how fortunate my kids are,” he says. “My parents are so proud that we are able to take a big jump like that because of the sacrifice they made. So I say the first and best entrepreneur in my family isn’t me, it’s my parents.”

Identifying with the Beedie entrepreneurship approach

Deciding long before he had even sold his company that he intended to make a significant gesture that would benefit B.C.’s entrepreneurial community, Chang realized he was seeking an approach that dovetailed with his own stance. He found that approach in the Beedie School’s focus on teaching entrepreneurship and innovation.

“I believe that entrepreneurship must be multidisciplinary, which is one of the reasons why I connected so well with the Beedie School’s approach,” says Chang.

“Entrepreneurship isn’t just about business, it’s actually a mindset. It doesn’t mean you have to be the one to start your own business and create something. It means thinking about something as an entrepreneur—asking how you solve the problem, how you approach the opportunity.”

Recounting the tale of his initial meeting at the Beedie School of Business to discuss the gift, Chang says that he immediately clicked with the faculty. Indeed, he and SFU’s Director of Entrepreneurship, Sarah Lubik, were almost of one mind, finishing each other’s sentences by the end of the meeting.

Both Chang and the Beedie School have high hopes that the gift will have a significant impact on both the School’s graduates, and on B.C.'s entrepreneurial landscape.

“We’ll have a greater connection between industry, business, and students and academics,” he sayss. “We’re going to have more of a link between all the great things already happening at the Beedie School and with different departments across SFU. And we’re going to promote entrepreneurship and innovation as factors that can set us apart not just as a school, but in Vancouver.”

It was a conversation with  friend Ryan Beedie—whose $22-million gift to SFU in 2011 established the Beedie School of Business—that confirmed for Chang that the donation was the gesture he had been looking to make for some time.

He reveals that when he mentioned to Ryan Beedie during lunch that he was considering the gift, Ryan jumped up from the table and embraced him.

Chang is optimistic about the impact his gift will make.

“I think entrepreneurship and innovation have a big role to play in fixing the problems in society, and the Beedie School is set to play a central role in this,” he says.

“I’m excited to see what the future brings.”