Photo credit: SFU's Coast Capital Savings Venture Connection

Community, Alumni, Psychology, Departments & programs

Empowering change: psychology alumna tackles homelessness in DTES

May 22, 2019

An encounter when she was a teenager volunteering in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside (DTES) left a lasting impression on psychology alumna, Christina Wong, who has now dedicated her career to breaking the cycle of poverty in the community.

An elderly member of the DTES community politely declined Wong's care package and voiced that what he simply needed was a haircut for a job interview.

The encounter was an eye-opener for Wong and it inspired her to form Employ to Empower (ETE), a non-profit start-up dedicated to equipping low-income individuals in the DTES with the skills, resources, and confidence to find meaningful work in either traditional employment or entrepreneurship. 

In just one year since its inception in 2018, Wong's entrepreneurial venture has gained widespread recognition for its work. Most recently, ETE was awarded the Top Small Business Award in the Coast Capital Savings Venture Prize competition last month.

On top of that, Wong secured a $1 million donation from the founder of Sutton Realty, Scott Shaw. The funding will go towards the start-up's DTES Second Chances Incubator as loan capital to support individuals in their entrepreneurial ventures. 

Wong, who specialized in disability applied behaviour analysis (ABA), credits her SFU education for teaching her the skills and knowledge to connect with vulnerable populations like the DTES community. 

"My studies at SFU have allowed me to build trusting, humorous, and meaningful relationships with Employ to Empower’s clients. I learned the importance of listening to understand, being judgment-free, and creating space for hard but necessary conversations."

Wong's entrance to the entrepreneurial world started in 2014 with a pop-up clothing store concept called Street Store Vancouver

The success of the pop-up store gave Wong the extra push to leave her job to wholeheartedly pursue her lifelong passion to help others.

"One thing I would like to emphasize is that we don't need a business degree to start our own non-profit/business. The game changer was having a large and vast appetite to learn."

Wong attributes ETE's success to SFU's Coast Capital Savings Venture Connection which introduced her to Tim Ames, executive director of the Plan Institute, who guided her through the entrepreneurial world and the complexities of running a business operations from the ground up. 

As Wong reflects on her journey from being a student to now running her own start-up, she has this piece of advice—"get comfortable being uncomfortable. That space outside our comfort zone offers a tremendous opportunity for growth." 

"Exercise curiosity by asking questions and you might just get a piece of insight that you wouldn’t have gotten if you hadn't asked." 

Wong with Marcel Mousseau, a local artist who is one of Employ to Empower's biggest success stories. With assistance from ETE, Mousseau was able to expand his e-commerce presence and host an art exhibition in partnership with the Daily Hive.