Ellen Cheng: Many Chinese people think “global” means a West-centric viewpoint. We want to change that.

Ellen Cheng: Many Chinese people think “global” means a West-centric viewpoint. We want to change that.

A Conversation with Boma China’s Ellen Cheng:

Between East and West, a Beautiful Contrast to Build Our Future On

At age 21, Ellen Cheng became one of the youngest TEDx license holders, and later served as the organization's China ambassador. A former private equity investor in technology and healthcare, Cheng earned a double bachelor's degree in international relations and economics from Peking University. She founded Boma China with partner Zhou You in 2018.

What motivated you to start Boma China?

My hope was to create here in Beijing a true global gathering of the world’s masterminds in science, technology, art and creativity. Nothing like this has ever happened in China. I’ve been to our annual economic conference — which is held right after our China People’s Congress in March — and I’ve met some of the world’s top CEOs and Nobel laureates. But that event is really just about business and policy. No one’s ever gathered a global group of experts from diverse disciplines to purely discuss technology, artwork, creativity, our humanity, or simply the world itself.

Why do you think that is?

It might be because of our social system or geopolitical issues. When Chinese people think of “global,” they always think it’s about West-centric, usually America-centric, viewpoints. But we want our Boma to include China-centric viewpoints, as well. Samuel Huntington identified this "clash of civilizations" more than 20 years ago. I believe the world needs a new platform of expression and narrative. And I believe we can create this at Boma.

How would you describe this new platform?

It's one where Chinese thinkers, even if they speak no English at all, can comfortably present their thoughts to the world. I was born in this country, I grew up here. I know with certainty there is local wisdom and local innovations that are valuable to the world. I’ve met people from all around the globe, and I’ve encountered many misunderstandings about Chinese culture. To me, the differences between East and West make a beautiful contrast — and we need to re-architect how we see that contrast together.

How did your previous career experience in investment shape your thinking with Boma China?

When I first had the idea I talked to my now partner Zhou You, and we went through a very rational analysis of our capabilities and resources. We both had a private equity background. It’s a world where people talk about their investment philosophies and strategies — a world where everything is measured in terms of ROI. But Zhou You and I happen to believe that the essence of investment is the monetization of understanding, that’s the best return on investment. We believe that everyone who desires to change the world needs to improve their capacity for understanding. We decided Boma was the perfect platform for us to do that.

How do you plan to grow the Boma China community?

Community, to me, is a very comfortable western concept because there’s more of a tradition of civil society and grassroots efforts than in the east. There was a time when I thought it might be impossible to have a Boma in China, but now more and more people are looking for a sense of belonging. And that’s community. Everyone feels it, everyone needs it. That’s what a Boma community is, it’s radically open to everyone who wants to take smart, sophisticated steps to make the world a better place. I hope when people think of Boma, they think of how they are going to change themselves, their environments, and their future.

What are the challenges of making that happen?

First of all, we believe in the strength of willpower, so we are ready for all challenges. I’d say one of them is how to really understand China itself and how we can narrate an authentic China story to the world. Another challenge is how to make the community system we build last long after we’re gone. Yes, I am Chinese, but I adore so much the founding fathers of America, who figured out how to build a system that’s lasted almost 250 years. The world is changing fast, but we want to hold firmly to the unchanging parts. It’s our values, beliefs, and capacity for understanding that will need to persevere through any future turmoil and uncertainty. I practice Buddhism, and I believe deeply we have to trust and leverage the One, which is true, silent, still, yet powerful. Building Boma China is extremely difficult and complicated, but also exciting.

How will you define success?

We want it to last 100 years or more so it can continuously have positive impacts to the world. We hope to create an agile community mechanism where both ordinary and extraordinary people will see that if they participate and put in some effort, they will directly improve their lives. But for us at the beginning of the journey, we might not be able to call it a success at all, because we will be focused solely on helping it evolve.

What distinguishes Boma China from its sister organizations?

I think it’s our team. We’re a small group, but we might have the most diverse personalities in the whole country. We have some western mindsets with high ideals of changing the world landscape, but we also have the “down-to-earth” people who speak no English but are well-versed in the most complicated Chinese government and business systems. We have that beautiful East-West contrast among ourselves. Embracing otherness is just something we do every day.

Learn more about Boma China, or browse upcoming Boma events around the globe.

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