Interview with NACUE CEO Johnny Luk

Johnny Luk is the youngest Chief Executive Officer of a seven-digit non-profit organisation in Britain, leading NACUE at the tender age of 23. He is a Fellow in the Royal Society of Arts, a published author, a British Rowing Champion and a former Senior Policy Advisor in the UK Government. 

Where are you from?

My mother is from Taiwan and my father is from Hong Kong (where I was born). We moved to Holland when I was still very young and I spent my childhood in Germany, attending an international school. At the age of 10, we moved to the UK where I’ve lived since.

So, what is NACUE? 

NACUE stands for the National Association of College and University Entrepreneurs. It is a non-profit company that supports and develops entrepreneurial societies in college and universities across England. We now have over 200 enterprise societies within our network, touching tens of thousands of students. We directly support student societies on the ground, organise events attended by thousands throughout the year and we advocate and deliver policy by working closely with government and commercial partners. 

We believe in learning by doing, using the extracurricular society model as a way for young people to learn skills and make mistakes in a safe environment. Not only does this foster teamwork, leadership and communication skills, it also attracts prospective employers and creates a pipeline of entrepreneurs and leaders.

Has your background given you many lessons?

I’ve had a really varied background, and learned a lot while being part of the rowing programme at Bedford Modern School. I learnt quickly that nobody will give you a medal- you have to earn it! It was there that I gained my first leadership experience as Captain of the rowing team.

At university I learned more of the soft skills, I participated in student politics and even got into breakdancing. I made plenty of mistakes, failing one of my university exams because I became complacent, and fracturing my wrist in a cycle accident. It was a tough moment – but you learn a lot about yourself during the rough patches.

My parents worked relentlessly to give me a good education and life. When my dad retired, he would drive me everywhere for my rowing training, night and day. My mum would work in a sandwich factory before dawn, standing for 12 hours in the refrigerated assembly line and still come home with a big smile. She arrived in the UK barely able to speak English and now she is an active part of society and an inspiration to her colleagues. What incredible role models for me, they taught me serious work ethic. They break stereotypes and challenge the negative feeling we often hear from commentators on immigration.

Why is entrepreneurship so important, especially for the Chinese diaspora? 

Like many British Chinese, even for someone who has lived in Europe for 99% of his life, I used to have insecurities of my identity; I didn’t really have any role models while at school. I followed the standard Chinese protocol, study – study – study – and my life will sort itself out.

But that’s not how life works! You need the soft skills, like being sociable, working with a team and having ambition to really make things happen. Working hard alone is not enough. I learned those skills not by reading a book or passing exams, but through extracurricular activities like sport and entrepreneurial societies.

All students, including international students, can gain so much by joining an entrepreneurial society. They offer you the chance to make amazing friends, across different subjects and nationalities, you could attend events across the country and have your ideas come to life. Reading about business is one thing; actually having one is quite different. There is no better feeling than getting a first sale.

It can and does completely change one’s perspective of the future. And this isn’t restricted to business degrees; I have seen some of the most amazing startups from art and technology students, from all nationalities. Employers like it too, they don’t want robots, they want personality, drive and imaginative flair – entrepreneurial students tick all those areas and more. That’s why I joined NACUE and left my cushy job as a Civil Servant, I believe in the mission, we change lives.

Being CEO of a national organisation must keep you busy. Do you ever get a chance for some down time? 

Oh yes! I spend the spare minutes I have reading and doing exercise, I enjoy boxing, tennis and rowing. It’s important to be able to wind down and I am blessed with amazing friends and family. They remain the best way to recharge, inject perspective and check my sanity! I wrote a book about how important it is to have the right people around you to keep you grounded and focused. They stop me from burning out.

What does the future hold? 

I only recently joined NACUE, so I want to ensure that we continue adding serious value to all our societies across the country and beyond. We want to be more tailored in our approach to our member institutions, as different societies have different needs (perhaps some lean towards science, whereas others might prefer social enterprise or creative arts). They should all be catered for and we will look to work with expert partners to help deliver it. Of course, we also want to work with international students, including the Chinese, to help them learn skills beyond just exam recital and help them with their employment, especially given the difficulty of getting a VISA in the UK. We hope to regularly contribute to this great magazine, to continue to give useful advice and news on how to succeed as an entrepreneur, to highlight inspiring young people and also on how to be more employable.

For me personally, I just started my journey and I want to continue to help our community. For example, I recently gave a talk at the Chinese Community Centre in London China Town to help raise money through the new Talk CCC initiative founded by Andy Lee, which is a great project.

I honestly think the Chinese Diaspora’s voice is getting louder, in all sectors from art and tech, to business and politics. But there is still a long way to go and I hope to play a small part. It’s so important, not just because of diversity, but because I believe that no matter who you are, or where you come from, you can make it if you work hard and dream big. We have a duty to make sure the next generation believe in themselves and create the role models that I never had.  We are on the cusp of something great; we just have to keep going.

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