Humans of INKspire

Frank Ong | Co-Founder & Researcher

For those who are not familiar with you, what is your story?

A lot of people who are not close to me don’t know this, but I was actually born in the Philippines. I went to a school that taught Mandarin but didn’t really retain much; it’s similar to how you learn French here. So the extent of my knowledge in Mandarin is very basic to say the least. It was definitely a culture shock, moving from the Philippines to Canada. Although English was taught in schools, we rarely used it conversationally. At home, I would speak Tagalog and Hookien (a Chinese dialect), so it was a challenge to switch to solely speaking English. Of course, like everything, it got better with time — patience and resilience were key!

I started working not too long after my family moved to Canada. My first job was as a cashier at Wendy’s. In hindsight, that experience was probably how I got comfortable with speaking English in such a short period of time. In that job, I was exposed to every type of customer you can imagine (anyone who is/was in the service industry can probably relate!). It was also a very fast-paced environment so improving my communication skills was definitely a requirement.

Things started to get better after high school. When undergrad started, I was already accustomed to this new lifestyle. The highlight of my undergrad would definitely be meeting new people from all over the world and learning about different cultures. At first, I wanted to share this newfound passion with everyone, but this was very hard to do since the university didn’t have an outlet for it. At that point, I was heavily involved in various extracurriculars within the university community, and I thought maybe I could create a student club that fit this need. After a few weeks, the McMaster Language Buddies was born with the aim of helping students discover new languages, cultures and traditions.

This was definitely a jumping-off point for my personal and professional growth since this experience taught me to pursue my passion no matter how big the barriers. Fast forward to today, I am now working in a field where I can make a difference in young people’s lives, whether that’s through my research work on childhood obesity at SickKids or through my non-profit work on youth empowerment at INKspire.

The first workshop I facilitated on the topic of starting and managing non-profits.

The first workshop I facilitated on the topic of starting and managing non-profits.

What are some of the biggest things you have taken away from your journey?

I can’t stress this enough but being resilient is one of the key things that helped me throughout my journey. I’ve been running INKspire for the past five years, and there were a lot of times when I wanted to give up. When I started INKspire, it was the last summer of my undergrad, so I had a lot of time on my hands. But when grad school started, I didn’t have as much time since I was working 50-hour weeks, and then on the side, I had to manage a growing team of people at INKspire. I believe we started with five or six people and ended up with 15–20 at the end of the year. So that’s definitely a lot of people to manage on top of my already hectic grad school life.

What got me through the ordeal, besides having the right mindset, was having a good support system. I co-founded INKspire with Ellier who is a close friend and Joanna who is actually my sister! I definitely had doubts about working with people whom I already had a close relationship with because I’ve seen first-hand what this does if it gets toxic. With that in mind, our first few conversations together were about how to potentially work together and how to solve conflicts without affecting our personal lives. And in hindsight, this was definitely the right decision. In the past few years that we’ve worked together, our relationships actually improved for the better and even got stronger. Without these two people, I probably would have given up a long time ago. And since we founded INKspire, we’ve worked with such a diverse and talented group of people that my support system has been growing ever since.

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Showcasing one of our cool swags.

How do you find the right people to work with?

Finding the right people is key, especially during the first phases of your project, start-up or even non-profit. My advice is to find someone who has a similar passion and vision for the project you want to start. That level of passion will usually dictate their drive or initiative to see the project through. If you can, it’s also a good idea to find a person with a different expertise or skill set than you. So, for example, if you are great at managing people and your project involves technology, then finding a co-founder with the technological know-how would be a great starting point. This way, you can piggyback off each other’s skills and focus on the things that you know best. Last but not least, you need to find someone who you’ll get along with in the long-term. You’ll be working with this person for quite some time so liking them is definitely a must!

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Our very first INKspire social in 2016 at Tsujiri enjoying anything matcha!

How do you stay resilient in these uncertain times? How are you adapting to this new norm?

It was actually very hard for me to adapt to this situation, especially because I really like hanging out with people in real life. I’m quite a foodie, so most of the time you would see me trying out new food places. And especially in the summer, there’s just so many festivals with tons of great food! On the work front, I really miss the in-person interactions with colleagues; the online interactions are just not the same! When I was at the office, it was a nice change of pace going out for lunch together or taking coffee runs and getting doughnuts (yum!). But now, it’s quite hard to find a balance because that routine has suddenly disappeared. When work from home started, I was actually working a lot more hours compared to when I was back at the office. But gradually, I learned to set and adapt my routine to this new reality. So my typical day now looks a bit similar to before: I start the morning with my daily dose of podcast with a side of caffeine and then, “clock-in” at work. For lunch, I can actually cook something really fast instead of microwaving (which is great) and then later, “sign-off” for the day. I would say the boundaries between work and non-work are very blurred. You can get emails or calls at any time of the day, so you definitely need to learn to disconnect or else, the risk of burnout will become real!

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All the volunteers who made INKspire Summit 2019 a possibility.