As Citi’s Asia Pacific Head of Corporate Citizenship, Yibin Chu is responsible for the development of corporate citizenship initiatives that drive social impact in local communities. Despite a rather unconventional start in the banking sector, he has come into his own, working with partners and stakeholders within and outside the firm to enable progress in countries where Citi operates.
Yibin’s career had started before he realized it. As an undergraduate studying public affairs management, he chose to take the lead on a project investigating the mistreatment of migrant workers in China in the early 2000s. The outcome of this work, including its published findings and recommendations, contributed to calls for changes in policy to the country’s social security system for migrant workers.
It also confirmed Yibin’s way forward – he knew he wanted to contribute to society in a meaningful way.
His experience with the project helped secure Yibin an economic policy research position with the government of China’s Zhejiang province, a role he left after about 18 months to pursue a Master’s in Public Policy and International Development at Johns Hopkins University in the US. “This exposed me to many of the key issues that I still focus on at Citi today, including economic opportunity and financial inclusion,” says Yibin.
Having graduated in the midst of a global financial crisis, it was not the easiest time to look out for employment opportunities. So when he managed to secure an internship at the The SEEP Network, Yibin counted himself lucky. He later would move on to be programme manager for the organisation.
The SEEP Network is a non-profit organisation that promotes inclusive finance and enterprise development for the world’s poor. Based in Washington DC, Yibin travelled frequently to Kenya, India, Indonesia, Jamaica and other developing countries to manage a global urban value chain development project funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
He later managed the international promotion and adoption of the Minimum Economic Recovery Standards (MERS) in the development and humanitarian community, supported by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
“These experiences taught me about international development from the ground up, and I became a firm believer in the market systems approach to lifting people out of poverty, which is something I have advocated for since,” he says.
In 2013, having worked at SEEP for five years, Yibin joined the Asia Pacific Corporate Citizenship team at Citi and relocated to Singapore. After his time in the public and non-profit sectors, he was keen to look at social issues from a private sector perspective while putting his skills and experience to work in a large corporate.
“I’d already partnered with Citi on a microfinance initiative while at SEEP and was impressed by the quality of the people and their strong understanding of societal issues. Working at Citi also appealed to me because of the bank’s global reach and localized presence across multiple markets, making it possible to make a difference on critical issues at scale,” says Yibin.
Explaining Citi’s approach to citizenship, Yibin says that effective corporate citizenship is about much more than how much the firm spends on community investments. “We make a concerted effort to ensure that our citizenship programmes are not siloed from the rest of the organization. Taking a holistic approach, we integrate these programmes throughout the bank’s operations; aligned to the firm’s mission to enable progress in the communities where we do business.”
This means we use our skillsets and capabilities as a bank, through our talent and core financial offerings, as part of the solution, adds Yibin. As an example, Citi businesses and colleagues across the franchise, including the Consumer and Institutional businesses, have forged partnerships with community partners and stakeholders for shared value creation.
Colleagues lend their talent and experience across various programmes to help beneficiaries solve challenges. One such program is called Youth Co:Lab.
Co-created with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in 2017 in Asia Pacific, the program is now the region’s largest youth social entrepreneurship movement with a presence in over 25 Asia Pacific markets. At the heart of the programme are young entrepreneurs who through their social innovations are trying to solve for the region’s most pressing challenges. The programme aims to create a platform for these young entrepreneurs to connect with a broader ecosystem of government agencies, incubators, accelerators as well as investors to help them build viable and sustainable business models.
The program is part of Citi and Citi Foundation’s Pathways to Progress global initiative to tackle the persistent, global issue of youth unemployment. To date, it has benefited over 7,100 social entrepreneurs and helped to launch or improve close to 650 youth-led social enterprises.
While the ongoing pandemic has certainly been a challenge, young social entrepreneurs in Youth Co:Lab’s network have repurposed their operations as they seek to contribute to their local communities in their respective markets. Drawing on one example, Yibin shares how agri-tech startup iPage is helping smallholder farmers in Bangladesh sell produce on time and at fair prices to local consumers amidst nationwide restrictions on movement.
“When we started out, we did not imagine the pace at which the Youth Co:Lab programme would grow. We are heartened to witness its expansion and the impact it continues to make. We know we are doing something worthwhile,” says Yibin.
With a strong partnership already in place, Citi decided to partner with the UNDP once again as the bank sought to raise funds for COVID-19 relief efforts. Through UNDP, the funds were channelled to vulnerable and marginalized communities in the region, including families below the poverty line, women at risk and migrant workers.
A total of US$1 million in trading revenue was committed to UNDP from Citi’s Market and Securities Services business in Asia Pacific. A global fundraising effort also saw employees raise US$500,000 to relief efforts in the region.
Recognizing that the pandemic was exacerbating youth unemployment globally, including in Asia, Citi and the Citi Foundation committed US$35 million to advance economic opportunities for youth by 2023. This was in addition to providing 6,000 jobs and 60,000 skills-training opportunities which would include internships and full-time roles in the same period.
The commitment to offering these opportunities was made possible in partnership with Human Resources, Consumer and institutional businesses in the region, Yibin says, illustrating the importance of involving various parts of the firm in developing impactful programmes.
Another area where colleagues are consistently involved with development programmes is employee volunteering.
“Citi has a fantastic culture of employee volunteering, with many coming forward to share their expertise in financial education, business planning and development, and risk management across relevant year-round and skills-based programmes in the region,” says Yibin.
As head of a diverse, specialized team of corporate citizenship professionals across the region, Yibin describes the team’s role as both rewarding but challenging.
“It is important to understand the bank as well as the communities we serve so we can clearly conceptualize programmes and communicate with stakeholders to promote social innovation with tangible outcomes,” he says, adding “It’s a job that requires you to speak many different languages other than banking – from diversity and inclusion, to public policy, law and human rights.
Asked how prospective and new candidates respond to Citi’s citizenship priorities, Yibin says that the strong emphasis on purpose and social impact appeals to the younger generation of Gen Z candidates who want to identify with a wider purpose.
“Integrating corporate citizenship into our business model humanises us as a firm and gives emotional value to our work, which is especially important when it comes to hiring the younger generation. They look to have a societal impact in what they do and increasingly want to work for corporates who have adopted corporate social responsibility as part of their business model, Yibin says.
Looking ahead, Yibin continues to be passionate about making a difference. Corporate citizenship programmes, if well designed and implemented, can produce remarkable results, he says.
“I may have transitioned from a non-profit to a bank, but I continue to live my dream which has always been to make an impact on vulnerable communities” he adds. “As a company, we shouldn’t underestimate our ability to use and express our corporate voice to take a stand on social issues that matter to us. When the full toolbox and capabilities of the institution are stacked together to create a solution, it can be very powerful.”