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James Chen: oration

Read Dr Michael Proulx's oration on James Chen for the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws in December 2019.


James Chen
James Chen

Chancellor, seeing is believing and, for most people, to see is to understand. These are old ideas. In ancient Greek, the verb for “to know” was the past tense of the verb “to see” – thus it was thought that we only know what we have seen. Moreover, we live in a world largely modified and built by sighted people for those who can see well. However, a recent report by the World Health Organization noted that 2.2 billion people live with visual impairment or blindness, and one billion of those people have conditions that could have been prevented, or treated, by simply providing them with glasses. Corrective lenses were first invented over 700 years ago. So what is the problem, and are there solutions?

Today I present an uncommon person who has not only seen a global problem but has done something about it. James Chen was born in Asia, raised in Africa, and earned a Bachelor of Arts in the Behavioral Sciences from the University of Chicago. He is Chairman of his family’s enterprise Wahum Group Holdings. His business successes alone are noteworthy, and provided the experience needed for the concept of catalytic venture philanthropy – taking the opportunity to privatise risk yet socialise success. James was inspired by his father’s philanthropic work, and the Chen Yet-Sen Family Foundation he chairs with its focus on childhood literacy. This work continues in partnership with his wife, Su Lee, with the founding of a charity to promote family literacy, Bring Me a Book Hong Kong, and the Feng ZiKai Chinese Children’s Picture Book Award to promote original Chinese language picture books for children.

How do we read? For most of us it is by seeing the printed word. It is projected that half the world’s population will be affected by myopia by mid-century. James Chen saw first-hand that many people in developing nations did not have glasses. Given that the solution, corrective lenses, has existed for so long, and is something many of us in wealthy countries take for granted, there was clearly a need for action.

James co-founded a technology company, Adlens, in 2005 to help develop adjustable lenses and techniques to lower the cost of getting corrective lenses to those who need them. A few years later, in 2008, James founded and is a trustee of Vision for a Nation, a charity that focusses on bringing eye care and treatment to one nation at a time, starting with Rwanda. This effort, with extensive cooperation from the government, screened more than 2.5 million people in just five years, and has created accessible vision care for Rwanda’s population of 12 million people. More recently James has founded a global effort, called Clearly, to expand this approach to the whole world with great urgency.

James has also established collaborations with the University of Bath to explore new ways to support advances in vision research with his business and charitable organisations. Many of my colleagues and I are passionate about developing new approaches for vision restoration, and James is an inspirational collaborator.

James Chen shows that it is possible to not only see the problems in the world, but to know how to fix them.

For his business success, his novel approaches to philanthropy, and for the many people who can now see more clearly thanks to his ability to direct and inspire the movement to eradicate poor vision globally, Chancellor I present to you James Chen, an exceptional individual who is eminently worthy to receive the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.


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