Derek Chan overcomes challenges to teach martial arts

picture of Centennial College ACCEL program entrepreneur and martial arts studio business owner Derek Chan

While used to close-quarter combat, martial artist Derek Chan didn't expect to be pushed out of his comfort zone. But that's exactly what ACCEL, the Accelerator for Centennial College Entrepreneurs and Leaders, did for him.

Armed with a graphic design diploma from York University in 2008, Chan didn't anticipate the market headwinds after graduation, the "bad times" as he calls it, which made employment in his field difficult. He jokes that as a result, he was "forced into entrepreneurship." It's a common refrain from many entrepreneurs, and that's when his brother stepped in, suggesting that Chan check out Centennial's ACCEL program, designed for youth aged 18 to 29 years.

Chan had already launched the now two-year old Ko Fung Martial Arts studio to teach Wing Chun, a centuries-old martial art system that focuses on economy of movement and simultaneous defense and attack. And while his business had been up and running for a year before joining ACCEL, he credits Centennial's mentors for fine-tuning it.

At the outset he was strictly an instructor, while competing in regional martial arts competitions. However, there were challenges he had to face outside of the gym, including differentiating his business in a crowded segment and overcoming his shyness. There are lots of self-defence practitioners out there, not to mention many different types of martial arts, as well as fitness centres.

ACCEL lends a hand

Chan says ACCEL mentors, such as Earnest F. Rutherford, helped him focus on value propositions and the "human touch" when dealing with potential customers. It's something Chan took to heart: "People need to see that you're sincere in your efforts to help them." 

In order to distinguish his business from seemingly countless others, Chan is focusing on the holistic side, the meditative/contemplative facet that's as important to martial arts as the purely physical aspects of learning sequences of motion. After asking himself, 'Is it merely teaching people to defend themselves, or is it also incorporating mind, body and spirit?'" Chan says he discovered what he really wanted from his business.

Now, Chan has pivoted slightly to become a wellness coach, citing the importance of "reconditioning one's mindset." There's no better example of this than his shyness. During his ACCEL experience, the natural recluse was required to introduce himself to dozens of people en masse, in often uncomfortable circumstances.

Chan says mentor Michael Yarde would "drag him into the college cafeteria" and tell him to say "hello!" out loud. Chan says this was a very valuable learning experience and that he was fortunate to build on his skills by going to a lot of conferences where, again, he was "forced" to talk to people.

Chan, now a comfortable public speaker who offers seminars, says that if at least one or two people in a room listen to what he is saying, and they got something out of it, he believes he has done his job.

His most humbling, inspirational, and yet intimidating test of his public speaking abilities was teaching self-defence to residents of Ernestine's Women's Shelter. He figured he could use his skillset to give back to the community, and in June 2016, volunteered his services to the shelter's clients, teaching them the core principles of self-defence.

What's next?

Chan's studio, Ko Fung, means "highest potential" and Chan is on his way to reaching his. He's optimistic that once the wellness and coaching side of his business is developed, he'll be able to hire staff, but for now he's a one-man operation.

"Being an entrepreneur is fun. It gets you travelling and meeting people," says the 29-year old, who concedes that despite the challenges, the career path he's taken was for the best. "Entrepreneurship gets you travelling and meeting people. Each client is like a new project."

We have no doubt he'll succeed. After all, he shares a birthday with Bruce Lee, the world-renowned martial artist, actor, philosopher and cultural icon.

You can read about Derek on the Ko Fung Martial Arts Studio website.

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