Interviewee: Jack Sim (Singapore)
Category: Sanitation, Health, Toilets
"You can’t fall down when you are sitting on the floor."
Jack Sim, Founder of the World Toilet Organization (WTO), has been a successful businessman since age 24, in a range of areas such as real estate development, international schooling and construction materials. Having achieved financial success in his 40s, Jack felt the need to change his direction in life and give back to humanity – he wanted to live his life according to the motto “Live a useful life”. Jack soon left his business and embarked on a journey that saw him being the voice for those who cannot speak out and fighting for the dignity, rights and health for the vulnerable and poor worldwide.
2.5 billion people in the world live without access to a toilet. As “talking toilets was taboo!” at that time, Jack decided to act and in 1998 founded the Restroom Association of Singapore (RAS) whose mission was to raise the standards of public toilets in Singapore and around the world. With time, he realized that there were other similar organizations around the world, which led him to found the WTO in 2001 and four years later the World Toilet College (WTC). Today, after 11 years of existence, the WTO has 258 member organizations in 58 countries.
His passion and persistence has made Jack the globally renowned “Mr Toilet”. In 2001 and in 2006, the Schwab Foundation has selected Jack as the Social Entrepreneur of the Year and in 2004 he was awarded with the Green Plan Award 2012 by Singapore’s National Environment Agency. Jack is an Ashoka Global Fellow and since 2008 carries the titles “Hero of the Environment” awarded by Time magazine as well as “Asian of The Year” awarded by Reader’s Digest magazine. Jack is also Schwab Fellow of the World Economic Forum. This year he was named Synergos Senior Fellow. He is now also an Adjunct Professor at Tel Aviv’s College of Management Academic Studies.
Tell us a little bit about your life: Where and how did you grow up and how did your entrepreneurial career start?
I grew up in poverty in the 1950s-60s when Singapore was poorer than Cambodia. I understand the psychology of the poor very well. I watched how my mother never went to school, became a self-taught Wedding Beautician and how she eventually transformed her business into a 1-Stop Wedding Planner Center. She served 3,000 couples in her career. At the age of 5, I already understood that doing business is such an easy thing.
I did badly in school: too talkative in class and was often ordered to stand outside. I never went to University, so after working as a Salesman for three years, I started a business since I had nothing to loose. I started importing roofing tiles from France to Singapore and started one new business every year until I had 16 profitable businesses at age 40. But when I realized that the average lifespan is only 80 years, I decided not to waste my time. Instead of making more money till I retired I wanted to do social work, which is a more meaningful use of my remaining time on Earth.
What was the biggest entrepreneurial success you had before starting RAS and the WTO?
At that time when I started RAS and WTO, people were embarrassed and unwilling to talk about toilets. But what you don’t discuss, we can’t improve. So I made it humorous. Restroom Association of Singapore was very well received by the public the instant it started. We managed to clean up most public toilets in Singapore.
Using the acronym WTO, the World Toilet Organization broke the global taboo on Toilets and Sanitation. When politicians realized the amount of media coverage on Toilets & Sanitation, they joined in. Both the media and politicians gave so much legitimacy to our work that academia, NGOs, social entrepreneurs, technologists, corporations, funders and everyone else started acting on the Sanitation Agenda.
Later, I began to make Sanitation attractive by making it a status symbol. We also trained the less fortunate to adapt to our SaniShop Micro-franchise producing latrines and selling them at low cost to their communities. The first three years, we sold 24,000 toilets in Cambodia and the program spread to Vietnam, India and is stretching out to Nigeria, Indonesia, South Africa and the Philippines.
Was there anyone particular who helped you develop into who you are today?
Many people came to help at different stages: donors, corporations, volunteers, etc. But it was Mr Condom’s one-hour chat, which led me to a good strategy. He taught me that if I can make people laugh, they would listen to me. It worked wonderfully! He is one of my role models.
Tell us more about RAS: How did you come up with the idea of launching a toilet organization in Singapore?
I was bored when the recession came. I could not create new businesses. Whenever I could not create, I suffocated. It was unbearable for me to do routine work. So I created social work. One morning, my Prime Minister said that we should measure our graciousness through the cleanliness of our public toilets; I thought this is a really interesting thing. I started ABC (Architecture Design, Behaviour and Cleaning) as a mantra for everyone to get clean and happy toilets. I even started a Happy Toilet Star Rating for the public toilets in Singapore. In 2005, I successfully persuaded the National Environment Agency to change the Building Code of Practice such that ladies’ toilet can have more cubicles to compensate for the urinals in the gents, avoiding queues by ladies’ toilets. The same law is now available in Hong Kong, China, USA’s federal Buildings and in Australia.
What were the first days / weeks / months like? What were the biggest challenges you had to face during the early years of RAS and later WTO? How did you overcome these challenges?
It was fun all the way. You can’t fall down when you are sitting on the floor. I felt since it was neglected for so long, I could not make toilets worse; hence I could only make it better. I worked for free and alone for the first seven years, so there was no financial pressure. It was a One-Man-Show advocacy campaign but the media presence of World Toilet Organization was as large as a big global NGO. I used the Leverage Model: Aligning multi-stakeholders’ interests towards a common Mission. Instead of organizing the World Toilet Summits every year, I gave out hosting rights and got paid for it. Each host made a very good event and they too were satisfied. We never spent more than we had but as we became more credible, donors and sponsors came to us and today we have 16 staff members and are more organized than before.
I see any delays in success for my ideas as “work-in-progress” and when I wait a little longer, I usually find someone to partner and make it happen. The nearest thing to a challenge was talking to my own government. Somehow, it is always easier to convince a foreign government but harder to do the same at home. Prophets tend not to be welcome at home. Some called it “The Carpenter’s Son Syndrome” with reference to Jesus’ problem in Nazareth.
Were there any particularly amazing or disappointing moments, which you encountered? What were they?
The amazing thing is how much the global media love to write about Toilets and Sanitation once it was turned it into humour. Before that, articles were so boring because academia and bureaucrats wrote them. Once we turned it into sound bites, it went viral. A Director from Publicis, the PR company for World Economic Forum, told me: “When I first read about World Toilet Organization at breakfast, my first thought was ‘these folks have got the wrong name. Who is going to believe an organization with a name like that?’ Then at tea break, when I was having my second cup of coffee, I had an epiphany: ‘WTO, these people has the best name for their organization!’” He said it took him three hours to figure it out because the name got stuck in his head and he could not get rid of it. It stuck. He was also amazed that the WTO brand had grown so large over the years. He thought it’d be a fad and go away. Instead, we reached one Billion audiences last year with our messages.
If you were to start up your organization again, what would you do different today?
I’d recruit a full board of active directors. In the past, so many board members only lend their names but were passive. If there is a good multi-talented team actively helping, we can do much more for our mission.
If you had to indicate the success of WTO, based on which facts would you justify it? Do you for example know how many people, because of WTO, no longer have to live without toilets?
We don't have many measurements. But we know the following:
When I first started, I asked where to register a world body and was told that it is not where to register; rather it is whether you are recognized by the world as a world body. I think we accomplished that.
Where will the WTO go in the next years? What is your long-term goal?
We’ve to work collaboratively with everybody within the sector as well as across other sectors so that we can deliver sanitation in the most effective and efficient way. I see corporations as very good partners as they understand how to turn problems into business opportunities sustainably. Our partnership with Unilever is now very strong and in multiple countries. We’re now actively working with many other new ones. I believe that through market-based solutions, we can arrive at the day when everyone, everywhere can have access to proper sanitation anytime they need to use it. I imagine at least another 2 billions people can have that by 2020.
What are the main lessons you have learned since you became an entrepreneur?
That business is easier if you focus on where you want to go and not focus on what resources you have now. If you focus on limitations, not much will happen. If you focus on abundance, the whole world will conspire to help you achieve your mission.
If you are selfish, you will work alone and nothing will happen. If you are selfless, everyone will support you and success after success will happen for the mission. Not for you. It is not about you. It is about the mission.
"The entrepreneur needs to realize that a good entrepreneur may not often be a good manager. Therefore, it might be better for him to recruit a good manager to implement his vision rather than do it himself.
The entrepreneur is a visionary person who sees the end result but may not have enough clarity on the process, the manager is a structured and disciplined person that manages every steps: human resource, finance, logistics, daily command and control.
Management is about control and Entrepreneurship is about breaking rules.
That is why the entrepreneur and the manager are often two separate persons. Sometimes, the same person can have both qualities, but this is very rare. "
Entrepreneurship has evolved into a huge trend. What are, in your opinion, the biggest opportunities and threats related to this trend?
The biggest opportunities are by the base of the pyramid where four billion new customers await. By turning the four billion into a marketplace, we can train them with economic empowerment to help themselves make profits and create jobs, improve quality of life and sustain the growth to get them out of poverty and into dignity. The biggest threat is Capitalism on overdrive destroying the environment, polluting the waters, the air and the land. We’re on a suicidal path and excessive consumption cannot be the symbol of success anymore.
The new definition of a billionaire should be one who improves the lives of one billion people. Not one who merely has one billion dollars because that has no meaning in itself.
Besides the fact of having started a business (for profit or not), what distinguishes an entrepreneur from everyone else? What role does “unreasonableness” play in this?
An entrepreneur must focus on his dream. He does not have a complete plan but he knows he’ll get there. He treads between courage and foolhardiness. His ‘unreasonableness’ challenges the status quo and brings him to a new realm. Whether this new realm is better than the last depends on whether the entrepreneur is one with a conscience. If he doesn’t have a conscience, he can do much harm to society. He must temper his ego and not let it control him.
In your opinion, what will “The Next Big Thing” be?
The next big thing is the BOP. That’s why I started the BOP HUB: (www.bophub.org). We can end poverty by training people to become entrepreneurs, tradesmen, sales agents and with appropriate technologies. Singapore got out of poverty through building its own peoples capacity through economic empowerment. It did not succeed because of charity. BOP is the marketplace where economic and social objective converges. Many Multi-national corporations have understood this message and will be entering the BOP in a big way. The trend BOP set has now become clearer.
What do you see as the greatest challenges social entrepreneurs face in today’s world? What advice would you give them?
Decide on the un-served needs that you want to serve and be fearless. Fear is the main obstacle for people trying to create. Have the courage to believe you will succeed. Have the curiosity to learn what you need to do a good job. Have the humility to know that the mission is of first priority. Have the urgency to know that you don’t have much time because you are going to die when you are 80 years old. The days are numbered and you must hurry to make a difference. Live a useful and meaningful life. Die with peace in your heart knowing that you did not waste the time you have or squandered the opportunity to serve. That you have treasured every relationship you have had and given all the love you could give. Die happy.
If there were one change you would like to see in the world, what would it be?
That all religions converge into one and never have to be divided by their names, rituals, power or differences. We all eat, shit, live and die. We are part of nature and be humble that we are.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
then you have never tried anything new!
Failure is a normal part of the entrepreneurial process. However, failure does not necessarily mean that you as a person failed. The success of your entrepreneurial endeavor is always linked to a number of external conditions which you cannot control. Furthermore, you as an entrepreneur need to expose yourself to others by sharing your dream and your vision. This is similar to "letting down your pants and exposing your bear butt, waiting to be spanked". Bear through it. Other people are typically not smarter than you are...
Interviewee: Ranjan Ojha (Nepal)
Category: Music & Society
The Nepal Music Festival is not only a celebration of music, but of the different cultures and communities in Nepal. The festival unites people both domestically and internationally, highlighting that the Nepalese society can corporate despite major differences. Attracting international artists, Nepal is slowly becoming known for something else than extreme poverty. Nepalese history demonstrates that music has always been a key element for the population, which has made many exceptionally enthusiastic about the festival. The festival is especially encouraging the younger generations to stay in their country and make a difference and fight poverty.
The founder, Ranjan Ojha completed secondary school in Nepal, after which he moved abroad. He attended universities in both England and Denmark: having studied international development at Roskilde University, Leadership at University College of Sealand and business studies as well as achieving a master in science at the De Montfort Leicester University. In 2008, Ranjan was the chief Coordinator of the Nepalese Students Network and in 2010 he became vice president of Global Medical Aid. Following by the Nepal Music Festival, which he initiated in June 2011. The organization stands for “3P”, which is the first of its kind in South Asia. 3P represents People, Progress and Peace.
The vision of the organization is to build peace, cultural and educational platforms through out time, which will create sustainable development in Nepal. This will be done by establishing trust and supporting the engagement of stakeholders from around the world.
Could you tell us more in-depth about the peace aspect of your project in Nepal? How has the situation (government corruption and poverty) in Nepal affected your project?
Despite the ongoing worse scenario of political, economic and social instability in the country, we (Nepali people) should not give up our esteem; but instead join hands for unity, harmony and hope for a better future. This is our voice!
Thousands of young people have joined Nepal Music Festival 2012 which shows the value of our music and culture that binds our diversity and also manifests the strong message of ‘’people, peace and progress’. Music and culture has its own meaning and is one of the major tools that in fact brings cohesion in the Nepalese society in wider terms.
Most Importantly, in the times of divisions in society, festivals where thousands of people came together, ultimately gives the feelings and message of unity and cohesiveness that resembles peace. Further, we also say its not enough. Nepalese people should work together constructively in creating better, competitive and prosperous future by their own hands. We should focus on our synergy and strengths, and of course our own recourses, that can be utilized to make the country move forward, which we believe is possible.
Peace gives immense pleasure to think about and work towards. When the project is going through a negative phase, it helps to talk about hope and the peace aspects. It benefits us to think; that if we fully dedicate ourselves to change, then it can be achieved.
We have not experienced any problems so far. We know there might be obstacles on the road; poverty, education, jobs, health, innovations and lot of other factors are amongst the major challenges, but on the other hand, these problems are the source of inspiration to strive on. I believe there are not any problems that can’t be overcome. The question is how much do we strive towards it and how long does it take. And regarding the government, I am very optimistic; they will be the shoulder to lean on. We trust in common efforts and look forward to work closely with them and any entity that wants to add value in the mission and contribute in this process in taking forward.
How did you get the idea for your project and what was it like starting it? What was easy and what was difficult in this process?
It originally started with my former lecturer Mr. Ian Choo and few of my close and enthusiastic friends here in Denmark who were inspired and willing to do something for Nepal. We all agreed to run a volunteer run non-profit yearly festival where people can gather and celebrate for People, Peace and Progress in an international musical environment. On the run, we were also able to articulate our vision to our various friends in Denmark, Nepal and abroad and everyone was willing to be part of. Now we have support from various people, professionals, volunteers and organization. We are also happy to have support from the Nepal Tourism Board the government body.
The easy part, was my team, we immediately agreed on the concept and to move forward. We had a few challenges of having our own recourses, expanding our networks, telling our vision and stories, convince people and organization to support us. But now we have more people and organization that have already tied up the collaborations and more have already requested to join. I think this is going great.
How do you personally think your project contributes to development? And how does this relate to social entrepreneurship?
Nepal has massive possibilities in natural and cultural recourses for example tourism, agriculture, hydropower, cultural industries etc. But I don't think there has been a sufficient action plan to take the maximum benefit out of it and making these recourses the main backbone of our economy. Despite having our own strengths, that has to be explored, we have become a kind of parasite and have spent decades relying on others. The big question is, how long we can be dependent on the developed nations and how long can this be sustainable? That is why we say, its time to reflect, evaluate our own possibilities and explore new ideas. We hope our voice and action will open the door of dialogue and opportunities that will contribute to and support the development processes. In addition, we want to create an environment, where people can have dialogues, brainstorm, share ideas and knowledge. We wish to engage people in a debate in thinking differently (Out of the box) and see what creativity and innovations they can come up with, by using the recourses that they have in front of their eyes. This will enhance our youth generations to become a role model. They can create their own innovation that contributes to the development of our country. This leads people, particularly the youth, on the path of becoming entrepreneurs and innovators, which I think is key to drive the nation.
How did you make you project financially sustainable? What financial advice would you give to upcoming social entrepreneurs?
Sustainability is vital, because we don't want only to live, but also to grow. We want to build our own economy so that we can work towards our objectives. Our financial plan is based upon the economy, which we will generate from the involvement of our outside participants. This particiapants are, for example, audiences, partners, and other stakeholders, which will help to sustain the project. We hope people will join and take this as a celebration. In addition, we also want our partners, musicians and concerned stakeholders to understand our non-profit initiative and cause. Also, we hope they will contribute their support on their own initiative. I am very positive that the Nepalese government also supports us.
I think entrepreneurship is all about taking risks, doing something new and bring forth change, whatever the size or scale. So I suggest depending upon one’s financial and other capabilities, one should at least start to make the idea grow and expand. Eventually, it’s all about knowledge and creative approaches that you make to foster the actions further. If people believe your ideas, things will turn your way.
What can we expect from your project in the future, both short and long term? What do you hope it will result in?
Nepal Music festival is from the people and to the people. We hope it grows bigger every year, where many people and organizations join and takes it as a celebration of peace, hope and transformation. We hope our festival will carry the message of peace within and across the country. It should be a festival where people unite under one arena despite any differences or ideologies. We look forward to our many foreign guests who will join the Nepalese audience for the good cause. Our non profit initiative and the proceeds from the festival will contribute to the most pressing social causes within Nepal. Moreover, most importantly, our audience will understand that they are not only paying for the festival, but also contributing to the good cause. We want to see Nepal music festival not only a yearly musical event, but as an organization working for development and progress.
Where do you think the biggest social entrepreneurship potential is in your country? In your opinion, what should the next generation of entrepreneurs focus on?
Nepal has many challenges to overcome, so I think there must be many opportunities and potentials for entrepreneurship. But I can suggest areas, in which I think the biggest potential for social entrepreneurship is in: education, health, agriculture, cultural industries, natural recourses, hydropower, technology and so forth that can create the vibrant the economy and social impacts. These are the major areas we should all focus on. These areas should be the starting point for exploration.
What is the biggest barrier in your country for social entrepreneurship to happen? What do you think is the best way to overcome these barriers?
I think it's the embedded culture. We don’t have a strong background of entrepreneurial culture due to many influencing factors, such as tolerance of failure, individual passion, etc. Basically, people lack the knowledge of what entrepreneurship is. In spite of having creative ideas and imaginations, one lacks the confidence in his/her creativity and willing for the risk in making it happen. Similarly, we don't have a strong educational background that empowers youth and students to become entrepreneurs. Our education systems does not prepares us for it. This is the major challenge.
But this is not an excuse. It’s an incremental change process and we should trust our new ideas and move forward. Sometimes there might be a small initiative of change, that can have a wider impact. But to start with, and importantly, the government should play an inspirational role in facilitating and engaging people into the perspective of seeing the world differently. The government should understand the importance of entrepreneurship, create a healthy and competitive environment and empower the citizens to create and transfer their knowledge to the society. Also traditional ways of learning needs to be reformed to prepare the upcoming generations to lead and bring their passion into actions and make Innovation to happen.
What would you change in your country to make entrepreneurship a stable strategy to get more development?
The culture and passion of entrepreneurship should be empowered both from a government and society level. We have to create an environment where people can build up their confidence in trusting their new ideas and willing to take the courage to speak up and take action. We should prepare generations to think differently and look for new opportunities. Educational reform, new learnings, supporting peoples ideas and creative thinking is fundamental. The government can facilitate this process by investing in education, research and development, e.g. in Universities, ventures etc.
What advise would you give upcoming social entrepreneurs?
Knowledge and critical thinking is central, and combined with action plans will result in change.
Entrepreneurs are the ones who create change. They are the role models and source of inspiration to the society. So I think they need to engage in a discussion of how they might bring some differences and make their own stories. Thinking differently and looking for opportunities is the seed. Preparing for the challenges that might appear on the way , continuous work, passion in what they are doing and dedication is a drive that will eventually pay off.
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