Advice for Aspiring Social Entrepreneurs

Prior to his departure from Hong Kong, and SOW Asia, I was fortunate enough to catch up with Scott Lawson to talk about his 7 years in the social impact investment space.

More than an investor, Scott had become a trusted advisor, mentor, and thought leader to many in the space, and during our discussion he issued this warning to aspiring entrepreneurs.  It came as part of a wider discussion on the challenges that he has seen entrepreneurs face, and while it may seem like he is being a bit harsh or somehow looking to discourage people from jumping into the pool, the reality couldn't be different.  For him, and I invite you to watch the full interview, the world needs more entrepreneurs whose mission it is to being solutions to the challenges our societies, economies, and environments face.

Too often, people jump into this space without understanding just how tough being a "good" entrepreneur can be, and too often, they end up leaving. This is in part due to the fact that for the last decade there has been a bit of celebrity around the space.  and a generally perception that because you are a "good" person trying to "save the world" things will just happen.

The reality is that entering this space a very tough road.  One that is difficult and tiring at times, but one that is ultimately very rewarding if you are able to maintain course.  TO do so, there are a few things that I have come to understand are core requirements for (aspiring) entrepreneurs in this space to possess:

See the challenges as opportunities

The world is a crazy, disorganized, and at times disheartening mess at times, and for you to succeed as social (or socially minded) entrepreneur you are going to have have to put all that craziness aside, and find the opportunity for yourself to make a difference.

This doesn't mean that you emotionally turn off, but to be able to effectively focus your efforts on solving the problems, but if you let your emotions get out in front of your actions, you will begin to feel as if there is no way that you can get anything done..


Have a Clear Mission, and a Passion for that Mission

To be able to deliver an organization whose products or services solve a real problem, you are going to have to make a very clear choice early on what your mission is, be it save the polar bears, deliver education to rural parts of India, solve the food wastage issue. It needs to be something that you can clearly articulate to others, and it has to be something that you yourself are deeply passionate about solving.

If you cannot clearly articulate your mission, or if the focus itself and what you hope to achieve in under 30 seconds then you are in for a challenge. A challenge that for many manifests into a confidence issue as traction takes time to take hold, and without the small wins to provide confidence, the initial fuel burst provided by passion burns off.

Get Out [and stay] of the Office

One of the biggest mistakes I see with aspiring entrepreneurs is that while they have a clear mission, the value proposition for the platform that they have created isn’t clear and they are not gaining any traction. 9 times out of 10, this is due to the fact they have not spent enough time learning about or working with the issue they are concerned.  It is not that their ideas are necessarily that far off, but people are impatient at a time when patience and depth of understanding is needed.

To the most effective way to do this is to step out from behind your computer get out into the real world.

Execute First. Talk Later

While we may live in a world where ideas are rewarded over impact, as an aspiring social entrepreneur, your mission should be for maximum impact not not to talk about how you are going to change the world and pick up awards for the most innovative ideas.

The work that you are doing, or are considering taking on, is about impact. it is about changing the lives of the (x) that you are trying to save from (y),

Build and Empower a Team

Besides having a clear mission, and a product or service with a strong value proposition, there is nothing more important to me than a strong team who is empowered to get things done.  For many entrepreneurs it is also one of the most difficult things to do, but for the organization to grow, the entrepreneur needs to be able to effectively bring in and empower the right people to take the organization forward.

Wrapping Up:

Leverage the power of entrepreneurship to do what you love ending what you hate can be a very rewarding endeavor. An endeavor full of challenges, it's my hope that for the aspiring entrepreneurs who are reading this,you will take the lesson here that while your passion and ideas are welcomed, your understanding of the challenges, you need to find a way to put yourself and your organization in a place to be able to execute on those ideas.

China Entrepreneur Fear

Fuck Fear

As an entrepreneur, I know that one of the greatest obstacles to be faced is one’s own fear. A step needs to be taken. There are million reasons why one should do something, and in the minds of an entrepreneur, there are often another million for why one can’t.

For some, this fear is a figment of their imagination, while for others it is a keen awareness of the challenge itself. It comes from the guts, buries itself deep into the deepest recesses of the brain, and for some it is paralyzing. To truly overcome it, there are no shortcuts.

A team needs to be built. A “minimal viable product” needs to be launched.

It is a process that I am at constant battle with, be it launching something new or working to improve one of the platforms or projects that are already out there, because as “the entrepreneur”, I often feel like every element needs to be perfect. Something that is perhaps less so with existing platforms, but when it comes to taking a new step, it really doesn’t get any easier.

For fear to be overtaken, a full step has to be taken.

With that in mind, I am happy to announce that with the launch of this post (and the video above it) a new project is ready.

It is a project that isn’t exactly new, as it is something I have been playing with and trying to get it "just right", but I realized that what I was doing was stalling.

It wasn't that the clips weren't ready. I wasn't. Something my good friend Brian Tam of Let's Make Great! called me out on during our interview, about the power of fear to paralyze.

So here it is, #Entrepreneurs4Good, a series of videos about entrepreneurs whose mission it is to solve the challenges faced and are gracious enough to share their stories about their work.

It is a project that for me has been really inspiring, and I honestly hope that you will be as inspired by these individuals as I have been. Inspired by their vision, their action, or just their raw courage to overcome their fears to take their first steps towards building organizations whose mission is to solve the challenges we face.
They are great people who are doing their best to do great things, and I hope that these clips do them justice!

A couple of requests.

  • If you are inspired by a particular story, or feel that others could be, please share with those who feel will be affected or interested by the clip!
  • If you know someone whose story you think could inspire others, please introduce me to them. My initial plan is to cover the APAC region, but as my travels take me to other parts of the world, I will be taking time out to meet people and you introductions would be extremely valuable.

With that, I hope that you will enjoy (or already have enjoyed) the clip .. and if you'd like to see more, please visit my Youtube Channel.

Hope all is well and have a great weekend!


Sustainable Tech

Developing and Scaling Sustainable Tech in China

With the size of economic, social and environmental challenges growing at a scale and scope that can shatter limits set by global governments, Mother Nature and society, sustainable tech will become the gauge by which we analyze resource levels, measure system performance, identify efficiencies, curb consumption and influence stakeholders to make better decisions.

We are already seeing the results in a number of areas, and the gains made by streamlining our lifestyles and systems to increase efficiency is a win-win for both individuals and the environment around us.

Food & Agriculture
Over the past 30 years, China has experienced rapid levels of urbanization and its citizens have become richer.  But the trade-off has been depletion in arable land while structural inefficiencies in the food value chain have made it difficult to provide safe, accessible and affordable food to the market.

With available arable land diminishing and what little there is of it increasingly over utilized, one solution that can boost production in order to meet demand is aquaculture and hydroponic systems .   Alesca Life Technology is an example of a firm taking the next step forward, through the adaptive re-use of shipping containers where food can be grown within the proximity of urban centers.  Another example is Oceanethix, whose urban aquaculture process can turn any warehouse or retail center into a highly productive, environmentally clean, and transparent fish farm.

As China lurches from one food safety scandal to another, it is clear that consumer confidence has deteriorated and changes are being demanded to improve and introduce sustainable practice. Using smartphone applications and online solutions, consumers can now easily scan and receive information regarding products’ life cycles. Shenzhen Vanch and IBM group are among those who have invested in traceability systems in China, a lucrative business opportunity that also gives consumers peace of mind.

There is also tech progress being made at other steps along the supply chain . For example, the introduction of drones that leverage advanced sensors, low-cost aerial camera platforms and autopilot capabilities can give farmers the ability to view their crops from above, detect and assess irrigation issues, pest infestations, plant health and provide soil analysis.  Tech products provided by companies such as DJI innovations and Ehang are now being used by hundreds of farms across China.

New graph 2-01

While it has made great strides in improving the quality of life for its 1.5 billion residents, China’s healthcare system has seen increased pressure to meet the size, scale and speed required for the country’s urbanized population.  This pressure increases by the day as China’s elderly population grows, and its residents transition into an urban lifestyle that includes higher levels of processed foods and lower activity levels.

To overcome the challenges faced, the government predictably made investments in hospitals, equipment purchases, and in training medical professionals. However there are a number of areas where technology has already proven itself in improving the accessibility, affordability, and quality of healthcare in China . In response to the long-standing problem of vast queues and growing inefficiencies in Chinese hospitals, solutions to cut the time spent at the hospital have grown popular. Guahao, a leading mobile app in this space, connects patients with doctors, allowing users to search for physicians in their geographic location and book appointments.

At the other end of the spectrum is personalized medicine. In response to the lack of trust between patients and doctors, medical tech companies offer a more personalized approach to healthcare where consumers can “shop for doctors”, review their qualifications, and contact them instantly . Tech has also become an important element in preventative medicine and one of the biggest trends these days is wearable medical devices.  Once luxury items for sports enthusiasts, for many people wearables are now becoming a part of daily life and may soon present an opportunity to improve quality care at the personal level. Many see this as a crucial area for healthcare, with users able to measure an increasingly wide range of metrics including heart rate, sleep patterns, blood pressure, blood oxygen, and blood sugar. There are already a number of products on the market from Xiaomi, Huawei, Fitbit, and Apple that are growing in popularity and use.


China has a national goal of economic prosperity for 2025, but the country’s rigid education system makes it difficult for students to develop skills required by both domestic and global employers. They are constantly pressured to achieve high standards but have minimal resources to adapt to the rigorous system, paving the way for an unsustainable future in education. There is limited access to quality content and structured English language classes in rural areas, while the gao kao – a high-stakes exam for high school students hoping to get into college – is seen by many as a measure of who is best at rote learning.  But there is help available in the form of online tutoring and test prep . These range from simple mobile apps such as Baidu’s Homework Helper and Kuailexue that allow students to crowd-source homework help, to online websites such as Genshuixue and Superclass, which allow students to select courses and teachers to learn interactively.

Then there are online language teachers: although English is taught in school, there are few opportunities for students to practice speaking the language. To fill that gap, startups like italki and mobile apps like CCtalk from Hujiang, are helping students connect with native speakers and teachers. This creates a personalized learning environment for students and gives them real interaction with the language.

Tech rules
Thanks to the development of technological solutions, and through the analytics that will come through the Internet of Things and meta-data analysis, smart products and services are able to tell us more and more about our daily lives. They help us identify areas for cost reductions, create opportunity and improve the uptake of technologies that help drive increased sustainability across a number of systems that will be at the core of managing the development of megacities.

To date, the firms best positioned to bring the solutions needed have been data driven firms like IBM, Alibaba, Apple, and others, who have spent billions of dollars over the last decade building the infrastructure to capture and analyze the data necessary to act on. But for entrepreneurs, this is also proving to be a huge opportunity ; this is particularly true of those looking for answers to tangible problems, and where development of local solutions can be supported. This is already being seen as particularly prevalent in the expanding cities of China and the rest of the developing world where urban populations are growing at the fastest rates. For tech-savvy entrepreneurs, there are myriad opportunities for well-executed planning to develop these cities into modern, sustainable urban centers .

Apathy Employee Sustinability

Why Doesn't Your Team Care?

Have you ever been half way through the rollout of a new program, or been in the planning phases of something you were excited about, but your local team wasn't responding ... at all.

If so, I invite you to head over to Corporate Citizenship, to read my latest article Why top-down sustainability strategies are often doomed to fail where I speak about a key challenge that many firms face in executing on their sustainability goals:

For many global firms, engaging local stakeholders, particularly employees, has been a challenge. This has stymied the rollout of sustainable visions and programs, and left many a sustainability director asking whether or not their people “care”. This disconnect highlights not only the difficulties of communication between global headquarters and regional business units, but more importantly, the different realities that are faced by individuals at each level.

It is a topic that my team and I have been studying for a while now, and in addition to identifying key areas of divergence, we have also been developing strategies and training modules to help create bridges of tangibility that tie global and local teams together.

Some of the key lessons I have shared in the article.  Which you can click here to read.

Dow Agriculture food

Food and Sustainability in China

As part of my recent US trip, I was given the opportunity to fly to Indianapolis to give two presentations to DOW Agriculture leadership and sustainability teams on the sustainability and the future of food in China. As one of the largest firms in the food & agricultural sector, and one whose products extend throughout the food & agricultural value chain, I covered a wide range of important issues that are not only being faced by China, but by the world going forward to 2050, and the resulting conversations were nothing short of fantastic.

Given these are THE critical issues being faced, and will only grow in size over the next 25 years, it is important to create open dialogues with those who are both exposed to the challenges and seek to develop the solutions that solve them.

Key questions covered a range of issues of strategic importance, with the following being the most discussed:

  1. How does China define sustainability, what are the key issues of concern, and what/who are the catalysts for change?
  2. What are the megatrends that are driving consumer demand in China, and what will be the resulting "foodprint" of China’s plans to urbanize another 250 million people?
  3. What are the challenges of China’s farmers, processors, and brands to deliver safe and affordable foods at the quantities needed, and what are the short term stop gaps that will be needed to overcome those challenges?
  4. What are the key concerns of consumers, what are the perceived/real risks that they face, and what are the actions they take as a result?
  5. Who are the key stakeholders, and how are brands effectively engaging with stakeholders to better understand the needs of the market and develop solutions specific for China?

As with many groups that I meet with, a lot of time was spent really helping the people I was meeting with understand not only the urgency of the situation, but also how the systems themselves are wired differently. That, while the US and EU are largely more resilient to the range of shocks that are on their way, in the world's developing nations a confluence of rising demand and increasingly unstable supplies should be the critical focal point. Not just in the fact that it could potentially lead to disaster, but that it is itself the opportunity that they are looking for.

Just as it will be for the vertical farmers I visited.