In this episode, I speak with Jack Sim, Founder of the World Toilet Organization, the “other” WTO.
More than happy to talk shit, pun intended, Jack’s mission of ensuring the world has access to toilets is dependent on our ability to openly talk about the problems.
It is an interview that I came away with a much greater understanding of the importance of awareness, and some key tips about creating engagement on even the most difficult of topics.
Jack is a force to be reckoned with, and the world is better place for it!
What matters is your intention. Which has to come out very very clearly, and when people understand your intention they start to trust you.
About the Entrepreneurs For Good Series
Through this series, we speak with Asia based entrepreneurs whose mission it is to bring solutions to the environmental, social, and economic challenges that are faced within the region to learn more about their vision, the opportunities they see, and challenges that they have had to overcome.
It is a series that we hope will not only engage and inspire you, but catalyze you and your organizations into action. To identify a challenge that is tangible, and build a business model (profit or non) that brings a solution to the market.
Founder of World Toilet Organization (WTO), has been a successful businessman since age 24. 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.
Jack discovered that toilets were often neglected and grew concerned that the topic was often shrouded in embarrassment and apathy; talking toilets was taboo! Jack felt this led to the neglect of restrooms island wide. In 1998, he established the Restroom Association of Singapore (RAS) whose mission was to raise the standards of public toilets in Singapore and around the world.
It soon became clear that there were no channels available to bring these organisations together to share information, resources and facilitate change. There was a lack of synergy. As a result, in 2001, Jack founded the World Toilet Organization (WTO) and four years later, the World Toilet College (WTC) in 2005.
Driven by the belief that change begins with a single step, Richard Brubaker has spent the last 15 years in Asia working to engage, inspire, and equip those around him to take their first step. Acting as a catalyst to driving sustainability, Brubaker works with government, corporate, academic and non-profit stakeholders to bring together knowledge, teams, and tools that develop and execute their business case for sustainability.
Full Interview Transcript
RICH: Welcome back everybody. We are here with Jack Sim from the WTO. That’s the World Toilet Organization. Just had a phenomenal conversation about the importance of communication and why now is the time to talk about poop. So please join us. Jack, thank you very much for your time. This has been phenomenal.
RICH: Thank you very much for your time. Give me a brief introduction about yourself and the WTO.
JACK: My name is Jack Sim. I am the founder of the World Toilet Organization. I created the WTO because the subject of toilet and sanitation was so taboo and neglect that they call it what the agenda. Which, doesn’t make sense.
SANITATION IN ASIA
RICH: What’s the big problem that Asia is facing with sanitation?
JACK: The main immediate thing we want to talk about immediately is about the 2.5 billion people who do not have toilets. So why can’t we talk about a preventative medicine that is so effective that you don’t really have to need so much hospital and nurses and doctors, which is very expensive. Just prevent them from having the disease first by washing their hands, about flushed toilet, not having the flies spread it and by not polluting the river.
So this is the beginning.
RICH: Is it getting better? Are people talking about it? Are there parts of Asia that are talking about it? Are there parts that won’t talk about it?
JACK: I think that in the last 18 years since the founding of the WTO, the media has loved this subject so much. So this romance of the love with the global media has been the biggest change because the media legitimized the subject. So every time we talk about it, they write about it and part of it is also about this unique blend of humor and serious facts.
RICH: When you started, what were some of the conversations like? Were they really difficult back then, or was it….how did you find the right people to get started?
JACK: In the beginning the guys get very excited because they always want to talk about toilet and their wives always stopping them. Then the wives like, can we talk about something else? Then after while they start to realize the serious facts that ey, this is so important and then everybody talks about it.
RICH: When you were setting up the meetings, setting up the conversations, were there certain things that you realized that this is a good time? They are saying things that make me feel like its okay start talking? At that level?
JACK: So actually you should be able to talk about it in relation with any subject because toilet is so intimate for the person. You can talk about how, that is a very good starting point. How you teach the children to toilet train. You can even talk about your dogs. You can begin the conversation that then slowly you can talk about subject matter itself. But you can also talk about other people like the poor. You can talk about the enormous crisis that is going on in the pollution. I think depending on the person, is a very environment friendly person you can talk about the river. Then it all comes back.
RICH: You get the conversation going, but the reality is conversation is different than toilets on the ground. How do you maintain a long-term focus when you’re having short term conversations all the time?
JACK: I think if you are creating a ___3:55 you’re not calculation what you will do. You are calculating what everybody will do. So the politicians are really, really gaining a lot of popularity votes and power by helping toilets to be build. People need it. Why would they do that if? Because then the people that they need it because upstream there was a driving of the man to the media talking about importance of toilets. Once they plant that seed in the head, hmmmm, we need to talk about toilet. It’s so important. I think we need to improve that. It is dirty. That is not satisfactory.
It has to become unhappy and then the unhappiness drives the demand. The demand drives the supply. The vendors, the business man, the politician, the movie stars, the academy, the media…everybody take away something good for themselves. In the end, toilet gets built on the ground.
RICH: Early on you were very successful. You retired at 40. What are the skills that you too into the WTO that you could think would be the most important for you?
JACK: It’s the communication skills. So when you are doing business you are actually selling products, but you are in nonprofit organization, you are selling ideas and selling incentive. So it is very similar what we do in business of course is the individual communication as well so the graphics, the visuals. The things that we promote the product with is very similar to the nonprofit sector. The fact that I don’t earn any money, don’t draw any salary from doing this work, that also give a lot of creditability that people now ok, this guy is not getting something out of it. Altruism breeds a lot of following.
ALTRUISM VS PROFIT
RICH: Why do you believe that being altruistic brings you more credibility verses more profit? Because people use profit as a yard stick for business, but why is it altruism for nonprofit? Why cant it be impact for profit?
JACK: You can do that social enterprise and those models are pretty good. What matters is your intention and your intention has to come out very clearly and when people understand your intention, they start to trust you. See the difference between business and social work is that in business, you only kill all your competitors. You want to be the number one. In social work, you want to kill the problem. Therefore, you want as many competitors as possible to finish up this job. But if you are still thinking everybody stop, you don’ save the world I save the world then something is crazy about your head, right?
So if you are in the social sector, you should let go no pun intended of what ever you try to hold to yourself and don’t think about yourself so much, but think about the mission and you invite everybody. That’s a beautiful destination lets go there together. People say I like it and then they join you. They also bring others and others join them. So a movement has no real need. It is a belief a system very near like a religion.
RICH: So how easier or difficult do you find it to collaborate with a lot of groups? I run an NGO myself, people are still competitive. People still want their brand. They still want their award. How have you found that process and how do you break through those people who want to hold on for themselves?
JACK: Trying to be famous is actually very self defeating because you come out here to do this work not because you want to be famous. You want to solve a problem. So the paparazzi, the awards, the recognition, the sadist, it is for the mission and if you always remember that everything that is visible is not about you, it is about the mission, then you are clean and your light weight and people trust you. Once you start to think that all the things about you are, then you’re sick in the head and you start to shut down all the mission and you pin yourself in a corner and no one is going to believe you anymore because you are just an egomaniac.
I think to overcome that myths is a lot of self reflection to remind yourself don’t enjoy it to much. What is that for? For the mission and that is the right answer and you keep doing that. I’ve seen a lot of police actually doing a lot of good and after a while this fame and status all this going to their head and it’s so sad.
THE HYPE OF SOCIAL ENTREPRENEURSHIP
RICH: I ‘ve been talking about this for a while. Social entrepreneurialism as a theme became very hot about 8-10 years ago and really 5-8 in North Asia. A lot of people shifted from the mission to winning awards. You said it’s very sad people you’ve seen. When you see someone go from mission to little bit more ego to ego maniac, how does that impact the way that they look at their organization? Why is it sad? What do you see happening that you see when that happens in their organization?
JACK: A lot of my colleagues actually enter into depression. The reason is that they could not detach themselves from the mission and the mission becomes themselves. Once they are unable to feed their hunger and cravings for being recognized, then its like a movie star who doesn’t have a movie for the last 3 years and they enter depression. It’s no good.
The important thing is to go back to those Zen practice like detachment, humility…you know that the Chinese have a woo war, you know that means no me. Those kind of things of course is important but for me to reach a very, very high level of that is to always conscious you are insignificant, but just a tool to do this work. If you start to do that, people like to use you as a tool, it is much better.
ADVICE FOR NEW ENTRANTS
RICH: What if you were 28yo who was entering this space for the firs time. You’re developing your first idea for solving the same challenge. They’re going to be looking for a little bit of awareness because they need a megaphone to tell people who their idea is better. What advice would you give to them as they are starting out now that you believe would help them long term?
JACK: Basically just two dominate feeling in a human being. One is love and the other is fear. If you love you start to give people love, you start to look at problems and just authentically address it. What will happen is that the reward comes immediately to you in the sense that you are very joyful because you are consciousness is opening up. So you’re heart is starting to open up and you feel very happy about yourself. Nobody is giving this award, just you are making yourself happy.
Now if you are grabbing, grabbing attention, grabbing money, grabbing materials stuff, power, then you’re consciousness start to narrow and you become very miserable because you are always have to get something. But if you don’t get anything, then you will eel so happy and then young people are starting to understand this because they have no money because so they go to the spiritual journey. A lot of them if they don’t give up and become good, they can of course get paid and get a salary out of it, but it is the meaning that rewards you so much more. Nobody gives you that mearning, just yourself. You are the one who gives yourself.
RICH: Have you ever questions yourself along this journey and gotten a little bit lost and lost the meaning?
JACK: Sometime when I talk to bureaucrats and they kind of say no, I like why am I doing this? I’m trying to good and it’s supposed to be his job and he says no all the time. But after a while I get used to it.
GETTING OVER A SHITTY MONTH
RICH: How do you get over a shitty, you know month and no, no, no no. You start questioning yourself. What do you do to reset and to get back on track?
JACK: I remind myself that I don’t have much days to live so I’m 61. I budget myself to die at 80 exactly on my birthday. Of course not going to kill myself, I have to budget just like you budget your dollars every year for your company. I have thought right now about 6,800 days which is just less than 1,000 weeks and so this time is very precious. If I don’t use this time and I go home to relax and watch television, then I’m not contributing while it’s still possible.
So I think that is my biggest motivator because every day is one day less. So I want to use every day in the most meaningful way and toilets is one of them.
BEING ALL IN
RICH: Does that mean that you spend every waking moment working on these challenges or do you have 8 hours a day for toilets, 2 hours for meditation and health, 3 hours for family…like do you try and have a holistic life or are you really mission focus for your whole awake day?
JACK: Yeah, it’s mission driven every day 7 days a week. I wake up until night time. Then in between I kind of steal a could hours to have a secret affair with my wife and to spend some time driving the kids and talking to them in the car and then going to the next appointment. It’s not a sacrifice. I think you should show children how to be a good human being. You can’t teach them, you can only show them.
THE NEXT 25 YEARS
RICH: Tell me, what is your vision for the next 25 years of sanitation? What do you hope will be accomplished?
JACK: In the next 20-25 years every single human being on earth will have a toilet that is clean, safe and the excrement is treated and doesn’t pollute the river and the waterways. People would not be sick because of hygiene issues. I think people will talk about toilets in a very normal way just like we are talking about food and drinks.
RICH: Thank you very much for your time. It’s been great.
For more interviews from the “Entrepreneurs for Good” series, check out the playlist here.
Stay tuned for more clips and full interviews in the coming weeks.