Lisa Genasci

Scaling Impact Through Collaboration and Partnerships - Lisa Genasci, ADM Capital Foundation

In this episode of Entrepreneurs For Good, I speak with Lisa Genasci about her journey building ADM Capital Foundation, an organization that has been widely recognized for its impact across a number of important issues and for their work supporting (and incubating) some of Hong Kong's leading organizations.

It is work that that required a commitment to her vision for change, remaining focused, and finding ways to collaborate with others to bring scale of effort and impact.

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.

About Lisa

Lisa established The ADM Capital Foundation ten years ago as an innovative philanthropic vehicle to support critical research and impact-driven approaches to promoting environmental conservation in Asia.

ADMCF has been widely recognised for its work on solutions to some of our most intransigent challenges: Our depleting oceans, the nexus between forestry and development, air quality and public health, the intersections between food, energy and water.

Lisa advises ADM Capital to shape its investment principles and provides ESG advisory services to ADM Capital funds. Lisa holds a BA degree with High Honors from Smith College and an LLM in Human Rights Law from HKU.

Follow Lisa and ADM Capital Foundation

About Rich

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.

Follow Rich

Contact Rich
[email protected]

Full Transcript

RICH: Welcome back everyone. Rich Brubaker here with Lisa Genasci from ADM Capital Foundation. We're here to talk about working between non-profits, finance to work on the biggest problems of, that I think the Asia region is facing. We hope you enjoy this, we hope you find value and inspiration from the discussion we just had. I know I certainly did. If you did, please remember to like, share and comment.


LISA: My name is Lisa Genasci and I set up ADM Capital Foundation for the partners for ADM Capital, which is an investment manager based in Hong Kong 10 years ago. The partners, four British partners, wanted to not just be giving in terms of their own philanthropy, but they wanted to set up a foundation that be impact driving. So right from the beginning they wanted to see systemic change in the environmental sector particular.

Initially we had a strong children at risk program, that we've morphed into the space that we saw for ourselves was more in the environmental sector because there was less work happening and the environmental sector would oversee a lot of need for change.


RICH: So what are the issues that you initially came in on, drove you personally or that were align with the partners?

LISA: We started an initiative on shark finning. Because 50% of the shark fin trade was through Hong Kong and people said that we need we can't make change in shark finning. People will continue to serve shark fin at wedding. We supported initially all of our work begins with research. We supported cultural trade and market research which showed actually that people were not necessarily wedded to the consumption of shark at weddings. It was more of a sort of a habit. It was a questions of showing faith of affluence, or showing affluence and that is not so difficult to the change once people understand the consequence of the consumption. So it became an issue of consumption and how to change behavior

Rich, you have INTRODUCTION here as the title....are you sure? It is also above.
RICH: So you did the research, you identify the consumption, then how did you take it forward and what impact...are you able to look back on it hey, we had this much impact or we did this much?

LISA: In that case, we supported the research, we brought together NGOs working in the sector. Obviously, everybody has their own strategy. It's not a matter of NGOs necessarily working in the same way. Everybody has their place, which is fantastic, but we all work to divide the message so this buy consequences of the consumption. That was a main message in Hong Kong, which is a bit different than the message in China. Which is much more around cruelty.

So with NGOs, we established targeted campaigns focused around hotels, which is where there was obviously a large consumption of shark fin, wedding banquets. The other focus was companies for the official banquets. Then of course government for government events and fast forward many years later we've ended up with about 150 companies signed up to WWF corporate pledge not to consume shark fin. Then in the terms of hotels, we most of the 4 and 5 star hotels, 62% of the 4 and 5 star hotels and actually it's more now have taken shark fin soup off their menu or serve it only upon request.

RICH: How long did it take, how long has this been going on? When did you do the research? How long has it taken for this 30% reduction?

LISA: I guess we started this year, I'd have to check the figures, but we started to see the reduction in 2012-2013 Id' say and we started in 2006.


RICH: You have a lot of it issues that you work with from forestry, fishery, obviously air pollution. How do you figure out what issues you're going to work with and why not just stick with one? How do you make those decisions as a group? How do you maintain a 10-12 year commitment, I'm sure of money and of human capital to each of these issues?

LISA: We have really programs across five areas now so at quality for conservation and finance, water in China, a seafood initiative and wild life trade. But in each of these areas really we've evolved slowly I would say. As one issue... has we've seen our pick, taken interest or action or results, then we've been able to move to develop that issue and go deeper into another aspect of it. We've set up teams around each of these areas. China water risk is a good example where they could take forward those issues for us.

Where we don't see NGOs already engaged, we've been willing to step in and create initiatives sort of ADMCF initiatives that can and take the issue in 1/2 and they have run with that issue. So it's not as though ADMCF is sort of going deep in each one of these areas. We've set up teams to go deep into each one of these areas.

RICH: But how, like how from the outset how do you actually pick the issue? How do you know if you're looking at 10 things that you should go forward this one? What is the criteria that you try and layer in so you can understand? Now's the time.

LISA: We have to deal with the timing and also a sense of the people working in that space. We're not in it to be competitive. We're in it to be collaborative to work with others and to really bring together others that we feel that is the moment. We have an opportunity to...we have an opportunity to go deeper into that particular issue.


RICH: So when you look at these, what are some of the key..and you want to have that mindset. you want to have a life after your support, after your direct involvement ends. What are some of the things you do in the beginning to maybe set that up?

LISA: Make sure that the support for the initiative...well, first we start with research. Really have an understand of what the context is and how we're going to address it, establish the theory of change. So really understand how we are going to, what the impact is going to be what we ant to see, how we are going to address that via research and make sure that you have a broad base of collaborators. NGOs, companies, government whatever is the mix that's going to help make that change.

Then what is the funding source? It's not just us. Broaden that funding bucket. What is going to be the source of funding that is going to support that for a long time? Where it's appropriate we can step back. Once we feel that something is on it's own, we don't' need to be in that particular initiative. We can step back and let it take it's course.


RICH: Speaking of funding, you are the founder of the foundation. They gave you the money to start the foundation. How is your funding changed over time? Is it a continued endowment that you can pull off of and you can only use a certain percentage or does the capital growing? Or have you actually developed a business model so that you are selling reports, your selling service, like how is that evolved over the last 10 years.

LISA: The partners absorb all of the core costs of the foundation and we direct cofunding into partner projects. So that has been our model every year and certainly a lot of funders have appreciated that because they feel that their money is supporting whatever the project is. But the reality is, that does ya know limit our own growth to a degree.

So we are thinking of about what are the alternative sources of funding. So the tropical landscape finance facility we've started, I hope in the future could potentially generate all sorts of revenue for the foundation. Then we have a couple of other sort of revenue driven initiatives that could provide a source of support to the foundation in the future. But all of our information and research is open source. We believe that it should be open source.

RICH: On the funding, if you think now or maybe things that you've tried in the past, what are the pools of funding that are the most aligned to you? Are those the ones you really need over time? Sometimes you need a lot of money and you have to make a change of tact and compromise so you can get that in. What are some of the considerations you have when you are going through that? You're creating a business model after years of not having..I mean you have to have the budget, but you don't have to have the business model. How do you make that work? What are some of the core things you have to have in place in order for there to be great partnership on that.

LISA: Well I have to say we have been very lucky in that we've had that course of source of support from the partners. We've also been very lucky in that we are...there aren't many other foundations in Hong Kong that provide in then sense the same service to other US foundations or local Chinese foundations who are interested in environmental issues who want to get involved, want to see impact. We can deliver on what, we can deliver on our programs. We can deliver on action in our programs.

So they've seen us as very useful so actually we've been able to set the agenda which has been really important for us. So we haven't diverged to meet funding, funding has come to us.


RICH: What's the best kind of funding for you? Is it corporate? Is it foundation? Is it government? Each one has different strings. Each one you can..what's been one or the best one that you're more natural to?

LISA: Most of the funding, the cofounding, has been throughout the foundations. Actually either US or local foundations. The best collaborations for us have been those where there is obviously a similar mindset and it's been an understating, a very clear understanding, again impact and what we want to see. So being aligned with our funders in terms of what the results should be has been very important and we've been lucky.


RICH: What are some of the key things that make for a great partnership or a great collaboration?

LISA: Being aligned in terms of I think the message what you want to see. Not always how you get there because everybody has different ways of working. But understanding where you want to get to and understanding what that sort of general messages is I think is extremely important.


RICH: What are the issues that you want to take up next and how are you going to go about expanding on the organization when you are already talking about budget verses business model?

LISA: I think we've got enough issues.

RICH: I mean is it ok to say it's enough? Or we've had some conversations about you need to constantly scale. Probably the most abused term in our entire ecosystem. What does scale mean to you in that sense?

LISA: Exactly. I thought about that a lot. I've come to the conclusion of no need. We are happy and we can be impactful in the space we are working in now. I don't feel the need for us to be a huge foundation. I would like to build more resources to be able to do more in the work that we do.


RICH: In an ideal world, every investment group here would have their own foundation that is in hose supported in the same way. If you were speaking to someone who is looking to create a similar model as yourself, what are some of the key things you would tell that individual when they are talking to the LPs or the banks how to create a bit of autonomous unit that does the exact same work?

LISA: So it's all about the people. Make sure you hire people who care about the issues who are really have the same sort of nsync with you in terms of what it is you want to achieve. Give them space to create and allow them to take risk. Because you can't make change in this sector without being able to take risk. I think a lot of foundations forget the need to take risk.

That is the beauty of philanthropy. We can see the initiatives. We can support research. We can take risk in ways perhaps private sectors can't and we can create change that can magnify by bringing along the private sector.


RICH: You said you could take risk that the private sector can't. That's kind of the opposite of what we are trained in this space. So what, can you give me an example?

LISA: Yes. For example, the tropical landscape finance facility that we've started. So we got a very generous grant from Convergys. Which is a Canadian government supported entity that supports innovative finance. The developed initiative finance to build a team that could help us develop tropical landscape finance facility, which as I said said marry a development agenda drive a development agenda with private sector capital.

It would be very hard to find a fund manager who would be able to put their own money and time into developing the type of projects that we are developing around tropical landscape finance facility. It think we'll be able to show these transactions are real and the transactions at scale. These transactions are at scale will achieve what we want them to achieve and that they will have financial returns. But we needed the space to be able to build that.

RICH: Right now you're not sure there will be a financial return. Let's assume there is.

LISA: No, there will be financial return. They're being structured as commercial, fully commercial transactions, but they are difficult and complex to build as you can imagine.


RICH: If you prove the model, what then do you think is the scalability of that same financial instrument? Because at the end of the day it's a financial instrument. Do you foresee that you could label this thing and maybe more foundations, more both management groups, more banks would get involved and buy this product and maybe drive your issue foreword? Is that a goal? Or do you want to just get this one project done and show that it can be done in the right way?

LISA: First transaction which is a 17 millions dollar transaction in Indonesia benefits from a 50% U.S.A. guarantee. So, it does allow the private sector a certain comfort. So we believe that maybe in the future other transactions wont need that sort of comfort. That private sector will be more comfortable with this type of transaction that has a very clear environmental and social agenda as well as the financial return.

RICH: It's really interesting actually. It also in that sense, you really are just drawing off the financial capacity...that structuring background of the group itself marrying it straight into the issues that are important to the foundation. But I have to be honest, I'm not sure where the line is between is the two groups.

LISA: Well, on this project there isn't one. What has been amazing is also to see BMP capital market team steping up right behind us. There are structuring partner. They are arranging the green bond that will be.. is the results of...the securitization of the loans. They are selling that product to private sector. It's been a fantastic partnership for us and hopefully there will be many others. We have quite a strong pipeline of products that will sort of be following behind.

RICH: Last question following up on that. You mention that you liked having that firewall between, but in this product it doesn't seem like it exists.

LISA: No, you're talking about core funds. That was how we were established. Our offices are here. ADMA Capital offices are elsewhere, but for this particular product there is no line. We are working to the same agenda.

RICH: If that one really scales out, would you say that actually that might be the that's an ideal way to go forward. Where you can bring the two organizations so close together they are actually one product and scale out as long as you remain autonomics in a sense?

LISA: I think it will be product base. Like with this product, it works well. Then as I said the 16:24 fund has a very clear environmental and social agenda. At the same time they are still our core ADM product, which work to obviously ADM Capital's investment principals. But, this is a different type of product. It needed the grant funding in order to be able to lift it off the ground. It needed the very clear sort of ENS support initially. But hopefully future transactions so we will will be easier and will be smoother I guess.

RICH: Last question. How do you keep yourself focused with so many big issues? How do you keep yourself inspired by looking at so many big issues that really are, I mean there is not a lot of happy news some days. How do you keep focused? how do you keep inspired?

LISA: I have an amazing team working across all sectors. It's not me, it's honestly the team. They are passionate. They take great ownership in each of the other areas in which they are working. None of us could do any of this work without that sort of determination to make change. I would say I am at heart an optimistic person. I really do, I can see the incremental change we've been able to make. Because of the partners ADM Capital has given us that long time horizon, I can see that we can make change over time. I remain optimistic.

Pol Fabrega

Urban Farming in Hong Kong - Pol Fàbrega, Rooftop Republic

In this episode I speak with Pol Fabrega about his experience building Rooftop Republic.  Interviewed on his own rooftop, we dug into the movement of urban farming, the potential for urban farming in Hong Kong, and building his business.  It is an interview that is full of tactics, and lessons of resiliency, patience, and building a movement towards something better within the confines of today's economic models and consumer expectations.


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.

About Pol

After graduating with a MA in International Relations, Pol devoted the first years of my career to the academic and non-profit sectors where he worked in Europe and Asia on a wide range of issues from education to human trafficking, gender equality, or human rights.

In 2012, life brought Pol to Hong Kong where he had the chance to connect with the local organic farming movement, where he realised the potential of urban farming to transforming the way we currently grow, consume and think about food.

At Rooftop Republic, he am mostly responsible for business development, programme management and finances.

Follow Pol and Rooftop Republic

About Rich

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.

Follow Rich

Contact Rich
[email protected]

Full Interview Transcript

RICH: I'm here with my friend Pol from Rooftop Republic. It is at night, but we are here to talk about rooftop gardens in Hong Kong. I wish you could all see the garden that he has, but hopefully you're enjoying the background. Remember if you like this, if you find value, if you enjoy his story, please remember to like, share and comment.

Thank you very much, Pol. Appreciate your time spending with us. So, do me a favor and introduce yourself and introduce Rooftop Republic.

POL: My name is Pol Fabrega and I'm the cofounder of Rooftop Republic. Social enterprise that promotes urban farming in Hong Kong. Our main vision for Rooftop Republic is to integrate urban farming into our city lifestyle. So we set up farms on rooftops. We help to maintain those farms and we organize a lot of workshops and programs around urban farming and around food and around sustainability as well.


RICH: What is an urban farm and what does urban farming look like in Hong Kong right now?

POL: So an urban farm is basically a farm within the city limits. It can be right in the middle of the city, like right now right now here on this building. Or it can be within the _____ (1:32) urban areas surrounding of a city. So in the surroundings of a city. The particular like case of Hong Kong is quite interesting because we live in a very densely populated city. We have an area out there called the new territories. There is a little more of a rural sort of land and there is more farmland, but here in the city is a very dense, very sort of concrete jungle kind of city. What that means is that when we set up farms within the city, generally we do it on rooftops just because that's the most widely available space in Hong Kong.


RICH: Are we gonna feed people using rooftops? Like what's the goal of urban farming at it's central core right now?

POL: There is a university professor here in Hong Kong who has been doing a lot of research on rooftop farming. He has estimated that there is around 600 hectors of rooftop space that could be available, could be suitable for rooftop farming. That almost equals the amount of farmland that is currently farms in Hong Kong. So, only with the rooftop space we could double, you know the amount of, not necessarily double the yield because we might not get the same yield, but double the amount of space that we using for farming today.


RICH: Yeah, and actually that's kinda my question. Ok you have 600 hectors potentially, but it's spread out over a little 20 square meters, 50 square meters. It's actually really an efficient space, so how do you make this work?

POL: So for us, our model, like we were with a wide range of clients and they have different interests. They have different, they come to us for different you know with different approaches I guess. So we work a lot with property developers obviously to set up farms within their buildings. This can be within commercial buildings, this can be within industrial buildings, part of residential buildings and but we are also with hotels and restaurants to supply their you know to supply their kitchens in this case. But we also work with schools more for educational purposes. We work with corporates more like employee engagement and sustainability and corporate social responsibility. We work with community organizations more for the community and social aspect of having an urban farm and we work with individuals. This is my rooftop and I have a few planters where I'm able to grow my own vegetables.

So you know different kinds of people, different kinds of clients from our perspective have different kinds of interests and we'll use those spaces and those yields for different, for different reasons I guess.

RICH: We're in Hong Kong. It's pretty tropical year round. What are the types of plants or vegetables or like what can you do on a rooftop like this. What works, what doesn't?

POL: So in Hong Kong, we mostly divide the seasons in to two main seasons. The cold season or the warm season. Now we're entering the cold season. So between September/October all the way until April/May, it's the time of the year where we can grow wider range of things because the temperatures are little bit more mild and bit more or like it doesn't rain so much, it's not so hot so humid. We grow all kinds of things. We grow everything from tomatoes, carrots, beet roots, spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, speed roots, all kinds of things.

Then in the summer in the warm season, we grow maybe a little bit less variety, but we can still grow a lot of things like beans, eggplant, squash cucumbers, peppers, bazo, chili, sweet potatoes, water spinach. So this basically it's always a season for something. What we try to educate the people is that you need to know what to grow when. To be able to be a successful farmer.

RICH: How did you get into this?

POL: So I'm originally from Barcelona. Before coming to Hong Kong, I absolutely knew nothing about farming, about food, about growing. Certainly I would not have imagined to be coming to Hong Kong to become an urban farmer. But I came to Hong Kong 5 years ago and I had the chance to connect with a local organic farmers here in Hong Kong. There's actually a lot of farmers in Hong Kong There's around 450 organic farms in the new territories, different sizes. Some are a bit smaller, some are a bit larger, but I started to kind of learn from them. Started to become more interested in growing, in food, and our food system started seeing all the problems associated with our core and food system. Started thinking about together with my cofounders, started thinking about how can we bring this movement, which is kind of developing in the new territories to the heart of the city and make it accessible to city dwellers.


RICH: How did you know this was more than just a hobby that you come up on a Sundays and you pick you beans? How did you know you could make money? How did you know you could build organizations? Like what did it take before you made the jump on your own?

POL: I had no idea basically. Sort of like had no business plan, had no you know this is something quite new, it's quite an infant sort of industry especially in Hong Kong. It might be much more developed in other countries, but here we didn't have any reference really. Is this gonna fly? Is this gonna work? Are people going to like it? Are people going to be willing to pay for it? Who are going to be our clients? We had an idea obviously, but we had no idea whether or not the market would respond to our assumptions. Luckily enough we were able to quickly realize that there was, there was the demand for our services. From there obviously that was a lot of iterations, developing your services, improving them, getting feedback from your clients, learning as you go along and sort of fine tuning your business model and your business as a whole.


RICH: What were the early lessons that you think were just super critical to either learn from failure or like wow, we got that right. Like we had that.

POL: The technical side of farming was something we were not really familiar with. So we needed to overcome that by surrounding ourselves with some you know with some expert organic farmers that were working with us and that still work with us. So I would say would one of the main challenges.

The other challenge was how are we going to market ourselves and how we market ourselves to different kinds of clients Because like I said different clients come to us with different, very different interests. Everything from a school, who runs a school programs to a corporate who wants employee engagement and sustainability sort of program initiative. So these are very different clients, different users at the end of the day of our farms.


RICH: Is it a good thing to go after so many different types of clients or should you just each one's different so how so how do you make sure you maintain quality for all of them?

POL: So we had to develop, we had to develop tailor made solutions and this took a while obviously. You know we didn't have curriculums to give to schools for example at the beginning. So we were you know putting together workshops, curriculums and learning from other trainings that we had undertaken ourselves, consulting with farmers and so on to actually deliver something that would be suitable for a school for example. We need to try and build customize solutions that could be applicable to different client segments. We didn't focus like our range of clients was a little more limited at the beginning and then we kind of expanded gradually as we went along.


RICH: So the core. What are some things you have to do every day to make it work to like, to succeed to have a valuable proposition that's stable? What are two or three things that just have to work every day?

POL: One of our key services is so we set up farms that's one main service. We design and install these farms, but also we do the management of these farms. It this is actually very critical especially from a business perspective. So when we set up a farm we have a client and we design it an set it up, that is one of the bit of revenue that we get. But what happens afterwards? How can we ensure that project is successful, sustainable and it's achieving the objectives that is has and it's making you know the client happy with it.

That's where our second service comes in where we provide a farm management service where we need to, not only is it a technical sort of support we provide where we send organic farmers to all of these farms to do some maintenance, but it is also managing the client's stakeholders. All of the users of these farms and how do we successfully and effectively engage them in the day to day running of the farm. How do we build an understanding? How do we build their passion for it? How we keep that momentum goin?. That is the most challenging one and that is where we are putting in a lot of energy.


RICH: You live in one of the most expensive cities in the world. How do you make this work for yourself personally?

POL: Obviously as an entrepreneur when you start on this journey you take a lot of risks and there are a lot of uncertainties. Together with my cofounders we invested some of our savings into this without necessarily knowing whether it was going to fly. You need to kind of be able to take that jump and have confidence that you have something that might be valuable and might work out and keep working on it.

It has worked out for us. Today we have 3 cofounders, we have 2 staff and we have a lot of people that we work with on a more part-time basis more on a project basis. So if you're able to pay five salaries, fulltime salaries. We are able to pay several part-time salaries by building our pipeline, expanding the client base, doing a lot of business development, putting the word out there, a lot of marketing and also media, media attention, media coverage that definitely helps to sort of reach different audiences. It has been working out so far. We've been around for 2 years and half and we're still kicking so.

RICH: Kicking is the first step to thriving right? So that's ok. You're still alive.


RICH: You've got over 30 rooftops now?

POL: Over 30, yes.

RICH: Over 30, where do you go from here? Like how many can you achieve here? How many do you want? Then is scale something you talk about, something you dream about or is 30 a good number for you?

POL: No, I think 30 is just a start. We feel like potentially in Hong Kong we specially see a lot of potential more working more directly with property developers and architecture firms to actually integrate urban farms in spite of their designs. So entering like the history, like the life of a building at the design stage where we can actually fully integrate it into the whole building. There is a whole trend towards green building in Hong Kong and also abroad. There is a whole trend towards well being, promoting well being and building environments. So this fits very well with general trends we seen in the architecture and the property sector.

So we see a huge window of opportunity there to develop our business in that direction. Both in Hong Kong and abroad. We already have a couple of projects in China. One in Hunan, in Wong Dong and we get inquiries from other regions, Shanghai, from ____(12:49) from other parts of China and also from other parts of Asia. Mostly like bigger cities and we see that there's a lot of potential to develop, expand our operation here in Hong Kong, but also tap into some of these other nearby markets that have similar markets for that.

RICH: Very Good.


RICH: How do you measure success for your organization. How do you measure the impact that you are trying to have?

POL: We have a lot of quantitative indicators that we are tracking. Everything from how many arms have we set up, how many square feet of underused urban space are we transforming into urban farms. Yields that we are getting form some of our rooftops. Number of workshops and programs that we are running. Number of participants that are attending these workshops. Number of people that we are training to become urban farmers because we are also doing some trainings for different groups with sort of underprivileged backgrounds to provide them with job opportunities and employment opportunities.

So how many have we trained, how many of them actually employed at the end of the program, etc, etc. So there are a lot of more quantitative indicators that we are trying to track to measure how much impact we having. But then there's also a whole range of quantative data that we would like to also dig into and collect although it is much more complex arena, but trying to see how people are reacting to this project. Ok, you been part of part of this project as been participating this urban farm for a year. How do you feel different about food? How do you...have you changed your behavior in shopping?

RICH: So you're trying to measure the immeasurable.

POL: Yes. Like the quality, like mindset change, behavior change.

RICH: That's the tough stuff to measure. People talk a lot about that.

POL: Yes. Do we try and do survey's before and after the program. How have you changed your perspective of food? On farming, etc, etc.? Trying to capture that change in their behavior.


RICH: You have an aspiring entrepreneur watching this. What are three pieces of advice you give to someone when they're starting this process? Like what are the three keys to success? Like what are the three things they should avoid? Or what are the three challenges they should persevere through because it's fucking hard! Right?

POL: It's a very lonely journey. It's a very hard, you know it involves a lot of hard work. I don't want to paint like a pink picture of what being an entrepreneur is because it has a lot of nuances being an entrepreneur. It's incredibly gratifying and it's incredibly rewarding on many levels because you're building up your own thing and you're creating your own. You're sort of developing your own visions for something. So that's really exciting and that's what drives me and that's what keeps me going and what makes me sort of overcome all the obstacles.

But you also need to be aware that there will be hard times. There will be a lot of uncertainties. There will be a lot of risks you will have to take and sort of adventure into the unknown and be able to navigate through that. Find what works for you. Find that balance that works for you in managing this feelings, this emotions and this...

RICH: When you're navigating that, what's your..what is your flashlight? What is your compass? What are the things that you....what are the tools you have when you're really trying to navigate through that when you're uncertain? What are the things that you have to have to get through that?

POL: One of the things that we really have been working on is since you're a startup, you only have so many resources. You only have so many people. You only have so many skills sets. You have so many gaps. You have to change hats and double, you know, double up to do everything a business or organization needs to achieve. So you need to surround yourself. You need to build your network. You need to build a pool of people that are there to support you when you need them. So you need to really establish those relationships with advisors. With people who are at good with finance or people who are good at market. Or people who are good at different aspects of your work that you might not be necessarily very good at and sort of trying to find how you can think creatively about...ok, I don't have money to pay someone fulltime to be my marketing manager, but I need marketing. So how do I creatively find a solution for it.

One of the things we tried to do is surround ourselves with good people around us, good advisors that can fill in the gaps when we need that can support us along the way.

RICH: Thank you very much for your time.

POL: Thanks Richard, it's a pleasure.

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.

Ada Yip

Shifting Consumers Off Plastic - Ada Yip, Urban Spring | Entrepreneur For Good

As the world may be finally waking up to the challenge that plastic is presenting out environment, and for many, the plastic beverage bottle is one of the products that is front and center.

In Hong Kong though, the people at Urban Spring think they have a solution that will help reduce the number of plastic bottles that the city is sending to landfill. Something that over the last two months has grown more urgent as China has closed its borders to waste imports.

To learn more about their mission, and how they are attacking the challenge of getting consumers to act more responsibly, I spoke with their CEO Ada Yip to learn more.

This interview is about solving one of the biggest problems we face through sustainable consumer change.

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.

About Ada

Ada is the Executive Director at Urban Spring, a purpose-driven start-up with a mission to reduce the consumption of single-use plastic in Hong Kong through the provision of safe and modern water drinking experience.

Ada is also a co-founder of 43 Ventures which invests financial and human capital in innovative social start-ups.

Follow Ada and Urban Spring

About Rich

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.

Follow Rich

Contact Rich
[email protected]

Full Interview Transcript

RICH: Welcome back everyone. Thank you for joining. We are here with Ada Yip who is with Urban Spring and we are standing in front of their Well product, which is just going out to the market. We're here to talk to day about social entrepreneurship, building a project that changes mindsets and really just maintaining a positive attitude as your building your enterprise going forward. So we hope you enjoy this episode, if you do please like, share and comment.


RICH: So do me a favor and give us an introduction about yourself and about Well.

ADA YIP: So I'm born and brought up in Hong Kong. So home grown sort of Asian girl and you know I've been in actually in a corporate world for more than 15 years. The four years ago I decided that I want to explore social entrepreneurship and got to network with a lot of people you know, meet the fonder of Urban Strain, which Well is our first product. That's how I got into you know starting to work with the company two years ago and develop the product. Well is basically a new design water station, which we hope that people would refill. You know, really develop, redevelop that trust with drinking water outside home and offices. So the mission really is to reduce consumption of single use plastic bottles. We want to provide that alternative.

RICH: So you're trying to basically get rid of the plastic bottle at the end of the day.

ADA YIP: I hope so.


RICH: Why is that a problem? I think we've all seen on the news, in the oceans, but is there a particular problem with plastic and single use plastic in Hong Kong itself?

ADA YIP: Every single day we've got 5 million tons of plastic waste just a day in Hong Kong. Majority of those are actually plastic bottles. The majority of the plastic bottle is actually water bottles so that's why were' coming from so it's really a huge problem and we're just talking about Hong Kong. As far as I know, all the major cities in the world each year is a double digit increase in bottle sales.

RICH: Now I kind of think like when it comes to these issues, we've had NGOs for years tell us that we should reduce, reuse, recycle that we should bring our own bottles, things like that. It hasn't worked. I mean, honestly, we're still using more and more plastic every day. How is your approach different? I mean you're using your building product, you're bringing a business solution, how is this different than just pure advocating? How do you think this might change the market?

ADA YIP: I think you know Richard, you hit the point. I mean, we are providing a product i.e. an alternative. So I think that nonprofit world actually has done a fantastic job basically educating and bringing that awareness in the past you know decade actually. But bringing you the bulk bottle, it helps, but then if I'm really thirsty in the middle of Causeway Bay or Central, I cannot find water I cannot refill. I'm really thirsty. I have to go into convenience store and supermarket and buy.

Today I am offering an alternative, i.e. if you bring your own bottle, or if you buy your first disposable of the day, you can actually go and refill as opposed to buy another one. You know, if no more like in a really hot day, people buy 2 or 3 but ends up only buy one for laze people that don't bring their own bottles, we're already saving a lot. So I think having that alternative giving people that choice is important. So I think we worked, I see it as a collaboration with the charities basically did they very good with advocating working with the government on communication and education and we focus on the product and work with them on that communication and awareness and all that.

More importantly I think what we try to do its really bring the product. i.e not everyone is environmentally friendly, but every one wants to look cool. Everyone has got an attitude how they want to live a sustainable life and we hope to provide that option.


RICH: How do you change the mindsets? I mean you know we talked about, I was actually kind of thinking I've started carrying my own hot and cold bottles now. I'll go to Starbucks with one if I want a hot or cold coffee. How do you get people to think that this is cool? Because eventually, even not just cool, like I'm not going to embarrassed by carrying this bottle around with me to a meeting. that because you like try different bottles, you try different cups? But at some point you still have to carry the thing around, so how do you help people just realize that it's ok to carry this around?

ADA YIP: I mean as you say the toughest is actually not the product all those were quite painful to do product development. The toughest thing for our business is changing peoples behavior you know to a point about actually carrying a bottle. So I think a couple of things I think one is from a sort of branding perspective and how we position ourselves. I'm not fighting against convenience. You know because whether its Hong Kong or some other country, buying and dumping more recycling it's so easy.

So I think it's about how carrying that bottle or cup, it's basically a reflection of who you are. A lot of consumer brands are actually doing that. So, if people feel that you know a gentleman with a suit on for you that they are kind of cool carrying you know that chain store cup, you know around and you know almost a display of their way of life having that morning coffee. Why would they not feel that if I portrayed also saved with a certain image.

It's very tricky. But, I think the younger generation definitely have already bought into the idea. So, I think it's how good the infrastructure.


RICH: Who's the easiest to turn over right now for you? Do you just focus on them only and then work on the harder people later or do you invest into the people because the return is so much greater later? Like upfront it's more difficult. How do you make that decision?

ADA YIP: You know its tricky. I would say the early adopters would be the younger people and the people who are doing sports. People already carrying the bottle. Almost I'm basically providing the convenience for them. Then for corporate, that's also who I want to target, but probably the corporate who want to get consumers or want to be in line with the younger people sporting people. So that would be my early adopters and then I move on to the semi convert and then the hardest one ya know they were further down the line. I think just like any products, I can't aim on day one to the selling and basically influence in every single person. So I think it's really up to us with the resources that we have, how do you strategize and work with different parties to make a bigger impact and they're showing maybe a long time.


RICH: Who's going to pay for this at the end of the day? Because you walk you walk up, pay for this with your phone? Like how does this work?

ADA YIP: So today, its paid by the venue that holds. So for example the shopping center they see it as part of customer service. For schools it's part of the facilities. Later on we would develop which to reach the payment feature because as we roll out to more space I can imagine there would be a common shop that cannot basically provide this for free to use it. But I do you know if this is a good replacement of them selling bottled water, they were great they don't have to keep inventory, you know soo ..

RICH: So they can sell this.

ADA YIP: Yeah so they can sell basically per refill. So you know so they're different payment models. This early stage we're lucky to be working with people who would be basically hosting as a subscription. We trying not to sell the product the reason so that like a photocopy machine. That we are, we can maintain the brand basically do our own servicing, make sure everything is good system and standard servicing.


RICH: So appear to look out say 5 years from now, what do you want your kep metrics of success? So if you look back and you say we succeeded, what would success be for you? The number of bottles? What's....

ADA YIP: I think the answer is I see situations where people are competing, how good looking the water bottles are. Or people you know in a group of friends, someone being you know making a comment say what are you doing with a disposable? That will be a scenario that I would like to see if that's the sort of part of a movement that we are part of. I will be really excited.

Obviously is from business perspective and the traditional matrix will be around how many of this get installed. To me, I think the behavior and how people see disposable, how people are embracing news, it is probably more satisfying. But from you know obviously form the financial standpoint, it would be basically how many of these get in stores and also not just number of installation, but that how many get saved. How many water get dispensed as opposed to you know what if you consume through the plastic bottle.


RICH: So actually I want to change here a little bit. You come from the business background, you came into the social entrepreneur background, or social inner space, what did you think about social entrepreneurship before you got into it? What do you think about it now?

ADA YIP: It was more out of interest. How does that work? I think that I'm still very positive about that. I mean I hope one day no one talks about social entrepreneurship because there is just entrepreneurs and that's it right? So and I think the interesting thing is although we have gone up sort of that, this field called social entrepreneurship, but actually people who are in it a lot of them are not really believing in it. i.e. they still not just struggling with the business and the social impact, but really you know they don't believe in it and the sense that they are still running it like a nonprofit.

So I think there's still a long way to go although I'm on the positive side. How we set up not the majority i.e. we are set up as a limited company by shares. We are very, we believe in actually not distributing, not limiting the distribution of profit like some ____________(11:51). Because we truly believe we can, you know we can have a sustainable business and attracting the right investors in. You know we don't' have to set up a particular way so that people feel that wall is doing good some money is set aside to do it like that. It's just this is the way we believe this is the reason we set up the company is because of that social mention and that's it. Obviously governance, operation it needs haltering. It all needs to support that, but it doesn't need to be restricted by certain financials.


RICH: Especially when you would have been starting this, there was still a premium to be called a social entrepreneur. That was actually an attractive feature, but what you're saying is you're actually flipping it. You see more the value and saying no, we're just a business. Like, we have a social mission. We're trying to solve it, but were' not going to play the social entrepreneurship card.

ADA YIP: Yes and no. So I'm not playing that card so for people who are not understanding social entrepreneurship, I don't call myself social enterprise. It would just confuse them more and then I got them to think so are you a charity? So, I'm just a startup with a very clean mission. That's it. They just focus on what I am selling and operating.

But the no part it, I think we still need to have this subject or this category called social entrepreneurship because I don't think we're in a world that people believe business and social can come together or actually have a greater value if they do both. So we almost need to have this category so that people focus in thinking about I, discussing about it, until everyone is on the same page. Then we probably can get there and just talk about entrepreneurship. But we're not there yet. So you know that's why farm like this its a good channel to really just have a healthy debate . You know of different schoolof thoughts and how people approach it.

RICH: Great, I think that's all. Thank you very much for your time. It's been a pleasure.

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.

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.

Shanghai cities

Reframing Sustainability For Future Cities

2050-urbanizationFor the first time ever (as of 2012) more people – over 700 million – live in China’s urban areas than in its rural regions. By 2020, about 60% of China’s population will live in cities; and 300 million urban residents are expected to move into its urban centers by 2030. Along with this shift to a more urban population comes a dramatic change in lifestyle: from a subsistence level or an agrarian focus to a consumption-focused lifestyle.

Sustainability in China has been a topic of many conversations for years now. The failure of China and the US to come to agreement in Copenhagen in December 2009 focused even more attention on the topic.  It is a story that has been about smoggy skies and polluted skies, and as the challenges have grown, calls for a different model have grown louder.  It is a story that has gained more steam over the last several years as urban residents have become more numerous, grown wealthy, and are increasingly impatient with the smog.

On February 28, Chai Jing, one of China’s most famous television journalist and a best-selling author, released a self-financed documentary aiming to unveil the root causes of China’s notoriously polluted air. The 103-minute video quickly went viral, and within days of its release it had been viewed more than 200 million times.  Some began calling Ms. Chai China’s Rachel Carson, an American activist whose book The River Runs Black was seen as a turning point in America’s environmental movement. Others compared the video to Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth.

For many foreign firms operating in China, this change in dynamic has often been seen as a threat as regulatory bodies and their enforcement arms have increased their efforts to curb pollutants.   For others, the changing dynamic has been a source of hope.  It’s a sign that China’s new markets for green energies, building materials, and electric vehicles – which are growing faster than anywhere else in the world – are being driven by a wider body of stakeholders that are accepting that China’s environment is failing and that change needs to happen. Change is beginning to take place.  A change that, if made, will over the coming decades see the development of sustainable urban environments becoming one of the greatest economic opportunities of our lifetime  .

Looking at the issues of sustainability in the context of China today, it is of primary importance for outsiders to understand the following:

  • Historically, China’s issues of sustainability were not linked mainly to private consumption, as they are in the United States or Western Europe; they were linked to the industrial processes that are supporting China’s economic development model.
  • China does not see emissions as a “problem” that must be dealt with immediately . With economic growth still the priority , the country’s concerns with sustainability are focused on accessing and managing the resources that its cities will need to grow, while reducing the emissions that are contaminating its air, water, and soil.
  • The largest pressure China faces to solve sustainability issues will continue to come from within, as the next 25 years of growth will come from another 300 million moving to the city  .

Simply put, the issues that China faces are largely tied to economic development , the problems themselves are growing in size and frequency, and China will do what it takes to fix those problems in a way that considers the needs of its people first. These are also issues that will continue to be faced by India, Brazil, Nigeria, and the next generation of cities that will go through hyper-development over the next 25 years.   Leaders need to stop seeing sustainability in China as a threat to doing business , and begin seeing it as an opportunity to develop a portfolio of products and services that will support the urban centers supporting billions.

Areas where there are immediate opportunities and need:

  1. Urban Planning – At the core of a sustainable city is the urban planning, and sustainable cities are often viewed as the only way that a population of 10 billion people on Earth could be sustained. They need to be dense. They need to be efficient with resources.  But more importantly they need to be places where people want to live, raise children, and invest in their communities.
  2. Energy distribution and efficiency – While the focus of many conversations in the energy industry is around cleaner energy supply, for China the real need is to drive efficiency through the grid – a grid that requires up to three times the amount of energy it takes Western markets to create one unit of GDP.
  3. Food safety – Whether it is through the acquisition of firms like Smithfield Foods, or through partnerships with IMB to create pork traceability programs, one of the key areas for improving the urban economy will be through food .  With an estimated 40-60% of China’s food lost before it reaches the tables of its consumers , it is an industry whose inefficiencies begin on the farm and continue through the entire food chain .
  4. Accessible and affordable healthcare – With China’s population graying, and its urban environments struggling to provide care to its sick and aged, mayors around the country are already looking to industry to bring solutions that build on top of the government’s own capacity to build care facilities .
  5. Efficient Transportation – As consumer demand for private vehicles continues to rise, a variety of alternatives are being developed to address the challenges. The automotive industry is focusing on broad innovations (including electro-mobility) to decrease fuel consumption and reduce the emissions of public and private vehicles. At the same time, advances in technology and investments in infrastructure have the opportunity to make public transport a more viable, efficient alternative.
  6. Waste Management – As China’s material consumption continues to increase, the level of waste production will only increase the amount of organic and inorganic waste that is entering landfills every day.

Where this gets exciting for those in China, is that once a product or service’s pilot project has proven itself in China, there will be an opportunity to scale to the country’s needs  through the markets of India, Brazil, Indonesia, and Nigeria .  These are the cities of the futures for hyper-urbanization, and will be critical players in a world where there are 6 billion urban consumers looking to live the “American Dream”. It’s a dream that is only possible through a new model, one that will be sketched out in China and fine-tuned over the next 35 years.