On Conscious Leadership: Jack Sim
By his count, before he turns 80 and is confined to a wheelchair and can’t remember his wife’s name, Jack Sim has 6,734 days left to live. Less than one thousand weeks. He counts his days in order to focus, in order to make it count.
Today, he’s at IndieBio, hoping to plant the seed that can replicate across the 94 startups accelerated here. He’s didn’t come all the way from Singapore to tell them that a million people die every year from diarrhea, spread by flies from human feces. He’s not here to tell them that 90% of the surface water in India is contaminated by feces, or that more people in the world have smartphones than have toilets. He’s certainly not here to take credit for the 100 million toilets being distributed across India by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, nor the small business toilet economy spreading fast across Cambodia, nor the transformation of rural Chinese schools. In fact, he doesn’t even mention these. What he’s really here to do is teach startups how to make people “give a shit” about unaddressed problems, like shit itself. How to not just make a product, but to create a social movement, activating the whole market at once, from investors and funders to consumers and media.
The moment Sim starts speaking, the audience is disarmed. If you’ve ever seen the Dali Lama chuckle and be self-deprecating, you have an imprint of the dynamic we’re in the presence of. Mr. Toilet is an altogether unique hybrid of enlightenment and comedy, not alternating in cycles, but all at once. His words fall on the audience like lyrical parables, haiku, and stanzas of slam poetry.
Growing up in Singapore,
I was not good in school.
I forgave myself.
What else could I do?
“I went into sales, selling imported building materials from Europe. I did real good. Then I had this feeling that the people of Singapore would desire Mediterranean roof tiles. I met an investor. In 1984 there was no such thing as a ‘startup.’ We started a roof tile factory in Malaysia, which became a $110 million business, and a brickworks, which became a $60 million business. Once I had the hang of it, I created 16 businesses in 16 years. But business was stressful, and worse, it was boring. Every business had boring problems that kept repeating — customers not paying and sales never enough. I asked, “Is this the life I want?” I retired at age 40. I have had no salary for 21 years. I thought it was better to die doing social work than making more businesses.
“Running businesses was not hard. I started fires. I didn’t manage companies. I just identified that markets had needs. Sometimes it was logical, but often I could feel the irrational desire, like looking at a Mediterranean house, the desire that creates, I could feel it. I used my gut to empathize, to travel into the minds of all kinds of people. If I was that guy, how would I feel? That’s the research you need. Steve Jobs said ‘people don’t know what they want. You have to tell them what they want.’ I’m not saying I’m like Steve Jobs, but — I’m like Steve Jobs.
“Whatever increases your energy, do.
Whatever reduces your energy, don’t do.
Whoever increases your energy, spend time with.
Whoever decreases your energy, avoid.
“I was a slave driver, I worked my staff to the bone. People quit, and then the people I replaced them with also quit. It took me three years to learn my lesson. Telling people to work hard is not as good as making them feel good about themselves and take ownership. Then they work hard on their own. People need ownership of decisions even more than ownership of shares.
“Individualism is America’s biggest export to the world. Society socializes you to think for yourself. Silicon Valley takes it farther in having a culture of wanting to be awesome. When you think about yourself, you eventually becomes a miserable person. If you think about others, you open up and become a joyful person. If you have the courage and curiosity of Silicon Valley, and the spirituality of the east, this combination will be very very good. If you have this balance, you have both purpose and success.
“Don’t grow up. I’m 61, but like a small boy. Always curious, asking stupid questions. If you don’t grow up, it’s easier. If you grow up, you’re afraid to ask questions.
“When we are children we are told by our parents not to talk about ‘shit.’ This is a real problem. What we don’t talk about, we can’t improve. I realized I needed to make toilets an object of desire — like Mediterranean roofs. You can’t tell people they should use toilets, they won’t, they have their way. You have to make them desirable.
“Back then, rather than calling it our ‘sanitation agenda’ they called it our ‘water agenda,’ because there was no funding for sanitation. And the media couldn’t report on the issue. They had to sell newspapers, not talk about poop. So, I created some stunts. First, I created the WTO, the World Toilet Organization, and set up the first conference. I knew two things could happen. The real WTO could sue us, and that lawsuit would get media coverage. Or, they’d let us be, and media would enjoy the joke and run with the story.
“Humor is a very risky approach. If you make people laugh, they will listen to you, but you become the joke. We held the first World Toilet Summit with 15 countries participating. (Today we have 193.) We had the Big Squat. An Associated Press writer spread our message around the world. The media becomes your partner is spreading your story. It sounds like a joke at first. You become the newsmaker, but the media — even when in on the joke — creates legitimacy. Before that first summit was over, every country was begging to host the next one. Then everyone was on the bandwagon.
“Looking back, I can see a theory. You have to align the stakeholders and use a little humor to help it explode. You can’t try to take credit. You have to make your stakeholders look good. When they look good, they’ll keep coming back for more. We are not here to moralize, we are here to solve problems.
“You have to bring in everybody. You lead through storytelling. You don’t have to do the work —just like with my 16 businesses — you create a vacuum to suck people in to do the work. You won’t get credit, but you create legitimacy for the space, for others to try it. Trust people for what you can trust them with. Mutual exploitation is what we call ‘collaboration.’
“In 2013, the U.N. General Assembly adopted our founding day, Nov 19th, as World Toilet Day. Netflix has a movie about me coming out, a documentary, ‘World’s #2 Man.’ Everyone’s joining the ‘movement.’ This year, at the World Toilet Summit, we’re giving out 80,000 tickets.
“Now I want to organize the BOP, the base of the pyramid, the 4 billion people who live on less than $10 a day. The world spends $150 billion in humanitarian aid for these people, to almost no effect. We need to treat them not as a cause, but as an economic market to activate. I want to turn that $150 billion from aid into an investment with an expected return.”