Southeast Asian entrepreneurs
share sustainable knowledge

From a recycling startup in Myanmar to an ethical Thai fashion business, eight leading sustainability entrepreneurs from Southeast Asia visited New Zealand as part of the ASEAN Young Business Leaders Initiative (YBLI) in October.

Watch a summary of the entrepreneurs' visit to New Zealand.

The YBLI programme saw the entrepreneurs sharing their inspiring journeys building sustainable businesses, and learning from their counterparts from Auckland, Wellington and Queenstown.

In Auckland, the entrepreneurs went on a tour around Maungawhau (aka Mt Eden) and visited Eco Store's offices.

Rafael Dionisio, co-founder of Philippines travel company Make A Difference (MAD) Travel, said one of his favourite moments on the programme was talking to Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei’s Jamie Cook, who hosted the tour.

"He shared the plans of his tribe, how they were going to work with future tourists to ask how they fit in the 21st century ... and how they can have a net positive effect on everyone," said Dionisio. "That question is at the crux of sustainability."

At Eco Store's offices in Freemans Bay, founder Malcolm Rand shared with the group stories behind the brand's success.

Flying south, the entrepreneurs met some New Zealand entrepreneurs working in sustainable tourism endeavours.

In Queenstown, the group met Michael Sly, the founding director of Wilding & Co, an eco-friendly business that cuts down wilding pines (a destructive introduced tree species) and steam-distills them to make them into perfume.

Sly showed the entrepreneurs around his steam distillery site where he creates the perfumes.

“A lot of ideas, concepts, philosophies that the entrepreneurs here apply are inspiring for any sustainable entrepreneur," says Passawee Kodaka.

Passawee (Patsy) Kodaka, founder of ethical Thai fashion brand Folkcharm Crafts, said the work of Kiwi entrepreneurs like Sly had given her ideas to take back home.

Folkcharm uses 100 percent natural Thai cotton, and ensures cotton farmers and fabric makers are well treated throughout the manufacturing process.

“A lot of ideas, concepts, philosophies that the entrepreneurs here apply are inspiring for any sustainable entrepreneur," said Kodaka. “A lot of what I have learned, I can take home and use to inspire other entrepreneurs.”

Ten minutes down the road, the group went to the Queenstown Gondola to try out the Kereru Zipline tour at ZipTrek Ecotours and learn about New Zealand’s recently-voted favourite native bird – the kererū.

ZipTrek Ecotours is a tourism company that educates tourists about environmental issues while they zipline through the forest.

Trent Yeo, ZipTrek's executive director, was excited to share insights into sustainable tourism with the visitors.

Sustainability Hui

As part of the YBLI programme, the entrepreneurs also shared their personal stories, businesses and ongoing projects with New Zealand entrepreneurs and the Foundation's Leadership Network members in Wellington.

They attended a series of events to discuss these topics, including an Asia After Five event, the Aotearoa Social Enterprise Forum and a two-day Sustainability Hui led by the Foundation.

Simon Draper stands with five YBLIs

Foundation executive director Simon Draper with five of the Southeast Asian entrepreneurs at the Sustainability Hui.

Ha Lam, founder of Vietnamese sustainable tourism company, and Dhang Tecson, co-founder of Fishers and Changemakers from the Philippines, spoke at the Asia After Five event about their stories.

Ha Lam shared her journey of starting in the Vietnam tech industry and how it became a multimillion-dollar business.

“I feel so grateful to be here and have the chance to share the stories of Vietnam entrepreneurs here, and to learn from all of the New Zealand entrepreneurs,” said Ha Lam.

Uyen Lee, head of marketing at Viet Trang, a sustainable craft business in Vietnam that makes baskets and homewares, said the hui was different from other sustainability events she has attended in Southeast Asia because of the focus on a journey from past generations to future-focused ideas.

“I learned a lot and one of the things I embrace is that you guys really appreciate origin, you are always talking about the previous generation, about future generations," says Uyen.

“I attend a lot of events about sustainability and one thing that [the Sustainability Hui] reminds me of is my social entrepreneurship journey.”

Inspiring lessons for New Zealand business

Adam McConnochie, the Foundation's leadership and entrepreneurship programme manager, says the group’s visit provided an opportunity for New Zealand business leaders to learn about developments in the region.

“Southeast Asia has seen booming economic growth, but a range of social and environmental challenges have accompanied that. It is also one of the regions of the world that is most vulnerable to climate change.

“These entrepreneurs are coming up with really impressive and innovative ways to tackle some of these issues, and several have received international awards for their work.

“They can provide plenty of inspiration for New Zealand start-ups focused on sustainable business models – and present an opportunity for New Zealand businesses to learn how to better engage in the region.”

The YBLI entrepreneurship programme facilitates trade and builds networks between business people in the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and those in New Zealand.

To date, the programme has taken 36 Kiwi entrepreneurs to Southeast Asia and brought 95 from Southeast Asia to New Zealand to learn about their industry and make contacts.