Last year my cousins came back from a relief trip to Manila, Philippines. Upon their return they hosted a gathering to highlight their experience with friends and family. As I sat in a small Hollywood church and listened to their stories, I saw images of young children branded “The Charcoal Kids”. They were named this because of their profession as coal makers.
The returned travelers emotionally spoke about the daily lives of the locals. Their source of income is derived from hand manufacturing and selling coal for a few cents a day. I saw photos of young children, babies in most people’s eyes, sitting over small fires helping their families survive. The average lifespan in the particular village visited was 20 years. The residents live a life that is destroyed by the black lung.
I have never been so affected by photos. At this time I was working in nightlife business development for Red Bull in Hollywood. The devastation in the Philippines blew my mind. I knew that this story was only one of millions. I was living and working in a world where a DJ could be paid half a million dollars a night, where billionaires were respected for spending $100,000.00 a night on bottle service. I had been building a career with my favorite brand in the world, but at the end of the day I knew I was using the best years of my life to sell sugar water.
I felt absolutely responsible to help these faces that I had never met. Even after the Philippine Government built them a new housing facility only a few hours away, poverty drove them back to work their trade. Even though it was killing them, making coal is all they knew. They had a sense of accomplishment in providing for themselves even if it meant a shorter lifespan. What if we taught them something else? What if we could “teach a man to fish”?
I saw a lack of education and a problem with how accessible knowledge is made in the Third World. I learned that many children die simply because they do not know how to properly bathe themselves. There had to be a way to increase the capacity of the schools. In many Third World education systems you are required to have a uniform and personal supplies to be enrolled. This makes it difficult for children and families who can barely feed themselves. I had an idea for a project. Create a program that provides uniforms for new students who then hand down the outfit after a year of use to multiply the impact. Both my older brother Graham and I had expressed interest in working with each other as partners on a future project. I pitched G the idea, and after pausing to think about it he said, “Why don’t we just build more schools?”
Over the past few months, he had been researching renewable energy sources and upcycled building materials. Ted Talks can be extremely inspiring! He had also been studying and learning about architecture, specifically building with shipping containers. I had also researched them in college right when the earthquake in Haiti happened, but we had never discussed our mutual interest. The widely available containers would allow organizations to send long lasting recycled steel infrastructure to any port in the world. Build times are decreased and the impact can be multiplied by providing durable housing and cutting down maintenance needs. The greenest house is one that is already built. These building blocks, which are viewed as garbage, could do a lot of good. There are around 11 million idle shipping containers on the planet offering around 3 Trillion sq ft of infrastructure. We saw an opportunity to deliver immediate care and long-term housing.
We agreed that if we were going to move forward we wanted to work with orphans, the least of these in global culture. On top of that, building would be possible if we worked with orphanages as they have property rights as non-profits in the counties they inhabit. Their ability to help our international process would be a huge asset. With shipping containers, we could provide back-end support for the physical wellness, education, and development of the students there.
We started researching anything and everything shipping containers. Who are the brands? Who sells the best products? What is the best route to market? How can we work in the commercial world and still keep costs low? Graham and I began using the tools we had learned from working at Nordstrom, Coca Cola, and Red Bull to build a business model and marketing plan. We started pitching the idea and getting positive feedback from the new relationships in the industry as well as those currently in our networks.
My brother gave me “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho for my birthday in May of 2014. I strongly recommend it. By the last page it had done it’s work and I knew in my heart that I wanted to leave my job, high-rise apartment, salary, health benefits, car, corporate expense account, and security. I wanted to be led by my heart on an adventure that could make an impact. I wanted to travel and work with my hands and use my gifts to solve problems and reach goals. Movies have played a huge role in my life. In all my favorites, the main character has to lay it all out on the line. Indiana Jones goes to war with the Nazi Army with a pistol and a whip. William Turner risks his life to pursue Elizabeth when taken by Barbossa. Neo takes the Red Pill. I realized that I had never come close to truly committing.
“And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” — The Alchemist
At that point we set into motion a plan that would require 6 months of building a savings account to live on, downsizing apartments, and liquidating investments. We juggled our demanding corporate jobs while building interBLOK at the same time, and finally on January 1st we officially stepped down from our positions to pursue interBLOK full time in 2015.
These past few months have been refining. Launching a start up nonprofit in Los Angeles has its challenges. Original ideas get shut down. Most people say no. However, many have said yes. Partnerships that we feel would bring value to the project fall through, but destiny faithfully leads us specifically to the next. It has taught us patience in new ways, strengthened our relationship as brothers, and refined our plan. Our goal is to always be the most improved player.
We plan to travel to Baja Mexico for the month of September to finalize research on a localized distribution model. There, we hope to build relationships with a network of 100 orphanages in the area. There will be time to shadow quality orphanage operators, build labor and transportation relationships, and create route mapping. Our development during this period will strengthen our ability to support and understand our partner’s needs. We will also most likely learn how to make an amazing ceviche.
Our 89-year-old grandma took us out to lunch the other day. She sat and listened so patiently to our plans and goals. After hearing it all she paused and responded with a famed quote by our Navy’s First Admiral, Farragut. “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!”
Stay tuned to our Instagram for updates! @interBLOK
If you feel called to give to the project. Please visit our website www.interBLOK.org
Read my brother’s story too! https://medium.com/@PaulGrahamMiller/the-pursuit-of-purpose-dcc4a2153812