Startups have the opportunity to drive social impact, public companies have the responsibility to do so

When I decided to become an entrepreneur

It’s now been a few months since I’ve made the move to fully focus on my startup. It is truly liberating, but at the same time it entails many uncertainties. In doubtful moments, I think back to the early times of setting up the business with my co-founder Paul. In fact, I just read through some notes we took over some (or many) drinks at Barrio Chino more than a year ago. While at that time we didn’t know yet what type of business we would eventually start, we were very sure of why we wanted to start something:

We want to open up opportunities for others, give people access to industries and disciplines that might otherwise be closed off to them and also create an environment that is inclusive but allows for different viewpoints. You can also read up on our company principles here.

It wasn’t only conversations in bars though that led us to quitting our jobs and actually making the leap to start Chinatown Bureau. When I think about it, I’d say that there were three key moments in the winter of 2016/2017 that were the actual catalyst.

1. The time I heard Chobani’s story

In November 2016 I saw Hamdi Ulukaya, the founder of Chobani and Tent foundation, speak at the Fast Company Innovation Festival. Hamdi referenced poet Rumi’s lines ‘As you start to walk on the way, the way appears’ and shared the story how he started the yogurt company Chobani rather haphazardly. I was fascinated by his examples how he made sure everybody can be part of the success, i.e. he gave 10% of his shares to factory workers. Hamdi made a huge impression on me. He made me believe that is is possible to do well by doing good and I started reading up on his initiatives of a Triple Bottom Line (people, planet, profit). I’m hoping to create a similar work place that is based on equal rights and recognition of commitment.

2. The time I wrote an email to Sir Martin Sorrell

Just a week after the inspiring conference, Trump was elected and I had a hard time to hold on to the enthusiasm and ambition I had formed. Like many others, I was shocked that he got elected and afraid of the national and global implications it would have. It was and still is highly distressing to me that a worldwide movement of bigotry against minorities and human rights seems to be newly empowered. Feeling helpless, I turned to my employer WPP, the biggest communication agency network worldwide. I sent an email proposing that all WPP agencies should dedicate one day to ideating around platforms that transform the political system. Long story short, my proposal wasn’t realized. While I was disappointed (yet happy that Sorrell actually acknowledged my email), I understood that it is hard for large companies to act quickly, to take a stance and to communicate a potentially unconventional approach. It was a long shot, but it further confirmed my underlying feeling that I had to be my own boss in order to take action on matters that are important to me.

3. The time I learned about the positive reframe

A couple of months later I read Peter Leyden’s article about how Trump’s inauguration is a catalyst for a global transformation. He explained that “Trump ultimately is going to do America and the world a service by becoming the vehicle that will finally take down right-wing conservative politics for a generation or two.” The article came just at the right time for me to regain my conviction. In fact, the wider theory of the positive reframe became a daily motivator and tool to cope with disappointments, setbacks and external obstacles.

A first opportunity to drive impact with my startup

Chinatown is participating in the Climate Challenge of the City of New York. In order to help spur the adoption of electric vehicles by New Yorkers, the Mayors office is having a contest for how to replace gas-powered vehicles and build a charging infrastructure. Chinatown Bureau made it through to the 2nd round. [I’ll write more on the actual contest and our mobility concept in a couple of months — stay tuned.] Regardless if we will be amongst the finalist, we are excited to be able to share our viewpoint with the city and to be amongst other innovators that are leading the urban transformation. It’s fantastic to see how not only huge corporations, but also small startups are included in this RFP. I’m hoping other cities, institutions and also the private sector will see this NYCx initiative as a role model for how to contribute to environmental, economical and societal change.

I love how Larry Fink’s letter to CEOs is challenging and mobilizing public companies. While I see it as a responsibility for public companies to drive impact in today’s economy and society, I see it as an opportunity for startups and entrepreneurs like me. Let’s do this!