Monica Gewirtz
Oct 8, 2018 · 11 min read

Matching Ideas with Funding: NYC’s Chris Burch’s Nihi Sumba and The Sumba Foundation Model

Prominent entrepreneur and investor Chris Burch has spent his professional life at the helm of more than 50 companies, investing in their futures and lending his vision for success through investment and leadership provided by his company, Burch Creative Capital. Best known as the fashion mogul who co-founded the Tory Burch apparel line, the investor and serial entrepreneur has since been extremely successful in expanding his ventures to a wide variety of companies, supporting the growth of a wide range of lifestyle and consumer products in retail, apparel and home furnishings throughout industries specializing in hospitality, cuisine and technology. Burch describes Burch Creative Capital as his means to use the knowledge and resources he’s gained over four decades of entrepreneurial wins to help other entrepreneurs with great ideas: “We match ideas with funding to bring extraordinary possibilities to the world.” This combination of a great concept met with proper resources begets the story of Nihi Sumba by Chris Burch — the brainchild resort of world-travelling surfers met with the attention and resources of Chris Burch, in turn creating the best hotel in the world which champions ecological conservation on the Indonesian island and betters the livelihood of its people.

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The story of Nihi Sumba is all at once a combination of a luxury, exclusivity and a great understanding and preservation of the Sumbanese culture. A small island in eastern Indonesia, Sumba has been the home to the Marupu people for centuries. Twice the size of Bali and only an hour’s flight from its much more popular Indonesian neighbor, Sumba has a small population around 650,000. The Sumbanese have had very little contact with modern civilization since its discovery in the 16th-Century by Portuguese explorers, resulting in a rich and preserved island culture along with challenges innate to underdeveloped countries. The rich heritage and warm people were part of the draw for Nihi’s creators — Petra and Claude Graves, the wander-lusting surf couple who landed on Sumba in 1988 and fell in love with its people, the wilderness, and the now-famed “perfect wave.”

In finding one of the world’s best waves in uncharted territory, the Graves set up shop. The early days weren’t easy — the Graves had no water for nearly three years, digging a spring and filtering their own water for bathing, cooking and drinking. Nihi started as a hostel while the lore of its waves spread to eager, travelling surfers. The couple offered the surfers who found haven in their abode diving, fishing and boating retreats, and the more time the couple spent in Sumba, so grew their love for the island and its people. One of the resort’s most honored surf traditions was started by Graves in those early days: “The problem with surfing all over the world is that you go out and there are 20, 30, 40, 50, sometimes even 100 guys in the water,” he explained in 2011 to Huffington Post. In capping out the number of riders on the wave at all given times, Graves cemented the exclusivity of Occy’s Left — the name bestowed upon the famous break after Australian surfer Mark Occhilupo, whose surfing on Sumba for the movie Green Iguana reinforced the wave’s reputation. To this day, at the resort dubbed the world’s best hotel, only ten riders are allowed on Occy’s each day, so spots must be reserved in advance; but for those lucky enough to stake their space, the reward is a once-in-a-lifetime ride down what may be the world’s very best surf swell.

The Graves’ vision for Nihi could never have been reached without the help of Chris Burch. In 2012, the entrepreneur found out about Nihi’s reputation for unregulated freedom and unwavering beauty when he caught wind that the couple was looking to expand the resort. With the help of South African-born hotelier and friend James McBride — who, at the time was the President of YTL Hotels in Singapore — Burch spent $30 million and the next three years renovating the hostel on Sumba Island into the grand vision that could reach its majestic potential. In an interview with Business Jet Traveler in 2015, Burch explained, “I bought it for my children and as a piece of something that I hope we can preserve and give back to the community. When you’re in a place where the palette is so beautiful, you can do things that you can’t do in other places: build a spa under a waterfall, go to places where no others have been, have a butler in every room.”

The beauty of Nihi Sumba lies in its commitment to the Graves’ original vision. Having lived for a time like the Sumbanese people — having to fish for sustenance, having to dig their own wells for water and filter for use, having little to no access to electricity for a time and no professional healthcare on the island — the Graves sought to use their platform to better the lives of the community that they now called home. In 2001, Claude set up the Sumba Foundation, committing to finding solutions to the core issues hindering the Sumbanese people: healthcare, clean water, widespread malaria, malnutrition, minimal education and no health facilities for the majority of its residents within a day’s walk. Having lived in the same conditions as the Sumbanese people in their early days on the island, the Graves knew what was at stake. The couple contracted malaria dozens of times each, experiencing firsthand how debilitating this widespread disease could be. These lessons were the bedrock for the model used in the Sumba Foundation, focusing on the island’s core issues.

In his reconstruction of Nihi Sumba, Chris Burch also ran with this model of sustainable tourism first started by the Graves, and by covering administrative costs of the foundation after his renovation, Burch allowed 100% of donations to directly fund the Foundation’s projects. Today, Nihi Sumba is the largest employer on the entire island and champions both its ecological conservation as well as the social livelihoods of its people. Since its founding, water, health, education and economic projects have grown to cover a 176-square kilometer area in West Sumba and the Foundation has flourished and changed the lives of tens of thousands of people. The communities are prospering like never before while families rise out of poverty thanks to better health, better education and more economic opportunities provided by Nihi Sumba and the Sumba Foundation.

To date, a network of four clinics built and staffed by the Foundation has treated over 407,000 patients. In critical cases of malnutrition and malaria, these clinics have aided in direct intervention, recording more than 400 children’s lives saved. Malaria infection rates have reduced by more than 93% in the Sumba Foundation core area since establishing its Malaria Reduction and Eradication Project in 2004, and a 70% reduction island-wide is attributed to a Malaria Training Center established by the Foundation in 2010. 400 students have graduated from the Malaria Training Center with WHO certification, delivering 150,000 reliable diagnoses per year. The students primarily come from Sumba but 20% are from other islands in eastern Indonesia. The Sumba Foundation has distributed 12,000 treated mosquito nets and treated over 50,000 cases of malaria. More than 65 water wells and a network of 260 water stations have been developed in the region, providing water to 27,000 people who are living in widely dispersed communities.

With the help of volunteers and in collaboration with surgeons out of Australia, there have been over 800 eye surgeries performed and 10,000 eyeglasses distributed for the people on Sumba island. Over 120 children have had cleft palate surgeries, 500 villagers have been treated at the Sumba Foundation’s dental facility and 3 children were sent overseas for life-saving surgeries in Australia and New Zealand.

22 primary schools are now supported by the Foundation, supplied with water, toilets, tables and chairs, libraries and books, teaching aids for the teachers and school supplies for 5,500 students each school term. In these schools, core curriculum is preparing the next generation for future employment opportunities through English Language Projects, teaching 1,100 primary and secondary school children English and basic computer skills. In 11 primary schools, The Sumba Foundation School Lunch Project feeds 2,600 children three days a week, and critically malnourished infants needing immediate intervention have been through the Foundation’s 6-month Infant Nutrition Program, over 1,160 young children being helped to date.

Often, the most impactful donors for the Foundation are the guests of Nihi Sumba. Under the model created by the Graves and made to thrive under Chris Burch, Nihi Sumba allows its guests to be personally involved in the projects for which they are helping to fund, adding a tremendous value to a stay at Nihi Sumba. The resort’s role in the Foundation’s mission is instrumental in helping alleviate the island’s poverty, as hundreds of jobs were created both inside and outside of the resort, without which there could be no hope of lifting the community out of their harsh economic conditions. The Sumba Foundation paired with Chris Burch’s Nihi Sumba is a rare, distinct model of a mutually beneficial relationship — a non-profit working side by side with a for-profit business. This model has received recognition from the World Travel and Tourism Council in 2007, awarded the Tourism for Tomorrow Award — the major who’s-who of all travel awards. The Nihi Sumba model was hailed by one of the award’s judges as “a shining example of what can be achieved when people have commitment and there is a close collaboration between local people, owners and guests … an inspiring and fascinating story that will serve as a model for other places.”

A great example of this model was on display this month with the reported visit to Nihi Sumba by world-famous David and Victoria Beckham and family. The couple, vacationing in Bali, took time to visit Sumba and give back to the community. Victoria’s Instagram posts showed her husband David and their four children Brooklyn, Romeo, Cruz, and Harper playing soccer with the local Sumba kids and teaching them English. Another video showed Cruz and Harper saying phrases while a group of young children repeated their words back. Victoria also documented Harper playing clapping games with a little girl, while others showed David kicking the soccer ball back and forth with the Sumba children.

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victoriabeckham Inspiring day spending time as a family with the teachers and happy students @nihisumba@sumbafoundation X VB

The Sumbanese kids looked to be delighted spending time with the family of six. Victoria shared a video of a group of students waving to the camera and exclaiming, “we are happy!” while David posted clips of his impromptu soccer clinic, which was a massive hit, the village’s kids laughing and running after the ball while playing with the famous footballer. In Victoria’s final Instagram shot, her family poses with a group of Sumba kids who have just had a fun and exciting day with the family: “Inspiring day spending time as a family with the teachers and happy students,” she wrote.

With the enthusiastic support of hotel guests and benefactors, Nihi Sumba has become a philanthropic vehicle dedicated to supporting the Sumba Foundation’s projects. During their stay, guests are introduced to the Foundation’s efforts through an impactful presentation and short film, and during cultural immersion retreats offered on the island. Guests are also welcomed to join the Sumba Foundation team for volunteer projects — like serving hearty lunches in a Sumba school cafeteria, handing out books and crayons or playing games with students. By educating the resort’s guests of the Sumba Foundation’s mission, many subsequently become donors, resulting in the award-winning, compassionate collaboration between a resort and its local community that today co-exists with compelling reciprocity as the resort gets to employ its neighbors and the Foundation gets to pump its money back into the community. Since 2001, the Foundation has set up over 15 primary schools, built 48 water wells and 5 medical clinics, supplied 172 villages with clean water and heavily reduced malaria-affected villages. Burch often shares glimpses into the Foundation and his ties with the Sumbanese people in his social media accounts.

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jchristopherburch @storiesandobjects visited @nihisumba to spend time with the island’s talented ikat weavers. Please take time to watch the beautiful video (link in my bio), and when you shop the colorful textiles, a portion of proceeds benefits the @sumbafoundation . Thank you @storiesandobjects !!! 📸@taniasmagicaltravels

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jchristopherburch So happy to be back with these incredible students in Sumba #TheSumbaFoundation @nihiwatu

In addition to the success of Nihi Sumba and its inspiring model of sustainable tourism and community outreach, Burch has an extensive entrepreneurial background and status as an active investor across diverse industries, contributing to the rise of multiple technology and luxury brands, including Jawbone, Tory Burch, Poppin and Voss Water. He is a former board member of Tory Burch, Guggenheim Capital and The Continuum Group, and owns a hefty property portfolio that includes homes in the Hamptons, Nantucket and private residence at Nihi Sumba.

The businessman’s entrepreneurial success dates back to 1976 while an undergrad at Ithaca College in New York where he and his brother Bob invested $2,000 to start Eagle’s Eye apparel. The story goes that they brothers started buying sweaters for ten bucks and flipping them for fifteen, expanding the business from door-to-door through campus to retail stores to over $140 million in sales over the next decade. After building to over 50 retail stores, Eagle’s Eye was partially sold to Swire Group in 1989, and then entirely sold in 1998 in a deal that valued the brand at $60 million.

In 2004, Burch helped launch the Tory Burch fashion label and served as co-Chairman. He owned 28.3%, and sold half in December 2012 for an estimated $650 million, as the company was estimated to be worth $3.5 billion. J. Christopher Capital LLC was established in 2008, later renamed Burch Creative Capital for which he developed to incubate his new brands and to manage his investments. In 2011, Burch launched apparel and home décor retailer C. Wonder, purchased by Xcel Brands in 2012. A partnership with Ellen DeGeneres and the launch of the lifestyle brand ED by Ellen DeGeneres was announced in July 2014. Burch is currently supporting the development of other lifestyle and consumer product brands including BaubleBar, Blink Health, Brad’s Raw Foods, Chubbies, Little Duck Organics, and Soludos.

Burch was on the Rothman Institute Orthopedic Foundation board and a former president of The Pierre Hotel Co-op Board. He has helped fund research and philanthropic initiatives of Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York, NYU Langone, The Sumba Foundation, The China Association of Social Work, The Child Welfare League of China and The Henry Street Settlement.

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