5 Intriguing Association Leaders: Jack Sim

By: Summer Faust

Many association professionals are going above and beyond in their work, but here are five leaders who are setting the bar with innovative initiatives and goals that will better their organizations and their communities.

Read all five profiles in "5 Intriguing Associations Leaders":

The Humorist

Jack Sim, 53
Founder, World Toilet Organization, Singapore
Worked in associations since founding WTO in 2001.

Jack Sim has a potty mouth. That is, he's ready to talk toilets any time.

Sim, founder of the Singapore-based World Toilet Organization (WTO), is a former construction and real-estate development entrepreneur who left behind the for-profit world to become a sanitation advocate. Sim knows that talking toilets is taboo but has found that using humor can go a long way. "The pun on the World Trade Organization also works wonders," says Sim.

There are 2.6 billion people worldwide without access to proper sanitation, and Sim says those affected most are embarrassed or unaware of the serious health issues at stake. "Instead of using charity, which has proven to be too slow for impact, WTO is turning the problem into a massive business opportunity by training the poor to produce, trade, and sell toilets and small onsite sanitation systems so that each household can buy very affordable sanitation systems for as little as $35 per family."

With a goal to cut the number of those without access to proper sanitation in half by 2015, WTO is working on a distribution franchise that will train the underprivileged and connect world-class designers, technologists, and companies to collaborate. Sim says early results are promising, and WTO is inviting more countries and for-profit businesses to participate.

Associations Now: What led you to make the decision to leave the for-profit world?

Sim: The main motivation for me is the knowledge that life does come to an end around the age of 80, plus or minus. Therefore, given the finite number of days left on planet Earth, I see a great urgency to live a useful and meaningful life before my expiry date is due and I die. I need to make the most of every minute I am still here to do something useful. Once you realize that, money seems very trivial. I was 40 when I realized that I'm at halftime. I decided that I don't need more money because I can live simply and cheaply. Most of my travels are through invitation, and if I have to pay for the flights, I go economy or budget airlines, I stay in cheap places, and sometimes hostels and dorms.

How do you approach a topic like toilet availability in a way that's meaningful? What motivates you to keep talking about it?

I can speak at level with world leaders at Davos, or a slum dweller in India, or anyone at all. Toilets make everyone equal. No matter who you are, when you've gotta go, you gotta go.

A public relations expert told me he was amazed that WTO's brand has sustained and grown so big over the years. He remembered that the first time he read about the World Toilet Organization was at breakfast. His immediate reaction was, "Gosh, these people have got the wrong name. Who'd believe them with a name like that?" Three hours later, he was having his second cup of coffee and his thought was, "Gosh, these people have the best name for their organization and their mission!" He said it took him three hours to figure it out because the name stuck in his head for three hours. It is true, once people have heard of WTO, it stays with them for life. The heart-shaped toilet seat cover [logo] is also very lovable for everyone. That's why I've continued talking about [sanitation] for 10 years now. Passion drives media that drives legitimacy that drives support that, in turn, fuels the passion continuously.

What are some of the biggest challenges in working internationally? What are some of the biggest advantages?

I see the international challenge as a much easier way to solve problems at scale. It is very expensive to solve problems at a local level, but once you have a marketplace of 2.6 billion, everything can become extremely affordable. If we cut the "bureaucrazy" processes of the charity model and go directly to help the poor and bring out their entrepreneurial spirit, you have a sustainable model where they can learn to help themselves rather than keep waiting for a handout.

Through working at WTO for the sanitation mission, I felt the world much smaller and much more cohesive than when I was [starting] businesses. I'd have never seen so many new dimensions in humanity if I'd stayed on the narrow journey of making more money that I don't need.

Summer Faust is project editor at ASAE. Email: [email protected]

Read all five profiles in "5 Intriguing Associations Leaders":