DiscoverAshley Talks – Asia Tech Podcast264: Sam Waldo (Ashley Talks ASH14)
264: Sam Waldo (Ashley Talks ASH14)

264: Sam Waldo (Ashley Talks ASH14)

Update: 2018-05-30
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Podcast highlights:



  • 00:51 What is your story? Why China? -- I studied Chinese at university, it seemed a very challenging thing to do. I came to China on a study-abroad and it was obvious China was the place to be. In 2010, I joined a non-profit called Teach for China (link to Chinese language website). What better way to plan for a long-term career in China than to start from the ground up?

  • 25:15 How would you define modern Chinese consumers? -- Young Chinese consumers are slowly moving in a more socially-conscious direction. Things you already see are environmental awareness, health, and a desire for a cleaner, more simplistic lifestyle. This is completely brand new in China. One thing you see is companies who try to copy this model don't do too well because they lack the authenticity. This is really important if you are going to succeed in this space.

  • 39:30 What has been your experience as a foreigner doing business in China? -- As a foreigner you have a ceiling. There are places you can't go and things you can't do. At the end of the day I'm not Chinese and I'm never going to be Chinese. This will always limit what you can achieve. But there are things you can tap into as a foreigner. Interestingly Chinese people have told us they trust our motives more because we are foreigners. There remains a strong suspicion that Chinese people doing charity work are trying to get rich and famous.


Podcast notes:


  • 00:05 ASH13 - Ashley Talks with Ashley Galina Dudarenok and Sam Waldo, co-founder of Mantra.

  • 00:51 What is your story? Why China? -- I studied Chinese at university, it seemed a very challenging thing to do. I came to China on a study-abroad and it was obvious China was the place to be. In 2010, I joined a non-profit called Teach for China (link to Chinese language website). What better way to plan for a long-term career in China than to start from the ground up?

  • 04:18 Teach for China was a eye-opening experience for so many of us because as high-achieving Americans, we assumed we were going to just go to these places in rural China and make an immediate impact. The reality, however, was different. The systemic problems facing our students were much larger than any of us could solve in two years.

  • 06:13 We found we could more directly help these students when we discovered so many of them had serious vision issues. You could see how vision-impairment was keeping these students back. So we got the idea to do a small glasses project. We self-funded a small project to get glasses and eye exams to around 500 students in Yunnan province where we were teaching. We consistently found 90+% of students who needed glasses didn't have them. From these early efforts we grew into the non-profit Education in Sight, which we've run since 2012.

  • 09:15 We are proud of the work we've done, but to give a sense of scale, researchers who have looked at the problem estimate 30 million students in rural China lack access to needed vision care. This is equal to the entire population of Canada!

  • 10:05 After you've given kids glasses, were you able to see results? -- First, research has shown that when done correctly, vision care intervention is equivalent to an additional year of schooling. So this is potentially a very impactful project. That said, when we got started we didn't really know what we were doing and how to, for example, ensure students consistently wore their glasses.

  • 13:30 We found in many rural areas lots of misunderstanding about wearing glasses. Some adults still think that if you wear glasses, you will become reliant on them and that it's better to not wear them so your vision will improve. Obviously this goes against modern scientific understanding of how vision impairment works.

  • 15:41 Do you have plans to expand and cover other regions? -- We are always looking for ways to expand. For now though our focus remains on Yunnan province where we have the networks.

  • 17:30 Now onto Mantra. Tell us about this social enterprise. -- One thing my co-founder and I wanted to do is get ourselves out of the cycle of being dependent on donors for funding. We wanted to break free from the situation where we were always concerned if we would have the resources necessary to carry out our vision.

  • 21:58 We started looking at other companies like TOMS, who have really pioneered this buy-one, give-one model. This model of socially-conscious consumption is integral to those brands. We saw the potential for this to work in China where no one was serving this market.

  • 25:15 How would you define modern Chinese consumers? -- Young Chinese consumers are slowly moving in a more socially-conscious direction. Things you already see are environmental awareness, health, and a desire for a cleaner, more simplistic lifestyle. This is completely brand new in China. One thing you see is companies who try to copy this model don't do too well because they lack the authenticity. This is really important if you are going to succeed in this space.

  • 30:20 How do you build the emotion in the consumer and show you're in this space for "authentic" reasons? -- We worked to build our story. You have to find the way to communicate what makes you unique to your target customer. There is so much content today. You need to have something that can cut through all the other noise, even if it's only for a day.

  • 37:20 What is your experience using bloggers and Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs)? -- This experience has been mixed. We started trying to find people who maybe didn't have a huge following but whose style matched our own. There is no easy formula to know what will work.

  • 39:30 What has been your experience as a foreigner doing business in China? -- As a foreigner you have a ceiling. There are places you can't go and things you can't do. At the end of the day I'm not Chinese and I'm never going to be Chinese. This will always limit what you can achieve. But there are things you can tap into as a foreigner. Interestingly Chinese people have told us they trust our motives more because we are foreigners. There remains a strong suspicion that Chinese people doing charity work are trying to get rich and famous.

  • 44:29 I want Mantra to be successful so we can show people in China you can mix business and charity as long as you're high on integrity and genuineness. I also hope we can show you can in fact make money doing this type of socially-conscious work.

  • 45:50 Right now how do Mantra and Education in Sight work together? -- We do a percentage of revenue. Because Education in Sight is not just providing glasses but rather also training doctors and helping educate people on the importance of vision, we cannot just simply rely on donating glasses from Mantra. So according to our sales at Mantra we will make a certain size donation to Education in Sight, which they will roll into their budget.

  • 48:10 What are some of your favorite social brands? -- Let's see, there's Soapbox soaps. I'm a huge fan of Warby Parker.

  • 49:53 What do you think is going to be the future of China? -- What keeps me optimistic are the people I've met and been able to work with. The world needs young Chinese people who find more than just commercial success or stability. China is rapidly moving towards being true to yourself and finding a way to be unique.

  • 52:36 Do you think China is misunderstood right now in the rest of the world? -- I don't think average Americans, even well-educated Americans, understand China at all. People just don't know what's going on. There is still a long way to go for China to help the world understand it.

  • 57:15 How does it feel to be named 30 Under 30 by Forbes? -- I feel I've learned a good deal about myself because of this. I hope it is useful but it struck me how far we still have to go. I hope this will help us magnify our voice and get more resources for our projects.

  • 58:26 Where are you going next? -- We are looking to scale. We've done a proof-of-concept basically, now we need to take Mantra from the kernel where we are now and really grow.

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264: Sam Waldo (Ashley Talks ASH14)

264: Sam Waldo (Ashley Talks ASH14)

Bharath K