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A global marketing challenge: Making the toilet an object of desire

By Robert S. Benchley

SimIf social entrepreneur Jack Sim had asked students what they thought of his presentation, held at the School of Business November 20, many might have told him, with a smile, that they really enjoyed talking sh*t. And Sim probably would have smiled back, happy that they got the point.

That word appeared in various permutations throughout his presentation because Sim (pictured here), who many call “Mr. Toilet,” is founder of the Singapore-based World Toilet Organization. The message he delivers everywhere he travels is that 2.5 billion people worldwide — 40 percent of the global population — have no access to a toilet. Moreover, the situation is worst in many of the developing countries with the fastest-growing populations. The result is a world health crisis, because open defection spreads diseases and pollutes the water. “One fly,” Sim told his audience, “is more dangerous than 100 tigers.”

Sim, who was awarded the Social Entrepreneur of the Year by the Schwab Foundation of Switzerland and founded 16 companies, was in the U.S. to help the United Nations observe the previous day, November 19, as World Toilet Day. He stopped in Miami on his way home to Singapore to speak in UM Ethics Programs’ Ethics, Policy and Society program. The event was chaired by John Mezias, associate professor of management, who invited Sim, and Anita Cava, professor of business law and co-director of UM Ethics Programs.

“Our parents teach us not to talk about sh*t,” Sim said, “but what you don’t talk about, you can’t improve.” Sim, who was named a Hero of the Environment by Time magazine, has dedicated himself to overcoming such taboos because he says it’s the only path to a solution to the problem. The key, he told a packed room of business students, is to ride the wave of global consumerism and make a toilet something everyone wants. “The big breakthrough will happen,” he said, “when we begin to look at the poor as customers. A toilet must be an object of desire. We want them to be as proud to own a toilet as a Louis Vuitton handbag.”

Humor aside, Sim’s message also was a metaphor for larger life and career issues. “The one thing I can promise you tonight is that all of you are going to die,” he said. “If you don’t find meaning in your life, the culture of consumerism will find it for you. You will buy things you don’t need with money you don’t have to impress people you don’t like.”

Sim discussed his own transformation from corporate executive — “renting myself out to other people” — to social entrepreneur. “As individuals, we can do a lot,” he told the students. “You just need to remember OPM — other people’s money — and OPT — other people’s talent. The whole world is waiting to partner with you. Find your passion, leverage those resources, and you can accomplish anything.”

Robert S. Benchley is a Miami-based freelance writer who often writes on business topics. He wrote this for the University of Miami School of Business.