In developing economies, widespread poverty means exploitation for labor is commonplace. Low paid, or enslaved workers, subsidize the cost of products exported to the West.
Nathanael Foo is a social entrepreneur, and MBA graduate from Australia’s UWA Business School, determined to fix this problem. He’s founded threeonesix, a social enterprise which commercializes everyday products to support, rather than exploit, producers from developing countries.
His aim: to impact the world through conscious consumption. His first stop: Northern Thailand, where the global slavery index records almost 500,000 people are working under a modern form of slavery.
By bringing high-quality, ethically-made Thai tea to the Australian market, Nathanael aims to empower a vulnerable local community and drive direct social impact on the ground.
Previously, Nathanael worked for Not For Sale, an international anti-human trafficking NGO based in California, before relocating home to Perth, Australia, for his MBA.
How did the idea for threeonesix come about?
My passion is in ending poverty and ending human trafficking. I’ve worked in Northern Thailand and I realized there, that underdeveloped local industry leads to a high instance of exploitation for labor and sex.
I wanted to find a way to support a local, quality product producer in Thailand, so I could scale their operations, help develop their customer markets and empower people in need with jobs and appropriate wages.
There are other companies that donate their profits for social good, but I wanted to explore the model of creating direct social impact.
People down the supply chain are subsidizing our cost for cheap tea through their own salaries and their own quality of life.
Tea is actually quite a high quality product in terms of the biological and health benefits that it brings. And I certainly think that you can extract more value out of tea in terms of how it’s consumed and what it means to people.
What challenges do you face?
In Australia we’ve been tea drinkers for a while, tea has become a highly commoditized product and people expect to pay a low price for it.
Re-educating consumers and creating an understanding about what tea can do and the price you can expect to pay for that, is going to be a big consideration going forward.
What are your future plans for the business?
It’s still very early days. I’ve developed the supply side of the value chain, and now I’m heading out into the market. Hopefully, I can start generating a following from tea-lovers and conscious consumers that can grow organically as the year goes on.
Long-term, wherever there’s a local, underdeveloped industry that we can try and support by growing employment and new customer markets for, I will definitely look into exploring a project related to it.
What advice do you have for MBAs looking to start their own business?
Find what you’re passionate about and develop an idea that can be sustainable, both financially and socially. Have an open mind, listen to what people say about your idea and leverage your network.
Why do you think increasing numbers of MBAs are looking to make a social impact?
It’s reflective of the culture we’re in, and it’s what a lot of millennial MBAs place the most value on.
Socially-conscious companies also tend to be more economically stable. If your supply chain is deemed to exploit people, or if there’s a question mark over your ethics, it can be of huge detriment to your company.
Why did you decide to pursue an MBA at UWA?
The MBA was something that I needed to understand how business works and how I could use the key constructs of business to create some sort of change in the world.
UWA is a highly ranked school with partnerships worldwide, and the UWA MBA provides a very sound, fundamental and traditional grounding in what business management is.