Patti Chu wants to help startups make a positive social impact in Asia

Written by Taro Ishida Published on     5 mins read

Patti shares her views on raising awareness about the environment.

Patti Chu is a people-connector and is passionate about making social impact. Patti’s experience ranges in the fields of banking, access to finance, education, and renewable energy. Her wealth of project experience includes working with banking institutions in China to offer microfinance products to small businesses; evaluating Lego Foundation’s grantee portfolio in Asia and creating a new strategy for the region; analyzing and implementing improvements to increase production efficiency and lower costs for Siemens wind power division.

Patti is a native of Argentina and has working experience in Latin America, the United States, Asia, and Europe. She has a B.Sc. in Business Administration from the University of Richmond, and an M.A. in International Development and Economics from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. She speaks Spanish, Chinese, Portuguese, and Danish.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

KrASIA (Kr): Can you explain what your career background was like before, and how Mana Impact came about?

Patti Chu (PC): When I moved to Singapore about 8 years ago, I knew I wanted to work in the social impact space and found this opportunity with the Asian Venture Philanthropy Network (AVPN). That experience gave me the opportunity to understand the landscape of social and environmental impact in Asia, but I also started to realize certain gaps, which led to my co-founder and I starting Mana Impact.

In the beginning, we didn’t really have a sector focus, both of us just really cared about the environment, which unfortunately was not common in Asia. Another thing is that a large part of the economy in Asia is centered around agriculture and aquaculture. However, the farmers don’t get paid the most, and hence our mission was to provide fairness and transparency in this major industry.

Kr: What parked your concern for the environment?

PC: I think it’s partially driven by my children. Climate change is a thing, there are so many disasters happening in our world, and I feel that not a lot of people realize this fact. Our planet’s resources are finite, and I think we don’t like to face this reality.

Kr: Can you tell us more about your work to create positive social and environmental impact?

PC: I would say that in today’s world, there’s a lot more interest and awareness even among mainstream players like big banks who have launched things like natural capital funds, which is great for the ecosystem. But I think institutions are more risk-averse.

As an ecosystem, you have to be able to also invest at an early stage, which is a challenge, and we felt that we could provide this additional help. Our investment filtering criteria is quite complex as well. Firstly, we want to work with founders that are genuinely interested in solving a social and environmental issue, and not just greenwashing because it’s the flavor of the day.

Next, the business model itself is also important in order for the impact to be sustained. We also look at whether the organization addresses our key priorities in creating an impact. There’s so much work to do and we can’t tackle everything, so we have our own mission to keep ourselves on track, and so the work has to be aligned with that as well.

Kr: How would you compare the awareness of climate change and environmental issues in Southeast Asia with the rest of the world?

PC: I think there’s a lot more history in the West when it comes to environmental awareness. But I also see that it’s picking up quite a bit here, and I do think that millennials are quite aware and conscious about it. In Southeast Asia, the market is nascent, but it’s where a lot of issues like plastic pollution and leakages happen.

Since most of Southeast Asia is agriculture-based, there are so many chemicals and pesticides that are being put into the ground that we don’t know of, and it affects our health and the environment. I do wish that there would be more startups looking at this topic as well, and coming up with solutions.

Kr: For startups and aspiring founders who want to create a social or environmental impact, what are some of the initiatives that you would like to see them pursue to help Southeast Asia improve its environment?

PC: One example would be reducing waste, and coming up with more circular systems to encourage reusing items, like using Tupperware, for example. For takeout, instead of styrofoam containers, having biodegradable alternatives. Another thing would be lowering the use of packaging. We’re just used to everything being wrapped in something, and it’s really such a big waste. Hence, these zero waste models are really interesting for us.

Kr: With everyone stuck at home in 2020, what sort of impact do you think this will have on the environment in the short and long term?

PC: I think people think that all we’ve done so much environmentally because we’re not traveling, in terms of air travel and transportation. But I don’t think that the net contribution has been as significant as we think. The increase of online food and package delivery together with the usage of disposable materials has exacerbated the negative impact and offset any benefits we may have created.

Kr: What do you think are some of the biggest challenges for large companies trying to become more environmentally friendly?

PC: Behavioural change is always difficult, so I think there needs to be a top-down strategic decision, especially in Asia. In larger international companies, there are a lot of things put into place. For example, Microsoft is looking to go carbon negative through buying offsets and investing in all kinds of new technologies, and so there’s already this positive trend.

For the smaller or medium-sized Asian companies, however, a lot more education is needed. In Singapore, the introduction of mandatory sustainability reporting by the SGX only started two years ago. Hence, I think a rewiring exercise is required to educate employees, and this is a pretty big task. It’s not just about reducing the waste that you produce at the office level, like putting a couple more bins, you have to actually do it at a whole system level, involving your entire supply chain.

Kr: What are your key takeaways from 2020?

PC: I think lockdown was really tough for me, managing homeschooling my kids as well as my work. But as I come out of it, I am appreciative grateful for what I have. I also realized how important it is to have good partners. As hard as this work is, they are still very committed to the cause, which in general is reassuring to know that we are on the right track. A key takeaway is that although things aren’t easy, one has to persevere and keep up the good and positive energy.

You can tune in alternatively on Anchor.


Taro Ishida


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