A sabbatical story...
Reinier's 20 Lunch Challenge Across Southeast Asia
On a sabbatical from his career as a designer and consultant, Reinier spent 6 months in southeast Asia offering free consulting and coaching to positive impact businesses in exchange for lunch. His goal was 20 lunches in 20 weeks while traveling across the Philippines, Vietnam, Bali, Singapore and Thailand with his family.
Sitting at a cafe in beautiful Hoi An, Vietnam, awaiting the arrival of 5-10 disabled Vietnamese artists who want your help starting their own crafts collective. Your daughter is chasing the colourful fish around the cafe’s fish pond. As the sun sets, Hoi An’s famous lanterns alight.
You heard the story of the disabled artisans a few days ago after making an announcement at an expat event offering your services as a design and brand consultant for free. A quiet woman approached you after the crowds had thinned and told you an unbelievable story about a group of 13 disabled artists who had been mistreated by the foundation setup to support them.
She gets you in touch with a Vietnamese engineer who is trying to help the artists, and who could speak good English. After meeting her over coffee, she organises a date when the artists are available and offers to translate for you.
The artists begin to arrive a few at a time, riding their three-wheeled scooters directly up to the cafe tables and settling in — an alternative to wheelchairs, much more suitable for Vietnamese lifestyles. They are warm, cheerful and seem deeply appreciative of the time, energy and attention that you and the translator are giving them.
Over the course of the evening you learn about their skills, strength and perseverance. There’s a particular moment when one of the artisans, who has a heavy limp, jumps off his scooter and chases after your daughter and then the two giggle endlessly. He didn’t hesitate to leap at the opportunity to play, without fear of falling in front of the large crowd.
One of the artisans suggests a name for their group in Vietnamese. The translator smiles, but does not quite know the right words in English. She puts it into a translator and shows you the screen: Rise Up.
Over the next weeks while helping the Rise Up Artisans, you see first hand the power of their story and the willingness of busy professionals who do not normally volunteer their time to help them. And you get as much energy from them as they get from you.
Inspiration strikes at midnight
Reinier didn’t want to spend his sabbatical simply traveling aimlessly. He knew he loved southeast Asian food, but he didn’t know much else. He wanted to learn something deeper about the people and places he was visiting. But he didn’t know anything about building schools or volunteering for an NGO.
As a product designer and startup consultant, southeast Asia fascinated him. Its young population, rapid growth, and dizzying pace of development excited him. What does entrepreneurship look like in a digital hub like Ho Chi Minh? Where can I meet people with innovative ideas? How can I get involved in just a short period?
One night when he should have been sleeping, it hit him — free consulting for entrepreneurs and startups, in exchange for lunch. Our Working Lunch!
He had almost 15 years of design and consulting experience for big multinationals and small startups, but as a paid consultant he didn’t have much choice over clients and ideas. He wanted to access people and ideas in their early stages, startups too young to afford him as a consultant. But not just any startup — startups that wanted to make a positive impact in the world. If they thought his advice was helpful, they’d buy him lunch.
Ideas flow best on a full stomach
The format was simple, but highly effective. He spread the word by contacting co-working spaces, startup incubators, asking friends from southeast Asia to post his invitation to their LinkedIn profiles, and connecting with expat groups.
Coachees would contact Reinier and he would ask them to come up with one central business problem they were trying to solve. The coachee would pick the restaurant, and Reinier would order the same thing as his host. This way he could try new foods as he listened to new ideas.
Trust those without an agenda
The effectiveness of this format was in the fact that Reinier was volunteering — he had no vested interest in the business, he wasn’t aiming to please the coachee or withhold key advice to lure them into a paid service, and he didn’t know them personally. This created an atmosphere of trust and enabled everyone to speak openly and face Reinier’s rather confronting questions.
Startups and entrepreneurs’ business success is interconnected with the personalities of those leading the business. An entrepreneur’s personal weaknesses become business weaknesses, and Reinier quickly realised that personal coaching came hand-in-hand with the business consulting he had set out to do.
His shortest lunch was 45 minutes, his longest 3 hours. But everyone walked away energised, with impactful insights. The feedback he received from everyone was overwhelmingly positive, and many people asked him if they could do something similar.
Volunteerism for busy working professionals
By the time Reinier got back home to Amsterdam, he had coached 30 businesses, mostly in Southeast Asia. He was rested, full of energy, and didn’t want to slip back into the grind of daily life back home. Amsterdam is full of entrepreneurs and startups — it feels like every cafe barista and dog walker has a business idea brewing.
But between his work and home commitments, it didn’t feel like there was much time to give.
But everyone needs to eat! If he could make Our Working Lunch work without a sabbatical, then he would really have a mechanism for busy working professionals anywhere to share their knowledge and help positive impact businesses grow.
His new goal is 20 lunches within 20 km, and to help others do the same.
“Everyone needs to eat! Lunch is a perfect time to reflect and re-prioritize.”
Reinier Halbertsma is a Dutch-Canadian industrial designer and strategic consultant who lives in Amsterdam with his wife and kids.