Mechai Viravaidya is a compellingly progressive figure. Our introduction to his style came in form of an invitation to his restaurant, a hotspot called Cabbages and Condoms.
Mechai has been a significant force in reducing AIDS in Thailand, and he has done it with flair. By using creativity and humor, he allowed condoms to be commonly discussed and adopted into modern life. His work is quite well documented and internationally recognized with a multitude of awards, so will only reference his own links here.
What was even more curious was the serious conviction and detailed planning coming from a man surrounded by colorful artwork made from condoms. He boiled his approach down to a pretty simple but powerful insight: every NGO (nonprofit) has to get money from somewhere, and it usually requires lots of time and effort to secure sponsors to get the required funding. He thought it simpler to approach every NGO as a sister effort to a for-profit venture. So the proceeds that comes from the wildly successful Cabbages and Condoms goes straight to the NGO aimed at preventing HIV/AIDS. It may be simpler but it could be twice the headache – now he has to run a successful restaurant and run and a successful NGO. However time that would be spent fundraising and networking can be focused on the restaurant. Better yet, the more the two efforts are understood as a team, the more it resonates with the community and thus reinforce each other. Going to Cabbages and Condoms is not just fun, it’s perceived as doing some good, too.
Mechai has replicated this approach in several different ways, including his latest effort to re-imagine education in Thailand. His Mechai Pattana “Bamboo School” has garnered significant attention. Mechai once again employs a two-pronged approach to the schools. The students have to perform useful community service which vitally connects the school to the region. The school term centers around rice planting and harvesting so students can participate and learn about farming. Furthermore students have to operate businesses that will have positive social impact with the community. Finally, in their last year they are sent to Pattaya to be immersed in a much different atmosphere, with their campus being located at Mechai’s Bird & Bees Resort.
It seems there is no end to Mechai’s ability to innovate across economic sectors and across Thailand, creating connections all along the way. I think there is a lot for the rest of us to learn here – especially on how to be brave with humor.