When in Rome… Or Kuala Lumpur


One of my favorite sayings is, “Travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer.” Having lived in 8 countries and worked in 55 over the course of my career, this unattributed quote speaks to my soul. As an avid traveler, I love exploring new and familiar places, learning about the history, and immersing myself in the local culture as much as possible. Most of all, I love meeting people in person and getting to know them at a level that’s impossible to replicate virtually.

Earlier this summer, I visited Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (aka KL) with my colleagues Nataša Goronja and Karen Carter for the AVPN Global Conference at the invitation of our corporate partner Chevron. This annual conference, hosted by the Asia Venture Philanthropy Network, is a little like speed dating — in the best possible way. Between us, we met hundreds of people, had dozens of meetings, collected stacks of business cards (still essential in Asian business culture), and forged meaningful connections with potential partners, investors, and journalists. Our session on Building an Entrepreneur-centric Ecosystem was also well received and featured in Pioneers Post.

Miller Center’s involvement in the AVPN Conference and our subsequent tour of Singapore, Indonesia, and the Philippines enabled us to develop and deepen relationships with social entrepreneurs, impact investors, incubators, NGOs, and other influencers in the social enterprise ecosystem. And while I lived in Southeast Asia for four years in a previous life, this was my first visit to the region with Miller Center. Spending time with the people we met on this trip and witnessing the impact they’re having daily in the communities they serve was an incredibly meaningful experience.

One fantastic opportunity came when we asked to visit our social enterprise alum PichaEats during our stay in KL. Co-founder Suzanne Ling responded with an offer to either visit their office mid-day or join her for dinner at the home of one of their chefs. Without hesitation, we jumped at the dinner invitation. PichaEats provides sustainable livelihoods to refugees living in Malaysia through catering for events, corporations, and homes. All meals are lovingly cooked by chefs from Syria, Palestine, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Over a wonderful meal, we heard Chef Osama’s story of persecution in his home country and learned about the challenges of living in Malaysia, where refugees have no legal status or protection. PichaEats offers a ray of hope.

The Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre is a beautiful, award-winning, state-of-the-art convention center with magnificent views of the 50-acre KLCC Park and the iconic Petronas Twin Towers. It is, nonetheless, a convention center. So after three days indoors, we escaped to another iconic site in KL — the 400 million-year-old Batu Caves, which are also a revered Hindu pilgrimage site. It’s impossible to approach the caves without being awestruck by the 140-foot (42.7-meter) statue of the Hindu deity Lord Murugan. After gazing upward, we climbed the 272 colorful steps to the Temple Cave, passing fearless macaque monkeys along the way.

In Singapore, we met with Alex Tee, Managing Director of our longtime partner, Beneficial Returns, for lunch. Alex took us to an unassuming Indian restaurant in Singapore’s Little India, where we had, arguably, some of the best Indian food in the country. Laina Raveendran Greene, founder and CEO of Angels of Impact, who we met over lunch the previous day, recommended the restaurant to Alex — just one indication during this trip of how tight-knit the impact ecosystem in Singapore is. Although full to the brim, we couldn’t resist fresh coconuts from a nearby vendor.

Having a weekend in Singapore was also a treat. When I lived in Indonesia, my family and I loved taking the short flight from Jakarta for a long weekend, enjoying the city’s attractions, multicultural cuisine, and, of course, shopping! On this trip, we explored the city’s vibrant Chinatown and the gorgeous and other-worldly Gardens by the Bay from our base at the Scarlet Hotel — a row of converted 1868 shophouses and one of the oldest conservation buildings in Singapore. When I travel, I always prefer to stay somewhere with a sense of place, and often a better rate, over a Western chain. The Scarlet delivered.

From there, Nataša headed to Indonesia for a Meet & Greet hosted for Miller Center by our partner, Impact Hub Jakarta, followed by more invaluable face-to-face meetings and visits to Nazava Water Filters’ production facility in Bandung, Java, and Torajamelo’s showroom of contemporary women’s wear, ethically crafted from hand-woven textiles by artisans in Nusa Tenggara Timur, Indonesia.

In the Philippines, we were honored to be featured guests at the quarterly Impact Happy Hour hosted by Villgro, xchange, and Ashoka and joined by our social enterprise alums LIKHÂ and Cropital. Over the next week, we had more incredible opportunities to meet with local organizations working to eliminate poverty and uplift communities across the country, including the Aboitiz Foundation, Card Bank, RAFI, and the University of San Carlos School of Business & Economics Center for Social Entrepreneurship. Best of all, we visited rural artisan communities with our social enterprise alums LIKHÂ and ANTHILL Fabric Gallery.

From our hotel in bustling Metro Manila, we rode an hour and a half to Pulilan with LIKHÂ founder Nathalie Lim to meet the talented artisans who create the company’s immensely popular animal planters. Amidst engaging conversations and basket-making demonstrations, we were treated to a delicious homemade lunch of lumpia, fried plantains, and other local favorites, followed by a lively karaoke session. I couldn’t resist joining the fun with Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’.” Our visit also aligned with an assessment conducted by Nest, which supports the responsible growth and creative engagement of the artisan and maker economy to build greater gender equity and economic inclusion. As Nathalie shared, “​​Our work with Nest and their Ethical Handcraft Program has allowed us to ask ourselves difficult but important questions as we strive to meet higher standards for artisan well-being and navigate the complexities of our supply chain.”

After a full day, we dashed through the airport to catch our flight to Cebu City. Early the next morning, we made the two-hour trek to Argao with Anya Lim, co-founder and managing director of ANTHILL Fabric Gallery. There, we spent time with a community of artisans who weave many of ANTHILL’s fabrics, including their innovative zero-waste products. The weavers upcycle manufacturing scraps into new fabrics that would otherwise go to landfills, creating beautiful new fabrics with intricate weaves. It was an honor to spend time with these women and hear their stories and aspirations. Anya also shared ANTHILL’s commitment to provide consistent demand, support growth in the artisans’ production capacity, and nurture pride for their talent and skills.

Through our travels, we learned so much from seeing the work of these social entrepreneurs up close and personal as they strive to mitigate poverty and overcome challenges in the communities they serve through sustainable, market-based solutions. Spending time with them only reinforced our impressions of their innovation, hard work, commitment, and compassion.

We’re incredibly grateful to Chevron, who made the trip possible as a further extension of our three-year initiative, Advancing Climate Resilience Solutions in Asia Pacific. The program is designed to support high-potential social enterprises in Southeast Asia that are developing bottom-up solutions in climate-smart agriculture, safe water, and renewable energy for the world’s most vulnerable communities.


Photo captions:

  • A weaving lesson with ANTHILL Fabric Gallery
  • Outside our conference session with Hiral Sarvaiya Chauhan of AVPN, AB Chakravarthy of Upaya Social Ventures, Danny Wright of Gravity Water, Rebekkah Angelyn of Yayasan Rumah Energi, and Dee Bourbon of Chevron
  • Wonderful dinner with PichaEats Chef Osama and his family. Teechawan Yanudom of Chevron (second from right) joined us.
  • A visit to Batu Caves
  • Fresh coconuts with Alex Tee of Beneficial Returns
  • The Scarlet Singapore received the Singapore Architectural Heritage Award 2005 for its renovation of 1868 shophouses and a vintage 1924 Art Deco building.
  • With LIKHÂ founder Nathalie Lim (right) and Czarina, one of LIKHA’s fair trade partners
  • ANTHILL Fabric Gallery founder Anya Lim (left) trading stories with our artisan hosts during our visit