How do you tackle a problem that isn’t visible or clearly defined? One many refuse to acknowledge is even a problem in the first place? And one which affects more than 600,000 people every year? In 2010, Christopher Schrader joined forces with students in Hong Kong and embraced the challenge, organising the first 24 Hour Race to confront modern slavery. The result? The first ever law in India banning a trafficking channel.
Since then, the movement has grown into the largest student-led abolitionist movement in the world. Here, the next generation is given the reins to plan, fund-raise, and advocate within their communities. The aim is to help create socially conscious individuals driven by their desire to make a positive difference in the world.
We are humbled to have had the opportunity to sit down with Christopher to learn more about his journey (which began at age 14!), the issue of human trafficking within Hong Kong and how we can all get involved. Entrepreneurs listen up: he also shares three pieces of invaluable advice for running a business.
I was born in the U.K. but moved to Hong Kong soon after, and spent the following 14 years here. That was the year my friend passed away. He had MELAS syndrome, an extremely rare disease that receives little attention from pharmaceutical industries. His mother set up the Joshua Hellmann Foundation for Orphan Disease in his memory, and I wanted to do something, too. I didn’t know what yet. I had no skills or money. I was a C-grade student at best. I came up with the idea to walk across England to raise awareness for the Orphan Diseases. Putting this idea into action took about 6 to 8 months and a great deal of positive support, but we ended up covering 600 km in 13 days and raising around 20,000 USD in the process.
Yes. Organising this event was a turning point for me. Over the next few years, I organised a series of expeditions for causes I really cared about. I had a lot of friends and strangers who approached me with their personal stories and tragedies who also wanted to take action, and I gave them advice on how to go about it.
This made me realise I wanted to make the whole experience of pushing yourself mentally and physically - and beyond that, doing it for a good cause - accessible to everyone. That was the motivation behind 24 Hour Race. Not everyone has the resources to walk across the Gobi Desert, but (almost) anyone can complete a 24 hour race. You can walk or run; it can challenge those who’ve never ran a race in their lives as well as the most capable athletes. Deciding on the physical challenge was easy. The hard part was coming up with the cause: how do we get people engaged in something that could affect everyone?
I came across a charity fighting the trafficking of children to circuses from Nepal into India. Families are approached by trusted people who promise their children a job in the city and 200 USD up-front if they agree, which can be enough to feed a family for a year. Most belong to rural communities with no electricity or tele-communications and live in abject poverty.
These children are sold into circuses, often resulting in broken bones and in some tragic cases, death. After performances they are sold for sex, essentially becoming commodities. At the time, this wasn’t recognised as slavery: it was “one human trafficking channel”. We didn’t understand slavery then the way we now do. With the help of students in Hong Kong, we organised a race, and worked with prosecutors to put an end to it. The result was the first law in US history banning human trafficking.
Firstly, I want to dispel the myth of modern slavery embodied by Taken (the film) of a young, wealthy woman kidnapped on the streets of Paris and sold into a sex-trafficking ring to a rich Arab prince. In reality, it is far more subtle and less defined. We need to rid ourselves of this image of people in chains being whipped and beaten.
Let me give you an example. An agency in my country approaches me with the prospect of work. When I arrive, they confiscate my passport, and inform me that I am heavily in debt. On my current salary, it will take years to pay back. If I turn to the government or the police, I will get arrested for not having any work papers. So I work for 12 hours a day in sweatshop conditions, for no pay: this is indentured servitude.
It’s not as simple to define as it was 150 years ago. It is easy to get behind a blatant injustice such as kidnapping. It is far more difficult to explain that it’s in the products we buy, the foods we eat, the clothes we wear - that every transaction you make fuels slavery, in some way or another.
We have three 2020 goals. The first is to be operational in 20 cities. The second is to start a second abolitionist movement. Specifically, we want to lead the global youth movement against slavery. Currently, there is no collective movement with the same kind of voice and power as the abolitionist movement of the 19th century. The third goal is to be a Y combinator for high school students, but with a social impact twist. That is, we take on a number of students who spend 6 months developing skills to run a business and leave as directors.
In fact, many have gone on to start their own businesses - some of which have achieved greater success than the 24 Hour Race. We want to help create a generation of young people who see building businesses as not being solely about profit, but an endeavour that creates social value. We don’t expect every director to become a lifelong fighter against slavery, wedo hope they become citizens of the world.
So we don’t actually control the events as much as people may think. We work with the students who put it together. We give them support - financial, and mentorship - but the challenge is on them.
Hong Kong definitely has a problem with labour - domestic helpers and construction workers. People aren’t aware of it, either. It isn’t covered by the media. There is far more publicity around refugees or immigrants, which is an easier issue to grapple with. It’s harder to confront those unwilling to give their helpers a day off during the week. The helper certainly has no choice in the matter; so it can be seen as forced labour. If she loses work, then in two weeks she’s out of the country, and if she stays on she faces arrest. Helpers also live with their employers, which further complicates things.
If everybody treated the people around them with care, respect, and dignity, the problem of slavery wouldn’t exist. Slavery is, fundamentally, an issue of exploitation. How do you treat your cab driver? Your helper? How do we treat the many people who work for us and with us, every day? If we just found a way to respect the basic dignity of others, so many of the world’s problems would be addressed by now.
You don’t have to be a world-changing, Bill Gates figure. Be a good person within your own community. Be caring, a good listener. Someone who is slow to anger, and quick to forgive. And you don’t need to be religious, follow a creed, or have someone tell you “this is the right thing to do”, either. Listen to yourself, and you’ll figure it out.
I have three pieces of advice. First - take the first step! 99% of people have ideas they simply never put to the test. There’s a survivorship bias: we only hear success stories, once the hard work is done. We all know about Justin Bieber, we don’t hear about the 100,000 other people who also put videos on Youtube looking cute with a guitar. But everyone has to take that first step - and there will never be a better time than right now. If you’re committed, you will figure out exactly what you need to make it happen.
Second, never give up. We tend to give up easily and treat failure as the end of the journey. But failure can be an integral part of discovering our strengths, and so the best step we can make is the next step. It’s tough; there’s a lot of failure, and 99% of the time it sucks, but 1% of the time it’s amazing.
The third is humility -- the ultimate accountability. I should be able to take responsibility for everything that goes wrong. If my VP’s secretary makes a mistake, then I will blame myself before blaming anyone else. If that’s your mentality as an entrepreneur then you are in a mode of constant improvement. So you treat everything - every failure, every success - as a learning opportunity. But we get things wrong all the time, and part of being an entrepreneur is admitting to that.
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25 May, 2020 - HK
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