The original post can be seen on the OPEN IDEO Medium page here.
“I was working to sell more clothes and get more money in my bank account, but with Refuture, I was going to change the way people live, and hopefully, I’d do my part to help impact the world.” — Rob Han, Founder of Refuture
A Conversation With His Boss
Rob Han packed up his life in Australia to move to China, where he landed a well-paid job in fashion as a brand manager and marketer. It was a dream: his employer was a high-end retailer with more than 70 stores around the country, and they were growing rapidly. In three short years, Rob went from the new guy to brand creative director, leading a team of 12 people. In the eyes of many, Rob was succeeding.
But inside, Rob wasn’t fulfilled, and that affected his happiness. His mantra has always been about “directing his impact,” it wasn’t supposed to be about “chasing money or a career.”
Back in high school, Rob had a different vision of what his life would look like. Like most, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do, just that he’d wanted to make a positive impact. After taking a class focused on the environment, he thought about working in sustainability, a thought that his friends laughed at.
“It was a thought I randomly voiced to friends, but because I was laughed at, I quickly dropped it and never brought it up again,” he says. “Doing something related to sustainability kept brooding under the surface over a long time.”
When he wasn’t working 12-hour days at his full-time job in fashion, Rob was focused on sustainability, getting involved with gatherings like Global Sustainability Jam — “It’s like Startup Weekend but for the Earth,” he says — and social entrepreneurship hackathons.
He didn’t want to spend all of his time influencing “rich shoppers” to buy clothes that they really didn’t need, he says.
“How much people shop, it blows your mind,” he says with a tick of frustration. “The VIPs in our shops, you’d think they’d come in one time every couple of months to buy new clothes,” he added. “But no, they were coming into our shops once every three days.”
When new collections came in, discounted clothing would disappear from the store. “They weren’t even hanging on the rack for that long,” he says. Rob wanted to know where the clothes went, so he asked his boss after a meeting:
“What happens to all the clothes we don’t sell?”
His boss replied, “We put it on discount,” but Rob wanted to know where the clothes that didn’t sell on discount went.
So he pushed again: “But after it goes on discount, all the stuff that doesn’t sell there, where does it go?”
His boss told him that it goes into huge warehouses where they go to die. The next season’s lines of new clothing come out, and the cycle repeats itself over and over. Rob couldn’t grasp that concept. He protested; it didn’t make sense. His boss eventually told him they’d rather burn the clothes than find an alternative.
On his walk back home after work during one of Shanghai’s blistering cold winter nights, he saw dozens of people trying to keep warm on the streets. They were using cardboard boxes to create insulation, and most were hardly wearing anything warm. It was such a juxtaposition: his boss’ fiery words ringing in the back of his mind.
“We have all of these things that we actively destroy, and we can’t even help people who need it,” Rob says with a jolt of urgency.
The Birth of Refuture
During the Global Sustainability Jam, a sustainability hackathon in Shanghai, Rob worked with a team to create the “Less” which made recycling a collective effort. Don Norman, one of the judges, gave his team the design award for the event. Another judge offered them free use of an accelerator’s office space to further develop the project. Though it was well supported, Rob says he was too busy in his full-time job and set it to the side.
Months later, a friend told Rob about a short workshop event that he might find interesting. “Some friends and I went to attend, and it turned out to be an OpenIDEO Meetup event working on the Women’s Safety Challenge,” he says. “This was when I first got to know of OpenIDEO.”
After the workshop, he created an account to post the workshop results on the platform and serendipitously saw the Recycling Challenge. He immediately followed the Challenge and decided to submit Less as an idea.
“I was too busy with my full-time job to take it up completely,” he says. “So it was an opportunity to support and further iterate the idea and take it to the next level.”
“In a way [OpenIDEO] was like training wheels,” he says.
Rob was one of hundreds to submit an idea to OpenIDEO’s Recycling Challenge, sponsored by Coca-Cola Enterprises. During the three months of the challenge, innovators from around the world were encouraged to submit ideas that inspired people to develop better recycling habits.
“They learned from what I did,” he says, “and I was learning from them.”
The feedback and reiteration gleaned from the OpenIDEO process helped transform Less into his current venture Refuture, an app that tracks people’s sustainable behaviors-like riding a bike or choosing to recycle-in a fun and community-centric way. Their vision is to make sustainability mainstream.
“OpenIDEO really set the tone for everything that happened to Refuture and it shifted our framework,” he says. “We started to focus on the user journey, asking ourselves: What are people thinking and feeling, and what are their true needs?”
It’s this type of approach — called design thinking — that still lives with him till this day, he says. It changed the way he approaches and solves problems. By the end of the challenge, Refuture was selected as a top idea by OpenIDEO and Coca-Cola Enterprises.
That accolade placed him in a cohort of other innovators who were supported by OpenIDEO to run crowd-funding campaigns on the Indiegogo platform for their projects. Rob raised $15,000, seed capital that allowed him to kickstart his efforts into building Refuture as a living, breathing entity.
But it wasn’t without hard work. He was doing this atop his full-time load, spending his nights staring into the illuminating screen of his laptop, putting in massive efforts to run a successful campaign.
“How I was working was unsustainable, not right for my body or life,” he says. “There wasn’t a way to do both, not with the level of impact I wanted to make with Refuture.”
So, like any entrepreneur’s hero journey begins, he was caught at a crossroads: would he abandoned his plans for Refuture to keep his stable and high-paying lifestyle, or would he fully commit to building his first start-up?
“I was working to sell more clothes and get more money in my bank account, but with Refuture, I was going to change the way people live,” he says of his thought process. “And hopefully, I’d do my part to help impact the world.”
Rob’s had a strange inkling that he’d die young — before he turned 40. “Any random pain in my body I would attribute to some hidden cancer,” he pens in a Medium story about his journey in becoming a social entrepreneur. “Morbid, I know,” he admits.
Though Rob is far from a pessimist; in fact, he’s the opposite. He’s a peppy, vibrant guy with visionary ideas and a seemingly unending energy. Even with that vision, he’s also down to Earth. Walking down the streets of Shanghai one day, Rob saw a man wearing a t-shirt that said “Choose Happiness.”
“I realized that if I wanted to take it to the next level and have a huge impact, which is what sustainability needs, I needed to fully commit myself,” he says.
During the crowdfunding campaign, he found support in his cohort which inspired him to resign from his high-end fashion job — much to the dismay of some who tried to convince him otherwise.
This was his way of signaling that Refuture was a serious commitment, so much that he’d take the leap and work on it full-time.
After the success of the Indiegogo campaign, he was selected to participate as an entrepreneur for Shanghai’s Startup Next program, powered by Google for Entrepreneurs. There, he met budding start-up leaders and connected to a wealth of investors and mentors who challenged him to think about his venture — and his life — in new ways.
“People came up to me and would be like, ‘You’re the guy that did Refuture on OpenIDEO!’,” he says. “I realized OpenIDEO was just the beginning, the catalyst to get the whole ball rolling.”
“All of these things are not possible without other people,” he says, stressing the importance of collaborative and open efforts.
His decision to take Refuture full-time was an accumulation of many things, but the biggest part was the personal decision to do something that he wanted to be remembered by. He even published a story on Medium about it.
“I’m having more fun, I’m more engaged, and my character is developing,” he says. “I definitely feel like I’ve chosen happiness.”
Learn more about Rob and his work with Refuture here.
Are you a dreamer like Rob, ready to tackle the world’s biggest challenges through open innovation? Learn about how to participate in OpenIDEO!
The original post can be seen on the OPEN IDEO Medium page here.
OpenIDEO is a global open innovation platform that builds collaborative communities to address pressing social and environmental issues. In online Challenges, offline Chapters and targeted programs, OpenIDEO enables innovators anywhere to apply design thinking towards generating social impact.