Mina Guli, Founder & CEO, Thirst: Social Entrepreneuring in China

As part of this month's Editorial Theme of BRIC Countries, we're bringing you this fascinating interview by our regular contributor Faith Brewitt.

Over the past ten years, dozens of international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have taken an interest in China and are joining an increasingly popular movement of charity, aid and cause-based organizations opening up shop in the world’s most populous country. Some of the most well-known international NGOs currently operating here are Save the Children, The International Red Cross, Salvation Army, World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace, AIDS Foundation and Habitat for Humanity.

These NGOs add to a massive puzzle of homegrown NGOs and service organizations that cover everything from sustainability to migrant children education and panda preservation.  Chinese authorities estimate there are 444,000 NGOs operating in the country.

With 1.4 billion people and a vast disparity between those who live in the largest cities and the vast majority of China’s population, the rural poor, in terms of educational opportunities, income and government support, China needs a large and active NGO segment.

As a marketer whose business it is to help female entrepreneurs and small business owners in China, I love shining light on great examples of industries or markets where women are not just succeeding but leading the charge. In China, many Western women are launching non-profits.

One such woman is Mina Guli, the founder and CEO of water conservation not-for-profit Thirst and a Young Global Leader. Mina left a successful career in carbon trading to start Thirst.  The 41 year old Australian is on a mission to build awareness about the water crisis among 14-24 year olds in China by becoming the foremost online and on-campus provider of positive, accurate and fun content about water scarcity.  

I sat down with Mina in Beijing to ask about her first year running Thirst and to learn what inspiring words of wisdom she might have for other women who dream of coming to China and starting a NGO.

TNW: Now you’ve been involved with China for many years working on sustainability issues; what got you interested in China?

I first came to China when I was 16 with my parents and immediately fell in love with the place. Later I was in London working in the private sector on projects designed to reduce greenhouse gas around the globe. Within the organization, there was little China engagement, which I kept trying to initiate. Both my personal connection to China and the numbers made me feel that we needed to do more with them on climate change.

So in 2006, I started Peony Capital in Beijing to manage a fund dedicated to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in China. Because of my work with Peony and the World Bank, in 2010 I was nominated by WEF (World Economic Forum) to be a Young Global Leader.

TNW:  As a driver in climate change, what inspired the switch to a water conservation focus for Thirst? 

At the WEF’s 2010 global conference I was asked to moderate a panel that had Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, the Chairman of the Board for Nestlé. He was speaking about ‘invisible water’, which is all the potable water that is consumed daily, yet concealed in the production of our clothes, gadgets, food and cars. His words inspired an “Ah-ha Moment” for me. After the conference, I thought, ‘I have to do this’, but I’m climate change, not an expert in water.

So I talked about it with anyone and everyone who knew anything about water issues and got smart.  At every step of the agricultural and industrial production process, clean water is used and often in surprising disproportion to the end-product. For instance, a 1 kg of beef requires 15,000 liters of water; one pair of jeans, 11,000 liters of water; a single cup of coffee, 140 liters; and a burger 2,400 liters – now imagine 1.4 billion pairs of jeans and the potential rate of consumption for China is staggering. 

This is a serious issue for China, but from my previous experience I knew that China was not heavily engaged with the global development institutions. So I followed my passion and started Thirst.

Compelling numbers to get you serious about starting a sustainable enterprise in China

  • By 2025, (that’s only 13 years from now for all of you who still think the 90’s were only yesterday) China’s urban population will increase by 350 million, more than the current population of the United States.
  • China will have 221 cities with a million or more people. Europe has 35.
  • By 2030, China will have an urban billion.

TNW: You put your name on the line and used your own funds to kick start Thirst’s first year. How important was it to leverage your network to get moral and financial support?

Being a part of the Young Global Leaders changed my life. Just like some people say the best thing about an MBA is the network, being part of institutions like the WEF give you access to an amazing level of people. I was able to get ideas, support, and funding from these connections must faster than I did when I started Peony.

I don’t think enough women understand the value of this type of industry or issue-based networking. It also includes awards; seek out honors that can add to your credibility. Remember, no one is going to promote you as passionately as yourself – don’t be ashamed of doing it but do it in ways that matter.

TNW: So what is Thirst about and how is it different from other water conservation organizations?

Right now in China there are approximately 300 million people with no access to water.  With a fifth of the world’s population and six percent of its water resources, China has only a quarter of the world’s average water resources per capita.  This is a very real crisis and this generation needs to understand this is real and what they can do about it.  Our goal is for each person to take information back to their family, friends and neighborhood and make real changes in behavior.

We know it’s vital to collaborate with large corporations to get the message out.  What makes us different is that when we talk about water conservation, we do so as kids today really talk, not in corporate speak. That gives us credibility.

TNW: How do you get the word out and engage with Chinese youths?

Anyone that wants to start a movement with young people must embrace changing technologies, demands and tastes of these young people.   We live and breathe netizen culture.  That means we use social media to engage with Chinese youth and get them to evangelize with their friends online and in school about how important conserving water and being aware of how much water is used for everyday items really is.

Just this year between March and June, Thirst has touched 10,000 school kids in three cities and has had more than 130 million impressions online media.

TNW: What advice can you give to anyone thinking of following your path and starting a NGO in China?

The application process is still tightly controlled by the Ministry of Civil Affairs and even well-connected organizations should be prepared to wait a few years and go through a painstakingly thorough review before approval.  Check here for more information on the steps to open a NGO. It’s from 2009, but the information remains accurate.

I urge people working in corporations who are passionate about sustainable business to talk to your corporate communications, public affairs and/or CSR director to establish small grant programs for the support of grassroots NGOs in China.  Done right it can be a win-win for your brand AND the environment.  You will be impressed at how much a NGO in China can do with 5,000 to 10,000 dollars.

I would also tell young women to consider volunteering opportunities in China, in order to develop leadership skills, visibility and connections that will change your life forever.

To learn more about THIRST.


Dow Water & Process Solution, China’s Thirst for Water, 2011

McKinsey Global Institute, Preparing for China’s Urban Billion, 2009

Norman Gall, “To fight for every drop of water or die”: Water in China, Braudel Papers, 2012.

Faith is a senior branding executive in Beijing with 17 years international experience managing global public relations programs for leading brands in the United States, China and Asia Pacific. She also sits on the advisory board of Girls in Tech China. Faith has deep experience in developing creative, results-driven campaigns for emerging and mature markets through consumer and channel marketing, traditional and social media, experiential branding and executive thought leadership. Faith has held positions as general manager of Fleishman Hillard, regional technology practice director of Hill & Knowlton and global communications director for Dell Consumer, Small & Medium Business. In 2010, Faith created the Dell Women Entrepreneur Network.  For more information, see her website.

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