The Australian Way February 2015

Disease, hunger, genetic testing, technology and education
are the drivers fuelling one man’s need to give back.
with nothing. The government gave $200 to a
young family to make a new start.” Dr Sam Prince
is sitting in an office high above Sydney’s glittering
Circular Quay, recapping his career. The son of
smart, hard-working Sri Lankan migrants became
a successful entrepreneur while still at university,
then a medical doctor, an aid worker and a
philanthropist with a strong bent for building
purpose into his for-profit ventures.
The 31-year-old has a diligent crew of
about 200, who tend to the central concerns
of Zambrero, a fresh Mexican food franchise
group now with 75 outlets in Australia, and
operations in New Zealand and Thailand. On their
agenda as well is Mejico, an establishment with
tortillas and tequilas, which is giving nearby Jamie’s
Italian restaurant a run for its well-suited money.
The HQ is also the Sydney base for One
Disease, an aid organisation that Prince founded in
2010. Its ambitious aim is to eliminate, within five
years, the skin condition of crusted scabies from
Indigenous communities in East Arnhem Land.
Another of Prince’s humanitarian initiatives is
Plate4Plate – for every meal sold by Zambrero, one
is donated to help alleviate worldwide hunger. This
is run through a distribution partner, Stop Hunger
Now, and provides meal packaging in developing
nations from Afghanistan to Zambia. Zambrero has
donated some four million meals so far. Coming
108 Q A N TA S F E BRUA RY 201 5
soon is a biotech business, Life Letters, which
promises to make genetic testing widely and
responsibly available to the community. “Just
spit in a tube,” suggests its website.
A rock-star board has been assembled
for the venture, with members including
Nobel Prize-winning physicist Professor Brian
Schmidt, medical research pioneer Professor Ian
Frazer and ethicist Dr Simon Longstaff, among
others. Prince is not quite ready to talk about it,
but is so enthused he almost can’t help himself.
He thinks his timing is good. “I’m lucky to be a
doctor in the genetic revolution.”
Prince may be the sum of all these parts, but
as he points out, to make sense of his story, you
need the story before. His parents, Thilaka and
Sena, were Sri Lankan village kids whose lives
turned on a free education policy introduced
by the forward-thinking Dr CWW Kannangara in
1944. While their schools had no walls and Thalika
worked in the paddy fields to help her family, with
this opportunity and with the help of university
scholarships, she amassed five degrees in the
1970s, all with an economic bent.
Education was their great enabler. Sam, born
in Scotland where his mother completed her PhD,
was brought to Australia in 1986 at the age of three.
His parents soon had good jobs in the public sector
in Canberra – his mother with the Australian
Bureau of Statistics and his father at the CSIRO.
Prince was 21 and working part-time as a chef
in a Mexican restaurant to pay his way through
Monash University when he saw a gap in the
market for healthy fresh Mexican food. He started
Zambrero in Braddon, in the ACT, where he’d
grown up, with $10,000. The first franchised
restaurant opened in neighbouring Civic within
two years. The chain grew slowly as Prince
practised medicine in hospitals in Melbourne,
Canberra and Sydney.
He also participated in aid work in Sri Lanka.
“I went with the reckless condescension that
my people needed saving,” he recalls.
“I learned that aid work is a full-body-contact
sport. You have to be completely devoid of
agendas, religious or political. You can sway
people’s views because they are desperate.”
Spurred by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon’s
statements on technology being the determinant
for children’s progress from primary to secondary
education in developing countries, Prince set up 15
technology education centres in the Asia-Pacific
through his not-for-profit Emagine foundation.
These have since been fully integrated into schools
and Emagine no longer operates. “I’m an Australian
and it seemed fairly hollow to make money and be
prosperous in this country and then give money to
another country when people [here] are still
dealing with some very difficult issues.”
That’s where One Disease came in, inspired
by his mentor, Professor Frank Bowden, on the
One Disease board and now ACT Health’s chief
administrator, who directed the program to
eradicate sexually transmitted donovanosis
from Australia. The thinking is that you have to
not only treat patients in an epidemic, but also
their contacts. “We’re responsible for creating
Australia’s first disease registry for crusted
scabies, to close down the epidemic.”
Prince’s profit-with-purpose notions had unlikely
beginnings. At 23, he started writing a novel about
a reconstructed big-city lawyer who ran a cafe that
gave some of its profits to aid work. The fictional
lawyer went on to run a hugely successful business
as a result. “Customers liked to be connected as
global citizens, it’s a magnet for staff members.
I was giving wings to my imagination, trying to
build purpose into the future. A couple of years
later, I thought ‘we can do this!’”
Prince now sees the motivating purpose
as part of his disparate organisations’ DNA. It’s
not unusual for people who volunteer to end
up on the payroll. “We look for people who
believe in what we believe in – who understand
the difference between basic human rights and
responsibilities, what a government or community
should uphold, and that if you go too far, you
disempower people.”
Social impact is a common theme for the new
breed of entrepreneur, but Prince is reluctant to
be cast as a generational spokesperson. “I’ve never
felt my age. Young guys should be allowed to be
young rather than bear the burden of the world’s
problems, but it’s important to be authentic. I’m an
extension of my story and my parents’ story. There
was a lot of kindness bestowed by that
policymaker who enabled my mum to have an
education. She grabbed it with two hands and
passed that baton of kindness to me and now
I have to decide what to do with it next. What
legacy will I leave?”
“It’s important
to be authentic”
– Dr Sam Prince