Battling Food Insecurity, Eliminating Disease, Reimagining Health Care: All in a Day’s Work for Sam Prince, M.D.
With the courage to ‘live out’ his best thoughts, Australia’s 2018 EY Social Entrepreneur of the Year, YPO member Sam Prince has merged his life’s passions — medicine, philanthropy and entrepreneurship, to bolster his positive impact on the world. He talked to Ignite about what guides him and the lessons he learned growing up that make him the man, physician, entrepreneur and humanitarian he is today.
You don’t become a world-renowned physician, restauranteur, entrepreneur and philanthropist by the age of 35 by being lazy or not taking chances. YPO member Sam Prince works hard and isn’t afraid of what he refers to as ‘live out his best thoughts.’ He credits a 15-page document he started when he was a teen, which he calls his ‘owner’s manual,’ as a key to his success. That document contains his value set.
“In most scenarios in my life, it directs me where to go,” says Prince, founder of Zambrero, a chain of more than 200 Mexican restaurants around the world. “It’s important in leadership to demonstrate that you have a value set, that you’ve thought about it, and that you stick to it.”
Prince’s values, which he considers personal, guide him in his seemingly limitless professional and charitable pursuits. He points to his family’s immigrant roots, his faith, access to health care and a free education for helping him develop his values.
His parents, both from Sri Lanka, broke their families’ cycle of poverty by being the first from their villages to go to college. His mother went on to earn multiple advanced degrees including a Ph.D. in economics.
“They came from very humble beginnings,” Prince explains. “My mom worked in the (rice) paddy fields. Her brother, my uncle, passed away because the family couldn’t afford to pay for health care.”
From outsider to outstanding
He recalls vividly how he and his sister’s brown skin stood out in Canberra, Australia, where the family moved when he was 3 years old.
“I was the only kid with dark skin in a sea of white faces,” he shares. “My sister and I came home from the first day of school and said, ‘Mum, how do we paint our skin white?’ We felt like outsiders.”
Prince tried to fit in by excelling at sports.
“I remember always being the fastest kid in my school,” Prince explains. “When you’re an outsider, you’re trying to look for a plank you can cross to join everyone else on their ship, and that was initially sports for me.”
He was fast and coordinated, so he competed in various sports — track, basketball, cricket, soccer and rugby. At the end of a long winning streak in track, his first loss provided Prince with an invaluable life lesson on work ethic.
“I was about 15,” Prince recounts. “And from that day on, I couldn’t win.”
About 10 years later he spoke to the friend who beat him about the race, asking how he got so fast.
“He said, ‘well, I trained every day, and I went to the gym every day,’” Prince reports. “And he asked me how I trained. I said I didn’t. I would just walk up, head to the track and run. That was a good lesson. Sometimes your talent can actually spur on your competitors. If you want to be number one, then you’ve got to train like you’re number two.”
Mixing medicine, entrepreneurship, charity
Prince was bitten by the entrepreneurial bug early. After reading numerous books by and about entrepreneurs, Prince says he knew he “wanted to mold my medical job, my career, into one where there was discovery and adventure.”
That discovery and adventure started with the first Zambrero restaurant at 21 while still in medical school. A fan of Mexican fare, he says he didn’t think Australia offered a good, healthy, fast Mexican option. So, while the typical medical student might just focus on school, Prince opened this first restaurant in his hometown.
With Zambrero in its infancy and his medical degree completed, Prince traveled to his parents’ native Sri Lanka as an aide worker offering education and healthcare to those living in a conflict zone of that country’s prolonged civil war.
“That time really galvanized my view of what I felt was important,” explains Prince. “No matter where you live in the world, some basic things like education and health care should be upheld for you. The Plate 4 Plate program was born from that.”
Returning to Australia enlightened, Prince transformed his restaurant into what he calls ‘Mexican with a mission.’ Plate 4 Plate is a nonprofit that promises to deliver one meal to the hungry in developing countries for every meal sold at Zambrero. At last count, the program has delivered 30 million meals.
Energized by Plate 4 Plate’s success, he next took aim at a highly contagious and deadly skin disease, crusted scabies, that affects Australia’s aboriginal community. His One Disease startup, which he introduced in 2008, is closing in on its goal of eliminating the disease in Australia by 2022.
In 2017, after his own health scare abruptly revealed how broken the conventional health care system was, he founded Next Practice, a health and technology startup. Prince recently opened his fifth Next Practice clinic and has aggressive growth plans to transform how health care is delivered.
Princely advice to budding entrepreneurs
Prince’s culinary offerings have expanded beyond the humble burrito. With a nod to his parents’ Sri Lankan cuisine, he opened Indu; Kid Kyota, which Prince describes as a fun kind of play on Japanese food; and Mèjico, offering innovative and modern Mexican fare. He also Co-founded a nootropics drink company, Shine+. So, he knows a little about startups and offers advice to those courageously considering a similar path.
“Often when you’re young and inexperienced, the only thing that you can actually lead with is demonstrating you have a value set and that you will stick to it more stringently than anyone else. That’s how you lead,” advises Prince.
He recommends not holding anything back, adding his favorite quote by Goethe, “Whatever you think you can do, begin it, because boldness carries with it power, magic and genius.”
He wraps up by offering young entrepreneurs a little medical advice. “Entrepreneurship is a full-contact sport,” he warns. “You’ve got to take care of yourself.”
Embrace what makes you different
Prince says he’s been inducted into an insider’s world in business and medicine, but that he still harbors the sense of being an outsider. He’s OK with that.
“If someone gave me a pill that would make that go away, I wouldn’t take it,” he says. “I think it gives me an edge. Feeling like an outsider lights this incredible fire inside you. I think it’s very precious and I don’t think people should try to douse it.”