A prince among men

29 Feb 2012

Author: Heather Jacobs

Photography: Ben Sullivan

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Dr Sam Prince, 28, is a medical doctor, entrepreneur, and founder of the charities Emagine Foundation and One Disease at a Time. He started the Mexican restaurant Zambrero Fresh Mex Grill while he was at medical school, growing it to over 17 stores and over $13.7 million in revenue.
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"Here I am, a Scottish-born Australian doctor with Sri Lankan heritage running a chain of Mexican restaurants and doing aid work in the Asia-Pacific region in places like Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Vietnam and now in remote communities in the Northern Territory,” says Dr Sam Prince. “So I guess I find my life a bit of a mess.”

It’s a mess that many other 28-year-olds would like to find themselves in.

Prince started the restaurant chain Zambrero Fresh Mex Grill at 21 while still at medical school and has gone on to grow the chain to over 17 stores while holding down a full-time job as a doctor. With 170 staff and an annual turnover of $13.7 million, BRW magazine named it the fastest-growing franchise in Aus­tralia for 2011.

Soon afterwards, Prince set up the Emagine Founda­tion, through which he’s built 15 schools in Sri Lanka, Vietnam and far north Queens­land, and plans 100 more in the Asia-Pacific region by 2014. Then there’s the ‘plate for plate’ initiative, which means for every meal sold at Zambrero, a plate of food is donated to the developing world. Working through its distribution partner, Action Against Hunger, it has already delivered 279,000 plates of food to the Thera­peutic Feeding Centre in Liberia, Africa.

Prince is also chairman and founder of One Dis­ease at a Time, set up in 2010 to work on eradicating scabies, a disease rife among Indigenous communi­ties. His prodigious achievements saw him named as the 2012 Young Australian of the Year for the Aus­tralian Capital Territory.

“Sam Prince does the work of 100 men, improv­ing the lives of thousands through his innovative medical, business and aid projects,” stated GQ in naming him the 2011 Man of Chivalry in its annual Men of the Year list.

When we meet at the Hilton Hotel in Sydney, Prince, who lives between Canberra and Sydney, is on a six-month sabbatical from practicing medicine. But this is no schoolboy break – he’s using the time to set up a stem cell company and an alternative energy company. He’s also planning to open about 30 new restaurants in Australia, taking the number of Zam­brero outlets to 50 by the end of the year, and fit in some fieldwork in East Arnhem Land before return­ing to clinical practice in the middle of the year.

From the wise age of 28, Prince admits to being fairly naïve when he first headed to Asia as a 21-year-old. He’d made a bit of money in business and wanted to give something back. He chose South-East Asia as the initial focus of his aid work because he’d seen the value a free education had given his own parents who came from humble beginnings in Sri Lanka.

He learnt three significant lessons. Lesson one: before you do any kind of aid work ensure you have a clear understanding of what you believe is a basic human right and what you believe is a basic human responsi­bility. And, yes, there’s a clear line between the two, he says.  “As doc­tors we take the Hippocratic Oath of ‘first do no harm’. If you actu­ally don’t understand where that line is you can end up harming people by taking power away from them when you start doing things that you think are basic human responsibilities,” says Prince.

"You have to run an aid organisation with the same rigour as you would a business."

Lesson two: When he thinks back to working in emergency departments in hospitals, he recalls the look of sheer desperation in the eyes of people wheeled into the emergency departments after suf­fering a medical emergency, such as a heart attack. He saw the same look in the eyes of the people he was helping. “It’s the eyes of people who are truly desperate for your help, money, time, effort, educa­tion or healthcare,” says Prince. “For me to sleep at night and to be able to look into the mirror and know that I’ve done things ethically every step of the way I knew I could have no agenda. No political or finan­cial or religious agenda. That seemed so important to me and it was a value that we didn’t ever cross.”

Lesson three: You have to run an aid organisa­tion with the same rigour as you would a business. “I thought that just because people were in need and needed a hand up that they were all good people,” he says. “The reality is that’s not the truth. People are good and bad, just like there are good and bad people in every other demographic.”

From Asia, his focus shifted closer to home to indigenous communities. The idea behind One Disease at a Time was sparked by a conversation with one of his mentors, Frank Bowden. The professor of medicine at the Australian National University Medical School had eradicated the sexually transmitted disease donovanosis out of Australia permanently in four years at a cost of $4 million and 10 staff. “That’s not a lot of money, time or resources and I thought ‘wow, that’s something I can do as a doctor, aid worker and entrepreneur’,” says Prince.

Professor Bowden, who sits on the board of One Disease at a Time, first met Prince when he was a resi­dent medical officer at the Canberra Hospital in 2008. “He was already running a number of busi­nesses and had begun his philanthropic work in Sri Lanka,” says Professor Bowden. “I am constitutionally suspicious of medi­cal entrepreneurs who, in my experience, can put the pursuit of financial gain before the desire to care for their patients. The exact opposite applied to Sam – the son of one of my friends had been looked after by Sam in our emergency department one Sat­urday afternoon. My friend described the appearance of Sam amid the controlled chaos of the hospital as something like a magician waving his wand to create a bubble of peace and calm around his son. This is a special and rare talent.”

Another key person involved with One Disease at a Time is Professor Jonathan Carapetis, head of the Menzies School of Health Research at Charles Darwin University. His research revealed a link between skin infections caused by the scabies mite and the potentially fatal rheumatic heart disease. The mite that gets under the skin can also lead to kidney failure. While the disease doesn’t register among non-Aborig­inal Australians, in communities such as those in East Arnhem Land, seven out of 10 children are infected with scabies.

Prince takes the question of ‘why Aboriginal health?’ as a philosophical challenge. His view is that while not everyone should end up in the same place, eve­ryone should be given a chance to start off at the same place. “While education is great at liberating people from dire circumstances,” he says, “there’s a basic level of healthcare you need to reach before you can then go on to catapult yourself with a great education.”

This realisation flipped the hierarchy of basic human rights for Prince from education one, health­care two, to healthcare one, education two.

When his mother, Dr Thilaka Prince, topped the district in her final exams in her rural village near Galle in Sri Lanka, his maternal grandfather was distraught because he couldn’t afford to send her to university. Never mind, his mother won a scholarship to study economics at Colombo University and went on to get five degrees. Another scholarship took her to the UK to do a PhD in statistics; Prince was born in Dundee, Scotland, five days after she finished her doctorate. Her journey would shape who he would become.

“I’d been born in to a completely different world – one where everything was possible if I put my mind to it – to the one she had known,” says Prince. “And I owed it all to a very humble beginning. It wasn’t just me who benefited from this. My Mum continued her life with a great amount of dignity and passion and a deep-seated responsibility to give something back to her family and the community to which she came from.”

The Prince family moved to Canberra in 1986 after his parents decided it was safer in Australia than Sri Lanka because of the civil war. While they’d lived in the relatively safe Colombo it was hardly a safe haven considering the prevalence of suicide bombers. “It didn’t matter where you lived, it didn’t matter if you were living in the front line or Colombo, because your kids might go out one day to a market and that could be the end of their lives, or they could be seri­ously injured,” says Prince. “They decided they didn’t want that for myself and my sister and they decided to emigrate. Mum was an amazing statistician and got a job in the Australian Bureau of Statistics.”

Prince obviously inherited his mother’s pen­chant for study. He did his final years of high school at Lake Ginninderra College and at 16 was at Aus­tralian National University (ANU) studying literature and astrophysics. After a year he decided he preferred biology, and its practical application in medicine, and enrolled in med school. He graduated with a Bachelor of Medicine and a Bachelor of Surgery at Monash Uni­versity before returning to Canberra.

His mother is now retired. But after all the sacrifices she made she’d probably prefer it if he was just a doctor.

“She gets a bit worried when I get stressed out about other things, but it’s very interesting because she had a life of struggle and now while I’m not strug­gling, I am working very hard,” he says. “You do what you’ve learnt and seen and I’ve watched my Mum work hard all her life, so I don’t think I can do anything differently.”

For the past decade, he’s been getting by on four hours sleep a night.  Asked about the risk of burning out, he admits it’s his biggest fear.

While medicine has always been a really fulfilling career for Prince – he loves the patient care, the art of the bedside manner, and the challenges – he recalls going through a process where he thought he was an entrepreneur masquerading as a medical student rather than the other way around. 

In 2009 Prince appointed his first chief executive officer, Stuart Cook, to run the Mexican food chain. He’d met the then 23-year-old Cook on a bus on the way to the Taj Mahal. Prince was in India to pick up an award from the Junior Chamber International making him one of the 10 Outstanding Young People of the World in 2008. The award was in recognition of the aid work he’d done in South-East Asia. This included the aforementioned 15 schools and the public educa­tion campaigns he’d run in Sri Lanka to reduce the number of deaths from snake bites and dengue fever.

Prince says the financial success of Zambrero has essentially bought him his freedom.

“You can get to a point in life where you are not forced to do anything, you are not forced to go to work 9-5 for a job or a career because you’ve got golden handcuffs to a house that you can’t quite afford, and you have to do this work for a third of your life,” he says. “I figured out early on that what makes me really happy is adventure and discovery. If I have those two things in my life I am really, really happy.”

While his plans to roll out 30-plus new restaurants this year sounds risky, Prince claims he’s inherently averse to risk. All the restaurants in the chain are profitable and have grown organically rather than by taking on debt.

The idea of starting a restaurant struck while he was working at a chef in at a Mexican restaurant to put him­self through medical school. He saw the growth of a new sort of Mexican grill in the US and a gap in the market locally for fresh, healthy, gourmet Mexican food. He opened his first restaurant in Canberra in 2005 with an investment of $10,000.

“It was one of those things that you feel so strongly about that you actually have to do something about it,” he says. “Plus I love Mexican food. I was abso­lutely obsessed about chocolate mole, nachos, chipotle and jalapenos. Real Mexican food is so different to what Aus­tralians had been taught to expect.”

While he doesn’t know exactly what drives the extremely ambitious Prince, Professor Bowden says unlike most entre­preneur/philanthropists who make their money and then distribute it in their fif­ties, Prince seems intent on distributing it now. “I would venture that some of his motivation is competitive – he likes to succeed where the stakes are high, but his actions are underpinned by a philosophy of service to the community,” says Pro­fessor Bowden. “I have pushed myself to do new things and to persist where I may have otherwise given up after talking to him about his owns plans.”

He adds that the elimination of scabies from East Arnhem Land is an incredibly difficult task and no-one has any illusions that a simple investment of more money will solve a complex problem that is as much a social issue as a medical one. However, Pro­fessor Bowden is confident that the energy Prince has already expended and the relationships he will contin­ue to develop will pay off.

“You have to be patient with initiatives in Abo­riginal health. But you also have to be brave and resil­ient as there will always be people who will criticise your actions and question your motives,” says Profes­sor Bowden. “I have no doubt Sam will persevere and that we will be able to develop a successful model that can be applied in other communities in Australia.”

Prince clearly clocks up an impressive number of hours each week, but for him work and play blend into one. For the past decade he’s been getting by on about four hours sleep a night. Asked about the risk of burn­ing out, he admits it’s his biggest fear, something he’s constantly pontificating about with his friends, men­tors and colleagues. Perhaps harking back to that year of literature at ANU, he reads out a quote from Ayn Rand that sums up his feelings about living a full life. 

“… It is a sense of enormous expectation, a sense that one’s life is important, that great achievements are within one’s capacity and that great things lie ahead. It is not in the nature of man, or that of any living entity to start by giving up, or spitting in one’s own face and damning existence. This requires a process of corruption whose rapidity differs from man to man. Some give up at the first touch of pressure, some sell out, some run down by imperceptible degrees and lose their fire, never knowing when or how they lost it…”

Giving up is simply not an option for Prince, but the reason he manages to get so much done is he’s attracted a team of talented people around him. About 300 people are involved in his various enterprises.

Samantha Cran, chief executive officer of One Disease at a Time, first met Prince at a business/net­working event. She recalls being taken aback by his ability to translate his core values into actions and felt she had to be part of the movement. She started as a volunteer before becoming the CEO.

“Sam is the ultimate definition of an entrepre­neur,” says Cran. “Whether it’s in business or health­care, for each industry he is the visionary who can see a gap in the market before others do and then diligently backs himself to fill it. He also has the tenacity to push through any barriers – it is this ‘will’ that people rec­ognise early and are truly inspired by.”

Prince puts the willingness of others to get involved down to him wearing his dreams on his sleeves.

“By virtue of claiming it and saying, ‘I want to do this’, and being open about it, this activates the people around you,” says Prince. “I think there’s just such an abundance of people who can help you. We live in a scarcity concept where we feel like there’s only one person in the world who can help you achieve your dream, there’s probably 10 of them and they are probably sitting in this cafe right now.”

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