Just Breathe sat down with Neal Bermas, the founder and chairman of STREETS International, to find out more about his motivation, inspiration and general views on work-life-balance and ‘virtues’ of the western world.
An interview with Neal F. Bermas
Just Breathe: You were an incredibly successful consultant based in New York before you moved to a third world country in order to start a non-profit project. Was there a special happening, a main reason that made you give up your well paid, comfortable life in the U.S. to become a philanthropist in Vietnam? Neal Bermas: I was very content in NYC, but a bit bored. I had a nagging sense about the gross consumerism and materialism all around me. I had begun to explore SE Asia. My fascination of the energy, the colors, the smells, the markets, the people and their daily, very authentic and often difficult lives, was endless. I was particularly taken with Vietnam. In my own travels, I came across very simple, so-called ‘street kid restaurants’, I believe as a good traveler one should support such efforts. However, I was also often underwhelmed. I didn’t think they were ambitious enough, I thought they underestimated human potential.
I knew that in so-called developing economies, one of the sectors that takes off first, are the tourism and hospitality industries. This creates great human resource needs. Especially for people who understand international standards and speak English well. It was out of all these things, and the magic of one’s life path that I decided to create STREETS. And, after nearly 6 years and 100% success with all our graduates working at top 5-star resorts and hotels, I know it was a good vision and a good choice. I just want to do more, in Vietnam and elsewhere.
JB: Do you miss New York? And if so, why? NB: I am lucky enough to call New York City my home. I was born there; I graduated from high school and I have a home there. So, it is comfortable and familiar, I love that it is the most diverse and international city in the world. I never miss it, but when I am there, I always miss Vietnam.
JB: Do you plan to move back to New York one day? Even if not… theoretically, what elements of your new life would you take back to the States with you? NB: I do not have any plans to move back to New York, as I am there three or four times every year and that seems to be enough. I cannot ever eat a la carte style anymore, I have come to appreciate and enjoy family style plating and dining, genuine sharing meals and the energy that goes with it.
JB: Knowing and having lived both, do you think the lifestyle of the Western world should be looked at and evaluated more critically? NB: I think we need to be conscious about life around the world, about the environment, about the distribution of wealth, about obsessive technology and consumerism. For me personally, I also think we need to take responsibility for kids and adults that don’t have enough to eat, a safe place to sleep, education, possibilities and certainly love and hugs. Eastern cultures have much wisdom. I am reminded of a time I was walking with a very good Vietnamese friend in Hanoi. He said, “You know, the difference between your world and mine? In your world, when you walk in the rain or the cold, you feel you must do something about it. Walk faster, get under cover, change to warmer cloths. But, in our world, we just think to ourselves, ‘oh, it’s raining’, or ‘oh, it’s cold now’.” He was right. I experience cold and wet now with much less attachment. Many times, it is just wet or just cold.
JB: Do you feel your life is more balanced now than it used to be in regards to Life Work Balance? NB: I am a workaholic, I am passionate about work, I express my creativity and energy through my work. Every day I do my best to eat well, exercise, meditate, and be compassionate in my thoughts and actions – some days I am more successful than others, I guess that’s about balance.
JB: What ‘healing-elements’ would you recommend to people living in the hectic, fast-changing Western world? NB: Travel, and then travel some more. It is a most important ‘healing-element’. Be open to life, meet people, submerge oneself in cultures, food, marketplaces … walk one more block or hike one more mile than you were planning … push your boundaries. We all have strong human healing energy, but we must acknowledge this to ourselves. Breathe deeply and slowly.
JB: Do you think the business world is going into the right direction? NB: I have always been a business person, that is, I like there to be perceived worth and economics involved in transactions. I don’t like exploitation, greed, dishonesty, insensitivity, inequality, gross power and so on; good business does not have to have these characteristics, unfortunately it often does and that is very troubling to all of us.
JB: Do you see yourself as a pioneer for a global change of mind with your project? NB: I like to see that we are all more the same than different. We all have such great possibilities, even terribly poor, orphaned, out-of-school and even trafficked kids. That’s what STREETS is all about. So, I am reluctant to use words that make me seem much different or separate from others. I was once in a small shop in NYC that Tony Bennett was shopping in. As he left the store, one of the other customers politely said to him, “Mr. Bennett, you have the most amazing gift in the world.” He so graciously turned, and replied, “We all have gifts that we share with the world.”
JB: Why should there be more projects of this kind? NB: Because poor kids deserve to eat, feel safe, feel love and have choice and dignity for their lives. All the kids that come to STREETS International are making this remarkable transformation. To me, that is the best healing there is. And we need to do as much as we can for as many as we can.
JB: Do you plan to open more restaurants? If so, where? NB: Another STREETS restaurant is being worked on for Ho Chi Minh City in the south, because of the large number of street and poor kids from the Mekong region.
JB: Why did you choose Vietnam? Why not the U.S. with 45 million people living off food stamps? NB: My father, who just turned a very healthy 90 years old, and misses me a lot, often says, “Why do you have to go all the way over there to do STREETS, there are plenty of poor kids here, too.” Of course, he is right. But Asia and Vietnam spoke to me. There is an authenticity and resilience. The poverty is deeper and more difficult. There are no food stamp programs. We actively focus on growing and expanding STREETS. We are approached by folks from all around the world. I welcome these discussions with serious partners that want to work with us to do STREETS anywhere that it makes sense.
JB: Would you encourage others to follow your footsteps with projects like yours? Why? NB: I encourage others to follow their own footsteps and passions, but get out of their comfort zones. Find time and energy to serve, heal thyself and others and pay back to those that deserve. We are all citizens of the same world, all kids are our kids. I don’t have much faith in government. I have lots of faith in good people.
If you want to support STREETS International, find more information on how to donate, sponsor a trainee or offer expertise in different ways on: http://streetsinternational.org/