Peter Cornish lays out the beautifully simplistic concept and showcases PopUp1’s most recent project: Vicolo1 on Bui Vien. Photos by Vinh Dao.

Paying It Forward has arrived in HCMC. It’s by no means a new idea, most people have heard of it, and the concept is as old as it is simple. Some people credit the idea to Catherine Ryan Hyde, author of the 1999 novel Pay It Forward, and the subsequent film starring Kevin Spacey. But the idea of repaying a debt by paying it to others was first suggested by Menander in his prize-winning play, Dyskolos, as far back as 317 BC.

The concept is simple and is even featured in contact laws around the world. Creditors offer debtors the option of paying their debt forward by paying it to a third person, rather than the original creditor. Legal contracts include clauses that allow the recipients of loans to lend the same amount, monetary or by charitable deeds, to someone similarly disadvantaged. They then ‘repay’ their debt in the same way.

The idea has grown in recent years and now become a global movement. The original philosophy of paying it forward has changed somewhat too. Rather than monetary debts being repaid to others, it now encompasses acts of kindness to strangers that are then repaid in kind, generating a ripple effect with the aim of moving towards a more caring community.

Pay It Forward foundations have sprung up worldwide, attempting to boost the momentum of kind deeds. These organisations are not charities and don’t raise funds, but rather work towards the goal of making the world a better place, one kind deed at a time. Hold the door open, let people enter the lift before you, offer to carry someone’s bag, and hope the recipient will do the same for someone else.

April 28th, 2017 was the seventh annual Pay It Forward Day. People are invited to join the worldwide movement and perform random acts of kindness to three people or more. In turn, the recipients are encouraged to do the same. This concept is illustrated in the Pay It Forward logo, like an altruistic pyramid scheme.

2016 saw over 75 countries participating in the now annual event, and the aim this year was to inspire over 10 million acts of kindness. In Singapore, sponsors are giving out Pay It Forward wrist bands to people who then pass on the bands to the recipient of their kind act. They in turn pass them on when they pay it forward.

Pay It Forward as a business model shot to attention in 2013 when a Wall Street stock analyst, Mason Wartman, became disillusioned with his work and quit to open a $1-a-slice pizza restaurant in Philadelphia, America. The Pay It Forward scheme came about one day when a customer asked if he could pre-purchase a slice of pizza for a person in need.

Wartman took the man’s money and went out to buy a pack of Post-it notes. He then placed one on the wall to represent one free slice of pizza for someone who needed it, typically the local homeless. Other customers jumped on the idea and soon his restaurant walls were covered in notes, each one redeemable for a slice of pizza. For each $1 donated by a customer, someone else could eat a slice for free.

In one of the most deprived cities of America, this simple act of generosity and kindness had a huge social impact. To date, Wartman’s restaurant, Rosa’s Fresh Pizza, has given away over 50,000 slices of pizza, often providing a much-needed meal free of charge to up to 100 people a day. The impact has not only helped socially, but enabled him to build a highly profitable business. The greater the profit, the greater the social impact.

Terawat Boontem (Ra) comes from a corporate background similar to Wartman’s and, like Wartman, had tired of his professional direction and yearned to ‘do his own thing’. He came across the story of the Wall Street man who gave up everything to return to his home town, Philly, and open a dollar-a-slice pizza joint.  Although the complete change of direction was motivating in itself, it was the pay it forward approach that truly inspired Ra.

“I came across this story that was going viral at the time and it made sense to me. From a business perspective, it made sense too. If you’re selling pizza, the product needs to be sold or it’s chucked at the end of the day. I’d prefer to give it away, it makes sense to give it to people who could most benefit” Ra explained.

He got in touch with Wartman, explained his plans and asked about the pros and cons to expect. Encouraged by Wartman’s response, Ra adopted the model that had brought success and social change to Philadelphia and opened Vicolo1, a small pizza-by-the-slice restaurant on Do Quan Dao, in the heart of the city’s backpacker area.

“Being in the backpacker area is great because people know about the pay it forward concept and are keen to make donations” Ra told me. Despite some scepticism from those unsure about whether their donations would go where promised, he started to meet likeminded people and was soon making a social impact of his own to the local community.

“We’ve had encouraging success from the start and have given away hundreds of slices of pizza, each one from a donation of 20,000VND made by a customer. This is a social experiment in Vietnam and we are working towards sustainability, but more than just monetising things” Ra explained. For each slice donated, a Post-it note goes on the wall. Recipients who come in to benefit from a free slice have their photo taken and posted on the restaurant’s Instagram page.

Vicolo1 makes good pizza, which is a great start. The restaurant is attracting tourists, locals and expats, both to enjoy the pizza but also to pay it forward with a donation. “We are offering a free franchise model so people who believe in what we are doing can start their restaurant. We have a branch opening in Nha Trang this summer, and hope to have another in Saigon soon” Ra told me.

As well as his successful pizza joint, Ra is working on larger Pay It Forward projects in HCMC, under the brand of PopUp1. “We are starting to work with others and look to the future, creating a community of Pay It Forward with a recognised logo. The Mekong Brewing Company will be launching a PIF IPA later this year which we are looking forward to.” Ra explained.

As an expression of gratitude from those more fortunate than others, Pay It Forward works towards making the world a better place, on kind deed at a time. “We want to create win, win, win situation for everyone involved. It’s time to stop thinking about only money and start working towards the people” Ra explained. That’s certainly a direction we at AsiaLife Magazine can support.