A Real-Life Superhero: Matthew Oh, Founder of Non-Profit Forefront

There is no one more inspiring than someone who lives to help others. Matthew Oh, founder of the nonprofit organization Forefront, does just that while still working as a chemical engineer for Unilever. The 27-year-old Oh founded Forefront last year after visiting India and seeing the urgent need for foreign aid. He and his team came up with a four-step program to help third world countries and have implemented the first step, building water wells, in India. In the long run, he hopes to help the people they serve to become self-sufficient and encourage them to help others, creating a domino effect of helping. Oh talked to us about Forefront’s progress, ultimate goals, and future plans.

Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

SuperheroYou: What is Forefront and how does it work? What are the four phases, and how do you help underdeveloped countries go through them?

Matthew Oh: Our organization uses something called the holistic approach. It started because we realized that having one phase is not enough, and it requires more than just one solution. I’ll provide a clear example that we just learned when we went to our India trip. Forefront has provided clean water for 200+ people and added six hours back to their days. Normally, it’s children and women who go fetch water – that takes about an hour, six times a day. So because it’s intermittent throughout the day, children can’t go to school and women can’t work because by the time they can do anything, they have to go fetch water again. So we were saying, “Now you have six hours a day back into your lives, what are you going to do?” And the kids said, “We’ll go to school.” But when we dug more into the issue, we realized that teachers don’t come to school. They don’t have textbooks and they don’t have any computers or technology, so they really go there to eat food. Not only that, girls, maybe at fifth grade, stop going to school because they don’t have sanitary bathrooms where they can take care of their business. So this brought the idea of this holistic approach – it’s not a one solution fits all. Water is the basis of all life – you need water to live, to survive. And we tie that in with sanitation, because you need a clean facility to keep people healthy.

The next phase is education where you’re providing the skills. Education is such a big pillar because you can create the next generation of engineers or politicians that will fight for social justice. The next phase is medical. When someone in the family is sick, the first thing they do is pull their kids out of school. Basically, you’re kind of in ground zero, over and over again. I’ve been to India now for five years, and it’s just a cyclical process – you go and you see the same thing over and over again. And the medical phase is there because a lot of the times, medical care is given based on your income or your social status. But it shouldn’t be that way. It should be based on who needs it, and everyone should have access to medical care. Then the last phase is social justice. In these countries, there’s a lot of gender inequality, a lot of income and social inequality. There’s an African proverb that says if you educate a woman, you can change a whole nation. It’s true because in these types of countries, it’s the women who stay with their kids at home and are their biggest influence. So how do you educate women? Give them equal rights because they have just as much potential as men or boys do. So this is the holistic approach.

But that’s not all. At the end of the day, one thing I realized is that they’re very dependent on foreign aid. They just wanted to be given something. But once again, we need communities to take ownership, who want to be the change. We want to use these phases to be able to equip and create the next generation of leaders, so they can go out and do peer-to-peer change, which is also known as the multiplication effect. For example, an Indian helping another Indian community is going to be far more effective than an American going in and building a hospital. Great, we have a hospital, but we need them to assume ownership of everything that is being executed.

SHY: What inspired you to start a nonprofit? 

MO: I’ve always been interested in nonprofits, even from high school. I’ve been following a lot of great organizations year after year. I remember back in the day when we had the BP Oil Spill. As a very science-type person and as a chemical engineer, trying to fix and help the world and environmental problems has always been at the core and the essence of who I am. So even from back then, I was doing all these things. In college, I did research in alternative energy and solar cells, and I got my master’s in municipal water treatment. I’ve always been interested in helping people and doing something more. Going into nonprofits is nothing out of the ordinary for me. At least that’s what I think.

Why start my own? Not that anything is wrong with any other nonprofits – I would gladly join any nonprofit – but for me, I guess I had a vision of this holistic approach where I saw that there needs to be more than one solution. It was an opportunity for me to execute and showcase that. At the same time, my top priority is the people on our team – to give them purpose, to inspire them, to think beyond just the luxuries that we have here. For all these reasons, to implement this, to be a different type of organization are why I started Forefront.

SHY: How is Forefront different from other similar organizations? 

MO: We’re not a nonprofit that is trying to compete with other nonprofits. We’re all just trying to do good. For us, we believe in self-sustainability. We believe that we want to give these people hope. It’s as basic as you giving someone clean water – this enables them to pursue an education. An education will get them a job. A job will give them at least an identity. An identity will give them purpose. Purpose will give them hope to live. So something as basic as these things that we’re doing really can change and give hope to a whole nation. Hopefully that’s a catalyst for change. And that’s what we want to do. You never know, maybe there’s the next Steve Jobs in India. But how can you know if you don’t give them the opportunity?

Microsoft did a really cool thing where they’re partnering with different communities and they basically use, what they do best, technology to unlock very basic things. For example, prenatal care and sonograms. And they now don’t need those machines, which they didn’t have access to because it’s very expensive. Instead, they can monitor it on a cell phone. So they know what they need, and they know the way they live. We want them to lead and implement these changes.

So how are we different? We’re not different in the sense that we’re all trying to do good. But we’re different in that our holistic approach tackles more than one problem, and we’re all about equipping them to have the resources and opportunities to be agents of change for the future and to be superheroes.

Water Well

SHY: One of the major problems in underdeveloped countries is that nonprofits come in then leave, and the things they built are unsustainable. How does Forefront address that problem? 

MO: Throughout our phases, we’re really trying to create that sustainable person – the leader. But we have a dedicated agenda, topic and goal. And the title of one person’s role on our team is growth and sustainability. At the end of the day, we need to make sure that our actions where all our donors’ money is going into is measurable, and they can deliver year after year. Also, donors and nonprofits are very quick to put a check in the box when we do something. But what we want to do is get people to think more-long term and get people to be more responsible for their money. We are 100% responsible of donor money. But we also want the donors to be responsible of where the money went.

For our water well phase, we recently provided our donors a whole water well report where we brought water samples to a U.S. lab, got it analyzed, compared it to the EPA (the water that you and I drink) and we reported that data to show that, in fact, our water well is delivering clean and sanitary water. Now, is that it? No. Because a water well doesn’t last forever. At some point, it’s going to break. At some point, the water well might deplete or, say, metal corrodes and it could affect the water. And this is what I’m saying: a donor should be very well-invested for the long haul. We have a continual monitoring process where we monitor the quality of the water over and over again. That’s one way we’re doing sustainability here in the water phase just to give you an example.

But we’re all about sustainability and growing from that. Even as we present these results to the villagers there, it gets them to start thinking. For example, they throw trash everywhere and anywhere. They don’t have a disposal system. And they don’t really know the harm and the effects that it has. But as we do these things, and we give them the results, we get them to think about the bigger picture. We really are encouraging them to think about the world, think about keeping the world green, because their world is our world – we share. We want them to learn from this and think, “How can we be better? How can we be more sustainable?” These are the ways that we’re educating and equipping them for further and bigger actions.

SHY: Why did you choose the name Forefront? 

MO: After months of pondering of where we wanted to be, the name “Forefront” came out, because we wanted to be at the forefront of change. We’re very big on innovation and new ideas; we don’t want to recreate the wheel, and we don’t want to do things haphazardly. We want to be committed and do things to excellence. So even for the water wells, we’re working with a student group in Cornell University to implement this big technology change, where it’s all about sustainability for our donors specifically and for the people there. So that is kind of an innovation – taking an existing problem and making it better. And that’s the forefront of change.

But at the same time, our model and our approach is definitely at the forefront of change as well, because it’s big, and it’s revolutionary. I think a lot of the times, people have been focusing on just one phase. I’m not discrediting that at all – I think nonprofits have done a fantastic job in reaching the UN MDG (United Nations Millennium Development Goals), so they’ve done good work. But we’re changing that front.

Lastly, the name also came out because we want to go to villages that need it the most, where they might have never gotten recognized or no one would have gone to them. Through our multiplication effect, the peer-to-peer change, hopefully that village can reach all the other small villages and create the cycle of helping. So I think in everything that we do, we always think about, “This is the problem and these are the gaps. How can we fill those gaps, do it better and commit to great results and execution?”

SHY: How does your career as a chemical engineer complement your work with Forefront? What skill sets have you learned at one that you’ve applied to the other? 

MO: I guess just that mindset of not staying at the status quo. It’s always, “What can we do better?” That innovative and creative mindset is something that I can implement and bring to the table at Forefront. I’m always challenging our team to take something and think of something new. For example, I told my graphic designer, “Yes, there are the website layouts and fonts that are trending, but what is next? Lets explore that area.” Because not only does it unlock a person’s interest and creativity and gives them the freedom to do something that they enjoy, but we’re also trying to be at the forefront of things. I think that would be my top skill – in addition to being detail oriented, managing projects and keeping timelines.

SHY: What are some of your future plans for Forefront? Do you plan to keep the four-phase approach and branch out to different sites? 

MO: Yes, that is our goal. Our holistic approach, the phases, not only was it something that I’ve seen, but we can back it up through a Time magazine article that asked third world countries what their biggest issues, crisie, or needs were. There were five categories and all our phases are within those categories. So we know that we’ve hit the areas that we need, and it’s in reverse order – starting with water being the least critical and then working our way up. We’re just taking what is doable, what’s easily executable and implementable, then working our way up. At this point, we don’t have any thoughts on revising the phases. Right now, we’re here to execute. But like I said before, we’re very open, and we’re willing to learn from what we do. Currently, the goal is to implement these four phases in other countries and explore and execute the multiplication initiative as well.

Liked this? Check back tomorrow for part 2!

Written by Diana Kim

There is no one more inspiring than someone who lives to help others. Matthew Oh, founder of the nonprofit organization Forefront, does just that while still working as a chemical engineer for Unilever. The 27-year-old Oh founded Forefront last year after visiting India and seeing the urgent need for foreign aid. He and his team came up with a four-step program to help third world countries and have implemented the first step, building water wells, in India. In the long run, he hopes to help the people they serve to become self-sufficient and encourage them to help others, creating a domino effect of helping. Oh talked to us about Forefront’s progress, ultimate goals, and future plans.

Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

SuperheroYou: What is Forefront and how does it work? What are the four phases, and how do you help underdeveloped countries go through them?

Matthew Oh: Our organization uses something called the holistic approach. It started because we realized that having one phase is not enough, and it requires more than just one solution. I’ll provide a clear example that we just learned when we went to our India trip. Forefront has provided clean water for 200+ people and added six hours back to their days. Normally, it’s children and women who go fetch water – that takes about an hour, six times a day. So because it’s intermittent throughout the day, children can’t go to school and women can’t work because by the time they can do anything, they have to go fetch water again. So we were saying, “Now you have six hours a day back into your lives, what are you going to do?” And the kids said, “We’ll go to school.” But when we dug more into the issue, we realized that teachers don’t come to school. They don’t have textbooks and they don’t have any computers or technology, so they really go there to eat food. Not only that, girls, maybe at fifth grade, stop going to school because they don’t have sanitary bathrooms where they can take care of their business. So this brought the idea of this holistic approach – it’s not a one solution fits all. Water is the basis of all life – you need water to live, to survive. And we tie that in with sanitation, because you need a clean facility to keep people healthy.

The next phase is education where you’re providing the skills. Education is such a big pillar because you can create the next generation of engineers or politicians that will fight for social justice. The next phase is medical. When someone in the family is sick, the first thing they do is pull their kids out of school. Basically, you’re kind of in ground zero, over and over again. I’ve been to India now for five years, and it’s just a cyclical process – you go and you see the same thing over and over again. And the medical phase is there because a lot of the times, medical care is given based on your income or your social status. But it shouldn’t be that way. It should be based on who needs it, and everyone should have access to medical care. Then the last phase is social justice. In these countries, there’s a lot of gender inequality, a lot of income and social inequality. There’s an African proverb that says if you educate a woman, you can change a whole nation. It’s true because in these types of countries, it’s the women who stay with their kids at home and are their biggest influence. So how do you educate women? Give them equal rights because they have just as much potential as men or boys do. So this is the holistic approach.

But that’s not all. At the end of the day, one thing I realized is that they’re very dependent on foreign aid. They just wanted to be given something. But once again, we need communities to take ownership, who want to be the change. We want to use these phases to be able to equip and create the next generation of leaders, so they can go out and do peer-to-peer change, which is also known as the multiplication effect. For example, an Indian helping another Indian community is going to be far more effective than an American going in and building a hospital. Great, we have a hospital, but we need them to assume ownership of everything that is being executed.

SHY: What inspired you to start a nonprofit? 

MO: I’ve always been interested in nonprofits, even from high school. I’ve been following a lot of great organizations year after year. I remember back in the day when we had the BP Oil Spill. As a very science-type person and as a chemical engineer, trying to fix and help the world and environmental problems has always been at the core and the essence of who I am. So even from back then, I was doing all these things. In college, I did research in alternative energy and solar cells, and I got my master’s in municipal water treatment. I’ve always been interested in helping people and doing something more. Going into nonprofits is nothing out of the ordinary for me. At least that’s what I think.

Why start my own? Not that anything is wrong with any other nonprofits – I would gladly join any nonprofit – but for me, I guess I had a vision of this holistic approach where I saw that there needs to be more than one solution. It was an opportunity for me to execute and showcase that. At the same time, my top priority is the people on our team – to give them purpose, to inspire them, to think beyond just the luxuries that we have here. For all these reasons, to implement this, to be a different type of organization are why I started Forefront.

SHY: How is Forefront different from other similar organizations? 

MO: We’re not a nonprofit that is trying to compete with other nonprofits. We’re all just trying to do good. For us, we believe in self-sustainability. We believe that we want to give these people hope. It’s as basic as you giving someone clean water – this enables them to pursue an education. An education will get them a job. A job will give them at least an identity. An identity will give them purpose. Purpose will give them hope to live. So something as basic as these things that we’re doing really can change and give hope to a whole nation. Hopefully that’s a catalyst for change. And that’s what we want to do. You never know, maybe there’s the next Steve Jobs in India. But how can you know if you don’t give them the opportunity?

Microsoft did a really cool thing where they’re partnering with different communities and they basically use, what they do best, technology to unlock very basic things. For example, prenatal care and sonograms. And they now don’t need those machines, which they didn’t have access to because it’s very expensive. Instead, they can monitor it on a cell phone. So they know what they need, and they know the way they live. We want them to lead and implement these changes.

So how are we different? We’re not different in the sense that we’re all trying to do good. But we’re different in that our holistic approach tackles more than one problem, and we’re all about equipping them to have the resources and opportunities to be agents of change for the future and to be superheroes.

Water Well

SHY: One of the major problems in underdeveloped countries is that nonprofits come in then leave, and the things they built are unsustainable. How does Forefront address that problem? 

MO: Throughout our phases, we’re really trying to create that sustainable person – the leader. But we have a dedicated agenda, topic and goal. And the title of one person’s role on our team is growth and sustainability. At the end of the day, we need to make sure that our actions where all our donors’ money is going into is measurable, and they can deliver year after year. Also, donors and nonprofits are very quick to put a check in the box when we do something. But what we want to do is get people to think more-long term and get people to be more responsible for their money. We are 100% responsible of donor money. But we also want the donors to be responsible of where the money went.

For our water well phase, we recently provided our donors a whole water well report where we brought water samples to a U.S. lab, got it analyzed, compared it to the EPA (the water that you and I drink) and we reported that data to show that, in fact, our water well is delivering clean and sanitary water. Now, is that it? No. Because a water well doesn’t last forever. At some point, it’s going to break. At some point, the water well might deplete or, say, metal corrodes and it could affect the water. And this is what I’m saying: a donor should be very well-invested for the long haul. We have a continual monitoring process where we monitor the quality of the water over and over again. That’s one way we’re doing sustainability here in the water phase just to give you an example.

But we’re all about sustainability and growing from that. Even as we present these results to the villagers there, it gets them to start thinking. For example, they throw trash everywhere and anywhere. They don’t have a disposal system. And they don’t really know the harm and the effects that it has. But as we do these things, and we give them the results, we get them to think about the bigger picture. We really are encouraging them to think about the world, think about keeping the world green, because their world is our world – we share. We want them to learn from this and think, “How can we be better? How can we be more sustainable?” These are the ways that we’re educating and equipping them for further and bigger actions.

SHY: Why did you choose the name Forefront? 

MO: After months of pondering of where we wanted to be, the name “Forefront” came out, because we wanted to be at the forefront of change. We’re very big on innovation and new ideas; we don’t want to recreate the wheel, and we don’t want to do things haphazardly. We want to be committed and do things to excellence. So even for the water wells, we’re working with a student group in Cornell University to implement this big technology change, where it’s all about sustainability for our donors specifically and for the people there. So that is kind of an innovation – taking an existing problem and making it better. And that’s the forefront of change.

But at the same time, our model and our approach is definitely at the forefront of change as well, because it’s big, and it’s revolutionary. I think a lot of the times, people have been focusing on just one phase. I’m not discrediting that at all – I think nonprofits have done a fantastic job in reaching the UN MDG (United Nations Millennium Development Goals), so they’ve done good work. But we’re changing that front.

Lastly, the name also came out because we want to go to villages that need it the most, where they might have never gotten recognized or no one would have gone to them. Through our multiplication effect, the peer-to-peer change, hopefully that village can reach all the other small villages and create the cycle of helping. So I think in everything that we do, we always think about, “This is the problem and these are the gaps. How can we fill those gaps, do it better and commit to great results and execution?”

SHY: How does your career as a chemical engineer complement your work with Forefront? What skill sets have you learned at one that you’ve applied to the other? 

MO: I guess just that mindset of not staying at the status quo. It’s always, “What can we do better?” That innovative and creative mindset is something that I can implement and bring to the table at Forefront. I’m always challenging our team to take something and think of something new. For example, I told my graphic designer, “Yes, there are the website layouts and fonts that are trending, but what is next? Lets explore that area.” Because not only does it unlock a person’s interest and creativity and gives them the freedom to do something that they enjoy, but we’re also trying to be at the forefront of things. I think that would be my top skill – in addition to being detail oriented, managing projects and keeping timelines.

SHY: What are some of your future plans for Forefront? Do you plan to keep the four-phase approach and branch out to different sites? 

MO: Yes, that is our goal. Our holistic approach, the phases, not only was it something that I’ve seen, but we can back it up through a Time magazine article that asked third world countries what their biggest issues, crisie, or needs were. There were five categories and all our phases are within those categories. So we know that we’ve hit the areas that we need, and it’s in reverse order – starting with water being the least critical and then working our way up. We’re just taking what is doable, what’s easily executable and implementable, then working our way up. At this point, we don’t have any thoughts on revising the phases. Right now, we’re here to execute. But like I said before, we’re very open, and we’re willing to learn from what we do. Currently, the goal is to implement these four phases in other countries and explore and execute the multiplication initiative as well.

Liked this? Check back tomorrow for part 2!

Written by Diana Kim

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