“On the evening of the awards, I was actually cooking in our new house in Amsterdam North”, Li An Phoa tells us on the phone. “I suddenly got a call from the VIVA asking whether I was planning to attend the award ceremony. By chance, it was just round the corner from us. So forty-five minutes later, I was on stage holding an award! It was quite bizarre.”

The RSM tutor won an award, a framed jury report and an ‘extra large’ goody bag. “I was very impressed at how much work the jury had put into it. They knew all about my work.” Phoa was also overwhelmed about how many people had taken part in the VIVA vote. “There’d been 34,000 votes. And I received lots of reactions from people around me.”

No flashy website

She is ‘totally amazed’ to have won the award. “I don’t have a flashy website like some of the other nominees, and I don’t do much on social media either.” Phoa won the VIVA award in the ‘world improvers’ category. She feels that’s ‘a big word’. Just before the presentation, Barry Atsma, who presented the award, said that you could describe inviting your lonely neighbour for dinner as ‘improving the world’. “I try to work on things that matter, but when is something really better? That’s a difficult question”, says Phoa.

Phoa was nominated by a freelance journalist. “She sent me an e-mail one day asking me if I’d mind if she nominated me. I’d never heard of the award. To be honest, I’m not an average VIVA reader.” That’s an understatement: for ten years Phoa lived a nomadic life in the ‘wilderness’ without a home. “I lived with innovative farmers, for example, and I did a lot of walking through the wilderness.”

On her annual return to the Netherlands, she taught at Rotterdam School of Management, among others. Last year, the Companies in Ecologies elective attracted fifty RSM students. And these are students renowned for considering their wallet first and then Planet Earth. “I teach a whole range of different types of students. There are always some who are rather materialistic. And they go through a whole transition during this subject. I always ask them the important question: what makes your heart sing? Followed by: what are you good at? And that’s when you find that they start thinking about other things.”

Drinkable rivers

In January, she will be starting a second subject at RSM: Sustainability Grand Challenges. “That will be about big sustainability problems, which I will make very tangible and bring close to home. I’ll then cycle with students along the River Meuse and to the Kralingse Bos. Ultimately they will have to present a plan about how we can clean polluted water.” Besides teaching at RSM, Phoa also gives classes at Nyenrode and she is the founder of Spring College. Phoa is also starting work on her first book: about ‘drinkable rivers as a guide for a regenerative economy’. “The book will be partly about my personal experiences in the wilderness and partly non-fiction.”