How A Business Hatched On A Surfboard Has Reinvented This Panama Expat’s Life
Working long hours and getting no closer to the lifestyle he believed he was destined to live, a young German, Bastian Barnbeck, walked away from the corporate world at age 30.
His passion for education and surfing led him to Panama…
Fresh out of hospitality school in Switzerland, Bastian accepted a management consulting job for two years in London and then worked for three years in Brazil and Chile as a management trainee and project manager for the third-largest Latin American retailer.
“But the jobs turned out to be just a way to pay the bills,” says Bastian, “there was no passion in the work for me.”
In December 2015, Bastian quit his job in Brazil, went home to Germany (leaving all his suits and ties behind there), picked up his backpack, and took off for Panama.
Bastian was invited to visit Panama by a college friend and found that here he could combine his love of education with a passion for surfing he’d discovered in Brazil.
Bastian came to Panama permanently on Jan. 15, 2016.
“My arrival,” he says, “marked the official starting date of Waved, the first foundation supporting local schools through surfing.”
At first, the idea was only a six-month charity project, but it evolved into an official Panamanian foundation in June 2016.
“And, now, for the first time, I can really see I’m not hustling for money,” Bastian says with a smile.
“I’m hustling for the idea and improving education in Panama.
“I have found that education can be aided through surfing. It’s a unique concept that does not exist anywhere else in the world.”
Bastian has always had a passion for education.
“When I was 15 and 16 I was helping 9- and 10-year olds with their homework,” he explains.
“I also did a social year in France where I worked in a home for deprived children.
“Education and the younger generation have always been my priority. I wanted to connect my new passion for surfing with something that added educational value to society.”
“Surfing connects you to nature and enables you to step outside of everyday problems… many of which are not really critical to your life,” says Bastian.
“Things like chasing the next promotion at work… or how much money you will spend on your new car… those things don’t really matter in the scheme of things.
“By immersing yourself in the culture, you see how surfers truly care for each other. They find ways of giving back to the community by keeping beaches clean, donating surfboards to younger surfers, giving surfing lessons free, and organizing fundraisers for people who need help.
“The majority of brainstorming for the foundation was done while sitting on my surfboard, waiting for the next set of waves!”
From Surfer To Foundation Director
Bastian took a leap of faith. He had never before worked in the non-profit or private-foundation world, and he had no prior experience with fundraising.
“I think this is how it goes sometimes or probably most of the time,” Bastian says. “If you do things with passion, you don’t really think about how you’re going to do it… you just start doing it.”
Bastian knew that if he wanted to help public schools with infrastructure improvements, he would need permission from Panama’s Ministry of Education (Meduca).
“The first week I arrived in Panama, I proposed to Meduca that I take on one infrastructure project over a six-month period, doing whatever the school might need done—bringing in new lighting, painting, providing weekly English lessons, etc.
“Within three days, Meduca gave me the OK in the form of a letter signed by Dr. Carlos Staff, the Vice President of Academics, and together we chose the first project, Los Destiladeros, a school with 13 students ages 5 to 12.”
The project, launched in February 2016, has so far resulted in donations for electrical infrastructure improvements, weekly English lessons, a vegetable garden, and surf lessons with Bastian at Playa Venao.
Conceived as a six-month project, Bastian planned to start in Panama, and then do similar projects in Costa Rica and work his way up to El Salvador, fully expecting that at some point he would return to corporate life.
When he presented his ideas to attendees at a HATCH (a networking group focused on bringing together creative minds to promote entrepreneurship) seminar, people suggested thinking bigger. Instead of treating the project as a limited-time effort, why not make a foundation to support ongoing school projects in the regions Bastian had earmarked? From there, he started outlining a real plan.
Timing And Heart Are Everything
“Surfing in Panama is not as big a sport as it is in Costa Rica and Brazil—probably 50 times smaller than in Brazil,” explains Bastian, “but what is a huge issue right now in Panama is a focus on solutions for improving education, and that is at the heart of the Waved mission.”
In 2018, Panama will again participate in the PISA study of the world’s most educated countries—which it was a part of in 2009, ranking 62nd out of 65 countries. PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) is a worldwide study by the OECD in member and nonmember nations of 15-year-olds’ scholastic performance in math, science, and reading.
Education issues are getting a lot of media play in Panama right now. “Again, today, there was an article about how kids don’t have enough opportunities in local schools, and how they end up on the streets,” says Bastian, who collects articles like this to present to companies he asks to sponsor Waved.
“The interest in improving education in Panama is rising, and companies understand they have to do something proactively. One of the ways they can do this is through Waved. The foundation provides a big opportunity for companies to get involved in education now rather than in 2018, when PISA kicks off,” Bastian explains. “This is really the moment to do something about it, and I’m giving companies the chance to jump on board.”
Challenges To Overcome When Starting A Private Foundation In Panama
“The challenges weren’t so much about the time that it took Panama to get the papers done…” admits Bastian, “it was more of a challenge for me to figure out what kind of a business structure would work best.”
“If it was to be a company, then we couldn’t call it a foundation. If it was going to be an NGO, then it would take almost two years to be fully operational, plus, in that case, the president and all the board members would have to be Panamanian.”
The language barrier was also challenging. “It was a tough nut, finding a lawyer and people you can trust, because I spoke very little Spanish, especially the kind of formal Spanish lawyers talk.”
Bastian found his lawyer through networking. One of the Meduca officials was also a HATCH member, and she recommended one of her former students for the job.
Through Meduca and its educative program, Mi Escuela Primero, Waved officially has been given the support of the Panamanian government.
Catching The Perfect Wave
International is where Waved is going in the future.
Bastian has already had some success in finding big-name sponsors, whom he pairs up with international surf stars, so-called Ambassadors. For example, Billabong Panama sponsored Big Wave World Champion Carlos Burle, and Super Deportes sponsored Carlos Muñoz at the ISA World Surfing Games.
The concept for the fundraising is similar to that of a read-a-thon. On an individual basis, a surfer seeks personal sponsors who agree to a pledge amount per wave the surfer rides in. On a larger scale, Bastian looks for big-scale sponsors to pledge for big-name surfers.
“What I’m currently working on is attracting sponsors who have a capped amount of say US$4,000 to US$5,000 a month. Sponsors who agree to sponsor the most number of waves will be matched with the most well-known surfers.”
How did he attract the world-champion surfers? Bastian makes that part sound easy… He’s so passionate about the sport that he goes to the surfing competition events and just makes friends; it’s a completely organic process for him.
Bastian organized a campaign to attract 10 sponsors for 1,000 waves. He went to Costa Rica and approached surfers as they came out of their training sessions for the ISA World Surfing event.
“Carlos Muñoz is probably the biggest name in surfing in Costa Rica,” Bastian explains. “He’s an idol. Everyone knows him.”
As Carlos came in from the beach, Bastian asked him if he wanted to help improve the opportunities for education in his country.
“Who’s going to say no to that?” Bastian laughs, “The reply is inevitably ‘Yes, what do I have to do?’”
It couldn’t be easier to contribute: All you have to do is surf and count your waves. Every wave you count translates to a dollar for education.
Thanks to Muñoz’ waves, De Bandera, a local public school in Costa Rica, was donated much-needed school materials for its 40, 5-to-12-year-old students.
“Next year, at the World Surf League (WSL) competition, I want the Brazilian surfers on the championship tour to surf for a local Brazilian school that we will choose together,” says Bastian, “but a percentage of the money will always go to Panama, where the heart is.”
Waved and their sponsors are poised to ride the crest of publicity that will peak at the Olympic Games in Tokyo in 2020—where surfing will premier as an Olympic event.
“The funny thing about doing something good or giving back is that usually everything falls into place. That has never happened to me before. In the corporate world, there is always something not working.
“Now, since I’ve started Waved, all of a sudden all doors are open. There is nothing to block me from continuing. The foundation gets recommended by people, word spreads to others… everything is coming together. It’s just a beautiful feeling that all these people are behind you and they are helping you.”
To date, 127 students from 5 rural-area public schools have benefited by Waved projects. Students have already received first donations and weekly English lessons in schools where there were no English-language teachers.