There are saints who walk among us and we don’t even know them. Perhaps they choose their anonymity, working without the fanfare and distraction that prominence and fame can bring. They are often disguised, hidden as ordinary persons, working quietly in places of need. Every tradition has them. Here I will tell you about one of the lesser-known saints, a former Jesuit monk named Bob who had spent the last 37 years of his life in Cambodia.

Bob ended up in Cambodia on a whim and a bet, made whilst sharing a cold beer with a fellow Jesuit brother.  They had been watching a news report on the refugee camps in Cambodia. Under the cruel regime of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s almost a third of Cambodia’s people were killed or died, and camps were now burgeoning with the traumatized survivors of the darkest period in Cambodian history. These two young monks, who were also trained as health care workers, looked at one another and one said to the other, “Wanna bet we can be there within a week?”

The rest of the story I heard from Bob himself. In order to meet him, we were told, we had to send a hand-written letter to a post office box in Bangkok. Bob had no phone, and he didn’t use a computer. He lived in Cambodia but would walk to Thailand to fetch his mail, which meant that our letter might not reach him for months. He used the money he saved on bus or train fare to buy soap for prisoners in Phnom Penh’s prisons where he sometimes served as a translator. Our desire and curiosity to meet him intensified.

Bob worked in the refugee camps for years among starved and weakened survivors of torture and forced labor. Over years he tended to thousands who had TB, mysterious fevers and infections, all made worse by the heat and moisture of a tropical jungle and a people who were hungry and full of sorrow. Many had lost limbs from the land mines that lay buried in fields throughout the country. He worked himself to exhaustion, and even got the shit kicked out of him by Thai soldiers on Valentine’s Day, he chuckled once.

Bob eventually left the despair of those camps and decided to stay on in Cambodia to come to know the people of this land better. He moved in with a family of rice farmers. He lived as they did, planting rice, barefoot in the water paddies, sleeping on straw mats, eating simply and very little. “Not an easy life,” he told me.

A year later, Bob met one of Cambodia’s great Buddhist monks, Maha Ghosananda. A deep friendship of mutual respect developed and they came up with a tender-hearted idea. They would lead a walk for peace throughout the countryside announcing to villagers that peace had finally come. These walks, often attracting hundreds or even thousands, began to take place annually. Healing was needed, and bearing witness to the suffering of a people can help them to heal.

Years later, his monk’s cloak and Jesuit way of life long faded away, he was left only with the grief and love that burns away any outer identification, the experiences in life that melt away the last remnants of pride or self-centeredness. He is humble. He also loves to laugh and has a sharp wit and a wild, kind sense of humor. In a recent letter, he wrote that he needed funds for some monks to put a roof on their library. He added a PS: “Bank robbers welcome, we can be discreet”!

He still hangs out with the Buddhist monks, volunteering at a monastic university in a northern province. He teaches them English, but mostly he does the cleaning. The school can’t afford a janitor, he says.

Bob is no longer interested in religion. He wears a t-shirt, simple cotton pants, and the flip-flops, a size too small, of a wandering ascetic. The Sufi poetry of Rumi is what he reads, or he sits in silence, which is his preferred mode of communicating. There is something about his eyes. So much has been stripped away, that only the empty space in his big heart is present, making room for a mystical love to move freely to where it is needed.

His tall and slender frame, fair skinned and hair burnt blond by the Cambodian sun, can still be seen walking along the roads of Cambodia. He carries a simple bag with all his possessions slung over his bony shoulders. Now in his sixties, he sometimes accepts a ride. He told me a truck picked him up one day.  The overjoyed driver was close to tears. “Remember me? You gave me some soap when I was a kid back in the camps.”

Photo Credit: Anandajoti/Wikimedia Commons

Nashville has always thought big. People have moved here with dreams of conquering the city, or even the world. Adam Neumann, cofounder and CEO of WeWork — which has two locations in Music City — has described the company as a place that fosters that kind of growth.

So it makes sense that the two meshed so well at WeWork’s Nashville Creator Awards, held on September 13. Host Ashton Kutcher ticked off the long list of larger cities where the Creator Awards, a global competition that rewards entrepreneurs, have already taken place. “London! São Paulo! Nashville, you are on that list!”

Adam Neumann and Ashton Kutcher at WeWork’s Nashville Creator Awards.

Neumann twice interrupted the event to increase the amounts of the prizes, underscoring that “think big” theme for the night. He boosted dollar amounts for runners-up in the nonprofit category and gave performance arts winner Melanie Faye a recording studio, in addition to her $18,000 cash prize. All told, WeWork awarded $888,000 in prize money in Music City.

If you were expecting a prim-and-proper pitch competition, well, this wasn’t your father’s shark tank. The crowd of more than 2,500 people at Marathon Music Works was standing room only, and there were lines outside of more folks who wanted to get in. (Food trucks kept serving outside all night.) Faye rocked out on her signature blue Fender guitar as attendees made their way to their seats. “A lot of times on stage I am inhibited, but the audience was giving me a lot of energy that I could feed off,” she said. “So it made me play at my potential. It made me a lot more confident.”

Sarah Martin McConnell wowed the judges — and the crowd — with her elevator pitch for Music for Seniors, a nonprofit that takes live music to the elderly.

Kutcher described Nashville has having seemingly contradictory, yet laudatory, qualities: humility and confidence. Also one of the judges, Kutcher said the one quality he looked for most in a creator is “grit.”

Music City’s quirkiness came through loud and clear in all the best moments of the evening:

Best way to fight the stereotype: Nashville likes to emphasize that it’s not just about country music. Sure, the mega duo of Florida Georgia Line were celebrity judges, but what better way to show Music City’s range than to have G-Eazy (wearing a “Cashville” T-shirt) in the house? The rapper played to a happy after-party crowd that danced through beer and confetti.

Janett Liriano of Loomia pitches her company to the judges.

Best eats: Food trucks lined up outside —  including That Awesome Taco Truck, King Tut’s, and Bradley’s Creamery — fed attendees in a makeshift park with picnic tables and a view of the city skyline in the distance.

Best thirst quencher: On a day that topped 92 degrees and humidity levels as noticeable in the air as the confetti streamers that later rained down, “refreshing” was the beverage watchword of the night. Palomas, served both as limed-accented drinks from the open bars in the vendor market and job fair and as shots once the winners were announced, helped the parched and got folks in a party mood, while keeping it light. For non-drinkers, WithCo’s drink call the Jackass, made with fresh lime and ginger, was a particularly popular pre-show energy kick.

Melanie Faye rocked out on her signature blue Fender guitar at the Nashville Creator Awards.

Easiest way to influence your future: Inside, Neumann, Kutcher, and the finalists demonstrated what happens when one has ambition and curiosity. Business card-maker Moo helped people put that initiative in their own hands –– literally. Market-goers wrote a postcard to their future selves that Moo will mail 12 months from now.

Best wearable art: WeWorker and East Nashville florist FLWR Shop used liquid latex to paint fresh-flower corsages on the wrists of willing attendees.

Local vendors showed off their wares at the Nashville Creator Awards.

Best salute to veterans: The world-changing went on not just on the stage but in the pop-up market and job fair, which hosted many businesses and nonprofits specifically focused on helping refugees and veterans, including Bunker Labs, a national nonprofit for veteran entrepreneurs.

Most quintessential Nashville item for sale: Music City’s Original Fuzz was selling its line of guitar straps made from vintage and one-of-a-kind fabrics. Camera and bags straps were available for those who can’t pick a note.

Dozens of jobs were on offer at the Nashville Creator Awards job fair.

Biggest scene-stealer: Before the pitches began Kutcher and Neumann asked for two volunteers from the packed audience to pitch their idea. Sarah Martin McConnell’s hand shot up, and in 30 seconds she wowed the duo — and the crowd — with her elevator pitch for Music for Seniors, a nonprofit that takes live music to the elderly. She was awarded $50,000 to triple the organization’s size by the end of next year. “This is a turning place for us,” she said.

Product that best knows its niche audience: Nashville is home to the largest Kurdish population in the U.S. The majority of Kurds are Muslim, and Muslim women who participate in wudu, a washing ritual where water must reach every part of the body, cannot wear waterproof makeup or nail polish. Enter Júwon Enamel, a vegan nail polish with a water-permeable polish, to solve that problem. (Júwon means “beautiful” in Kurdish.)

Biggest winner: Stephanie Benedetto, founder and CEO of Queen of Raw, the night’s biggest winner with a $360,000 prize for her online marketplace for excess raw textiles, demonstrated a lot of grit. “The kinds of questions they asked were so valuable, informative, and supportive,” she said, but they also forced her to think about the direction she’ll take the company going forward.

Best sign you were on the right track: Anthony Brahimsha, who walked away with a second-place $180,000 prize for Prommus, his high-protein, clean-label hummus, says that “as soon as you win this award, all the blood, sweat and tears that you put into the company comes together. I’m talking, literally, blood, sweat, and tears… Finally, it feels like an affirmation that you were doing the right thing.”

When luxury clothing retailer Burberry burned millions of dollars worth of items that it couldn’t sell, it caused an uproar. Destroying excess fabric is rampant in the industry, but Stephanie Benedetto may have come up with a solution.

Her business, Queen of Raw, offers an online marketplace for buying and selling fabrics that might otherwise go to waste.

Queen of Raw cofounder Stephanie Benedetto wants to use the prize money from the Nashville Creator Awards to take her company international.

The New Yorker says there’s $120 billion worth of excess fabric sitting in warehouses around the world. That costs the factories that made it, the companies that ordered it, and the warehouses that store it. And Benedetto says it also costs the planet.

The textile industry is the second-biggest polluter of clean water in the world, right after oil. That cotton T-shirt you’re wearing as you read this? Benedetto says it took a mind-boggling 700 gallons of water to produce (unless you happen to be wearing an organic shirt, in which case it’s more like 10 gallons). Multiply that by the 2 billion shirts sold annually across the globe, and you can see the impact this has on the environment.

With Queen of Raw, Bennedetto says that businesses can sell their excess raw fabric (hence the name) instead of destroying it. And if the company that buys it ends up not needing it? Well, it can sell it to another firm.

Buyers become sellers and sellers become buyers,” she says.

Bennedetto says she’s continuing a family tradition. A century ago, her immigrant grandfather worked in the garment industry on New York’s Lower East Side. Today, she runs her technology-driven company from New York’s WeWork Empire State.

A former lawyer who specialized in fashion, technology, and other fields, Benedetto started mapping out Queen of Raw on a napkin four years ago. She officially launched this year with cofounder Phil Derasmo, whose Wall Street and startup contacts were a good balance for her fashion industry chops.

Benedetto estimates that by 2025 Queen of Raw could help save more than 4 billion gallons of water and prevent 2 million tons of textiles from going to the landfill. While Queen of Raw strives to have serious social impact, it was important to Benedetto for it to be a for-profit business to show the industry that preventing waste will help their bottom line.

Benedetto knows how hard it is to run a successful startup. But things suddenly got a lot easier on Sept. 13 when she took home the top prize — $360,000 — at the Nashville Creator Awards.

“We were a bootstrapped company and it took us all the way to launch,” says Benedetto. “We want to be able to grow and scale beyond the U.S. and around the world.”

Her ultimate goal is to get people — business owners and consumers alike — to stop and think.

“Wherever you are, whatever you are going, the materials in the space you are in —the office, a car, a plane — did not come from nowhere,” says Benedetto. “If everyone thought a little differently about one T-shirt, about sourcing sustainably one thing, that would have a massive impact.”

Architect Luiz Alberto Altmann Fazio was volunteering with a well-known nonprofit when he visited a favela in Rio de Janeiro. There he saw for the first time the problems with sewage encountered by many poor communities in Brazil.

“Companies won’t build sewage networks in poor communities because they don’t see it as economically viable,” he says.

About 50 percent of Brazilian households are not connected to a sewage network, a statistic that disproportionally affects the poor. So Fazio created Biosaneamento, a project to build low-cost biogas toilets in communities that lack basic sanitation.

A biogas toilet is similar to an eco-friendly composting toilet in that it converts waste to fertilizer. But a biogas system takes things a step farther by also collecting methane gas that can be used by the local community. This gas can be a lifeline for poor families, who have seen the price of canisters of gas rise in recent months in Brazil.

Despite Brazil passing a law guaranteeing all citizens access to a sewage system 10 years ago, Fazio says that in a best-case scenario, the country is still at least 25 years away from fulfilling its promise. The total cost would be more than $100 billion.

But Biosaneamento offers a cheap and quicker solution to the problem. The construction of bio-toilets uses readily available materials and can create jobs in the community.

Biosaneamento, with offices at Rio de Janeiro’s WeWork Carica, is a winner in the nonprofit category at the WeWork Creator Awards. With the $18,000 prize the company will be able to build up to 50 systems — enough to serve 150 homes and 600 people.

Fazio says that says that their system would cost around a tenth of a sewer traditional system. One of the big benefits would be improving the health of local communities.

“In poor communities with open sewer networks you have high rates of diarrhea and other diseases,” says Fazio. “For young children this can be deadly.”

When São Paulo business leader Alcione Albanesi decided to start a nonprofit organization back in 1993, little did she know that 25 years later it would be one of the best-known programs in Brazil.

“At the time, we couldn’t have imagined where it would take us,” says Albanesi, who started off her career as head of a successful lamp company.

Today, Amigos do Bem — which translates as “Good Friends” — has 8,600 volunteers working to help 60,000 Brazilians in Sertão, one of the country’s poorest areas. The semi-arid region sits in the northeastern part of the country.

Through volunteering, fundraising, and other efforts, Amigos de Bem serves 118 villages in the remote parts of the states of Alagoas, Pernambuco, and Ceará. Last year, Amigos do Bem received an award from Brazil’s Epoca magazine, which honours the 100 best non-governmental organizations in the country.

Sertão is a visually beautiful and enchanting place that has inspired some of Brazil’s best literature and cinema, but it’s also a region that throughout Brazil’s history has suffered from natural disasters, poverty, and neglect.

While there have been some serious improvements in recent years, including much-needed grants provided by the government, problems remain. Jobs are hard to come by, and many residents rely to varying degrees on subsistence agriculture to help them get by.

To make matters worse, two years ago the area suffered its worst drought in history. In 2014, Brazil was removed from the United Nations World Hunger map, but in Sertão, there are many areas where hunger persists.  

“It’s a difficult fight,” says Albanesi, a resident of São Paulo. “It’s really complex. Without a humane intervention, it’s a pattern that repeats itself.”

In partnership with leading supermarket chains in Brazil, Amigos do Bem donates 11,000 food baskets each month to poor families in the Sertão region. But while the nonprofit started off with donations of food and clothing, it has expanded to offer housing and medical and dental care.

Today, the organization is focused on self-sustaining projects such as university scholarships that will benefit nearly 200 students. Most of them will be the first in their families to go on to higher education.

“Today, kids and teenagers in the region can dream,” says Albanesi.