Christopher Zobrist, BS 02

Founder, Zobrist International

Christopher Zobrist’s relationship with Vietnam has grown from tourist to permanent resident to social entrepreneur on the verge of helping to rescue the fast-developing nation from rampant lead poisoning.

Zobrist, BS 02, is brokering a deal for Vietnam’s first lead battery recycling plant to break ground next year. He tuned in to this serious environmental need in between managing the international arm of his family’s IT consulting firm, Zobrist International, and teaching entrepreneurship in the Saigon South campus of the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology.

“I thought it was a very compelling story,” Zobrist says of the battery recycling venture, noting that 90 percent of US batteries use recycled lead. “There’s nothing groundbreaking, yet there’s absolute need in Vietnam to have this.”

Vietnam, a nation overrun by motorbikes but lacking an indigenous source of refined lead, currently has no modern lead recycling capacity. Instead, battery recycling means melting down used batteries in conventional ovens. This poses a danger to surrounding communities because the smelt lead rises into the air and then settles onto the ground and into the water table.

Using a “very old technology” but “very profitable business model,” Zobrist has attracted investors that include the largest domestic battery manufacturer in Vietnam.

“There are so many opportunities to get things started if you can find the right people to work with,” he says. “With local partners especially, you can really start something big.” He gives a lot of the credit for the success of the battery recycling factory venture to his partner, Linh Pham, a Vietnamese national who studied abroad and returned to Vietnam to pursue the venture.

Entrepreneurship took root during Zobrist’s Berkeley years. Sensing leadership development was underemphasized for undergrads, he started a student-initiated course called Leadership and Organizational Dynamics. He taught two semesters then passed the torch to his teaching assistants. It’s been taught continuously since 2001.

Zobrist, who is half-Vietnamese, first visited Vietnam in 2005 to explore his roots. His mother grew up in what was once Saigon and came to the US to study at USC. She went on to build a career as an IBM executive before starting boutique IT consulting firm Zobrist Consulting Group in Los Angeles with her son.

Zobrist, who earned an MBA from UC Davis, later moved to Vietnam seeking international experience. Starting small, business for Zobrist International grew rapidly with his all-Vietnamese staff.

Managing Zobrist International is now taking less time, allowing Zobrist to focus on building new socially beneficial businesses — like the battery recycling factory. He also serves as the regional representative in Ho Chi Minh City of the Haas Alumni Network.

“I work on things that I am really interested in. I love teaching. I love managing my IT business. And I’m very passionate about social entrepreneurship,” he says. “Vietnam is the perfect environment for me.”

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