Be Curious, Leap In and Learn with Paul Polak

Paul Polak is the founder of iDE. At the age of 80, he launched three new social enterprises.

Paul Polak

Paul Polak

Paul was born in Czechoslovakia near Germany. In 1938, his family watched as refugees poured across the border. Paul says, “The conventional wisdom in 1938 was that Hitler was a joke and all this stuff would blow over. If you accepted that conventional wisdom, you’re no longer around to talk about it.” Paul’s father was willing to challenge the status quo. He moved his family to Canada in 1939. This lesson of challenging conventional thinking was an important life lesson for Paul. One key to his success is, he is willing to leap into areas where he is not an expert. But, he emphasizes that forward motion is not enough. “Jumping in assumes an active curiosity and learning.”

Paul’s first job after graduating from psychiatry residency was Director of Research at the Colorado Mental Health Institute at Fort Logan. At the time, Fort Logan treated half of the people in Colorado who were hospitalized for a serious mental illness. One of the first things that Paul did was to ask about the treatment goals of the patients. He quickly discovered that the staff was unaware of or disagreed with the treatment goals of the patients. By following his curiosity, Paul learned that two-thirds of the causes of hospitalization were social crises in the home.

Paul changed the practice for emergency admittance to the hospital. When a new patient arrived, they would take the patient back home to where the mental health crisis occurred. Paul said, “We started learning about the space and the people that were involved in the request for admission.” Paul even spent time with a homeless man in his home under a loading dock.

What he learned from these visits led to an innovative approach to treatment called social systems intervention. Through this system, they created alternatives to hospitals. “When someone needed a brief separation, we admitted them to a healthy home instead of to a hospital.”

Through this work, Paul saw how poverty contributed to mental illness and social disturbance. In an innovative move, Paul worked with the Mental Health Authority of Colorado to have them established as a public housing authority. This step allowed the Mental Health Authority to distribute 400 housing units. As a result, people who were living in slums or were homeless could move into an apartment, reducing both physical and mental illness. Paul told me, “Developing practical ways to address poverty is probably the most important basic science for health that you can think of.”

Around 1981, Paul’s interest in the impact of poverty took a turn. His wife introduced him to the work of the Mennonite Central Committee, a relief organization. Paul accompanied them on a trip to Bangladesh to focus on basic human needs. Though he had met many relatively poor people in Colorado, in Bangladesh, he met people who were living on less than one dollar per day.

Again, Paul let his curiosity guide him as he learned about the lives of poor people in Bangladesh. As Paul asked questions about why they were living in such poverty, the people patiently explained that they were smallholder farmer. They depended on the rain to water their crops. With a little research, Paul found out about the treadle pump, which had just recently been invented by Gunnar Barnes. The treadle pump is a human-powered pump that allows farmers to extract ground water.

Once back in Denver, Paul founded iDE (International Development Enterprises), a nonprofit social enterprise. iDE improved the design of the treadle pump and began selling them. For a purchase price of around $25, a poor farmer could install a treadle pump. The profit from the extra crops netted the farmers around $100 per year. Some innovative farmers began growing off-season vegetables and increased their annual profit to $500 from their $25 investment. iDE has sold more than 3 million treadle pumps across the world. Through their work, iDE has helped more than 20 million people double their income.

After more than 30 years of running iDE, Paul thought about the impact that his company had been able to have. Though he is quite pleased to have impacted more than 20 million people, he knew that there were more than 2.6 billion people living in poverty. He wanted to do more. So, at the age of 80, Paul launched three new companies, each designed to impact more than 100 million poor people.

His first new social enterprise is Affordable Village Solar. Its first product is a solar-powered irrigation system that displaces carbon emitting, expensive-to-operate diesel pumps, enabling farmers to grow high value, offseason horticulture crops.

The second new company that Paul has launched is Windhorse, International, a holding company. One company in their portfolio is Spring Health. Spring Health is an India-based water company that utilizes an innovative point-of-sale purification and distribution model to sell affordable drinking water to low-income families.

And the third new company that Paul has started is Transform Energy. In this interview, Paul describes how his volunteer team of Ball Aerospace scientists and engineers can convert invasive and waste biomass into “green coal” in one hour.

Paul has written two books describing his approach. In 2008, he published, Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail. And in 2013, he coauthored The Business Solution to Poverty: Designing Products and Services for Three Billion New Customers with Mal Warwick.

Social Entrepreneurship Quotes from Paul Polak

[spp-tweet tweet=”“We started doing poverty strategy as part of mental health interventions.”, Paul Polak, @OutofPoverty”]

[spp-tweet tweet=”“One of the basic tenants of a successful business is to know your customer.” Paul Polak, @OutofPoverty“]

[spp-tweet tweet=”“Too often we think of the extremely poor people of the world as unfortunates.” Paul Polak, @OutofPoverty“]

[spp-tweet tweet=”“To me, being an entrepreneur was natural.” Paul Polak, @OutofPoverty“]

[spp-tweet tweet=”“Forward motion is useless unless you’re learning.” Paul Polak, @OutofPoverty“]

[spp-tweet tweet=”“Be curious and learn all you can about the market you’re serving.” Paul Polak, @OutofPoverty“]

“If you haven’t talked to at least 100 customers before you start, don’t bother.”

“If you can’t sell at least a million, don’t bother.”

[spp-tweet tweet=”“Go and do something.” Paul Polak, @OutofPoverty“]

[spp-tweet tweet=”“The first step is to talk to the people who are experiencing the problem you’re interested in.” Paul Polak, @OutofPoverty“]

Social Entrepreneurship Resources:

About the Author
Tony Loyd is a TEDx speaker, podcast host and the author of Crazy Good Advice: 10 Lessons Learned from 150 Leading Social Entrepreneurs. He is a former Fortune 500 executive with extensive experience in strategic planning, talent management, and leadership development. Tony is the host of the podcast Social Entrepreneur where you can hear the stories of changemakers who are making an impact on the world.

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