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:

138, Julius Ibrahim, Second Shot Coffee | Heart, Head, and Hustle to end Homelessness

Julius Ibrahim is tackling homelessness one espresso at a time.

In her book, Work on Purpose, Echoing Green alumni Lara Galinsky offers this formula:

Heart + Head = Hustle

By heart, she means your emotions.

By head, she is referring to your skills and abilities.

And by hustle…well, every entrepreneur knows exactly what that looks like.

Julius Ibrahim is a beautiful illustration of heart, head and hustle.

As Julius entered university in Central London, he was confronted daily by those who were sleeping on the sidewalk, in doorways or parks. These folks are referred to as “rough sleepers.” This was a significant “heart” moment for Julius.

He wanted to apply his skills to make a difference. He became involved with the organization Enactus. Enactus allows students to take entrepreneurial action for social causes. His skills grew as he took on a leadership role in the organization. It was through Enactus that he helped turn around a social enterprise café. He was hooked.

In this role, he had a chance to see a lot of social business startups, including several false-starts of companies who were trying to solve homelessness.

Julius took the time to learn more, speaking to people in the homelessness space. He wanted to know what a good solution looks like.

Julius has a passion for hospitality. He thought about how could bring his hospitality industry skills to bear to solve the issue of chronic homelessness. In other words, how could he combine his head and his heart to make an impact.

Julius started hustling. It took him almost a year to raise the funds to start. He started with a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo. Although he failed to raise as much money as he hoped, he did receive a great deal of press and social media attention. This led to private investment funding. Because Second Shot Coffee is a UK-based social enterprise, the investors qualified for a Social Investment Tax Relief.

In May, 2016, Julius launched Second Shot Coffee. Charity organizations refer people dealing with homelessness to Julius and Second Shot Coffee. He employs them, trains them as baristas and then transitions them to further employment.

Social Entrepreneurship Quotes from Julius Ibrahim

[spp-tweet tweet=”‘I was always passionate about hospitality.’ Julius Ibrahim, @Secondshotcafe”]

“Every day there was just so much rough sleeping.”

“That’s when I realized I’m probably not going to go and do the kind of standard career choice.”

“The reason homelessness is so persistent is because there is such a lack of understanding about how easy it is to fall into the situation.”

[spp-tweet tweet=”‘Homelessness is something that happens to someone.’ Julius Ibrahim, @Secondshotcafe“]

[spp-tweet tweet=”‘The average person is two paychecks away from becoming homeless.’ Julius Ibrahim, @Secondshotcafe“]

[spp-tweet tweet=”‘Every day it’s something new and a new challenge.’ Julius Ibrahim, @Secondshotcafe“]

[spp-tweet tweet=”‘For our model, staff turnover is a good indicator.’ Julius Ibrahim, @Secondshotcafe“]

“Once people learn what we do, they’re really on board and willing to help.”

“If people are given the opportunity, they will contribute and will try and be part of something more meaningful.”

[spp-tweet tweet=”‘Find a local social enterprise and support them.’ Julius Ibrahim, @Secondshotcafe“]

[spp-tweet tweet=”‘Everybody has some kind of specialized skill that they’re able to give.’ Julius Ibrahim, @Secondshotcafe“]

Social Entrepreneurship Resources:

047, Sammie Rayner, HandUp | Social Good in Your Neighborhood

When it comes to social good, we often think we have to do something world-changing. In his book All the Trouble in the World, P. J. O’Rourke said

Everybody wants to save the earth; nobody wants to help Mom do the dishes.

If you think about it, that’s human nature. We love the grand gesture, the transformational speech or the disruptive technology. In the meantime, we pass homeless people on the street and we wonder what to do.

I understand this feeling well. I’ve often been torn while thinking about how best to serve: do I give a homeless person cash, perhaps enabling them to practice alcoholism? Or, do I walk by without making eye contact? Well, HandUp has a different approach.

Sammie Rayner is one of the cofounders of HandUp. You could say that the universe conspired to set her up for just this type of work. Her parents were business owners. As a young person, Sammie cared for her grandfather as he was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. These two early influences seemed to set her on a journey to discover business models that do social good.

As a college student, she heard Dr. Muhammad Yunus speak at her university. She also read his book Banker To The Poor. This sent Sammie on a journey of discovery. She dug into the concept of social enterprises and microfinance. In her research, she found that, despite the success of microfinance around the world, less than 5 percent of microfinance borrowers lived in Sub Saharan Africa. And of that small percentage, less than half of the loan resources were available to people in rural areas.

This discovery led to the establishment of a microfinance non-profit, Lumana Credit, in 2009. Lumana was acquired by Sinapi Aba Trust (SAT) in April, 2013. By October of that same year, Sammie joined HandUp as a cofounder, joining Rose Broome and Zac Witte.

HandUp is a platform for giving directly to people experiencing homelessness. They partner with more than 20 agencies who screen the campaigns. HandUp provides donors with a simple way to impact the lives of homeless neighbors.

How big is this problem? According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, In January 2015, 564,708 people were homeless on a given night in the United States. Of that number, 206,286 were people in families. In just over two years, donors have helped over 1,500 people reach more than 4,000 goals and raise more than $1 million.

That homeless person we were talking about at the beginning of this conversation? You can help them with a particular project. If you’re in San Francisco, you can even give them a safe gift card.

And here’s the thing. When we aggregate all of these small acts of social good, we really do change the world.

Social Entrepreneurship Quotes from Sammie Rayner:

Social Entrepreneurship Quotes from Sammie Rayner:

“These two influences seemed to always come up in my life of loving business, but also wanting to find a way to incorporate social change.”

“Something I think really struck me. I’ve been working across the globe, and there’s this huge problem right here in the states.”

[spp-tweet tweet=”What I’ve learned from both ventures is the importance of starting really small. @SammieRayner1″]

[spp-tweet tweet=”Incorporate the people you want to help as soon as possible. @SammieRayner1 of @HandUp”]

[spp-tweet tweet=”Get to know your homeless neighbors. @SammieRayner1 of @HandUp”]

Social Entrepreneurship Resources:

047, Sammie Rayner, HandUp | Social Good in Your Neighborhood