Monthly Archives: February 2009

Ethos Water

On Tuesday, February 10, 2009, the NYU Reynolds Program in Social Entrepreneurship had the distinct pleasure to host Peter Thum, founder of Ethos Water as part of their ongoing Speaker Series, “Social Entrepreneurship in the 21st Century”.  I had the distinct pleasure of introducing Mr. Thum for his talk on his experiences founding Ethos, the world water crisis and what it takes to be a social entrepreneur. 

As something of a amateur development practitioner myself (I have yet to be paid in this capacity) with experience developing potable water projects in developing countries, I can say from experience that Thum hit many of the right notes in his description of experiences in the field, working on developing water projects as well as the approach Ethos takes toward development aid.  Buzz words/concepts noted:  pre-screening NGOs, working with small NGOs and then building up to larger aid organizations like UNICEF and WaterAid.  Giving Water, his non-profit, directing charitable giving to Ethos funded projects or organizations.  Concern for effective use of money, human development index compared to cost and need, decentralization and the involvement of local government to help ensure project sustainability.

The Q&A session was particularly interesting and very engaging;  Peter actually stopped  during one point to offer a gift of an Ethos brand canteen/bottle  to an audience member concerned about the inherent waste associated with the bottled water industry. This touched on the running debate on whether or not bottled water is especially wasteful considering the abundance of cheap or free water in the United States.  Obviously, a question he has come to expect at his speaking engagements.

Reynolds Scholars and Fellows had the extra benefit of a private dinner and conversation with Thum after the event.  The topics of conversation mostly centered on the question of social entrepreneurship.  Thum provided additional insight on his struggles getting his venture started, the rejections he went through, how he was able to sustain himself for so long while working toward the success of Ethos.  It was a lesson of persistence while pursuing your dream.  Thum was always comfortable, at ease, relaxed in his chair, fielding our questions and dispensing advice.  One highlight was his impromptu universe of the social venture, stuck between competing poles of non profits and for profits horizontally, activists and consumers vertically, and after some feedback, a greater circle around the subject representing society/government/media… reminding us with a smile, “hey, I just made this up.”  His advice was mostly pragmatic; when asked about Yunnis’s concept of “social business,” he started off critical, saying the investor inherently seeks financial return out of necessity, up to a point, where he/she is comfortable.  Then, as conversation developed, conceded that doing things for the social good sometimes offsets those needs, in the end almost implying, sure yeah, if someone makes a social business that works, good for them, that’s not my thing. 

In the end, that largely relates to what I took away from the conversations and presentation.   Peter Thum was mainly sharing his experience in the small space between for profit and non-profit, between activists and consumers.  Marketing a product that does well while performing well, that takes on a consumer’s need to feel a little connected to the world around us, though their donation or their being informed on issues larger than themselves.  It’s an approach Peter Thum discovered for himself and it’s my guess that if he can continue to work in that space he intends to. 

-Matt Sisul, Reynolds Fellow ’08.

Give Back, NYU – Response to the Take Back NYU Occupation

Last night 64 students barricaded themselves inside the Third
floor of Kimmel.
They listed a set of demands and today press from
around the country will be putting NYU in the headlines. NYU Local had an embedded reporter who blogged for 6
hours straight
.

I find it peculiarly ironic that a group of students who (presumably) oppose the Israeli occupation of Palestine choose occupation as their method of communication and conflict-resolution last night.  

It is even more confusing to me that my peers, so dedicated to their activist lifestyles, did not enlist the most necessary tactics of activism in their demonstration yesterday evening. Take Back NYU – I am asking you for self-reflection.  Do you think occupation is effective?  Or have you merely hosted a publicity stunt void of accomplishment?  As a fellow student activist who believes in your ability to make a difference, I write to you asking for clarification, transparency, solidarity, and sincerity.

You must be specific.  Your demands are a presently a convoluted web of controversial topics, tangling the Israel-Palestine conflict, human rights abuses at Coca-Cola, institutional transparency, and access to NYU resources.  A lack of focused calls to action means you risk losing potential supporters who may disagree with specific demands.  You also risk gaining supporters who cannot communicate the complexity, and will not help you advance your cause.

Separate your complex agenda by Goal and Sub-Goal.  Form separate coalitions or committees who will fight tirelessly for specific issues, and have a core mission statement simple enough that diverse groups will agree to.  

And logistically, provide a downloadable or e-mailable template letter that you would like supporters to send to Administration and “the world”.  You will get more people to send them, and there is less risk your mission, especially being so complex, will be hijacked by people with ulterior motives.

You must be transparent.  Make accusations by name, or else people will never be forced to respond.  Who are the ‘war profiteers’ you want investigated?  Name them.  Who will be on the proposed Finance Committee?  You?  With transparency comes quantification. NYU budgets count by dollar, militaries count troops, and micro-finance programs count loan repayment rates.  What are your measures of success?  Number of students ‘on board’ and if so, how are you counting?  I personally would not rely on a count of Facebook Group members – we all know the trivial way in which students join these Groups, and no action is required of a student on a Facebook Group.  We find the same conundrum at the United Nations, where international laws can be created and suggested, but never enforced.

You must be sincere.  Faux radicalism will not suffice.  You have risked very little by barricading yourself in Kimmel and I am surprised that you are demanding amnesty for all parties involved.  Real change means real risk: willing to go to jail or to die for this cause if it consumes you so completely.  AIDS activists lay down in front of 5th Avenue traffic knowing they were going to die anyway from lack of antiretroviral treatment.  After decades of struggle they have received affordable treatment (yet over 7 million are still in need worldwide).  Respect the legacy of these activists, and time it takes for change to happen when institutions are involved.  And beware those who love the spirit of the revolution for revolutions sake – they can abandon you when stakes become too high, or when they graduate out of the victim role.

You must secure solidarity creatively.  I understand you are ‘occupying’ in solidarity with other students internationally, but where is shared set of goals?  The collective vision?  Make sure every reporter you talk to knows this – you create the headlines.  Logically, if you want NYU Administration to change its behavior, you must pressure and encourage other private University Administrations to do as you demand NYU does.  Do any other private Universities disclose their budgets?  Why would NYU be the first?  Put yourself in Sexton’s shoes – if you will not change his incentive structure, who or what will?

I commend your efforts to get two dozen student groups on board, and listing them online.  However you must expand your efforts.  Form solidarity with Stern (or Wagner Finance!) students; considering the complexity of NYU’s budget, I would hope that anyone eventually given access to the budget has passed a certain course in finance and would be qualified to properly read and fully understand the details.

And realize that your time here is short, and institutional change takes time.  Galvanize incoming classes, or pressure Princeton Review to include measures of institutional transparency in how a student can rate colleges.  Cultural change requires an all-angles approach.

I respect your persistence and dedication.  I simply expect more of my peer activists.

Evoking Maslow, I gently remind of the very violent occupations, genocides, diseases, and wars that plague our world this moment.  You have included some, though haphazardly, in your demands.  These matters deserve our focused attention and energy.  Gratitude is due for the immense resources NYU has provided our student body, and it is our job to maximize available resources and relationships to reach our goals.

An opportunity was lost last night by not being more specific, and I fear the ‘occupation’ further perpetuates a stereotype of neo-liberal, melodramatic NYU students.  Your demands are legitimate but your presentation and performance does not communicate this yet.  

I believe there are opportunities now to be specific, to leverage partnerships, to make real change.  A final activist suggestion:  Reconsider your core engagement statement.  Instead of asking students to ‘take back’ NYU, why not demand NYU to ‘give back’ to students?  Demand that NYU give back to students, to the community, to people suffering around the world.  

Think about the NYU Sustainability Taskforce members, the hundreds of Be-a-Changemaker grant awardees, the Reynolds Social Entrepreneurs, the thousands of talented, compassionate NYU students living every day of their life to make positive social change across diverse disciplines and mediums – here you already have an unbreakable foundation of students giving back to NYU that you can use as a key point for negotiations!

I understand that change movements are complex, political, and rife with potential for misunderstandings that are out of your control.  All of my suggestions are intended as constructive criticism, because I do believe your highest goals of transparency must be reached.  I hope you will refocus your efforts and restructure your goals to achieve measurable steps towards an NYU culture of greater social justice and institutional accountability.

Sincerely,

Kate Otto
NYU Wagner Student 2009