Tag Archives: entrepreneurship

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.

Social Entrepreneurs Prioritize Changemaking First

by Trabian Shorters

Are Social Entrepreneurs indeed Earth’s next best hope for survival, prosperity, utopia? Sure, why not. Believe what you choose to believe about it. It is just a term. It doesn’t ultimately matter what you call the people who would rather do it than define it.

As someone who has been labeled a social entrepreneur, and then was asked to find social entrepreneurs for Ashoka, and now is asked to coach emergent social entrepreneurs for NYU’s Reynolds Program in Social Entrepreneurship, I am most surprised by two things:

  1. How fast one goes from 20-something aspirant as I was, to mentor material. That time flies much faster than you would imagine.
  2. How calculated, cautious, and afraid the current generation of “changemakers” appears to me.

So maybe, as a mentor, I can earn my chops by having an opinion on that.

The desire to simultaneously “make a difference” and “earn a living” is admirable and good – but you do have to prioritize one over the other. There is no “program” for social change nor a meaningful life. You must already have that desire kindled inside of you. It is the root of courage. For some, the desire to make a difference smolders and for others it burns. The rest are faking. Like any true love, it is impossible to embrace “social change” from a safe distance.

So let’s talk about “risk-management.”

Your willingness to risk normally decreases as you age. That’s why all those people who tell you that they will make their money first and then commit to changing the world are proven wrong 99% of the time. If you are too afraid to risk it now, that usually means that you plan to have far more to lose in the future.

I know that the many people who want to make social entrepreneurship a “field” say that we should have many levels of tolerance – from charismatic prodigy to nonprofit paper shuffler. Fine by me but let’s not confuse wage-making with changemaking.

Social change is NOT a field. It is a calling – a profession in the original meaning of the word. You may be called by your faith, your conscience, your ancestors, or your circumstances but the optimistic belief and integrity of a zealous changemaker (by whatever label) is vital to human progress. That makes it sacred.

I like the way that John Gardner described it.

“[People] of integrity, by their very existence, rekindle the belief that as a people we can live above the level of moral squalor. We need that belief; a cynical community is a corrupt community.”

I often encourage young people to fail big as soon as they possibly can because learning how to get back up is far more useful than learning how to never fall down. You would still be crawling if this were not inherently true. Think how limiting that life would be.

Time flies so how long should you crawl? Are you a changemaker by any name?