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
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.