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Opinion: Want To Help 100M People? Do These 3 Things
This post was originally produced for Forbes.
By his example, Paul Polak, the 85-year-old social entrepreneur, teaches those who follow in his footsteps three important principles: the primacy of distribution, “never give up” isn’t just a slogan on a t-shirt and listening is an innovation superpower.
You may wish to read Friday’s article about Polak.
The Primacy of Distribution
His impressive career started by inventing a new distribution channel in India for selling water pumps that revolutionized micro-scale agriculture.
Right now, most social entrepreneurs are focused on inventing a solution in the form of a gadget or app without much regard to the distribution channel. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s adage, “Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door,” was almost certainly not true when he (allegedly) said so.
While the internet has made scaling some technologies easier over the last 25 years, this can be a distraction for social entrepreneurs working in places where few people use the internet.
The great social entrepreneurs of our day are inventing distribution channels to deliver value and opportunity to people who’ve lacked them.
Never Give Up
Denver-based Polak has a peer on the other side of the Rockies in Salt Lake City that I presume he doesn’t know. James Mayfield, about whom I’ve also written, is the same age as Polak. At age 80, he decided to spend the next decade of his life focused on eradicating poverty in Nepal, convinced it could be done.
Paul Polak CREDIT: PAUL POLAK
Several years into that project, he’s making real progress implementing an innovative financing model and cooperative business structure at the village level in thousands of villages across the country.
In writing about these two, I fear younger social entrepreneurs will find their examples unimpressive or unrelatable.
As to the first fear, let me remind readers that the majority of people born around the world 85 years ago are dead, of the those who remain virtually all retired, and these two have spent their last few years starting long-term projects.
As to relevance, Mayfield’s CHOICE Humanitarian has implemented a model that has uncanny parallels to NURU International, founded by then twenty-something social entrepreneur Jake Harriman. I don’t mean to suggest anything except that Harriman—probably without knowing of Mayfield—determined independently to attack the same problem in much the same way. What Polak and Mayfield are doing in their 80s is as hip and contemporary as social entrepreneurship gets.
Unless you have celebrated more birthdays than Polak and Mayfield, I implore you not to quit. You have more to give. If what you’re doing now isn’t working, try a new distribution model and keep innovating.
Listening Is an Innovation Superpower
Polak listens. When seeking an innovation, he spends five days in the field listening to the people he hopes to help before he even begins to think about solving their problems.
Much has been written in recent years about how the people with the best answers to the world’s problems are those who are experiencing those problems. Often, they know exactly what the solution is, but it may simply be out of reach. Knowing there is an aquifer 300 feet below your farm is of little help if no one in the community has a drill that can reach it.
Polak demonstrates by his example the power of listening not only for problems to solve but for the solutions others can offer.
Social entrepreneurs and impact investors can provide a slew of resources, especially access to capital, for implementing solutions that work in communities experiencing challenges. It is important for all who wish to improve the lot of others, to work with them to ensure that they participate in all the benefits of innovation, not only as consumers but as owners and employees whenever and wherever possible.
Polak’s vision is to see every new venture he starts reach more than 100 million people. I suspect he’ll do it again-or die trying.
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