Dr. Paul Polak, author of the book “Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail,” came to CU on Monday night to talk to a nearly full Math 100 auditorium.
The talk, entitled, “Leadership, Engineering and Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail,” was held from 6 to 7:30 p.m. and was one of many put on by the Engineering Leadership Program for the Spring 2013 Leadership Series. Dr. Polak also founded International Development Enterprise, or IDE, a company that focuses on ensuring that the developing world has obtainable water improvement systems. He is the co-founder of Windhorse International.
Filled with both CU students and members of the Boulder community, the crowd was captivated as Dr. Polak discussed his own experiences with IDE, his trips to countries such as India to help combat poverty and his definition of true leadership.
“To me, an important part of leadership is listening,” Dr. Polak said. “Listening means listening with your whole soul and understanding what’s happening.”
Dr. Polak emphasized that on his trips to India, which he takes four times per year, he tries to spend most of the time listening to what those in need have to say. He aims to create a “new frontier of multinational companies.” He hopes to devote the rest of his life to creating companies that can help people who live on $2 per day. He said that IDE monitors its success by measuring if a family with a dollar-per-day income doubles their income.
He gave insight into the impact of big business, as well.
“Big business is the prime mover for scale,” Polak said. “The poor need big business, and big business needs the poor.”
He presented three new ideas for companies that he is currently innovating. The first is “creating a General Electric for bottom billion customers.” He hopes to “create a breakthrough on the price of photovoltaic pumping” because photovoltaics are too expensive.
“Will we succeed? I don’t know. So we might as well go for broke,” he said.
The second is “replacing coal by biomass roasted in thousands of village kilns.” His company is seeking a way to utilize green coal, an investment that comes with both great potential and considerable risk. The third company he is currently working on aims to “sell affordable drinking water.”
Dr. Polak stated that most people who do not have access to clean water live in “small, rural villages” and are drinking water that is making them sick. Potential solutions included radically affordable technology, such as reverse osmosis and using Spring Health/Antenna Electro-chlorinator, last mile distribution, a process in which mom-and-pop shops run water kiosks and aspirational branding and marketing.
In order to be profitable as a company, Dr. Polak noted that “you need [to sell] 1200 tiers of water per day.” In order to sell clean water, his company uses strategies such as door-to-door sales teams and water fair testing teams. If Dr. Polak’s efforts to distribute safe drinking water around the world are successful, not only will he make a net profit of $2 million after two years, he will also make a positive and significant change in the lives of many people living in rural communities in third world countries.
Chris Nie, a 21-year-old junior aerospace engineering major, attended the speech because he is very interested in social entrepreneurship.
“Paul Polak is very successful and I wanted to hear about his experiences,” Nie said. “It was a really good point he brought up about profit leading to scale. It was the first major justification I’ve seen for social entrepreneurship.”
Pavel Reppo, a 21-year-old senior speech language and hearing sciences major, is very familiar with Paul Polak and his work.
“I am really interested in the scale of his company and how he reached beyond local companies,” Reppo said. “He really pushed forth maximum efficiency. I’m excited to see the ripple effect of his efforts.”
Dr. Polak left the crowd with inspiring advice and an insightful question.
“All it takes is one person with a dream and I suspect many of those people are in this room,” Polak said. “What qualities do you need to turn your dream into a reality?”
Dr. Polak’s next book, “The Business Solution to Poverty: Designing Products and Services for 3 Billion New Consumers,” comes out this September.
Contact CU Independent Assistant Breaking News Editor Alyx Saupe at Alyx.firstname.lastname@example.org.