This article was made in partnership with the Mentor Capital Network as part of our Studio Banter series
If you review the landscape of mainstream news publications that cover business and technology, you’ll notice they have a predilection for covering startups and entrepreneurs that are based in a small number of major tech and business sectors. Whether it’s a “30 Under 30” list or a glowing profile in Forbes or Fortune, chances are that the business being profiled has emerged from either Silicon Valley or New York and has a single-minded focus on scaling growth until it reaches that elusive billion dollar valuation.
Receiving far less coverage are social enterprise companies, which are organizations that, while often being for-profit, are almost entirely focused on maximizing improvements in human social and environmental well-being. Working for the Mentor Capital Network (formerly known as the William James Foundation), an organization that pairs social enterprise companies with experienced mentors to help guide them from launch to growth, I’ve advised and learned from hundreds of these entrepreneurs for more than a decade. I’ve seen the impact firsthand when these companies perform vital services like installing toilets in Peruvian slums or building bikes for villagers in Mozambique. The value they provide cannot be easily quantified in quarterly earnings reports or venture capitalist valuations.
So in order to offer a counterbalance to the disproportionate news coverage of New York and Silicon Valley-based businesses, I’ve compiled a list of 22 of the most interesting social enterprise companies that are changing the world. You might not see them listed anytime soon in Inc or Forbes, but these businesses are together helping lift millions from the developing world out of poverty, doing so in such a way that’s environmentally friendly and sustainable.
Check them out. And if you happen to live in New York, you can meet many of these social good entrepreneurs in person at the Mentor Capital Network’s annual gathering on July 9 and 10. Hosted with the UN Office of Partnerships at the UN Headquarters building, it’ll feature some of the world’s most promising social enterprise companies. You can purchase tickets at 75% off at this link, (note: for a limited time only).
Evaptainers creates “zero energy” refrigeration systems using modular and mobile units to systemically reduce food spoilage in the developing world. “We are very proud to be on the ground in Morocco working with our country partners to bring this technology to market,” says CEO and co-founder Spencer Taylor. “Unlike other alternative refrigeration companies our product requires no electricity and is so lightweight and inexpensive that it allows us to bring a refrigeration solution to populations living on the other side of the electricity divide that have never before had access.”
Yellow Leaf Hammocks
Yellow Leaf Hammocks exists to empower the Hill tribe members in Thailand to rise out of poverty by creating stable, culturally sustainable, high wage weaving jobs. “We've grown to create work for more than 200 weavers so far and we have a waiting list of more people hoping to become weavers!” says co-founder Rachel Connors. “Perhaps most importantly, all of our weavers' children can afford to attend school instead of working in the fields, [thereby] breaking the cycle of poverty with education [and] new opportunities for the next generation.”
Toilets for People
Toilets for People sells affordable and sustainable composting toilets, sanitation consulting services, and training in local capacity building to charity organizations serving communities living in the developing world where conventional sanitation solutions like pit latrines and flush toilets fail. Recently, the company successfully installed and is monitoring the usage of toilets in a Peruvian urban slum called Belen. The slum has a population of 70,000, and many of its inhabitants live in houses on stilts 20 feet in the air to avoid the Amazon River flood waters. Because of this, there are few hygienic toilets, and it’s one of the most challenging locals in the world to install proper sanitation.
The long term objective of Sanergy is to build and scale viable sanitation infrastructure in the slums of Nairobi. The model involves four parts: (i) building a network of low-cost sanitation centers in slums, (ii) distributing them through franchising to local entrepreneurs, (iii) collecting the waste produced, and (iv) processing it into electricity and fertilizer. At each step, the model creates jobs and opportunity while simultaneously addressing serious social needs. “As of June 2015, we have a network of over 700 toilets run by 342 Fresh Life operators,” says communications manager Medora Brown. “Our network is used almost 30,000 times a day, and we remove more than seven metric tons of waste from the community every day. In total, we have removed and safely treated over 5,440 metric tons of waste. In the process, we have created over 725 high-quality jobs in an area where there is 40% unemployment.”
Wecyclers gives low-income communities in developing countries a chance to capture value from waste and clean up their neighborhoods through incentive-based recycling. “Since August 2012, Wecyclers has registered over 7,000 households for our collection service, built 25 operational collection cargo bikes and collected over 800 metric tons of recyclable materials,” says co-founder and CEO Bilikiss Adebiyi-Abiola.
Eqalix is developing the first plant-based skin substitute wound dressing; it will replace currently marketed products that are made from culturally sensitive sources (cadavers, embryonic materials, cows, pigs). Eqalix’s dressing can be sold at disruptive prices due to a cost structure that’s roughly 1/10 that of current products. “We have animal data showing that wounds dressed with OmegaSkin™ have resulted in about 1/3 less scarring, and actual restoration of skin appendages such as hair follicles and sweat glands, compared to control dressings,” says CEO Thomas Seoh. “By switching the source from human or animal tissues to soybeans (an inexpensive and ubiquitous food crop) and electrospinning (a well-characterized manufacturing process borrowed from the textile industry), we project unit costs roughly an order of magnitude lower than currently marketed products.”
Advancing Engineering is an engineering and construction consulting firm focused on infrastructure projects throughout the developing world. They provide engineering services in consulting, design, and construction management for projects including agriculture, roadways, bridges, buildings, dams, and distributed power. “Since its founding in 2009, AE now has offices in Cambodia and Indonesia with 15 permanent employees and over 30 associates,” says co-founder Bryse Gaboury.
Day One Response
DayOne Response develops and supplies innovative solutions for disaster relief. One solution is the DayOne Waterbag, which is a lightweight reusable personal water treatment device that provides all the essential functions for water purification. According to co-founder Amy Cagle, DayOne Waterbags have been deployed in over 20 countries, and the company has provided over 7 million liters of clean water in less than a year.
Wello's mission is to effectively deliver clean water to a thirsty world. By reframing the water crisis as an opportunity, Wello has developed an innovative business model that empowers individuals to use the WaterWheel as an income-generating tool to lift their families out of poverty. The WaterWheel is an innovative water transportation tool designed to alleviate the problems associated with a lack of easy access to water. “We began selling the WaterWheel 2.5 in May,” says co-founder Cynthia Koenig. “In our first three months of sales, we will have shipped 1500+ WaterWheels across India, Pakistan, and Zambia, positively impacting more than 10,000 individuals to date.”
Re-Nuble uses a proprietary process enabled by technology to convert food waste into a cheaper, highly sterile and stable, organic-based liquid fertilizer for the indoor agriculture industry. It’s focused on the commercialization of formulas and processes to turn bio-based materials into fertilizers for indoor growing systems. In doing so, Re-Nuble aims to create completely sustainable, closed loop food and plant production systems.
Estufa Doña Dora
Estufa Doña Dora's mission is to maximize access to efficient, clean, and safe wood-fired cooking devices for rural and peri-urban Guatemalan families. “Since 2012, over 1,000 families have decided to buy a Doña Dora stove, paying the market price,” says co-founder and CEO David Evitt. “That means a smoke-free kitchen for 5,042 people, 2,573 tons of CO2 emissions avoided per year, and an annual savings of $126,646 on firewood.”
Atayne makes high performing outdoor and athletic apparel that is safe for people and the planet. They aim to inspire positive environmental and social change through the power of active lifestyles. “I would say one of the things I am most proud of is being recognized by B Lab as a Best for the World and Best for the Environment Company the last three years,” says co-founder Jeremy Litchfield.
Back to the Roots
Back to the Roots was founded in 2009 by then college seniors Alejandro Velez and Nikhil Arora after they discovered how to grow gourmet mushrooms on recycled coffee grounds. Since then, Back to the Roots has evolved from urban mushroom farming to a thriving business on a mission to “undoing food” and reconnecting families to it through fun, delicious and sustainable “ready to grow” and “ready to eat” products. Back to the Roots products are now available in 14,000 retail locations including Target, Costco, Whole Foods, The Home Depot, Safeway, and several other retailers worldwide.
Soupergirl serves fresh, homemade soup made with ingredients from small local farms. It serves sustainable soup for delivery or pickup and operates a storefront location in DC. “We're proud of growing extensively over the past several years while staying true to our core values -- cooking healthy, delicious, responsibly sourced food,” says owner Sara Polon. “We still have excellent relationships with a growing network of small, sustainable farms and we're proud to support them and help them grow. It has not been easy, but it is well worth it.”
Fuego del Sol Haiti
Fuego del Sol Haiti collects, sorts, upcycles, and recycles waste products into usable products that allow it to tap into underutilized fuel resources in Haiti. It does this by producing ecologically friendly fuel briquettes to fight Haiti's deadly charcoal addiction. It also designs, manufactures, and distributes the improved cookstoves and related technologies that connect ecological biomass cooking with Haitian culture and thus creates long-term living-wage jobs. According to Kevin Adair, Fuego del Sol Haiti has produced “over 100 tons of recycled non-carbonized Haiti-produced fuel briquettes and thus replaced the need of over 10,000 trees.”
Maternova is a web-based global marketplace that tracks and sells goods services that impact the lives of mothers and newborns. They make it easy for doctors, nurses, and midwives to track innovation and to buy technologies and kits to use overseas. “What began as a single obstetric kit product sold domestically has grown organically by demand to include over 40 rigorously tested products, and we're proud to call the Ministries of Health, the United Nations, and some of the largest NGOs our clients,” says VP and co-founder Allyson E Cote. “To date, we've help save the lives of over 180,000 women and newborns, and our global reach extends into over 170 countries.”
Mozambikes is the first provider to build a bicycle industry and make bicycles a commodity in Mozambique. The unique advantage of Mozambikes lies in their model that provides bicycles of higher quality and lower prices to all provinces in Mozambique. They offer quality bicycles at a standard cost across all retail locations, regardless of proximity to an urban center, so that people can afford to buy a product that can improve their quality of life. “We employ over 15 workers,” says co-founder Lauren Thomas. “Our technicians in the warehouse generally lack formal education and would otherwise be minimum wage workers, but Mozambikes pays 2-5x minimum wage, gives bonuses (cell phones last year), and provides no-interest loans (we have helped 2 workers build a house)!”
Sanivation provides a household sanitation service and affordable fuel to residents living in the slums of Kenya, where current toilets are too expensive and require infrastructure that slum dwellers are not set up to invest in. “Already, Sanivation has had over 500 users for its services, over 300 monthly payments, and is operating at a 98% renewal rate for its monthly subscriptions,” says founder Andrew Foote.
Eccolizer aims to solve the food crisis in Bangladesh by providing low-cost bio-fertilizer prepared from sugarcane bagasse, which is normally considered a wastage and thrown away. “We have supplied our organic [product] to more than 10 districts (out of a total 64 districts of Bangladesh), serving around 500 farmers who have cultivated various types of crops and vegetables,” says co-founder Md. Shahidul Islam.
Access Afya sells basic healthcare services and supplies via high-tech mini-clinics to poor Kenyans, whose current healthcare options are unpleasant, unreliable, or unaffordable. “The organization has proved that the poor will pay for healthcare if it is superior to the low-quality status quo and offered at a price point that is still affordable,” says CEO Melissa Menke. “We found that price ceiling to be around $5 per visit, and we have over 7,000 clients at this level.”
Juabar empowers off-grid Tanzanians with employment in the growing solar and mobile technology industries while filling a community energy need for mobile charging. “We used to organically go out and find new [local entrepreneurs] on our own but now as we’ve gotten smarter, we tap into existing networks of retailers and organizations working on economic and employment development to reach new customers,” says CEO Olivia Nava.
Gham Power provides Solar Photovoltaic (PV) systems for residential & commercial buildings, bringing the highest quality solar technology to Nepal at affordable prices. “After the earthquake, we immediately began mobilizing our resources to provide solar lights and basic charging stations to relief workers, and to displaced individuals and families who are now living in tents and shelters,” says CEO Sandeep Giri. When Gham Power ran out of inventory, it started a funding campaign called Rebuild-With-Sun and raised $113,000 to purchase more supplies.
Though these are the companies I found particularly inspiring, they’re just the tip of the iceberg. The truth is, there are millions of entrepreneurs spread out across the world who are determined to measure their worth based not on profit margins or even charitable contributions, but for how they’ve changed the world for the better. Getting to interact with them regularly and watching them present their ideas at the Mentor Capital Network’s annual gathering has been truly gratifying.
Ian Fisk leads the Mentor Capital Network -- a group of more than 1,000 individuals who have built, managed, invested in, or studied social enterprises. Follow him at @mentorcapnet or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org