Inspiring story of a successful social entrepreneur

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I’ve been privileged to mentor a few social impact ventures at MIT’s Venture Mentoring Service, such as Candorful, which helps transitioning military service members who need to translate their experiences and skills to launch their civilian careers.

Old people like me tend to read the obituaries, a part of the newspaper I assiduously avoided for the first six decades of my life. But now I’m seeing many of the heroes and influencers of my youth in the obit pages and I find I learn a lot by reading their obituaries. Sad, but true. The other day my attention was grabbed, not by a familiar name or face but by the headlinePaul Polak, Entrepreneur for Those Living on $2 a Day, Dies at 86, in The New York Times.  Certainly targeting those who live on $2 a day qualifies as social entrepreneurship. But Mr. Polak, a former psychiatrist and real-estate speculator, took a novel approach: he helped the world’s poorest people create profitable small businesses. 

In an era when foreign aid is largely based on charity, Dr. Polak (pronounced POLE-ack) instead advocated training people to earn livings by selling their neighbors basic necessities like clean water, charcoal, a ride in a donkey cart or enough electricity to charge a cellphone.

Although the nonprofit companies he created did accept donations, their purpose was to help poor people make money. His target market was the 700 million people around the world surviving on less than $2 a day, and he traveled all over the world seeking them out.

Dr. Pollak practiced customer discovery at a scale beyond most entrepreneurs:

“I’ve interviewed over 3,000 families,” he said in 2011. “I spend about six hours a day with each one — walking with them through their fields, asking them what they had for breakfast, how far their kids walk to school, what they feed their dog, what all their sources of income are. This is not rocket science. Any businessman knows this: You’ve got to talk to your customers.”

From those thousands of interviews he developed several successful micro-businesses, included a foot-powered water treadle pump. Beginning in 1982 millions of these pumps were sold in Bangladesh and India for $25 each.

Dr. Polak also knew how to promote his products: “O.K., somewhat cheesy,” Dr. Polak admitted, “but we bought a van with a video setup and took it to villages. A typical open-air audience was 2,000 to 5,000 people.”

Unlike other very successful entrepreneurs – he made his money in real estate – he didn’t start yet another for-profit company nor become an entrepreneur-in-residence or a venture capitalist.

“But, instead of trying to become a Bill Gates or a Donald Trump, I came to the realization that, beyond having enough money to cover my basic living expenses, the marginal value of accumulating more wealth was not really useful,” he told an interviewer this year.

Whether or not you plan to become a social entrepreneur – or already are one – I highly recommend you read the full obit; it is truly inspiring. And if you want more detail, Dr. Polak wrote two books about his efforts to enable the poor to bootstrap themselves through creating their own businesses: Out of Poverty in 2008 and, with Mal Warwick, The Business Solution to Poverty in 2013.

Author: Mentorphile

Mentor, coach, and advisor to entrepreneurs, small businesses, and non-profit organizations. General manager with significant experience in both for-profit and non-profit organizations. Focus on media and information. On founding team of four venture-backed companies. Currently Chairman of Popsleuth, Inc., maker of the Endorfyn app for keeping fans updated on new stuff from their favorite artists.

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