National Edition

Social Entrepreneurs: Startups set to change the world

Published: Thursday, July 31 2014 6:45 a.m. MDT

Saba Gul (center) employs artisan women in Pakistan to create embroidered handbags for sale in stores like Nordstrom and Anthropologie.


Ambitious Harvard students are known for creating startups, and 23-year old Kathy Ku is one of them.

But Ku’s company isn’t in Boston, or Silicon Valley, and it’s not building an app. Her headquarters are in a village in Kumi, Uganda, where mangos grow wild on the trees and, instead of programming from a garage, she pulls all-nighters in her factory that’s filled with terracotta dust.

Ku’s startup, SPOUTS of Water, makes inexpensive clay water filters and sells them locally in Uganda, where 10 million people don’t have clean water, and where water-borne illness is the number one killer of children under the age of five.

Ku is one of a growing crop of ambitious people—often young—who use a startup mindset to approach big problems from hunger to poverty to world health. They call themselves social entrepreneurs and, unlike a previous generation, they don't see making money and doing good as separate.

Entrepreneurs such as Ku believe that a business model can create change faster and more sustainably than traditional government and non-governmental organization channels can, and that they just might be on the edge of the next wave of big world development.

65 million entrepreneurs plan to create 20 jobs or more in the next five years, according to the global entrepreneurship GEDI index, and the Internet is giving local entrepreneurs, in places from Bangladesh to Kenya, resources to innovate. Major development organizations, including the United Nations Foundation and Save the Children, are in on the trend—both are partnering with entrepreneurs and innovators.

Elizabeth Gore, entrepreneur-in-residence at the United Nations Foundation, said young people want to make money and serve causes, and they want to create jobs. "The majority of global entrepreneurs are under age 45, and they are taking the future into their own hands all over the world," Gore said.

"I think we will see a change in the next few years, and we will redefine what an entrepreneur is—someone who sees financial and social solutions—and the lines between those will be blurred."

See also: 9 startup companies perfect for your family

Blurring the lines for good

Ku's project had a business bent from the start—the original $15,000 to build her kiln and factory came from Harvard’s President’s Challenge for social entrepreneurship, and another $100,000 came from entrepreneurship competitions at MIT and elsewhere.

Philanthropy is increasingly intertwined with higher education. Ku first hatched her idea on a Harvard-sponsored trip to Uganda with Engineers Without Borders, and alternative spring breaks—in which students forego Cancun for service projects in the States and abroad—are de rigueur from Ivy League universities to small state schools.

Exposure to philanthropy is having a "trickle down effect," said Devon Kuehne, director of the United Nations Global Entrepreneurs Council, which courts high-profile entrepreneurs, such as Michael Dell, to consult on UN Foundation projects.“People are more interested in putting money into causes instead of just themselves," she said. "We’re seeing that with all consumers."

According to a 2011 study by advertising agency network TBWA/Worldwide and TakePart, 7 in 10 young adults consider themselves social activists, and four out of five said they are more likely to buy from a company that supports a cause they care about. Three in four think more highly of a company that supports a social cause.

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