The Easy Way

I once told my friend Lucy something I secretly had been thinking about for a while.

I told her I wanted to get rid of the few things I keep around in life, and move to the Dominican Republic to work for Esperanza International – an anti-poverty institution that I love and admire.

I’d spend half my time at headquarters, helping to improve operations and fundraising. And I’d spend half my time in the field, working directly with the women who are empowered by Esperanza.

It’s so compelling to me. For the rest of my life I would know that I had helped, hands-on, some of the most vulnerable people in my human family. I would forever have those memories, being shoulder to shoulder with the women and the field workers, changing lives. I would have the incomparable experience of helping to build a first class poverty fighting institution.

Lucy is one of the most practical people I know, so I thought she was going to tell me that wouldn’t be very wise for my career or retirement plans. But that’s not what she said at all. Her eyes flashed, and she spoke sharply, so I would remember it.

“Salah! You’re being selfish!”

It wasn’t the reaction I expected after just explaining that I wanted to get rid of all my worldly possessions and move to another land to help impoverished women.

Lucy said, “You’re mixing up feeling good about what you do with actual impact. There are many people who can go help the women of Esperanza. There are less that can help improve the operations of Esperanza, but there are still a lot. But you told me that you are working on a business model that could enable thousands of entrepreneurs to impact the lives of millions of people around the globe.”

“Your problem,” she said, “is that you are scared that you might fail. If you strive for something really big and really difficult, the likelihood of failure is high. You might waste precious years in your effort to create a platform to empower millions of lives. You might be left with nothing to show for your work. But if you don’t make the attempt, you will certainly not achieve your potential.”

“If you go to the island, the likelihood that you will help a few people is very high. It will certainly make you feel good. But you will be squandering any chance you have at making a big, worldwide impact. There’s nothing wrong with that – but see it with clear eyes. It’s selfish.”

If you are a social entrepreneur, I hope you have a Lucy in your life. Whenever I have a difficult decision to make, I remember what she showed me that evening. It helps give me the courage to go all-in. It keeps me from accidentally taking the easy way.

Thanks Lucy!

I’d like to hear your stories about risk taking and impact. Comments are open, or e-mail me at salah@soaphope.com, or connect with me on Facebook.

Heroes

Dr. Muhammad Yunus
Professor Muhammad Yunus

Most entrepreneurs, myself included, are independent spirits.

The “independent” part has always been a big piece of my personality. I’ve never aspired to be “like” someone, and when those stock interview questions show up I’ve always cringed at the one that asks “Who is your hero?”

That is, until 3 years ago.

Three years ago, I found myself with heroes, and someone I want to be like.

In 2010, I heard Professor Muhammad Yunus speak about humanity. He spoke extemporaneously for 45 minutes, sharing first hand stories of mothers and daughters whose lives had been transformed through education and opportunity; a vision for the end of the man-made condition of poverty; a call to action to all people to end the unacceptable suffering in our worldwide community.

It was the first time I ever had the thought, “I want to be like him.”

Yohaustria Pena, Hero
Yohaustria Pena, Hero

That same year, I went to the Dominican Republic and to Chiapas to see the work of poverty-ending microfinance institutions in the field. I saw for myself the bravery of women standing up against cultural oppression; taking steps that no woman in the history of her family had ever taken before so that her children could go to school; finding the right balance between personal initiative and working as a community; taking risks and succeeding with so little capital and time that they put entrepreneurs like me to shame. I found my heroes.

When I first started Soap Hope, my intention was to create a strong example of social entrepreneurship so that we could make a huge impact in ending poverty, both with our own company and through others adopting the model and learnings that came out of Soap Hope. And while Soap Hope did grow again for the third year in a row, and we did fund over 10,000 days of microlending for women entrepreneurs this year, most days my vision for Soap Hope still seems distant and fragile to me.

As if on cue, this week a friend sent me a video about social entrepreneurs, and when I clicked play I heard the unmistakable compassionate voice of Professor Yunus – there once again to motivate and inspire. Every time I hear his voice, I hear my calling. And when I go inside and ask what I’m to do, Soap Hope always is the answer I see.

When someone buys one bar of soap from us, it funds one day of microlending for a woman. So I say, “A bar of soap is a day of hope.” This spring, I’m starting a new initiative at Soap Hope called “One Million Days of Hope” – to fund one million days of microlending through sales and partnerships with other companies and organizations.

Everywhere Professor Yunus goes, he looks for ways to create partnerships with people, companies, and institutions small and large, to further his vision of ending poverty in our world. Yes, I want to be like him. So I will do the same.

One million days of hope would mean 100 times the impact we had last year. It would provide tools and opportunity to thousands of the women who have become my heroes. That’s not something I can do alone. You’ll surely hear me ask you for ideas and action, partnership and participation.

Watch for #onemilliondays. Think about how we can partner together. Expect a call from an independent spirit.

Solving The Puzzle

Jenny is VP of marketing at a $150 million company. Each year for the last three years, her CEO has given the senior team a set of measurable goals. They get a huge bonus when they meet the goals. Every year they’ve met them.

Some of this year’s key goals:

– $30 million in new revenue.
– Double the number of small-business customers.
– Do this without impacting profitability.

Jenny is confident she will meet the goals this year.

And that’s how I know the people in Jenny’s company are passing up a huge opportunity to improve our world.

Huh?

That’s right. Follow me:

Jenny’s company has a simple but powerful formula for financial success that works every year:

– The CEO sets goals that are easy to measure (all numbers).
– He fully empowers his team.
– He pays them a big bonus when they succeed.

The goals are like a puzzle – they only fit together in certain ways, and when the team solves the puzzle they get a big reward. They bring all the creativity and hard work necessary to solve the puzzle.

Last year’s puzzle included, “Do this without impacting profitability.” It would be easy for Jenny to generate the new revenue by lowering prices, or running a massive ad campaign. But the puzzle is harder than that: she has to find ways to reach new customers without spending too much or lowering margins.

Remember, Jenny told me she is confident she will reach her goal. She’s done it three times before. The team has already come up with multiple creative ways to go after new customers.

Now, here’s where Jenny and everyone else in her company is missing an enormous human opportunity.

Jenny’s company will make no measurable impact on any of the biggest challenges in our world: poverty, clean water, clean energy, conflict, education, disease. The company has no social focus at all.

Why? Because there’s no social impact goal tied to their bonus. It’s not a part of the puzzle. Jenny won’t spend any time on it. None of the team’s creative potential will go toward it.

My critic says, “But Salah, it’s not the role of a business to solve social problems. Whatever energy they would use to solve social problems could be used to make more money, which is the purpose of the business. You’re just making the business less effective by injecting extraneous requirements.”

That’s a fallacy that is preventing us from using the vast human capacity in businesses from making big strides toward solving our world’s greatest challenges.

Let me show you how:

Give Jenny this extra goal: “Reduce the number of children who are hungry every day next year by 1,000.” The last part of the CEO’s puzzle is still, “do this without impacting profitability.” Jenny can’t just donate a million dollars to meet the childhood hunger goal, any more than she could just lower prices to meet the sales goal.

The worst possible way to meet this goal is to figure out how to earn more money as a company and then donate the money to organizations that feed children. That will cost over a million dollars. If that were the only way to solve the problem, I would have to agree with my critic.

But that’s not how Jenny is going to solve this puzzle.

Jenny is going to develop creative solutions that integrate the goals – just as you would approach traditional company goals. She will use the social goal as a tool to help meet the financial goals, and use the financial goals as leverage points to meet the social goal.

She might use the requirement about childhood hunger to create new opportunities and tactics for marketing and selling. She might bring opportunity to customers and vendors around the childhood hunger goal that result in a financial benefit. If Jenny is effective, her team will develop a strategy that doesn’t treat the social goal as separate, something outside the main plan, something to figure out at the end. She will use the social goal to help solve the total puzzle.

If Jenny’s CEO will create a social goal that is measurable and clear, and make the team’s bonus dependent on it, he will find what I and other social entrepreneurs have found in our own business experience:

– Brilliant new creative marketing ideas arise from the team.
– New partnership opportunities emerge.
– New dimensions for business appear with customers and vendors.
– A new kind of passion and creativity ignites inside the organization as employees start to see that their work every day is human, not just financial.

Every day millions of people go to work to solve the puzzles presented to them by their company leaders. And almost none of those puzzles include working on the most important problems in our world, because leaders have made the mistake of thinking that the social goal will diminish the business results. That’s an error, and it’s leaving an enormous amount of positive social change on the table.

I challenge every company leader to try this experiment. At your next goal-setting time, add one measurable social goal to your puzzle. Give it teeth: make it as important to the bonus as everything else. Make it impactful: work on the most critical social problem you can. Help your team understand that this goal isn’t a tactic – it’s not a corporate sponsorship donation or a volunteer day. It’s to be integrated into the plan and leveraged, just like the financial and operational goals are.

See the results for yourself. You will never go back, and your whole business will become a part of solving the real puzzle: how our society will cooperate to address the greatest challenges in our world.

It’s not enough to teach a man to fish (or, Poverty is a Process)

Almost everyone knowns the proverb: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

But what good is teaching a woman to fish if she cannot afford a fishing pole? If her children are sick and she cannot leave them? If a middleman buys her fish for a pittance and keeps all the profit, because she cannot determine the market price?

Most people view poverty as a problem, as a situation. But poverty is actually a process. The many intertwined aspects of the poverty process are self-reinforcing. In order to end the process, many simultaneous individual problems need to be addressed at the same time.

Think about a 28-year-old woman in Africa who is currently trapped in the process of poverty:

Unlike us, she was not taught to read. Did you ever learn anything from a book? Do you remember every recipe you will ever make? Do you ever use a list to remember what to do? Have you ever read how to repair something, or how to use a medicine?

Our friend cannot learn anything except what she experiences directly in person. She must remember everything important in her head. There is no to-do list, no planning. No recipes. No new food preservation technique unless she can remember exactly how to do it when shown. She certainly cannot make any written agreement with a buyer of goods. If her children need three medicines, she will need to remember the dosage and timing of each one by the color and shape of the pill. Can you do all this?

Unlike us, she was not taught how to do basic math. “How much feed can I afford to buy to raise my livestock, given the amount of time it takes to mature them and the price at the market?” “Given the cost of this thread and dye, how much do I have to be able to sell these shawls for to make it profitable?” It is almost impossible to operate the simplest trade without some basic math skills.

Unlike us, she does not have water nearby. Have you ever been thirsty for a few hours? Do you remember how slow you become, how tired it makes you , how it becomes difficult to think and the mood it puts you in?

Our friend cannot fetch water because it is 2 hours away, and she must be with her baby, prepare food and tend to her family’s other needs. So her two oldest sons, perhaps 8 and 10, walk with containers to fetch water for the family. It takes 2 hours to get there, and it takes 3 hours to get back. Have you ever carried water? It is heavy. The boys make this trip 3 times weekly. This trip is one of the main reasons they are not in school. They, like their mother, will not learn to read and write, perpetuating the poverty process.

There are many other dimensions to the poverty process. Chronic illness, climate change, political unrest and many other forces can create instability that makes it difficult to thrive.

Because there are so many interacting factors that work to keep people in poverty, many attempts to address poverty fail. If there are five or six intertwined problems and a program only addresses one or two, the program won’t work.

One of the most powerful tools for addressing all the elements of poverty comes in the form of nonprofit microfinance institutions. In the absence of an industry term, in my group we call it “Microfinance Plus.” Microfinance Plus institutions deploy programs that enable the local population to address all their poverty drivers. They provide small loans to women who use the capital to fund a personal business, like making something to sell at market, opening a kiosk, raising livestock, and yes even fishing. But these loans are also tied to antipoverty programs like literacy training, math skills, healthcare education, schools, and highly local needs like how to preserve an abundant local food or how to avoid a particular local pathogen.

They also provide the intangible but critical ingredient of human support – also known as “hope.” In many areas, poverty has been present for so long and is so profound that the people need to hear about the possibility for a different and better future for themselves and their children, in order to kick-start the process of working toward that future in a new way.

Now we can see that our old proverb doesn’t give us the outcome we want: the end of the process of poverty. “Teach a woman to read and to do basic math; provide her with affordable sources of clean drinking water, basic healthcare, and business training; give her human support and respect; and enable her children to go to school.” Then you don’t need to feed her for a lifetime. She can do that for herself and her family, just as we do.

How Good Is Magnified (or, thank you Herb Kelleher)

Today I was at a luncheon honoring Herb Kelleher, the founder of Southwest Airlines. He probably doesn’t realize it, but 27 years ago I got a letter from Mr. Kelleher that would change my life – and if I get it right, that will change the lives of millions of women in poverty around the world.

Although I was only 15 years old at the time, I had already decided that my career would be as a classical concert pianist. The proof came when the head of the piano department at the University of Texas at Austin extended an offer to accept me as a student in his college studio. We didn’t have the resources to pay for those lessons, and he offered to teach me without pay. The only problem: how would I get from my home in Dallas to my professor’s studio in Austin for my 3-hour lesson every two weeks?

Without telling me, my teacher wrote a letter to Herb Kelleher explaining the investment that he wanted to make in a promising young pianist and asked for his help. A few short weeks later, I received a surprise letter from Mr. Kelleher. It contained 12 round trip vouchers in it – enough for half a year of lessons – and a note wishing me good luck in my career.

Well I did have good luck – seven years later I was fortunate enough to travel the world playing concerts in America, Europe, the Middle East and Africa. While on tour I was invited by the Ambassador of Kenya to a high-level dinner where I was seated by the country director of the World Bank in Kenya. He told me a story that has always haunted me: he explained that at least 50% and perhaps up to 90% of the aid being delivered to the people of Kenya was being lost to corruption. His story led me to a lifelong interest and study in creating effective solutions to end poverty.

What Herb Kelleher did for me is what an antipoverty group like Esperanza International does for its clients. It gives people an opportunity to break free of circumstantial limitations and create their own destinies. I have been to visit with these women, so I know from first hand experience that the poorest in our world have powerful internal resources: intelligence, drive, creativity. They need just a small amount of education, healthcare and capital to become self-sufficient and to break the cycle of poverty for their children and their communities. To become a concert pianist, you need the startup resources to get to your teacher. To have a microenterprise and escape poverty, you need the startup resources to learn your trade and start your business.

Now 27 years after receiving that letter, I spend all my efforts to scale enterprises that address global challenges, starting with poverty in women. My social venture Soap Hope sells natural products nationwide and then invests 100% of profits into antipoverty efforts for women. I’m on a nationwide recruiting effort to bring 1,000 more companies under this model, which I call Good Returns, to create a billion dollar capital pool for scaling sustainable social ventures.

The moral of this story is: don’t hesitate to help those around you. Do it in small ways and large, as often as possible. You don’t know how the seed you planted will grow. Herb Kelleher sent me 12 tickets to Austin; he didn’t know those 12 tickets would start a process that would lead me around the world and ignite a passion for making a global impact on poverty. So listen for those opportunities, and be a Herb Kelleher for someone in your world as often as you can.

And Mr. Kelleher, thank you for the tickets.

Salah Boukadoum
Co-Founder, Soap Hope

Please share the Soap Hope mission – empowering institutions that help women in poverty around the world – with friends,  family, and the media. Buy from Soap Hope and help change the world.

Poverty Offsets – Local Commitment to Global Good

When a developer wants to build, in some areas she must offset her impact on the environment by planting trees. Companies that want to be carbon-neutral can purchase carbon offsets from other businesses. I propose a similar idea for public projects that are made possible by our incredible prosperity in the developed world – arts centers, sports stadiums, parks and sculptures. I call it a Poverty Offset.

In my home town of Dallas, we’ve created a fantastic cultural beacon for our Arts District: the AT&T Performing Arts Center. Renowned Dallas leader Bill Lively led the effort to raise $354 million over a nine-year period.  The Center houses four new performance venues and a public park, all designed by world-famous architects.  This amazing project is like a lens that has focused the city’s creativity, capital, leadership, culture, and expressive passion all in one dense area in downtown Dallas. The production is highly local and demonstrates what people can accomplish when they are able to harness their community resources.

I propose that we “offset” the local, resource-rich creation of such a facility with an equal attention and passion for the opposite side of the coin: the global resource-poor. As we amass such a powerful achivement of capital and creativity for Dallasites and the arts, let’s also amass an equal amount of capital and creativity for the poorest across our world.

I propose a Poverty Offset for the AT&T Performing Arts Center.  Let’s create a new nine-year plan – this time to invest $354 million of capital into sustainable social ventures worldwide that reduce poverty, create clean water solutions, reduce disease, drive renewable energy solutions, and enable education in those parts of the world that struggle most. Dallas has thriving social venture and arts communities that will be energized around such a grand project. The Center’s venues can contribute space and act as an event catalyst. The great philanthropists and fundraisers that made the Center possible can coordinate resources for this Poverty Offset as the next phase of giving. The entire city will be inspired as we know that the Center is now not just about arts and culture, but also about creating massive new opportunities for our world community.

Let me be clear: I’m not suggesting that we raise $300+ million in charitable donations or “give money away.” I propose that we use this project to motivate, direct, and leverage that capital into sustainable social enterprises that address global-scale problems.  Done in the right way, all $354 million would return to its sources in Dallas. One approach is the Good Returns model. There are many others we can incorporate.

Bill Lively has moved on to another big project: he’s now President and CEO of the North Texas Super Bowl XLV Host Committee. Cowboy Stadium cost over a billion dollars to create. What would a Poverty Offset for the Stadium and the Super Bowl look like?

If every stadium, arts center, arena, museum, and park focused equal attention on the resource-poor through a Poverty Offset, we would quickly create a trillion – yes with a T – dollar capital pool and see powerful, sweeping improvements in the lives of billions of people across the world – not through handouts, but through opportunities provided by sustainable social ventures.

My first career was as a classical pianist, so I have a deep love of music and art. I understand the importance of expressing our higher selves through arts, sports, and culture. But we must also express our higher selves by extending opportunity to those around us, so they too can have their own full expression of life.

Let us start here in Dallas with a Poverty Offset for the Performing Arts Center. Let’s get together and create a broad and clear strategy for this nine-year initiative and a way to measure our $354 million investment in the world’s neediest. Let’s rise to our highest selves, Dallas: use the great cultural gains we’ve made in the past decade as a launching point to become the world leader in global social philanthropy, the world’s clear example of how to scale social entrepreneurship to solve our greatest global challenges.

Salah Boukadoum
Citizen, Dallas

Good Returns = Good Incentives

One of the special benefits of the Good Returns model is that it causes all the parties in the model to be incentivized for desirable outcomes.  A quick recap of Good Returns:

A business invests 100% of profits into sustainable non-profit organizations each year, for a rolling one year term, in the form of an interest-free loan.  The non-profit uses the cost-free capital to increase the reach of its sustainable mission (for example, providing more microloans to women in poverty, or issuing more low-cost student loans in Africa, or providing low-cost medical services in Guatemala, or … ).  At the end of the next year, the original funds are returned to the business and the process repeats itself.

Here are some of the interesting structural outcomes that Good Returns creates:

Management is motivated to maximize profits. The company’s management team is motivated to drive the company’s bottom line, just as in any traditional capitalist business.  This incentive is a big advantage over non-profits, which often burn money and other resources because they are not required to generate profits to survive.

– Non-profit partners are motivated to become sustainable. The vast majority of non-profits are unsustainable – they must continually raise funds from donors in order to survive. In order for a company to invest in a non-profit and be assured of the return of capital, the non-profit must be sustainable, or at least have a segregated sustainable program. Good Returns will drive more non-profits to develop sustainable programs.

– “Mission-fudging” is eliminated. In many traditional for-profit social enterprises, the management team must be incredibly strong in its convictions about the mission, because every dollar spent on the mission is one less dollar in profit, which results in lower compensation for the management team.  It’s simply not realistic to count on large numbers of people to give up personal gain for mission on an ongoing basis.  Under Good Returns, every extra dollar of profit is an extra dollar toward mission, not taken from it.

– Investors will come. In its first year in business, Soap Hope had more than 45% month-over-month revenue growth on a fraction of the marketing budget that a traditional startup would require.  How did we achieve this growth? By the passion of our customers for our mission – they communicate virally to friends, family, and through online social networks. If a company can create significantly more leverage from its marketing budget, it can drive higher return on capital for its investors. We plan to prove this assertion through the financial results from Soap Hope and other early Good Returns companies.

I’m curious to see what else we will learn about the structural benefits and drawbacks of the Good Returns model over time.  Please share your thoughts and experiences with me.

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Many people have asked how they can help. I ask for and welcome your help:

  • Purchase your all natural soap and body care products from Soap Hope – it’s less expensive than in the store, even with shipping
  • Use Soap Hope for corporate gifting and personal gifts
  • Connect me with national radio and tv personalities if you have those relationships
  • Write about Soap Hope on your blog
  • Share the Soap Hope fan page on your Facebook wall
  • Tweet about us as often as you are willing

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Coming Soon:

Non-profits: I’ll be writing a post for you about many different types of programs that non-profits can implement that are all sustainable.

Investors: soon I will write a post about how down the road dividends will be insured against loss while they are doing their one year of service.

Good Returns: My intention is to develop Good Returns as a stand-alone organization that provides certification for sustainable non-profits, financing programs to mediate timing differences between companies and non-profits, an insurance guarantee for invested funds, a brand that companies can use to attract and retain customers – I’ll discuss this and more in an upcoming post.

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Thank you for your loyalty and support!

Regards,

Salah Boukadoum
Co-Founder, Soap Hope