Photo credit: Paul Polak + Team
Paul’s Don’t Bother Trilogy:“If you haven’t talked to at least 100 customers in some depth before you start, don’t bother.”“If your product or service won’t earn or save three times the customer’s investment in the first year, don’t bother.”“If you can’t sell 100 million of your product or service, don’t bother.”
We lost a giant in the field of social entrepreneurship with the passing of Paul Polak last weekend at the age of 86. Paul was known for many things: he was an author of two books offering new models to end poverty, he founded or co-founded at least five companies (by my count) of which one was D-Rev; he was a larger than life social media presence; and inspired countless people and organizations. His reach and influence on international development cannot be understated. Always one with a sly (and hilarious) comment, he had a deep intellect, considered problems from multiple angles, and had an unflagging commitment to ending poverty. He also loved to be celebrated – Paul, I hope we do you justice.
I first met Paul at Stanford University’s Design for Extreme Affordability class taught by Jim Patell. If you haven’t met Paul – when he speaks, he owns the room. I remember all of us sitting on the d.school’s bright red couches. They are low to the ground, and yet from deep in the couch he was larger than life. He was charmingly calling out errors in student assumptions, made impish asides, and relayed lessons from his work in Bangladesh or India – all with the delivery of a politician and timing of a comedian.
The New York Times published an obituary on Paul this weekend, and it captured some of who he is, but it fell short in recognizing that Paul was the original social entrepreneur. It is well known that he started iDE (International Development Enterprises) in 1981. What is less recognized was how revolutionary iDE’s approaches were at the time. Historically, the early 1980s was at the midpoint of the Appropriate Technology movement, where locally-made “intermediate” or “appropriate” technologies – like the treadle pump – were the new future of ending poverty. The movement was a reaction to foreign assistance which until that point (and still after) tended to focus on large-scale infrastructure projects or technology transfers from the richer countries that were supposed to enable poorer countries to “leapfrog” out of poverty. Instead they became symbols of waste and neocolonial cluelessness: tractors shipped to small-holder farmers who had limited access to fuel or spare parts, capital-intensive dams that became easy targets in civil wars, and fish processing plants that built where there wasn’t needed energy for refrigeration.
iDE and others – Appropriate Technology International, Intermediate Technology Development Group, Enterprise Works Worldwide – pushed for an alternative model. All of these same organizations, except for iDE, have either folded or rebranded and pivoted. Whereas those organizations focused on the technology, Paul and iDE built out a more holistic model focused on the people the projects intended to serve and how the market could be used to scale impact.
Paul and iDE are best known for scaling the Bangladesh treadle pump, a human-powered water pump made of steel and bamboo, invented by a Norwegian engineer named Gunnar Barnes. Pump operators, smallholder farmers or their casual laborers, stepped back and forth on the treadles, like a stair-stepping machine. With a treadle pump, compared to bucket irrigation and rain, a farmer could have healthier crops, greater acreage under cultivation, and more growing seasons.
Treadle pump in use, Bangladesh (1981) Credit: Clarissa Barnes via wikimedia
Technology though, no matter how elegant, must scale to have impact. iDE sold the pumps to the users for $25 each – revolutionary in an era where technology or “aid” was always donated. Using the market to scale an “aid product” was radical at the time – and highly successful. Paul also ran sophisticated marketing campaigns targeting the poor to sell iDE products, including Bollywood-style plays and demonstrations. Success in marketing in South Asia, he liked to say, was about the ABCs: Astrology, Bollywood, and Cricket. iDE followed the treadle pump with other successes, and reports lifting over 20M people out of poverty.
Variations and iterations of the original Bangladeshi pump are now used across Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. Much admired organizations such as Proximity Designs in Myanmar, iDE-India, and KickStart in Kenya, got started with the treadle pump and continued to develop additional technologies to end poverty. These organizations, some of who started under the iDE umbrella before spinning out on their own, also report impact in the millions.
As Paul became more interested in design practice in the 1990s (when everything was d-something), he co-founded D-Rev and worked with the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum to develop the “Design for the Other 90%” exhibit. More importantly, like Victor Papanek before him, he called for designers to focus on the needs of the invisible – or the “other” 90% of the world’s population living in poverty. He prompted a shift in power between aid givers and recipients. “Beneficiaries” were customers, and his mantra was that designers or decision-makers must talk to at least 100 customers before proposing solutions – “otherwise don’t bother,” he would say passionately. In the 1990s, this attitude was still rare. In 2019, it is the norm – and we have Paul to thank.
Paul, like many visionaries, was a complicated man. He was specific with some details, loose with others. He relied on others to implement audacious goals. He could be prickly and demanding. But he was consistent with his goals and life’s mission. Every field needs a Paul to challenge and push evolving norms, to keep egos in check, and question itself. He was often a much-needed provocateur.
Over time, Paul and I talked less and less frequently and we saw each other even less so in recent years. One of the last times we saw each other in person was when we were both speakers at an event in Washington D.C. We talked about Nova Scotia – he and his wife Aggie have a beloved blueberry farm there, and I grew up less than 50 km away. We talked about how things were going – D-Rev had just been turned down for a large grant by the same organization that had invited us to speak. He gave me a “buck-up-little-camper” talk that can only be delivered by someone who has seen it all. The frustration you feel, he told me, you will feel it a hundred more times and you need to keep moving ahead. You won’t see the impact of your work now, but you will. His empathy meant a great deal to me. More than almost anyone I could have talked to – he understood the challenges of building a company in a sector that is still defining itself. He had founded a movement, witnessed its slow and, at times, controversial growth. His optimism and drive for change and his unwavering commitment to ending poverty is a model for many of us.
Thank you, Paul, for your fearlessness.
Other tributes to Paul:
“I remember when he and I interviewed you for the position as CEO of D-Rev. He had just published his “Out of Poverty” book, and you told him how much you liked it. He was visibly pleased. Then you said, “but there are some things I disagree with.” I was happy, because you showed your strong ability to set your own direction and not be intimidated by famous experts, and I could see that Paul was also pleased because there were few things he liked more than a vigorous honest discussion of ideas; he welcomed disagreement and was happy to search together for the best answers. RIP Paul, we will miss you.” –John Dawson, served with Paul on D-Rev’s board from 2008-2010
“Paul did love being celebrated. He was relentlessly optimistic, oblivious to setbacks, and his puns were frequent and often terrible. I do remember him demonstrating a solar-powered chlorine generator to me – it broke down salt dissolved in water to free the chlorine. Unfortunately, and characteristically, he did this on the table at which we were eating dinner at Chef Chu’s Restaurant, sharing the pungent odor with all of the dining room. That was Paul.” — Jim Patell, The Herbert Hoover Professor of Public and Private Management, Emeritus at Stanford University. Founder of the Design for Extreme Affordability class, and founding D-Rev board member with Paul in 2008.
“Paul was completely fearless, ambitious in all the right ways, consistently kind, and vitally pragmatic – and his puckish irreverence kept us all from taking ourselves too seriously. He was a hugely important mentor to us as we struggled to figure out what it means to create lasting impact at scale. There’s a big hole in the world without him, but a remarkable legacy behind him.” — Kevin Starr, Managing Director, Mulago Foundation
I didn’t know Paul Polak well, but he sure did make an impression. It’s incredible how a one-hour presentation can so fundamentally change the direction of someone’s life. I saw him speak in Boulder, CO in 2010 while I was in graduate school. I can remember it like it was yesterday. He was so ahead of his time with his intricately woven theories on business solutions to poverty. My mind was blown. He was so early that when I read Muhammad Yunus’ Building Social Business book, it felt like old news. After his presentation, he patiently spoke with each and every 20-something-year-old waiting with our naive questions. But, it was worth it, here I am almost 10 years later, working as the COO at one of his brainchildren, D-Rev. I was so fortunate to have those few moments with him; Hearing the news of Paul’s passing makes me wonder where I would be in the alternate universe where I had never met him. Thank you, Paul. May you rest in peace. Those of us who had the honor of hearing you speak that day in Colorado will take it from here. — Boston Nyer, COO D-Rev