Advice for Humanitarian Entrepreneurs

Humanitarian Entrepreneur

The Colorado School of Mines asked me to speak to their energy entrepreneurs at its first Innovation Challenge back in January. I recently found my notes and thought I’d share my advice with all humanitarian entrepreneurs.

5 Pieces of Advice

Get dirty. You probably don’t mind being in the dirt like me because you’re engineers and you like working with your hands,  or you are world travelers,  aid workers or all of them! You’ve gotta have boots on the ground and as I like to say, heels in the mud. You need to be developing your product with your customer in the trenches and then you will have buy-in.

Stay free. Keep yourself as free from fear and fads as possible. A lot of people call us a start up and I kind of reject that. We are a small team free building a business away from trends and with level heads. We aren’t afraid of the obstacles and see the cliffs as another platform for taking off. Because we’re innovating for aid, we can’t get sucked into frivolous fads.

Raising money isn’t revenue.  Humanitarian entrepreneurs are out there raising a lot of money – and that money comes with a lot of strings and can be interpreted as a validation of your model. Well, the only validation is customers buying from you — in other words, revenue. Our industry knows what patience is – Jacqueline Novogratz innovated patient capital after all! But sometimes we need to apply that patience to ourselves, our businesses and our customers when it comes to revenue.

Have a mindset of success. This seems simple, but in this day and age we are surrounded by talk about failure: fail fast and early and often. But humanitarian entrepreneurs have a human imperative in our business to get these products quicker to people in need. Success is our only option. Sure, we will screw up along the way, but ultimately, we must succeed. With this mindset, we have so far met every milestone and deadline we’ve set for ourselves.

Do what’s in front of you. When things seem overwhelming, do what’s in front of you. When you do what’s in front of you, you keep it simple and you see progress. And progress is the biggest motivator. Our industry may be slower to adapt to change or innovate differently than other industries, but we still know to live in the moment and do what’s in front of us. When you look into the eyes of a sick child or a desperate farmer, it’s easy to be present and do what’s in front of you. We remember that feeling every day as we try to cancel the noise and do what’s next to advance humanity.


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