You might not change the world. But you can make it a better place.

One of the perks of my job is that I get to meet some of the most talented innovators and entrepreneurs from all over the world. I even get to mentor and support some of them. But they’re the exception, not the rule. Not everyone who sets out to make the world a better place is going to come up with a new, groundbreaking, innovative idea that achieves their goal. Not everyone is going to end up running their own social venture. Not everyone is going to win prizes for their efforts, and not everyone is going to have huge, global impact.

And that’s fine.

One of the most frequent questions I get asked, particularly at student events, is what young people can do to help make the world a better place. Many realise that the chances of becoming the next Muhammad Yunus are slim, and instead they look for something more achievable and realistic they can do.

During my time as a mentor with Unreasonable at Sea, I had the honour to sit on a panel with Archbishop Desmond Tutu in front of several hundred students hungry to find out how they could help make the world a better place. It was a wide-ranging conversation which you can see in full below. (The Archbishop later wrote the Foreword to my first book, which you can read about here).

The advice that I always give can be broken down into four complimentary actions. These only work if done together.

1. Take an interest. Read widely. Watch documentaries. Make an effort to meet like-minded people. Take time to understand the world, to understand the context of the problems we face as a people and a planet.

2. Empathise. Take time to understand what life is like for those less fortunate than yourself. Try to spend time with them. Travel to the places they live if possible. Be open to learning. Empathy is key. Empathy + knowledge is invaluable.

3. Pick something big. Get behind a major global campaign that addresses a major global challenge. Don’t let the enormity of the task put you off, or the fact that you may never know the impact you, individually, may have.

4. Pick something small. Get behind a local organisation addressing a local problem that you’re passionate about. Volunteer your time. Get involved. See, experience and feel the impact you’re having, and draw comfort that you’re making a difference.

Most of the innovators I get to meet didn’t come up with their ideas or solutions overnight. Many were already taking an interest, and spending time with the people they ended up helping. The most important lesson you can learn from this? If you immerse yourself, anything is possible.

The case of We Care Solar and our failure to spot winners

“The first ever US$1 million UN-DESA Energy Grant has been awarded to We Care Solar, a non-profit organisation, to enhance and expand the use of its ‘Solar Suitcase’. By making solar power simple, accessible and affordable, this device allows for the provision of electricity for medical procedures during childbirth in many developing countries, helping to avoid life-threatening complications for mothers and children” – UN website

Yesterday afternoon at United Nations HQ in New York, Laura Stachel and her organisation, We Care Solar, picked up the inaugural UN-DESA award. It’s the latest in a string of awards and accolades for a project I’ve known and admired for many years. You can read more about what happened yesterday on the UN website.

Liberian Health Workers receiving their  Solar Suitcase (Photo: We Care Solar)

Liberian Health Workers receiving their Solar Suitcase (Photo: We Care Solar)

I was already a fan of simple, appropriate technology solutions to problems before I met Laura in 2009. While almost everyone else at the time seemed to be aspiring to build complex tech solutions to often simple problems, the idea behind the Solar Suitcase was beautiful in its simplicity. It was based on a rather simple hypothesis: If the power (and therefore lighting) goes down in the middle of a difficult (or any) childbirth, and there’s no backup, people can die. This is not just true of maternity wards in the developing world, where Laura first witnessed this happening. Try plunging any operating theatre anywhere in the world into darkness and see how the surgeons cope.

I always found the idea compelling, and always did what I could to help. Laura was as committed to ending these unnecessary deaths as anyone could be, and her determination was at times a source of frustration to her. She gave it everything, and taking it on changed her life. The fact she got so little support early on, despite the compelling nature of her work, was an injustice in my eyes, and another reason I always did what I could. It was another reason why I wanted to include her story in my recent book, “The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator“. In celebration of their award yesterday, we’re offering Laura’s chapter here for free (PDF).

Why Laura was so committed was clear. From her Nigerian fieldwork (2008), quoted in the book:

I had not predicted the challenges facing my Nigerian colleagues. At night, I observed maternity care, watching helplessly as doctors and midwives struggled to treat critically ill pregnant women in near-total darkness. The dim glow of kerosene lanterns often provided the only illumination. Without electricity, doctors had to postpone Caesarean sections and other life-saving procedures. When the maternity ward was in darkness, midwives were unable to provide emergency care and, on occasion, would turn patients away from the labour room door, despite their critical need for care.

The story of Laura’s response, the Solar Suitcase, is not the rosy tale of social innovation and overnight success that many people hearing about her work for the first time yesterday might think it to be. Today, things might be going well but, as Laura will remind us, there’s always more to be done, and women and children continue to die in the dark in wards the developing world over. It’s obviously great news that, as a result of yesterdays award, that number will continue to decrease, but that level of support hasn’t always been there, despite the compelling nature of what she was doing.

Poster for the Solar Suitcase (Courtesy Laura Stachel)

Poster for the Solar Suitcase (Courtesy Laura Stachel)

After that Nigerian trip in 2008, Laura and her partner, Hal, sketched out the early plans for the Solar Suitcase. That done, they needed money to build a prototype. A $12,500 competition at UC Berkeley looked like the perfect place to get it, but out of twelve finalists they didn’t win. In her own words, Laura felt dejected and, worse, felt she’d let down colleagues in Nigeria who she had promised to help. But someone there believed in them. Thomas Kalil, a campus official who had been at the competition, called Laura up and told her they should have won. He committed to helping. Within three weeks he had pulled together $25,000 from The Blum Center for Developing Economies and Berkeley Big Ideas, and We Care Solar was born. Considerable challenges remained as the work progressed, and on numerous occasions anyone with less determination would have quit. There’s nothing more deflating that having huge belief in what you’re doing, only to find so few others who share it. If you want the real story behind what it means to innovate, read Laura’s chapter. Trust me, it’s worth it.

The story of We Care Solar is littered with opportunities for the official development sector to come on board. But on so many occasions it didn’t. There could be many reasons for this. Perhaps the technology wasn’t clever enough? Maybe donors didn’t see the potential in what Laura was doing? Maybe they were too busy looking for the next big thing? Maybe all of the above?

Yesterday’s award is proof that Laura was right sticking to her belief in the Solar Suitcase, despite the immense personal sacrifices that involved. And we should be grateful that she did. We talk a lot in the development sector about ‘picking winners’ and the ‘need to support things that work’. But that clearly didn’t happen here. Until now. How many Laura’s are out there who don’t battle through, who call it a day on potentially life-changing ideas because they can’t get the support they need? Or, worse, because they are constantly rejected?

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but what’s not compelling about giving light to maternity wards in the developing world? What’s not compelling about wanting to stop women and babies dying in the dark? And why did it take so long to help someone fix it?

Lone innovators of the world unite

Conventional wisdom among much of the investor community might have you believe that only projects borne out of teams have the potential to succeed. People that work alone are an awkward fit. Maybe they’re considered anti-social, giving a sign that they’re not able (or willing) to work with others? Or they’re considered too introvert? Perhaps building a team is part of the investor pre-investment test? “The evidence is in everywhere that great innovation comes from collaborating” is what we’re lead to believe.


I’ve previously written about the need to invest more in people, not just projects. It’s now just a case of extending that argument from ‘people’ to ‘person’.

If you’re looking for evidence that introverts aren’t all that bad (or rare) – and I guess many lone founders might be rightly (or wrongly) grouped in that category – then Susan Cain’s Quiet is a brilliant place to start:

The introvert/extrovert divide is the most fundamental dimension of personality. And at least a third of us are on the introverted side. Some of the world’s most talented people are introverts. Without them we wouldn’t have the Apple computer, the theory of relativity and Van Gogh’s sunflowers.

After spending most of my early career in the mobile-for-development field as a lone non-profit technology founder, quite successfully I’d like to think, these past few months I’ve been learning the ropes in the commercial sector as I build out a new mobile app idea. The difference in approach is quite something – that’s something for a longer, future blog post – but the focus on market opportunity and business models feature strongly, as does the need to be in a team. This from a programme I was looking at just last week – the Barclays Accelerator:

No founders

I suppose I could always drop my app idea for a while and spend huge amounts of time bringing a bunch of other people on-board. Or I could not do that, and just look for investors who don’t mind lone innovators. They do exist – I found one. And they invested.

No matter how brilliant your mind or strategy, if you’re playing a solo game, you’ll always lose out to a teamReid Hoffman, Co-Founder of LinkedIn

I don’t dispute that, ultimately, you’ll need a team to build out your idea. My argument is simply that it might be after you’ve started building, and after you know your idea has legs. Focus relentlessly on the product first.

After all, no product, no business, no (need for a) team.