Photo: Mo Scarpelli
Startup founders are known to go to extreme lengths to get their idea off the ground — working 90-hour weeks, taking huge financial risks, and putting their careers on the line. Becky Straw did all of that. She couch-surfed for 10 months, staying at 15 friends’ places in New York City, and maxed out her credit card to launch the Adventure Project, which funds social enterprises in developing countries. Living out of a suitcase, Straw would often wear the same outfits over and over again, and once even wore gym pants to a meeting. In retrospect, she says, it wasn’t all that bad: “It’s actually sort of freeing, only having a suitcase and a few things to wear.” Especially compared to living with much less in the areas she’s investing in around the world. She co-founded Adventure Project with Jody Landers, whom she met travelling through Liberia, West Africa, a few months after leaving Charity:Water. They launched in 2010 and have an ambitious goal: to create one million jobs in the next decade. Their philosophy is to operate more like a venture fund in the developing world. “We consider ourselves VCs for nonprofits in the sense that we partner with nonprofits that we feel will create the highest social return for our dollar,” says Straw. “Each have a long-term vision of sustainability, meaning that one day they are net positive and profitable and no longer in need of outside support. Our rationale is that if we focus on high-impact solutions that build local capacity, we would end poverty faster and more efficiently.” Right now they’re partnering with organisations in Haiti, India, Kenya and Uganda. She explains her approach to us in more detail: Lately I have been describing it as the “third place.” There is traditional charity — such as building a well or a school. Then there’s micro-lending where entrepreneurs take out a loan to help grow their business. Our approach focuses on funding “micro-consignment models,” which is a unsexy word for an “Avon approach” to ending poverty. We support social enterprise “Avons,” or nonprofits who have a business mindset. They provide the tools and the training to community leaders, and those leaders go on to become profitable entrepreneurs by selling their goods or services to the community. One example is our program in India with Water for People. An average of 38 per cent of wells are broken in developing countries, and they often break within the first two years. Often times there are simply no spare parts, tools or trained mechanics to fix it. So we are helping Water for People train and support members of the communities to become well mechanics — $550 can train one mechanic to maintain 50 wells for 5,000 people in their community. We sponsored 176 mechanics last year, so that means approximately 8,800 wells in India will now be properly maintained and functioning, giving about 880,000 people access to clean water. The bottom line is, they’ll only work with organisations that have an end game and are using measurable results to get there. Straw and Landers just launched a huge campaign to raise funds for a social enterprise in Haiti that trains locals to sell charcoal-efficient stoves to the community. Their goal is to solve a much-bigger problem, decreasing exposure to toxic fumes in other household stoves that often lead to premature deaths in developing countries. They’re heading to Port-Au-Prince, Haiti next week. “My philosophy is that I want people to see the positive,” says Straw. “I want people to see it first hand. If people saw what I saw, the world would be a different place. … Some people have an enormous opportunity to give, and they should.”
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