On September 21, 2015, the annual Acara Open House and Showcase highlighted progress of 2015 Acara Challenge winners. Acara’s student impact entrepreneurs, accompanied by Acara mentors, donors, friends, and family, came together for an evening of celebrating Acara teams, enjoying tasty Indian cuisine and hearing brief venture update presentations.
Following a meal catered by Acara alum Eat For Equity, IonE Director Jessica Hellmann kicked off the evening with a welcome to the crowd of 80 attendees. Julian Marshall and Fred Rose, Acara Co-Directors, book ended the update presentations from nine Acara teams. Here are a selection of the updates.
Ova Woman, an online retailer of women’s intimate health products, which took Gold in the 2015 Acara Challenge, won $31k in the MN Cup 2015 student division in September 2015. Their website is live and they are selling a variety of products ranging from menstrual cups to absorbent underwear in order to ensure comfort and confidence for all women. Check out Ova Woman’s recent blog post here.
E-Grove, the University of Minnesota’s student-led electronic waste (e-waste) collection service, continues to expand collection points in on and off campus residential locations. E-Grove is now collecting e-waste from more than a dozen apartments and residence facilities in the Twin Cities with plans for expansion.
Eat for Equity, which is building a culture of generosity through community feasts, has continued to grow their community-focused events along with expansion of their catering business.
Ripple team lead, Anna Schulte, completed an Acara Fellowship evaluating effective water marketing approaches in India in summer 2015 in collaboration with Swasti Health Resource Centre. Anna entered a Master’s in Public Health at UMN and is aiming to return to India in summer 2016. Check out Ripple’s recent blog post here.
Stimulight, a venture launched out of Acara’s fall 2014 Global Venture Design program, seeks to improve the quality of life in rural India through the use of clean and reliable LED lights driven by solar-powered micro-grids in place of kerosene lamps. Stimulight team member Robin Walz is now pursuing an Acara Fellowship with SELCO, a solar lighting venture in India.
Autonomee, a Task Rabbit software product for marginalized job seekers who need career experience, is continuing to progress. They have entered talks for contract services with large development companies.
MyRain, a distributor of efficiency micro-irrigation products to smallholder farmers in India, now has 23 employees, 250 active dealers, and more than 350 product offerings. They have raised more than $400k in equity investments, were a 2014 MN Cup semi-finalist, and recipient of the $500k Securing Water for Food Grant.
Mighty Axe Hops, a grower and hub of local hops for local beer, recently completed their third growing season in Ham Lake, Minnesota. They are continuing to expand their production and distribution to craft brewers in the Midwest.
Nine months ago, I distinctly remember sitting across a conference table from Fred and Brian. We were just about to complete the Social Venture Launchpad (SVL) course and I was desperately trying to read their facial expressions. Was my idea any good? Had I made adequate progress? My self-doubt quickly went away as Fred expressed his support for my entrepreneurial journey. We both knew that I had a long, long way to go, but I also knew that Acara was a friend to me on this adventure.
I entered SVL with the idea that I would make the menstrual cup mainstream by manufacturing a new cup. I was convinced that all women needed was a new cup with better branding. During SVL I was introduced to the value proposition canvas. Working through each component of this canvas brought me to the realization that my value proposition wasn’t right and that I had a lot of customer discovery to do. The questions I had asked in the past three months provided limited insight. I left SVL with a more robust set of questions.
That spring, I conducted over 100 interviews with women of different ages and backgrounds. These women opened up to me about moments where they struggled with their current menstrual products. These issues resonated with me. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve faced some sort of embarrassing tampon leak. I realized there was a huge opportunity to support women with their periods by generating more awareness about existing products and by actively working to destigmatize intimate health.
I launched Ova Woman in July. We are the only comprehensive women’s intimate health company. We are an ecommerce platform that aggregates effective intimate health products. We generate awareness about intimate health issues and the products that support women with these issues. We actively seek out new products by connecting with innovators and linking their products to the people that need them the most. Before we sell a product on our website we have 30-50 women try the product and provide us feedback about their experience. We use this information in three ways. First, we use the information to decide if the product is right for our site. Second, we report this feedback to the product developers so they can work to improve their products. Third, the women who try these products help us generate supportive resources on how to be successful with the product.
This is just the beginning for Ova Woman. Our goal is to catalyze innovation in women’s intimate health. We want women to have access to products that bring greater comfort and confidence. Having the support of Acara early in this journey was critical. I learned three important lessons from SVL that I will carry with me throughout the development of Ova Woman and beyond.
- Ask open ended questions. To identify a customer need, you need to get out into the field and ask questions that get people talking. Make sure your questions are leading customers down a certain path. Leave the questions open ended so you can let the customer drive the conversation. I also learned that a great follow up question is “what else?”
- Getting customers talking is worthless if you aren’t actually listening. Make sure you are really capturing what people are saying. Check your filters at the door or at least be aware of them. Don’t go into these conversations thinking you already know the answer.
- Don’t get stuck. As I mentioned earlier, I originally planned to manufacture a new menstrual cup. At first I was really set on this and wasn’t really absorbing the feedback I was receiving from mentors and customers. I felt stuck, and instead of pivoting right away I tried to grasp on to my original idea. The faster you can fail and move on the better. Don’t hold on to original ideas for comfort. Let go, analyze the data and make an educated pivot.
-Elise Maxwell, CEO and Co-Founder, Ova Woman
I was laying in a hospital bed, feverish and delirious, when a doctor read my chart and felt motivated to ask, “India, huh? How was that?” I weakly muttered something generic about it being quite the adventure, at which point the doctor asked, “Would you go back?”
Are you kidding me? I wanted to snap. Look where I ended up. It was the second day of my first-ever overnight hospital stay, which began two days after I landed at MSP from Bangalore, where I completed my Acara fellowship. A little case of Dengue fever knocked me out as soon as I got home, and having had no time to reflect on the countless wonderful experiences I had had in India over the past two months, I allowed my ill brain to take over and tell me that no, I am never, EVER going back there.
“Ask me again in a few weeks,” was all I could muster in response to the doctor’s question. Well, it’s a few weeks later, and if someone asked me today if I would go back to Bangalore or visit other parts of India, I’m pretty certain I would say yes.
Enjoying the markets of Chikpete, Bangalore during the Acara May study abroad course preceding the fellowship
Reasons I would go back to India:
1. India is a land of contradictions.
“In India contradictions abound. The struggle between the country’s ancient spiritualism and modern materialism, the friction between the majority community’s beliefs and those of the other great religions India nurtures, the battle for power between the central and state governments—such contradictions have tormented the country for decades. At the same time, these dualities have strengthened the young nation, helping India become more pluralistic and resilient.” –Anand Raman for Harvard Business Review, November 2013
Bangalore is like New York City, except with cows (which I count as a plus). I’m from a suburb outside Milwaukee, Wisconsin, so while the big, bustling city felt like too much at first, the cows were an odd comfort of some sort. All activities—from shopping on Commercial Street to exploring places like the 65-foot-tall Lord Shiva statue (“The Most Powerful Shiv Statue in the World”)—were all done while dodging motorcycles and cows, sometimes simultaneously.
Cow’s frequent the streets of Bangalore, an odd comfort for a Wisconsinite
Among the comforts and luxuries that I learned to love while in India were the fruit and baked goods that I would buy from roadside stands on my way to and from my internship site every day. A mango tastes different when you bite into it while chatting with the farmer who grew and harvested that very mango—and this farmer-turned-salesman is likely to sell you at least one of each of his varieties of mangoes over the course of several weeks.
Wheelin’ and dealin’ in KR Market near Chikpete, “Old Bangalore”
I was able to enjoy the excitement a sprawling city filled to the brim with 9 million people while interacting with mango farmers on my street corner. India is often described as a land of contradictions, and while jarring at first, one can adapt and learn to appreciate some of these contradictions as a sort of all-you-can-eat-and-more buffet of experiences.
“The common perception is that a quality like kindness… is a sort of weakness… I’ve often thought that, in this society at this time, that we tend to see kindness as a sort of secondary virtue. It’s like, ‘if you can’t be brilliant, if you can’t be courageous, if you can’t be wonderful, okay, be kind—it’s not great but it’s good.’ But it is great.” -Sharon Salzburg, meditation teacher
Speaking of all-you-can-eat-and-more, have you ever been a guest in an Indian mother’s home? My friend Vinay, who I met in Bangalore, graciously invited me to have dinner at his house one night while I was completing my fellowship. It was the most delicious food I had tasted in India, and after being served more than my fair share I declared I was stuffed and could not eat another bite. Little did I know that the meal was far from over. Since her guest had eaten, Vinay’s mother had started to cook her own dinner meal, and of course shared her fresh homemade roti with me. I thanked her profusely for the two dinners she had fed me and asked where I should put my plate. She then fed me three servings of payasam for dessert and sent me home with a bag of mangoes that they had grown on their farm.
A dang good dosa enjoyed while in Kotagiri, Tamil Nadu. There’s nothing like eating off a banana leaf!
In addition to beautiful home-cooked meals, I was the recipient of a slew of other kind acts from other wonderful people I encountered in my travels. A pair of young men bought my dinner one evening; a student traveling on a bus helped me to get off at the right stop in Ooty and find my overnight bus back to Bangalore so I didn’t miss my flight home the next day; an autorickshaw driver whose auto died while he was taking me home hailed another auto for me and didn’t even charge me for how far he had taken me; my new friend Krishna got me a GPS-enabled smart phone so that I could navigate the city on my own; and Aruna, Acara’s wonderful Bangalore-based instructor, provided me with everything I needed and more—from medicine when I needed it to food when I was hungry and a bed to sleep in when I was too sick to make it back to my apartment, she exemplifies the power that kindness holds. At least a few Acara students would probably tell you that we feel that we owe her our lives (she’s quick on the draw with oral rehydration salts), and if that’s not powerful, I don’t know what is.
3. Grand Challenges.
“Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” –From the Talmud
One of the biggest reasons I went to India was the opportunity to look at public health issues in a setting that’s different from my home in America in almost every way imaginable. I was taken on as an intern at Swasti, a health resource center whose plethora of projects includes water purification plants in a district north of Bangalore called Chikkaballapur. I worked with the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) team at Swasti to develop a sustainability plan so that the plants could be run by the community without Swasti’s help in the next five years.
While the three Acara classes I had taken gave me a little hope that I could be of use to Swasti as they attempted to make their public health intervention self-sustaining, my confidence was all but shattered when I realized the enormity of the challenges that Swasti would have to face if they were to be successful in this endeavor. While things were generally running well at three of the reverse-osmosis water plants, a fourth was struggling due to an issue that I could not have anticipated from my American perspective: some people were unwilling to buy purified water from the plant because the water man that Swasti had hired belongs to the Dalit caste, a historically oppressed population referred to as “untouchable” in the past.
One of Swasti’s reverse-osmosis water treatment plants in Chikkaballapur, Karnataka
While the Constitution of India and the Prevention of Atrocity act (1995) are meant to prevent discrimination against Dalits, no law can force a person to buy water from Swasti’s water plant. If the plant is to be successful, how might Swasti overcome this cultural barrier? They certainly can’t fire the Dalit man, as that is illegal and highly immoral, so the only way through this barrier is to somehow change the behaviors of the local citizens whose beliefs deter them from purchasing water under current conditions. Many highly intellectual and educated people have written about how difficult behavior change can be, and I learned firsthand how true those assertions I have read about really are.
At times I did feel discouraged and was tempted to abandon the work that stretched out before me. For every kind and compassionate person who was working to solve these grand challenges, it seemed that there were a hundred people who were throwing their garbage into the street and a hundred massive apartment complexes that were dumping their untreated waste into a lake. But, there again are those contradictions that India is known for—and if grand challenges are to be solved, one must work within the context from which those challenges were born. It makes the work difficult, but that does not excuse us from the duty that we have as global citizens to do our part.
Fellow Acara students working to develop solutions to community development challenges in collaboration with SELCO, a solar lighting organization in India, after visiting nearby communities. Through the work of SELCO, we learned change is not impossible.
Do you ever get the feeling that, the more you learn about something, the more you realize you don’t know? That’s how I felt in India as I witnessed countless contradictions, kindnesses, and grand challenges that need urgent attention. It’s not that I would go back to India because it was all pleasant contradictions (some I found to be quite unpleasant) and kindnesses (as corruption, in balance, exists there in a big way as well). I know after spending two short months in Bangalore that I have a long way to go in learning all that I can about solving grand challenges and creating a better future for India and our world.
So, yeah, India, I’ll be back one day—fully drenched in bug spray and draped in a mosquito net to ensure that I don’t encounter Dengue fever again, but I’ll be back, if you’ll have me.
Two of my favorite ladies in all of India – my fellow interns at Swasti, Priyanka and Deepti. See you next time!
As I wrote this in late June, I was sitting on a lovely Pacific beach in Las Penitas, Nicaragua, essentially my first off day in nearly six weeks of traveling, teaching, speaking and consulting in India, Malaysia and Nicaragua. It was a good time for reflection.
As co-director of the Institute on the Environment’s Acara program, my focus is on helping students and young entrepreneurs develop solutions to global environmental challenges. Summer is the time for me to get out of the classroom and into the world with current and past students. I spent three weeks in India helping my colleagues leading a class with 16 University of Minnesota students and four India student interns looking at sustainability challenges facing Bangalore, a growing city of 9 million people, and surrounding areas. I took a side trip to Malaysia to give a keynote address at the 1st International Conference on Empowering Entrepreneurship. After a few days back in Minnesota, Acara assistant director Brian Bell and I went to Nicaragua to teach Iowa State students doing an in-country product design program and to investigate starting a Latin America program for Acara.
By both predilection and professional experience, I am, as the joke goes, the typical engineer to whom the glass is neither half full nor half empty but twice as big as it needs to be. That steady sense of balance served me well in a previous career in technology and business development and today in an institute with a focus on large complex climate and sustainability issues. However, arriving at that state often entails extreme swings in both directions. Reflecting on the trip, I recall a number of things that gave me “half full” or “half empty” thoughts.
Water Availability and Quality
- Half empty: Seeing a lakeside luxury high-rise apartment building in Bangalore dump untreated wastewater into the lake. The lake outlet, next to a low-income community, was full of suds and the water was literally on fire the previous day.
- Half full: In Nicaragua the beach was clean and unspoiled, with a small, sustainably run eco hotel (eco in reality, not just in marketing) nearby, and seemed to be in good shape.
- Half empty: In all three countries I visited as well as the U.S., changing rain patterns are causing major disruptions to agriculture businesses.
- Half full: There is a growing recognition that these changes are likely permanent and resiliency is growing in importance.
- Half empty: Driving through a nasty dust storm blowing off large corporate farm fields near Leon, Nicaragua.
- Half full: Spending time with amazing young entrepreneurs from MyRain and EOS International, both of whom are making available sustainable farming solutions to small farmers around Madurai, India, and San Isidro, Nicaragua.
- Half empty: Large tobacco farms in Nicaragua that make heavy use of chemicals and wear out the soil in a few years, all to make a product that essentially kills you.
- Half full: Exciting non-governmental organizations Sustainable Agro Alliance in India and CII-ASDENIC in Nicaragua, both of which have created innovative agricultural demonstration farms for training farmers on new, more sustainable, farming practices.
Demographics and Youth
- Half empty: Walking through a shiny new mall in Kuala Lumpur, realizing that many countries are very skewed to a younger population, that these young people are aspiring to the middle class and corporate-type jobs and that enormous resources will be required to serve that need. When I am on a crowded street in India, I often think of this chart that shows half the world’s population lives in a circle centered in Southeast Asia.
- Half full: Working with young students from India, Malaysia, Nicaragua and the U.S. who are dedicated and passionate about working on global grand challenges. It was great to see a strong recognition from universities I visited, especially the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) and INCAE Business School in Managua, that inclusive entrepreneurship (livelihoods for all) is vital to addressing the demographic issue above and are actively creating training programs for all.
- Half full: The Environmental Support Group in Bangalore was effectively using the courts to enforce policy in a country that struggles with corruption. The Ugly Indian is an extremely effective grassroots organization cleaning up the streets of India.
- Half empty: The Bangalore Metro, under construction, is a modern marvel of engineering, providing much-needed public transportation to the city. But many low-income communities did not have a voice in the required relocation.
- Half full: While we know that practically everyone in the world has, or has access to, a mobile phone, the real changes will come as all those phones move to smartphones over the next decade. Akhilesh Tilotia, in his just published book, “The Making of India,” projects 625 smartphone users in India by 2020, up from around 160 million users today. This recent story in MIT Technology Review summarizes this trend nicely.
- Half empty: Distribution and lack of physical access because of poor infrastructure can’t be overcome solely by digital technology.
Every year this trip causes me to think about an emerging issue. This year the big issue that stuck out for me was livelihoods. In addition to UKM and UCAE, we met organizations such as Thriive working on new ideas for creating livelihoods. According to Tilotia, “over the next ten years till 2025, 250 million people will become eligible (old enough) to join the workforce in India.” That is more than 2 million people every month for 10 years. These young people need jobs, and the opportunities need to be fair across society to diminish further economic income separation. These livelihoods need to be sustainable — financially, socially and environmentally. This demographic challenge is weighing heavily on the minds of many thought leaders in these countries.
We teach students to use a “What, So What, Now What” method in reflecting on experiential learning. What is the “Now What” for Acara from these reflections? Create solutions addressed to specific environmental or social grand challenges, ensuring that these solutions are financially and environmentally sustainable, provide livelihoods, and are accessible to all.
This is not a short journey by any means, and for an educational program like Acara (along with many others globally), it’s an ongoing process to develop a pipeline of young leaders to address these challenges. Meeting the dynamic people I met on these travels, I feel, despite the swings above, that we can carve out a path to creating a balance of being just right.
And so the adventure comes to an end. Bringing students to India is always an enjoyable time and allows me to see India again through fresh eyes.
As always, India presented dramatic contrasts and experiences.
We visited state-of-the-art labs in a Honeywell facility that would be proudly showcased anywhere in the world, but the building was alongside traffic-clogged roads and within site of a lake that was literally on fire from pollutants.