In Remembrance of Pro-Poor Business Pioneer Paul Polak: 1933-2019
Paul Polak, a pioneer of pro-poor technologies and social impact-focused business, passed away over the weekend.
Polak’s no-nonsense approach to social innovation could be boiled down to one of his many well-known quotes: “If you don’t understand the problem you’ve set out to solve from your customers’ perspective; if your product or service won’t dramatically increase their income; and if you can’t sell 100 million of [your products], don’t bother.”
Polak’s work in social enterprise was driven by his legendary energy and inventiveness, and he came to occupy a space in many hearts for both his rye wit and optimism.
He was born in Prachatice, Czechoslovakia on September 3, 1933 to Hugo Polak and Marta Baum. His family fled to Canada in 1939 to escape the Nazis in World War II. He received his MD from Western Ontario University in London, Ontario, and completed his psychiatry residency at the University of Colorado, where he met his wife Agnes Potter. The couple raised three daughters, Amy, Kathryn and Laura, and they have two grandchildren, Elena and Ethan.
Polak transitioned into business after practicing psychiatry for 23 years in Colorado. In his psychiatric work, he often visited his patients’ homes and workplaces to better understand the environments that influenced them. After a personal vacation to Bangladesh, he was inspired to apply that approach to a new group – people living in extreme poverty. And he soon realized that for-profit business could be an important part of his anti-poverty efforts.
A true “serial entrepreneur” since long before that term became popular, he founded numerous organizations and businesses, including:
- International Development Enterprises (iDE) – a non-profit that has brought nearly 50 million families out of poverty;
- The Design Revolution (D- Rev), which inspires designers, engineers and others to solve problems facing poor and typically ignored customers;
- Windhorse International, a for-profit company that uses radically affordable technology and radically decentralized supply chains to serve BoP customers;
- Transform Energy, which works to replace coal with alternative fuel sources; and
- Spring Health, which focuses on safe drinking water.
On a personal note, Paul was the first person I interviewed for NextBillion, a few weeks after I was first hired back in late 2012. I came into the interview with a near-total ignorance of social enterprise and poverty alleviation approaches, and was racing to get up to speed. I was hoping I wouldn’t embarrass myself while speaking to a man I expected – based on his accomplishments – to be somewhat intimidating. But Paul immediately put me at ease with his warmth and humor, and he was both gracious and insightful in our conversation: His distinctive thoughts and frank viewpoints brought me (and hopefully our readers) to a greater understanding of why businesses should focus on the poor – and how they can balance their business imperatives and social missions. (You can read the interview here.) Over the years, Paul would become a regular collaborator and supporter of the site, with whom NextBillion was privileged to work and interact many times. Along with countless others in the social impact sector, and among the communities he served around the world, we’ll miss him greatly.
James Militzer is the editor of NextBillion.