2011 Hult Global Case Competition

Interview with Gary White, CEO and Co-founder of Water.org

In the fall of 2010, the Hult International Business School announced that the theme of its 2nd annual Global Case Challenge would be that of the global clean water crisis. As a Clinton Global Initiative member, the Hult Global Case Challenge selected Water.org, among the 1,800 'Commitments to Action' made by the world's top organizations dedicated to world change. Water.org was chosen because of its pioneering efforts in the clean water space—including its innovative WaterCredit initiative, which facilitates small loans for water and sanitation access. In partnership with Water.org, the international case competition was designed to crowd-source innovative ideas and solutions from the world's top students across five international cities: Boston, San Francisco, London, Dubai, and Shanghai. As a result of the competition, the Hult International Business School made the winning idea, along with a $1 million donation, available to Water.org to accelerate access to clean water and sanitation. As the year closes and we reflect upon the year and look towards 2012, Water.org's CEO and Co-founder Gary White answered some important questions about the competition and how to balance focus, results, and innovation within a growing organization.

Question: What is the challenge Water.org is trying to address?

Gary White: Nearly one billion people on the planet don't have affordable access to clean water. They walk miles, wait hours, and pay extortive prices to meet this fundamental need. At Water.org, we are trying to apply the best thinking from the private sector, the public sector, and the financial markets—wherever breakthrough ideas exist—to the problem of providing safe, sustainable water and sanitation in developing counties. Our goal is to achieve our vision of safe water and a toilet for all in our lifetime.

Question: What is Water.org's approach and are there unique ways that this challenge is being tackled?

Gary White: Water.org has a simple yet daunting mission—we want everyone in the world to be able to take a safe drink of water in our lifetime. After two decades of experience understanding the complexities of the water issue, and discerning what works and what does not, we believe this tremendous goal is achievable as long as we continue to challenge ourselves to scale what works while committing to ongoing innovation in the sector. We must continue to inject fresh thinking into our collective approaches until we find that next ground-breaking model.

One way that Water.org approaches the global water challenge uniquely is in the metrics we use to measure the impact of our work. Pursuing metrics based on people reached or project sustainability, while helpful, does not in our view reflect progress towards changing the fundamental constraints of the charity-driven approach, which sees one billion potential “beneficiaries.” Instead, we think a bit differently about the one billion people who are living and dying for water access—as customers with financial power, rights, responsibilities, and the drive to design their own futures. Water.org measures success by the ongoing experience of the poorest people, who have been enabled to join a modern water system already in progress, while paying a fair price, and being encouraged to hold legitimate vendors and local governments accountable for the quality of the service they have purchased. Through the simple dignity of becoming a paying water customer, the world's poor are transformed into an economic and political force with which to be reckoned. Water.org's WaterCredit initiative alone has created 330,000 new water customers.

Question: How does an organization like Water.org generate new ideas and then prioritize new ideas versus only focusing on improving upon existing innovations?

Gary White: At Water.org, we believe that both endeavors—scaling proven interventions along with ongoing investment in the pursuit of new ideas—are critical to achieving our vision. Currently, Water.org is committed to securing the funding needed to see WaterCredit reach its full potential, while at the same time, pursuing the next generation of ideas. In terms of scaling what works, the past 18 months have seen more than $15 million in philanthropic commitments made to take WaterCredit to new heights in regions where we currently operate, as well as in up to two new countries. Organizationally, scaling WaterCredit and demonstrating the model for others to take forward is a primary objective for our team. At the same time, Water.org is working to apply the best thinking from the private, public, financial, and technology sectors—wherever breakthrough ideas exist—to the problem of providing safe, sustainable water and sanitation in developing countries. We call this style of thinking—in which we identify and tap forces that appear unrelated in order to help solve a problem in an unexpected way—orthogonal. It is a process that injects fresh thinking into the sector and helps to lead us away from the traditional philanthropic model that has too often emphasized donor satisfaction over recipient needs.

We believe that many of the world's problems could benefit from orthogonal thinking; however, in order to draw on the best ideas of all spheres and innovate, we need to find or create physical and virtual spaces in which people and ideas can interact—particularly people and ideas that might not otherwise find one another. A completely new design may not be necessary for every challenge or bottleneck, but the essence of innovation is that we must continuously review new ideas, markets, and connections and consider our options. Just as the best venture capitalists are those who understand that to win big, you have to discover the untapped idea and take calculated risks, we've fostered a culture of curiosity that is helping us to discover, pilot, and scale the next solution in our work.

As an initial step in this direction, Water.org, in partnership with the Clinton Global Initiative and the Hult International Business School, issued a global challenge to generate game-changing ideas to benefit those at the bottom of the economic pyramid (BOP) who lack safe water and sanitation. Hundreds of business school students representing more than 130 different countries—many of which have struggled with the water crisis directly—generated solutions to help alleviate the crisis. Thirty panels of judges in five regional competitions (Shanghai, Dubai, London, Boston, and San Francisco) narrowed the field to six teams that competed at the global final, hosted by Hult, President Bill Clinton, and Water.org in the spring of 2011.

Question: Why did Water.org partner with the Hult International Business School to participate in the Hult Global Case Challenge?

Gary White: As a Clinton Global Initiative member, the 2011 Hult Global Case Challenge was designed to work with a fellow CGI member to tackle one of the world's most pressing social issues. Through a competitive process, Water.org was selected from among 1,800 'Commitments to Action' made by the world's top organizations dedicated to world change. Water.org was chosen because of the organization's pioneering efforts in the clean water space—including Water.org's WaterCredit initiative, which facilitates small loans for water and sanitation access. Water.org was excited to have the opportunity to help create a platform for crowd-sourcing new solutions and ideas that could help the entire sector solve the global water and sanitation crisis.

Question: What was Water.org's role in the competition?

Gary White: As part of the competition, Water.org was asked to work closely with the Hult Global Case Challenge over the course of two months to develop the business case and challenge, along with competition materials. Water.org was also asked to supply keynote speakers and judges for each of the five regional final competitions in Dubai, London, Boston, San Francisco, and Shanghai and serve as subject matter experts for student teams. Finally, Water.org provided a keynote speaker and judge for the competition's final in New York City. Throughout the six-month period of the competition, and per the terms of the competition, Water.org principles provided ongoing subject matter expertise and input to initiative.

Question: What did Water.org receive as a result of participating in the competition?

Gary White: As a result of the competition and the role Water.org played, the Hult International Business School made the winning idea, along with a $1 million donation, available to Water.org to accelerate access to clean water and sanitation.

Question: What has happened since the end of the 2011 Hult Global Case Challenge?

Gary White: After the competition, Water.org began the process of sorting through the ideas submitted by all of the student teams. This created a taxonomy that has allowed the ideas to be better understood within the context of the range of challenges and possible solutions to the global water and sanitation crisis, not only by Water.org, but by anyone pursuing solutions to BOP water and sanitation needs. In the open source spirit of the Hult Global Case Challenge (HGCC), it is important to Water.org to get as many people as possible up to speed on emerging ideas so this crisis can be tackled from many different directions. Water.org has requested the necessary permissions from the Hult International Business School to make all of the submissions available publically on a dedicated section of our website.

Beyond the new concepts brought forth by the competition, Water.org has remained vigilant in scaling existing game-changers such as our WaterCredit initiative. In the last 12 months, Water.org has received $15 million in commitments to expand WaterCredit in current geographies, while expanding the model in two new countries. Organizationally, we are committed to our long-term objectives of demonstrating the WaterCredit model with concrete results, which requires a strong focus and commitment to our existing directions, while balancing the need for ongoing innovation and research and development (R&D). To that end, in 2011, Water.org launched a New Ventures Fund, a philanthropic pool designed to catalyze an "Idea Lab" at Water.org. The Idea Lab will support Water.org teams and partners to generate new ideas, develop hypotheses, and to pilot, monitor, and take solutions to scale. It will support a portfolio of early-stage innovations including but not limited to mobile apps, financing mechanisms, citizen engagement tools, and things we have yet to imagine. The $1 million donation from the Hult School has been instrumental in helping seed Water.org's New Ventures Fund, which will cover costs related to testing and/or piloting models within the Water.org pipeline. We have been developing some of these models for more than a year, and they support our goals for expanding the WaterCredit model in new geographies, while others of these models are fresh new approaches to tackling the global water crisis overall. Several of the ideas draw upon concepts presented throughout the HGCC, while others have been brought directly to us. A handful of these concepts have been approved for an initial discovery process, including field-level market studies and data collection.

Question: Could you elaborate on how the $1 million grant has been used thus far?

Gary White: The $1 million award from the Hult Global Case Challenge has been an incredible catalyst for innovation across Water.org. The Hult award has allowed Water.org to develop the taxonomy of ideas from the competition, which, in turn, will allow anyone to source the ideas and explore them independent of Water.org. It has also allowed Water.org to green light initial New Ventures concepts that have been in development for nearly a year. This initial investment has been invaluable in keeping our innovation pipeline flowing and enabling Water.org to pursue new frontiers including, but not limited to:

  • Market research in Peru to test the feasibility of using microfinance to meet the BOP demand for water and sanitation services in urban areas.
  • Exploration at the field level for applying the concept of advance market commitments (borrowed orthogonally from the pharmaceutical industry) to utilities in Kenya, whereby Water.org could guarantee those living in urban slums would pay connection fees if piped water service is extended to their slums.
  • Field-level research and program design for a pilot to push out water-quality data through mobile devices to residents of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, so they have better insight into the performance of water providers, as well as know the health impact of the water they are consuming.

Without the Hult award these would have remained high-potential ideas. However, with the support from Hult, we have been able to green light initial phases of work.

Question: What happens to the winning idea chosen in the competition?

Gary White: Following the competition, Water.org assessed the winning model, along with a number of other concepts presented through the competition, with the goal of bringing them into the New Ventures Fund review process. Student teams did a remarkable job working at a concept level; however, as with any new concept, Water.org recognized that more field-level information was needed to be gathered before we could move into a pilot phase with any single idea. Because there appeared to be real potential with the winning idea, in June 2011, Water.org reached out to the winning team to collaborate in redesigning and executing a short-term research initiative in which we would select two geographic sites—through a survey of Water.org's global partner network. Key insights in determining whether to green light any concept must come from in-depth focus groups with WaterCredit clients in those locations and involve gathering intelligence regarding the demand for technology solutions that would accelerate BOP access to safe water and/or sanitation. This would be a comprehensive look at how technology could be an enabler.

While members of the winning team have decided to explore other avenues for pursuing their concept, Water.org continues to see the winning idea as a strong foundation for further testing and exploration. Our objective at this point involves gathering the field-level information and insights needed to carefully test the concept's hypothesis and design a pilot that supports Water.org's long-term goals.

Question: Can you comment on the approach used by Water.org to test and implement new ideas?

Gary White: Fostering innovation and quickly pursuing new ideas requires an incredible balancing act. There is a natural desire of any social entrepreneur to see change happen rapidly. After all, those drawn to affect social change are driven by their passion; however, this must be balanced with the need to carefully define the problem/issue to be addressed, frame a hypothesis, and determine the metrics for assessing success.

Water.org has always fostered a culture of innovation, but the organization has recently set a new strategic direction that requires a deliberate process for discovering, piloting, and scaling game-changing solutions. Because there will always be more good ideas than funding, Water.org has put into place a process to surface, develop, and green light the most promising concepts. This also includes a gating process that will yield "go"/"no go" decisions to release funding for additional phases of idea development and piloting concepts. This is much like the process that successful venture capital firms employ to seize big ideas quickly, while at the same time understanding when a new initiative is not meeting expectations and must be stopped. The intent is to create a new portfolio of solutions with a risk/reward profile that would not receive traditional funding. If this mission is taken seriously, there will be ideas that fail. In the end, developing new ideas is not as challenging as ensuring a culture and creation of processes that can cull ideas and quickly reallocate capital to more promising ones.

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