Paul Polak founded International Development Enterprises (iDE) in 1981, a non-profit that makes radically affordable irrigation solutions available to smallholder farmers in Bangladesh, Nepal, India, and Africa. IDE has ended poverty for 19 million of the world’s poorest people. Paul went on to found Windhorse International, Spring Health, and D-Rev. All of these initiatives were designed to disrupt how companies design, price, market, and distribute products for those that live in extreme poverty. Current estimates claim that 1.85 billion people, or 25 percent of the world’s population, live in extreme poverty. Nearly half the population in developing countries live on less than an average of $2 a day.
Paul passed away earlier this month in Denver, Colorado. He was a World War II refugee from Czechoslovakia who emigrated to Canada and then the USA. A medical doctor, Dr. Polak practiced psychiatry for 23 years in Colorado. Whether it was understanding the factors that influenced his patients or what factors contributed to poverty around the world, Paul started by visiting his beneficiaries in their homes and workplaces. He developed an intimate understanding of the problems faced by those he sought to help. He then architected solutions that allowed for ‘frictionless’ adoption, and access to higher value markets that could allow the agricultural poor to elevate themselves out of poverty. The solutions involved a deep understanding of fundamental human motivation, knowledge of markets, and the use of ‘mechanism design’ to modify behaviors in the current market ecosystem. Paul intimately understood that regulations, corruption, good intentions and the wrong incentives caused markets to contribute to the problem of poverty. He also understood how to undo those factors and help markets work to alleviate poverty. For him, it all started with gaining deep understanding and empathy for the people he sought to serve, now recognized as the starting point for human centered design. The impact came from creating ‘in context’ affordable solutions and vibrant new markets that serve the poor.
Paul’s two books: Out of Poverty and The Business Solution to Poverty are must reads for those who imagine ways we can leverage entrepreneurship and innovation to end poverty. You can learn more at ideglobal.org
Paul and his accomplishments were a great inspiration to the early team of Miller Center’s GSBI® Accelerator programs; both IDE-India and Spring Health are GSBI Alumni. We are deeply indebted to his vision, insights and leadership in the field.
– Patrick Guerra | Co-founder, GSBI; Angel Investor, Band of Angels