Paul passed away on October 10th, 2019.
Paul Polak dedicated his life to serving the 1 billion people in the world who live on less than $2 a day and helping them escape from extreme poverty. Through his innovative pro-poor technologies, the organizations he founded and the ideas he spread, he made massive strides toward achieving that goal, helping over 50 million families earn their way to middle class. Paul was a brilliant doctor, entrepreneur, designer, mentor and beloved friend to people around the world, including the over 3,000 poor people he met and spent time with. He started a design revolution with “Design for the Other 90%,” a movement that has changed the way designers everywhere think about the power of their work. He wrote two books, inspired courses in multiple universities on his concept of “Ruthless Affordability,” and, for anyone who had the honor of knowing him, incited laughter with his puns and his infectious, relentless energy for ignoring “the way things have always been done” in order to make good trouble.
PAUL POLAK was Founder and CEO of Windhorse International, a for-profit social venture with the mission of inspiring and leading a revolution in how companies design, price, market and distribute products to benefit the 2.7 billion customers who live on less than $2 a day, combining radically affordable technology with radically decentralized supply chains to earn profits serving bottom billion customers.
The first division of Windhorse International, Spring Health Water (India), sells affordable safe drinking water to rural Indians through local kiosk owners using a simple electro-chlorination technology. Spring Health aims, within ten years, to reach at least 100 million customers who live on less than $2 a day. Prior to founding Windhorse International, Dr. Polak founded D-Rev: Design Revolution, a non-profit design incubator for technologies that serve customers living on less than $4 a day. In 1981, Dr. Polak founded International Development Enterprises (IDE), a non-profit organization that has brought nearly 20 million of the world’s poorest people out of poverty by making radically affordable irrigation technology available to farmers through local small-scale entrepreneurs, and opening private sector access to markets for their crops.
For over 30 years, Paul worked with thousands of farmers in countries around the world—including Bangladesh, India, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Myanmar, Nepal, Vietnam, Zambia and Zimbabwe–to help design and produce low–cost, income–generating products that have already moved more than 20 million people out of poverty. Before establishing IDE, Paul practiced psychiatry for 23 years in Colorado. To better understand the environments influencing his patients, Paul would visit their homes and workplaces. After a trip he made to Bangladesh, he was inspired to use the skills he had honed while working with homeless veterans and mentally ill patients in Denver to serve the 800 million people living on a dollar a day around the world. Employing the same tactics he pioneered as a psychiatrist, Paul spent time “walking with farmers through their one-acre farms and enjoying a cup of tea with their families, sitting on a stool in front of their thatched-roof mud–and–wattle homes.” Paul’s ability to respond with innovative solutions–such as the $25 treadle pump and small farm drip–irrigation systems starting at $3—helped IDE increase poor farmers’ net income by $288 million annually.
In 2009, Paul was named one of the world’s “Brave Thinkers” by The Atlantic Monthly, along with Barack Obama and Steve Jobs, for being willing to “risk careers, reputations, and fortunes to advance ideas that upend an established order.” Dr. Polak has been recognized by Scientific American as one of the world’s 50 leading contributors to science, he was named Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year for the western states, and received the Florence Monito Del Giardino award for environmental preservation in 2008.
Paul’s work has been featured in articles in Business Week, the Economist, the New York Times, Forbes, and National Geographic. Paul has spoken to a wide variety of audiences through media outlets including The New York Times, CNN, NPR’s “Fresh Air,” The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Economist, Bloomberg Businessweek, The Atlantic, National Geographic, Scientific American, Christian Science Monitor, and Popular Science.
Paul has also spoken at numerous corporate and educational venues, including Microsoft, Cummins, Mahindra, UC Berkeley Haas School of Business, Stanford, MIT, Harvard, Princeton, The Aspen Institute, PopTech, and the Stockholm Water Symposium. Dr. Polak’s book, co-authored with Mal Warwick, was named one of the Top Ten Business Books of 2013 by The Economist. Dr. Polak’s first book, Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail, has become a renowned resource for practical solutions to global poverty.
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.