Black Swans and the Future of Energy by Paul Polak and Krish Desai

Energy experts now confidently predict that by 2040, solar and wind will drive no less than 60% of global power; natural gas will replace the lion's share of the burning of coal, and the market for electric cars will soar. Nassim Taleb, on the other hand, questions the ability of experts to predict just about anything. He asserts instead, in The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, that the future is consistently shaped by unexpected, high-impact outlier events, which we do our best to rationalize after the fact. Who could have predicted the Black Swan disruptive transformative impact of Henry Ford's Model T…

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Is it Wrong for Business to Profit from the Poor?

Mohammad Yunus is a nice man. He's also very smart, innovative, a risk-taker -- and a winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace. However, he is sometimes wrong. And he's most certainly wrong when he insists, as he has done so frequently in recent years both in his books and in public appearances, that the solution to global poverty lies in forming "social businesses" that never distribute profits to investors. “Poverty should be eradicated," Yunus asserts, "not seen as a money-making opportunity.” He believes that investors in social businesses should only get their money back. In my view, that adds up to a sizable interest-free subsidy,…

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Sun-Powered Irrigation

By Jack Keller, P.E., Paul Polak, Paul Storaci, and Robert Yoder A note from Paul Polak: This is the last paper my dear friend and soul brother, Jack Keller, wrote, He died recently at the age of 85 at an IDE social gathering, in the middle of an animated discussion on politics, He put down his wine glass, said he wasn't feeling too well, and collapsed in the arms of a fellow board member. He died doing what he loved, which is the way I hope to go when my time comes. This article describes our dream of replacing millions of diesel pumps in the…

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Clean Water for India

Spring Health, our rapidly scalable safe drinking water company designed to go global, has now started its commercial rollout in India by recruiting and training 90 new full-time staff, and expanding from 35 villages to 105 villages in three months. As the months go by, we have learned more and more about the fundamental importance of getting the marketing mix right. We've bundled all the most successful tactics into an approach we call "blitz marketing." Blitz marketing We have improved our blitz marketing strategy to the point that we now can increase sales in village partner shops to 1000 liters of water a day within…

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End Poverty or Bust
Paul Polak speaks about commercialization and scale at Cornell University

End Poverty or Bust

Creating a Runway for Profitable New Multinational Businesses to Transform Poverty By Paul Polak Five years ago, Steve Bachar and I decided to create a venture capital fund that would only invest in companies capable of achieving three goals: Transforming the livelihoods of at least 100 million customers living on $2 a day or less; Generating at least $10 billion in annual revenues; and Earning sufficient profits to attract commercial financial investment. There was only one problem. We couldn’t find any companies to invest in that met these criteria. Among social entrepreneurs, design for scale is as rare as hen’s teeth.  So my partners and I…

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How to solve India’s poverty crisis

By Paul Polak and Mal Warwick Economic debate swirls around the question of how to end poverty, and no wonder: today there are still 2.7 billion people living on $2 a day or less. How should a nation that contains nearly one in three of the world's poorest people address this very real problem? At one extreme among Indian observers, Nobel Prize winner and Harvard professor Amartya Sen urges greater government investment in programs to aid the poor. At the other, Jagdish Bhagwati, Columbia professor and leading trade economist, insists on the need to fuel the growth of industry and the middle class. From our…

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Achieving Scale

Scale is the single biggest unmet challenge in development and impact investment today. IDE, the development organization I founded, has helped some 20 million people living on a $1/day move out of poverty, but this is a drop in the bucket compared to the 2.7 billion people still living on less than $2/day.  About the only big business to reach poor people at scale is mobile phones, and that happened pretty much by accident.  I think it’s entirely feasible to help 100 million poor people at a time move out of poverty with technologies they need to raise their incomes, with the right distribution systems, and…

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Paul Polak’s Top 10 Books

Following is a list of the ten books that have been most helpful in increasing my understanding of the world. 1)    Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, by E. F. Schumacher (Blond & Briggs, 1973) 2)    The White Man's Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good, by William Easterly (Penguin Press, 2006) 3)    Mao's Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962, by Frank Dikotter (Walker & Company, 2011) 4)    Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948, by Madeleine Albright (Harper, 2012) 5)    Three Cups of Deceit: How…

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Four Transformative Business Opportunities in Emerging Markets

University of California, Berkeley- Haas School of Business March 13, 2012 I’m going to describe a little bit about the four businesses and then we’ll have a little bit of time for question and answers. Here’s an example in the area of health. The four businesses I talked about are: health, education, water, and energy. One opportunity in health is that about a billion people need reading glasses. You don’t have to design a technology; you can actually have reading glasses of various strengths built in mainland China for about 50 cents or less. The real challenge is the global distribution system and a robust…

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Touching the Untouchables

by Paul Polak More than 160 million people in India are considered "Untouchable"—people tainted by their birth into an irrational caste system that defines them as impure and less than human. Ghandi called them Harijans, or “children of God” and launched campaigns to improve their lives, but in spite of his efforts, Untouchables in India are still not allowed to drink from the same wells as upper class Hindus, or attend the same temples, or drink from the same cups in tea stalls. They spend their lives doing menial jobs like cleaning toilets, and are frequent victims of violence. Jacob Mathew, my partner in a…

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