It’s been almost a year since Jack Hartpence wowed the crowd at Pitch Day with a presentation on Powwater, a startup that sells water bottles and tumblers and then uses its profits to fund clean water projects for communities in need.
At the end of the entrepreneurs’ contest held by Silicon Couloir, Powwater won two of the three prizes: the Panelist Choice Award, decided on by a group of judges with business and investment chops, and the Bob Arndt Community Caretaker Award, which honors businesses that align with Silicon Couloir’s mission to foster a sustainable and diverse economy.
With the awards came cash, a mentoring opportunity and a deeper connection with Jackson Hole’s entrepreneurial network.
“It was awesome for us,” said Hartpence, the CEO. “We had just started our business. It gave us the momentum we needed at the right time.”
Powwater isn’t your typical startup. Hartpence and his co-founders created it as a social business, inspired by Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus, a pioneer in the field of using business solutions to attack global social problems.
As defined by Yunus, “A social business is a company with a social mission at its core. Set up to solve a specific problem to the benefit of poor or disadvantaged members of society, social businesses operate exactly like normal companies except for a few small differences. ... A social business is either created by the disadvantaged population it serves or serves them as its primary customers. 100% of the company profits are reinvested in continuing the company’s social mission.”
To get technical about it, Powwater is public benefit corporation, a type of corporation that allows for public benefit to be a charter purpose in addition to the traditional corporate goal of maximizing profit for shareholders.
Powwater’s mission is stated on its website: “Access to clean water is the foundation for positive change, improving health, education, women’s rights, and economic opportunity. Yet today, billions of people lack sustainable safe water. It’s an exponentially growing global problem, from the Foothills of the Himalaya, to right here in the American West. By 2025 two-thirds of humanity will live in water-scarce regions.”
As for Powwater’s products, customers can buy them online at Powwater.com. The company also sells custom versions to businesses and nonprofits. Hartpence and one of the other co-founders, Chief Financial Officer Ellie O’Neill, say Powwater has seen success with varied organizations in Jackson and around the country, from a fly shop to a dentist office to a hedge fund.
Powwater’s efforts at bringing clean water to underserved communities have targeted several foreign countries, including Bangladesh and Kenya.
In partnership with Shishir Water in Bangladesh, for example, it microfinanced a water filtration plant for an entrepreneur in Mymensingh, about three hours north of the capital of Dhaka, who filters and bottles water and sells it to hospitals and businesses and individual households. The money is helping him grow a sustainable business that solves a problem, namely that while there isn’t a shortage of water, what water is available is often contaminated.
In Kenya funds from Powwater enable low-income schools to acquire the infrastructure required to deploy the clean-water-drinking solutions offered by Impact Water, its partner there. One of several benefits of offering potable water at school is that students aren’t out sick as much, which improves learning.
The Powwater team has wanted to work on sustainable clean water solutions in the U.S. as well, and a new partnership toward that goal is one of its recent accomplishments.
The business also has a big project in the works, one that will benefit people in areas where utilities aren’t providing clean water and the private market has stepped in to fill the void.
It’s a mobile app platform that will connect households that want to buy water with local entrepreneurs who sell it. Through the app buyers will be able to compare prices, delivery schedules and customer ratings, and the entrepreneurs will have an opportunity to find new customers and expand their markets.
As Silicon Couloir prepares to host its next Pitch Day at the end of September (see box on 12C),Hartpence and O’Neill talked a bit about the company’s past year. The following has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Q: How has the pandemic affected Powwater?
E.O. We realized during the global pandemic that what we’re doing in our mission to bring people clean water has never been more important. Especially where the tap doesn’t run and you have to leave your house to go get water. It’s an opportunity to press on with our mission and bring as many people clean water as we can.
J.H. A lot of our institutions are not handling the pandemic in a good way. It shows that businesses that are set up to do good in this world have a role to play in the post-pandemic world.
Q: Where has your growth come from: direct sales to consumers or branded water?
E.O. They fuel each other. Consumers who find us on social media say they’ll bring it to their company. Or companies give [water bottles] to employees and clients, so what we’re doing spreads by word of mouth.
O’Neill and Hartpence said Powwater has struck a chord with individual shoppers, particularly millennials, who are looking for products that are sustainable and make a difference in the world.
E.O. We’ve had a lot of success reaching out to those customers via social media and directly on the website.
Q: Which social media outlet has been particularly effective?
Q: Do you have any U.S. projects planned?
Powwater recently added We The People Of Detroit as an impact partner.
E.H. They are hyperfocused on bringing clean water to the Great Lakes area, where the threats are extreme issues with utility water.
J.H. … highly contaminated water, predatory interest rates on water bills. Certain communities are unable to ever get their water turned back on.
Q: How about your latest project?
J.H. We will be connecting vendors to consumers via a mobile app.
We identified a problem with a lack of transparency in the private water market throughout emerging markets. What we’re looking to do is build a marketplace solution that streamlines efficiencies, creates competition and a heightened supply and provides the infrastructure to reach more people than ever before with sustainable access to clean drinking water.
Q: What’s the market for the app?
J.H. Nearly every country where the private water market exists, which pretty much include all of Africa, nearly all of South Asia and nearly all of South America.