The Sustainability Management Student Association (SUMASA) is a student organization elected to represent the student body of the Columbia University Sustainability Management Master’s Program. We strive to advocate on behalf of the students, foster community engagement, and provide meaningful development through academic and networking opportunities in an evolving sustainability industry.
Diana Sierra co-founded of Be Girl, a social enterprise that designs and manufactures reusable, washable and high performance period panties and sanitary pads. They have pilot their product in more than 12 countries and are ready to launch in the US. Previously, Diana built her career in industrial design as a consultant, working for almost 10 years for different multinational companies and consulting firms such as Smart Design, Frog, Panasonic. Read on to learn what it takes to be successful as an entrepreneur and what you need to keep track of before launching your own social enterprise.
By Beatrice Troiano (SUMA 2016)
Please tell us about your organization, Be Girl, and your role
I co-founded Be Girl, a social enterprise, together with SUMA alumnus Pablo Freund. My role constantly bounces between CEO and Creative Director.
Be Girl pads are the outcome of a collaborative design process. They are a basic yet extremely resourceful solution that features a reusable, washable and fast-drying waterproof pad-holder/pouch that can be attached to underwear like a traditional sanitary pad, and can be filled with any available safe disposable or reusable absorbent material – e.g. toilet paper or re-purposed cloth. This unique design gives women and girls the option to adapt it according to their access to water and available resources in their own environment.
What motivated you to launch Be Girl?
During the SUMA program I participated in an internship with the millennium promise/ villages in Uganda. I was involved in two projects. One of them comprised working with coffee farmers and advising them in the technology they needed to go from wet to dry processing of coffee. I was also working with an arts and crafts cooperative. During this experience I met a lot of young girls who had dropped out of school and were looking to work in the shop.
This is when I became aware that menstruation is a huge issue in developing countries. Lack of access to proper menstrual management products is preventing millions of girls from completing their education. These girls miss five days of school each month, which leads do a drop in performance and eventually to drop out of school as they are not able to catch up.
As a woman and designer, I felt a deep sense of responsibility to address this issue and create a solution, as designers do. Using only the materials I had on hand – an umbrella, mosquito netting, thread, scissors and a needle – I made the first prototype for a reusable and washable waterproof pad-holder/pouch that attached to the panties and could be filled with any available safe disposable or reusable absorbent material.
How does Be Girl support girls & women’s empowerment?
In many countries, when a woman reaches menstruation, because of a lack of facilities she has to stop going to school during that period. This means she gets singled out and left behind because she cannot keep up with the workload. Essentially these girls are being denied the right of education because of their gender. One in ten girls worldwide is dropping out of school every year because of this issue, but in Uganda the rate is forty times higher. This is why we decided to test our product with millennium promise. I believe high performance and well-designed re-usable sanitary products will help these girls have a more fair shot at life with minimum intervention. There is no point in giving these girls a book and pen if systematically they are denied access to education just because of their gender. Lack of access to products to manage your menstruation with dignity is not a privilege but a fundamental human right.
You have recently launched a successful Kickstarter campaign. Tell us about your company’s next steps.
The first country where we decided to test the product was in Uganda with Millennium Promise. We piloted the program and interviewed women for a year and got our results in May 2014. The participation and feedback we received were incredible. I was amazed at how small products could have such an enormous impact.
After the pilot-test results we were featured on the Huffington Post. Then a foundation from Sweden read about our work and contacted us to see if we were open to seed capital. We also applied for an incubator in Washington DC – Halcyon Incubator (halcyonincubator.org) – which provided us with tutoring, mentorship and housing. Both these opportunities were crucial as they allowed us to continue pursuing our projects.
In 2015 we started developing the design of our sanitary pads to shape in the form of underwear, the same universal absorbent pocket construction but delivered in a panty for a 2-in-1 solution. We are now present in more than 12 countries and our core team expanded to 2 more amazing professionals, Maria Paola Navia and Stephanie Rapp-LeGrant. We also have interns and volunteers on a rotating basis who support us in our operations. At the moment Saron Simon, from Brown University, is in the field piloting our program in Ethiopia and Laura Almonacid from Washington University assisting in the management of the EmpowerBank.
Our goal for 2016 is to enter the US market. We have decided to enter with a “One for one” model: for every US purchase of panties, we are giving one to a girl in a developing country. This way we are making a connection between developed and developing countries. We are partnering with NGOs to allocate products where there is the most need. Having Be Girl accessible in the US is crucial for us as, from the environmental perspective, the product removes millions of sanitary pads each year from landfill.
What are two most important skills needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Does this differ for a woman entrepreneur?
I would say a combination of discipline and passion are needed to be a successful entrepreneur. Passion will get you through the hard times, discipline will give you a structure to follow. This differs immensely for women as some things are expected more from women than from men. Moreover I believe women pitch differently to investors than men – we tend to be more reserved and more cautious and this can often make us look less ambitious. This is why gender lens investing is very important when making investment decisions. This is a way to increase access to capital for women entrepreneurs and businesses that have women in leadership positions.
Tell us how your industrial design experience and the SUMA program have helped you with starting Be Girl.
I worked for 12 years in the product design and product development industry. I decided to join the SUMA program to enhance my career. I was working on baby care products and their Life Cycle Analysis and I felt very frustrated that my clients would not consider more environmental products if there was not a direct money benefit attached to it.
The very flexible schedule is what attracted me to the SUMA program. I was able to tailor the program to meet my needs and learn how to put a dollar sign into doing the right thing. During the SUMA program Professor Louis Rosen, who was teaching the practicum class at the time, really helped me during my career transformation. She brought in all these incredible professors to give us a different perspective on sustainability. One of these, a mechanical engineering professor called Vijay Modi, explained to us how even a simple object like a cooking stove can prevent million of children dying form pneumonia and that for me was a life changing moment as a designer.
What do you find most challenging about your industry or role?
The most challenging part of being an entrepreneur is making the case of investment. I got very lucky and received seed investment right from the beginning. If you do not have investments or savings it is really tough to develop your idea and make this career shift. Unfortunately, there is a huge lack of platforms that help start-ups and people with great ideas plan their careers change, thus these people get stuck and have to go back to their initial jobs.
What advice do you have for young women interested in social enterprises?
If you have a great idea, do not immediately jump into it but start planning first. Performing a pilot or market test, to see what the results of your idea are, is crucial before jumping right into your project and quitting your job. Otherwise you are putting too much economical stress onto your idea and may break for the wrong reasons. I incubated my idea and tested it out 2 years before doing a full career switch and starting Be Girl.
What are two companies you’re excited to follow over the coming years? Why?
I am a technology geek and I always like to follow technology and design companies like Tesla. I think Mars One will make it real to go to Mars in our lifetime and, not that I want to move there, but find it fascinating.
Marisol Rodriguez is a design consultant with over 8 years of experience in product innovation, consumer research, prototyping, and business model generation methodologies. Holding an M.S. in Sustainability Management ’15 from Columbia University, she most recently consulted for World Resources Institute, Oxfam and WWF through her capstone and graduation projects; her social enterprise SHAREnergy, an initiative incubated within the co-working space at the Earth Institute, focuses on renewable energy and sustainable development. In this interview, jointly conducted by SUMANI and Women & Sustainability, Marisol tells us about her organization and shares advice for the entrepreneur in you.
By Beatrice Troiano (SUMA 2016)
Please tell us about your organization, SHAREnergy and your role.
SHAREnergy is fundamentally a “virtual energy grid” that connects the developed world where there is (in many cases energy abundance and waste) to the developing world. We connect residential buildings, commercial spaces, and real estate companies in large cities to villages around the world, using kWh savings as capital to install and distribute clean energy products.
Our organization bridges the gap between large energy consumers and the many (BOP) communities living off-grid in developing countries. Our goal is to utilize the collaborative economy as a catalyst to achieve energy equality. Every second of power saved in a large city can translate into more than 6 hours of light or a new efficient cook stove, an opportunity for families to raise themselves out of poverty.
My role as the founder is to build this concept out and validate different pathways of our business model. Our first project was the “sharenergy home challenge” tested in a downtown residential building in NY, where apartments participating committed to save energy through home lighting updates, moving from standard incandescent lights to LED, this small intervention, impacted 450 people in Kathmandu, generating 108.000 hours of home light for Nepali families and $7,200 dollars in savings in less than 6 months since the project was delivered. Fuel can be a significant expense for people in rural areas as much as $8 per month, when multiplied across all the families in this community, the benefits of switching to renewables are impacting their health and generating opportunities to save money, re-investing in education and their own business.
Refining the operational model is what I do in daily basis. For instance I have recently been thinking, why only apartments or buildings, could we in a long-term work with utilities, or engage the NYC major sustainability department to sign up into our “virtual energy grid” platform at the city level?
What motivated you to launch SHAREnergy?
When I attended the SUMA program at Columbia, I was exposed to the energy poverty problem. I took Energy & Sustainable Development class with Philip LaRocco, The assignment required us to study a country, understand its energy context, identify an energy need and build a business plan around it. Even after the semester ended, I continued to study this area through classes as Innovation and Energy markets with Travis Bradford, Lean Lunch Pad with entrepreneur Bob Dorf at the Business School and Human Ecology with Professor Jeffrey Sachs, all of whom are outstanding professionals and leaders. With the collaboration of the (SEL) Dr. Francisco Sanchez and the Earth Institute I gained access to UN Millenium Villages, (http://www.earth.columbia.edu/articles/view/1799) and got to visit Ruhiira in Uganda. They installed micro-grids, that are helping farmers, schools and families to alleviate poverty in the village. I also realized that we need it to support other villages that still lack access to electricity services. This is, when I decided that SHAREnergy should move from paper to reality.
SHAREnergy implements its projects in rural areas empowering women cooperatives. Why is it important to focus on women and children?
There are several reasons, health, gender equality and economic growth.
Lack of access to clean energy for cooking and lighting disproportionately affects women and children. If you looked at WHO numbers you will find that 1.3 billion people lack access to basic energy for cooking and lighting homes. This limits the opportunity for education and income generation, Air pollution is now more deadly than HIV and malaria combined, and most of the victims are women and children exposed to indoor wood fires in developing countries. The World Health Organization (WHO) study found that 3.5 million people die early annually from indoors air pollution and 3.3 million from outdoor air pollution, also it has been shown that when women work, the local economy grows. In some locations SHAREnergy’s projects might not involve financing community micro-grids, but it could be helping replace dirty cooking devices or kerosene lanterns with cleaner options.
Tell us about your next projects. In which countries are they focused?
2016 will be an exciting year, we are planning to continue the “home sharenergy challenge” in other neighborhoods around New York, which will help us to provide home light to an estimated group of 2000 people in Uganda and Colombia. We will be validating our business model at the commercial and corporate level; simultaneously we plan to have an online tracking platform that will provide transparent information of kWh and GHG emissions saved and generated in both sides of developed and developing nations.
For the long term, through our “VIRTUAL ENERGY GRID”, we will love to see our platform mobilizing kWh savings from New York City to Nepal, from Abu Dhabi to Colombia, or Geneva to Uganda, this is a bit further in our plans.
What are three most important skills needed to innovate, or to move from idea to revenue?
Innovators need to have strong technical skills, understand systems, know how to break a problem down from macro to micro details, and for social enterprises you need +200% of “empathy”, to understand the economical, social and environmental challenges of the beneficiaries, which most of them, leave under the poverty line, earning less than 2 dollars per day. Also, as a leader of the project, sometimes you may be working alone; you must develop strong leadership skills to engage with multiple stakeholders, focus on setting appropriate goals, and track the progress and don’t be discouraged by failure, continue working to achieve the goals you have set.
Does this differ for a woman entrepreneur, if so, then how?
This doesn’t change for a male or female. The process is exactly the same. Where it may differ in, is when raising capital. US statistics say that investors are more likely to invest in enterprises run by men. But I think businesses are changing – social enterprises, philanthropic organizations and impact investors are focusing in the advantages of having women leading companies. It’s a bright future for woman entrepreneurs and for conscious-responsible business.
Tell us how your corporate world experience and the SUMA program have helped you with starting SHAREnergy?
My background was in design, research and manufacturing. But, I was looking to improve quantitative and scientific skills to validate the progress and impact of the projects I was designing. While doing my master, I took classes at the business school such as Lean Launchpad, SIPA classes to have a deep understanding of sustainable development. At SUMA program I would definitely recommend Greenhouse Gas Emissions – Measuring & Minimizing Carbon Footprint with professor Dickinson, the content of this class is fundamental for any of the sustainability challenges you may be facing as a professional.
What do you find most challenging about your industry or role?
At SUMA everyone cares about sustainability and social development, but that changes quickly when you start working in the real world. Some of our potential clients may understand the implications of their decisions as energy consumers, but some are simply not interested in the topic. Awareness and education are a huge part of what we do, communicating to families, building managers and companies, that we need to work in global solutions, this is not an easy task, but is not impossible either. Our goal is to communicate that sustainability produces economic, social and environmental benefits.
What advice do you have for young women interested in social enterprises?
If you have a solid project, or an innovative idea, work to validate your concept with solid data. While you are at university built the necessary skills to move your concept into a reality, there are a lot of opportunities within Columbia community network, learn from other entrepreneurs, and most important be persistent. I think women have the potential to lead the social enterprise revolution. Is the perfect opportunity to do business and do good, without sacrificing any side, we can drive change and create empathy. Any women or men, can be innovate as a entrepreneur, as an employee, or student, the responsibility of creating a more sustainable and fair world is the same for everyone.
What are four organizations you’re excited to follow over the coming years? Why?
Acumen – Ame Igharo, an outstanding SUMA graduate and classmate, is an Acumen Fellow, she introduced me to the impressive work of this non-profit, they just started operations in Bogota, my hometown. The first company they are investing is called Siembra Viva, which provides a technology platform that connects smallholder farmers selling organic produce to customers in cities.
Team Rubicon – http://www.teamrubiconusa.org. Employing military veterans to work as a support teams for disaster relief around the word.
Little Bits – http://littlebits.cc – Founded by a woman engineer, using toys as a platform for young kids to learn simple technology concepts.
Student Energy – https://www.studentenergy.org/Co-founded by Janice Tran a SUMA classmate, a platform to inform the next generation of energy leaders.
YOKO TAKEMURA (SUMA alumni ’13) has leveraged her network and studies to land her dream job – working on a vegetable farm. She seeks to create sustainability through farming and has ambitious goals of starting her own efficient, small-scale farm. Yoko is the real deal and a true a leader in sustainability. She reminds us that you don’t need a corner office to achieve success.
Discover how Yoko is transitioning from city life to farm life, and her mission to find happiness by getting her hands dirty.
By Katie Macdonald
It’s so hard to explain to people why I’m going into farming. It took a long, winding route to reach this stage of my life. It’s not easy to move out of the city, pick up your things and move to the middle of nowhere. I like to tell people, when you’re living in the city and striving to live sustainably, you’re bound by these restrictions and rules. It get’s suffocating. You kick yourself when you break the rule, and it was getting to a point when I was saying, ‘no’ to this, ‘no’ to that. But switching to the farm becomes, ‘yes’ to this, ‘yes’ to that. I’m actually growing things, sucking carbon out of the atmosphere. I’m nourishing people, revitalizing the soil and providing a sanctuary for wildlife!
After college, I started working in Tokyo, then moved to Singapore and then the Philippines. I moved to New York in 2012 to start full-time at Columbia’s Sustainability Management (SUMA) program as an international student. I wanted to do something to protect the environment, eventually hoping to go into teaching. The SUMA program was heavily energy focused, and nothing really struck me – except for water. I pursued water hardcore, but it wasn’t until the end of the program that I discovered food as an outlet to contribute to sustainability. I built my own hydroponic garden in my bedroom and became a co-op member of a NYC community garden after I graduated.
After graduation I started working with big data for a consulting firm. Meanwhile, I started exploring all types of food opportunities. I was volunteering at the garden, cooking and going to food events.
I’ve always wanted to work on a farm and at that time I had a very naïve thought that I could just email a farm and expect to work there. The more research I did and the more I talked to people, I realized that I wanted a skill set that I’m passionate about and can speak intellectually about. That’s why I started seriously looking to farms for job opportunities.
At first, I was applying blindly to farms nearby and not getting many replies because I didn’t have any farm experience. But, if you want it, you really just have to get out there and meet the farmers. And that’s exactly what I did.
I got a job at Riverbank Farm in Connecticut. It’s a small organic vegetable farm that sells its produce at farmer’s markets. It’s located in the most picturesque location, and has a beautiful Hudson Valley landscape. It’s so serene.
My boyfriend and I have a long-term vision of purchasing land and having our own vegetable production. We go to lots of workshops on small-scale farming. My dream is to have a boutique farming operation, that’s run efficiently with hand tools that generate enough food to live on. There have been many successful cases where farmers make more money than they need to just get by. However, one huge barrier that young farmers face is acquiring land. It’s always about land buying and finding land. It’s a tricky issue.
After working in consulting, I fully believe I can place myself within the corporate space and make changes. Addressing sustainability in the corporate world is absolutely needed. I could see myself working with sustainability data and making impacts. But this wasn’t the sustainability I was after and that became increasingly aware to me.
I’ve lived in big cities all my life. I never grew up in a farm family. I haven’t had any exposure to farms at all. But, you don’t need to be close to it or have had exposure to it to go into this type of work. I know how tough it is, but I want to make this my life.
With farming, if I work hard enough I can make change in the word. And that’s really exciting to me.
The official results of the 2016-2017 SUMASA Board elections are in. The elected candidates for SUMASA 2016 – 2017 are the following:
- President – Cheryl Poccia
- VP of Academic Affairs – Leticia Valadez
- VP of Communications – Jordan Chan
- VP of Communications – Amanda Stevens
- VP of Events – Hilary Osborn
- VP of Community Outreach – Modou Cham
Congratulations to everyone who participated in the elections. We’re happy to see that we have a group of committed students who want to push to make this a better program. We want to encourage all of you to keep working and collaborating together.