Standing in the Virtual Reality Zone at Unleash 2019, I am watching people wearing massive headsets standing in one place skiing, snowboarding or even on a rollercoaster. A person next to me leans in and says ‘Its really strange that this virtual reality technology hasn’t really expanded beyond entertainment and novelty. But there are so many cool real world uses for virtual reality.’ Meet Kevin Sofen, an American who is part of Unleash in the clean water and sanitation track.
His day job uses virtual reality to help first responders including fire people and paramedics to simulate and respond to risks. It is an important job with a big impact, but this is not his only positive social impact. In fact, his life is just full of making positive impact. On top of his day job he manages the social impact division of his organisation as well as being the founder of a social enterprise called Wristsponsible.
For Unleash, we had to submit a video about why we wanted to attend. Here is Kevin’s which explains his mission and passion for water.
Wristsponsible is a global movement actively implementing water solutions while empowering individuals to work together for a ‘wristsponsible’ world.
It all started when Kevin found out that 1 in 9 people lack access to safe water across the world after a trip to China and Ghana in 2011. The impact of consuming dirty water cripples a community’s ability to develop out of poverty, cascading into numerous health and economic problem. He knew he needed to do something so he went to Nepal to install a water system.
This grew into Wristsponsible, a charity who work with grassroots charities around the world to implement water projects. They work with local charities because they understand the needs of the local community best and they can also offer ongoing maintenance for the water projects once they are implemented.
Impact to Date
To date, Wristsponsible has provided over $20,000 of economic empowerment to female artisans in Thailand and Tanzania. They contributed over $150,000 to water projects around the world. They raise money via three channels:
- Selling the wristbands
- Incentivized crowdfunding
- Corporate social impact alignment funds.
To date, there have been a range of water projects funded across the world. Some of them include:
- Rainwater capture systems in Mexico City and Indonesia: They both benefited communities of over 50 people on an ongoing basis, which cost USD$3,000-4,000.
- Water treatment and water sanitation to create a social enterprise in Tanzania and Kenya: Both projects impacted 500 people each and are moving towards ongoing sustainability with the social enterprise model.
- Point of Entry water treatment, water testing, water reporting and water education at community centers in Flint, Michigan: Impacted 2 community centres (both with about 100 people each), two churches (both with about 100 people each when at church), and two households (both families of 3).
Below is an overview of the Flint Michigan water crisis:
Kevin said that the impact would not be possible without the help of his partners. ‘I also couldn’t do any of this without my main charity partners. I have four main ones: H2OpenDoors, Freedom in Creation, National Clean Water Collective, Water is Life. All of these are small, grassroots charities that know the dynamics on the ground. That is a big thing where we support people who are in the weeds and get the issues. I support anyone that is trying to make an impact in the lives of others. But after seeing how much overhead costs and waste amongst big charities, we made it a priority to only support the grass roots charities. In my view, the goal of charity is to not exist anymore. The goal shouldn’t be to fundraise more money in order to keep a job. Our goals are not tied to vanity performance indicators like drill 50 wells. Instead, we are laser focused on empowerment and capacity building.’
Increasing Their Impact
They are now looking at how they can create water projects that are financially sustainable, which will move their organisation to a social enterprise model.
‘Whenever local communities have a “stake in the game”, it always has a better chance for success. For example, I am working to get funders to pay $30,000 to enable a 20,000 litre per day water treatment and distribution system. Then the community can treat, bottle and sell the water for below market price. If they can sell 5,000-10,000 litres per day a .02 cents per litre for example, we can create revenue to pay the workers, reinvest into social services, and over time repay the initial capital investment for 30,000. There are still some final details to work out around managing the cash flow, however we know this can be done. There are many investors knocking at our door looking for a solution like this. Some investors want a return of 5-8% over 3-5 years. However some are okay with just getting their money back as long as they can see a social, environmental and health impact.’ Kevin shared.
In the next five years we want to reach $1 million in donations and impact investments to transition from a side hustle to a full time venture.Kevin Sofen
Juggling the Side Hustle
One of the first things I asked Kevin was how he juggles his time as he already works full time in a demanding job and then runs Wristsponsible on the side. ‘I just make time. I realistically work on Wristsponsible for about 15-20 hours per week outside of work and you would be surprised with the amount of time you can find if you just make it a priority.’ He shared.
Kevin also spoke about having a supportive employer and one where he can be transparent about what is happening with his business and also how it can feed into his work. This led Kevin to taking on the social impact responsibilities for his employer, which involves managing the philanthropic donations as well as impact assessment. ‘The skills I have developed with Wristsponsible are helping me with my additional role at work managing their social impact division.’
Top Tips to Starting a Side Hustle
An impact side hustle is a great way to start having a positive impact without leaving your day job. It allows you to learn about the NFP or social enterprise market, build new skills and bring some purpose into your life. It can be challenging and finding time to work on it can prove difficult.
1. Find a social cause that resonates with you:
Taking a holiday and dedicating some time to researching trends, existing organisations and social/environmental issues is a great way to get going. Giving yourself space and a way to formulate a narrative about a social/environmental issue is important as it creates the foundation for the organisation. For Kevin, he travelled to Ghana and China in 2011 where he saw open sewage systems and extreme pollution. This changed his life forever and put him on a mission to understand the problems and find ways to implement water solutions. After reflecting on his experience in Ghana and China, he realised that water is the lifeblood of everything. ‘The world is over 75% water and our body is also over 75% water. It is a critical part of our daily life- we use it to shower, cook, clean and if you don’t have access to clean drinking water, you life has limited opportunity. It made me angry that people don’t have access to water so I needed to do something about it.’ Kevin shared.
2. Find something to sell:
‘Just find something and sell it.’ Kevin said. ‘You’re going to make a heap of mistakes but they are the best places to learn.’ For Kevin, he received his first donations from a charity golf tournament. This was a one off event which was successful, however he wanted something that was going to provide ongoing income. He began selling low cost, high quality wristbands which are made by local Nepalese and Tanzanian women. He put them up on Instagram and started selling them. Instagram and websites are cheap, easy ways to test a product before committing to large amounts of inventory.
Wristsponsible also works to create donate based partnerships with businesses and schools to educate them on the importance of clean water around the world.
His advice is to keep the products and services simple in the early days and then build on them once they are up and running. It is also important to know when to change the product, channel or target customer.
3. Tell a story:
‘Ultimately the internet decides who the winner is.’ Kevin shared how important storytelling is and how it can connect people with the cause. ‘No one really thinks about the importance of water, but it is one of the most important resources we have. When we tell stories, we connect water to other important social causes that people really care about including gender equality and education.’ Their stories about water are now about community empowerment and how clean water and sanitation can facilitate better social outcomes including education and gender equality.
4. Make your brand tangible:
The wristbands may seem small but they have a big impact. By having a tangible product, they become a conversation starter. The wristbands become a conversation starter for the people who wear them and it creates an organic word of mouth marketing tool. This is important to continue to increase the reach of the brand and impact across networks.
5. Make it a priority and dedicate the time:
With Kevin spending about 15-20 hours per week on Wristsponsible, being efficient with time is key.
It is also important to have a solid team of like minded people who can dedicate their time and meet necessary milestones. It may not always use this amount of time in a week, however it is important to make it a priority when required. This can be the difference between a successful side hustle and one that fizzles out. Having open conversations with fellow team members is also important to ensure momentum.
Be careful of burnout though. Working full time and investing in a side hustle can be tiring. Knowing when to give yourself a break and recharge is an important skill to develop. Kevin said that his team is absolutely critical to the success of Wristsponsible. ‘At the start, I tried to do everything and at times started to get stressed because I wanted “progress”. It was important for me to acknowledge my strengths and thresholds and then find others who could help with the other areas.’
Another tip from Kevin is to set healthy, realistic expectations. ‘It’s easy to see others on social media and get envious. Don’t forget that it is your life, no one else’s. Don’t compare yourself to others. Set goals. Work towards them. Give it your all everyday. Then evaluate every 3-6 months.’
Meeting Kevin was a great reminder that it is possible to have a day job and a side hustle with an impact. Having strong partners and a great team is critical to continuing the ongoing impact of the organisation.
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