Meaningful Business (MB:) Please tell us a bit about your background.
Howard Weinstein (HW:) 25 years ago, my daughter Sarah died in the middle of the night of a brain aneurism. I went back to work the next week at the company for which I was President but had sold four years prior to this tragic event. The new owners fired me. They figured that since I was not mentally sharp, I could not generate the profits they wanted. They were right. I was lost. I did some psychotherapy and found that the therapist needed more help than I did. He was crazy! I started another business but did not enjoy it, and eventually sold my shares for $1. I figured, since I had these skills as a business person, why not volunteer in Africa to help women earn a salary. It is generally women who take care of the education and health of their children there. I thought this work would give meaning to my daughter’s death. In retrospect, it brought meaning to my life.
I sat in my new office in rural Botswana. I had no people, no product, no money, nothing. It was my first day. There was a knock at the door and a lady with a teenage girl entered. The lady, a teacher at the local school for the deaf, asked me if I knew a place where her student Sarah, who had the same name as my daughter, could get a hearing aid. It took me almost a minute (but seemed like 20 minutes) before I was able to answer her. “No,” I said “but I will get Sarah a hearing aid.” The next week, I went with an interpreter to the school for the deaf and spoke (signed) with the students. I asked them to tell me about their lives. They talked about being poor and the stigma of being deaf. I then asked them about their hopes and dreams. They told me they would like a low-cost hearing aid for themselves and their friends. They also mentioned that there were no jobs for people who are deaf. I wrote their hopes and dreams into a business plan which became the basis of Solar Ear.
As a side story – when we started Solar Ear and hired Sarah, her employment form showed that her birthday was the exact same one, day, and year as my daughter Sarah.
MB: What are the main problems you are trying to solve with solar ear?
HW: Today, less than 3% of the people who need a hearing aid can afford one or have access to hearing testing and services. That’s 625 million people with hearing loss. If put together, this would be the third biggest country in the world. If you can get a child a hearing aid before the age of three, she can learn to hear and develop speech – and therefore the opportunity to attend a public school.
There are very few schools for the deaf in developing countries. We believe that only through education can you break the cycle of poverty.
MB: What is your biggest challenge right now?
HW: The biggest challenge is to develop a new hearing ecosystem, which includes new technologies, new products, new services, and programmes to make hearing health affordable and accessible for all. We will develop many hearing testing apps and hearing loss prevention apps which will either be free or cost very little. From the test results, we will be able to remotely programme the user’s cell phone to become a hearing aid. The challenge in this is finding the right social investor who wants to balance social, educational, and health outcomes as a return on investment.
MB: What is your vision for the future of your business?
HW: At Solar Ear, our new hearing health programme will make products, programmes, and services affordable and accessible for all. As of today, only 3% of people who need it can afford it or have access to it.
MB: What is your advice to other leaders who want to combine profit and purpose?
HW: I often mentor other social entrepreneurs and speak at university classes on social enterprises. I tell them that to succeed you must have three qualities:
1. Be Stupid – as then everything is possible, and you will have the opportunity to be inspired,
2. Be Stubborn – have patience to the Nth degree,
3. Be Stubbornly Stupid – hope is your heroin.
A social entrepreneur from Egypt told me that she disliked the word stupid. “In Classical Arabic, الجاهلية (phonetically, aljahileyya) translates as “the unknown.” It defines the pre-Judeo-Christian era, after which people were (apparently) led from darkness to light. A few hundred years later and through language evolution, the colloquial (Gulf) Arabic word for a child is aljahil – derived from the word above. It doesn’t have the same meaning, except that it extracts that sense of curiosity that a child has, which, because of a blank canvas, allows them to have the most incredible and flexible minds, with an insatiable willingness to learn without bias or arrogance.”
This is probably the best definition of a social entrepreneur I have heard. You start your project in the unknown, blank, yet you must have a child-like curiosity to succeed.
Howard with his 2 two mentors and step-sons, who are young adults with Down Syndrome
MB – What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
HW – The project is not about you.
MB – Who inspires you?
HW – Young adults with Down Syndrome.
MB – How do you define success?
HW – The next generation running the projects better than the previous one.
MB – What is something you wish you were better at?
HW – Having more patience.
MB – What is the one book everyone should read?
HW – “Awakening the Buddha Within” by Lama Surya Das
MB – What do you do to relax?
HW – Picking up dog poo twice a day. It is a very zen moment and the walk is my most creative time of the day.
Discover the other MB100 leaders recognised for their work combining profit and purpose to help achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals in 2020, here.