Do you remember what you wanted to be when you were little? Whether you dreamed of sitting in the Oval Office, saving endangered creatures, or becoming the next MTV superstar, a lot of us had huge hopes that we’d change the world.
The entrepreneurs profiled here are succeeding in making a lasting impact that may soon be felt around the planet. And while their causes are very different, the women have a few things in common: They’re innovative thinkers with the ability to see long-standing issues with fresh eyes, they have the courage and conviction to confront seemingly insurmountable problems (our dysfunctional prison system; the skyrocketing amount of waste we produce), and they possess indefatigable stamina to stick to their vision, no matter the obstacles.
It’s next to impossible to read their stories and not feel fueled to follow your own big ambitions.
Transforming Healthcare: Ting Shih, CEO of ClickMedix
You probably use your iPhone for things like answering emails, catching up on the news, or, let’s be honest,
stalking casually checking up on your ex on Facebook. But Washington, D.C.-based Ting Shih has been exploring the use of mobile technology for loftier purposes — and she found a way to potentially save untold lives across the globe.
When Shih was an MBA student at the MIT Media Lab, she was faced with a daunting class project in which students had to conceive a business that would affect more than a billion people in developing countries. Out of that assignment came the idea for what would eventually become ClickMedix: to bring affordable medical services to underserved patients using mobile phone and tablet technology.
“Everyone needs healthcare,” Shia told the New York Times in April. “And all around the world, most people have a phone before they even have electricity. So why not use mobile phones to deliver healthcare?”
ClickMedix is a software technology that allows local healthcare workers access to advice from top specialists around the world via videos, photos, and texts from a smartphone or tablet. The specialists receive a multimedia medical report that they can screen to make a diagnosis or give patients a remote consultation.
“The ultimate goal is to have one-click healthcare,” Shih told the Times. “Whether you have cancer or heart failure, you should have one portal to get you to the doctors you need.”
Transforming the Environment: Priyanka Bakaya, Founder and CEO of PK Clean
Two of the biggest environmental problems facing the world right now are the massive generation of waste (in 2012, plastic trash alone added up to nearly 32 million tons in the U.S.), and dependence on oil (Americans consumed nearly 7 billion barrels last year). Imagine a technology that could kill those two birds with one stone by converting plastic into oil. It may sound like something out of a Margaret Atwood novel, but 32-year-old Priyanka Bakaya figured out a way to turn trash into liquid gold.
When she was growing up in Australia, Bakaya’s parents were good friends with an inventor named Percy Kean (hence the origin of the name PK Clean). He was always creating new technologies, and one particular memory stuck with her: “He would show me oil in a jar and say, ‘Look, I made this from waste!’” Bakaya recalled. “I felt sad that his ideas had never been commercialized, [so] I started looking more closely into his technologies and commercial viability.”
She had the perfect background to take on the project: As a Stanford grad who later worked at Lehman as an energy and research analyst in commodities like gas and oil, she understood the market. Bakaya went on to get her engineering degree at MIT and launched her Salt Lake City-based company in 2010. When operating at full capacity, the plant turns 20,000 pounds of plastic waste into 2,500 barrels of oil that can be sold to refineries. The long-term plan is to sell plants to recyclers around the globe.
Transforming the Prison System: Jen Anderson, Co-Founder and COO of The Reset Foundation
Utah native Jen Anderson, 27, and her family had a tradition of eating Tuesday night pasta dinners. During one meal when she was just 12 years old, the topic of prison came up, and Anderson was shocked to find out that more than 2 million people in the U.S. are incarcerated (and that, as a result, 2.7 million children are left without a parent). She also learned the definition of recidivism, which left a big imprint on her: A staggering 68 percent of prisoners are rearrested within three years of their release.
Even at such a young age, Anderson was determined to overhaul the broken criminal justice system. She began by writing an impassioned letter to her congressman following that fateful dinner, and (after earning degrees from Brigham Young University and Harvard Business School and working for several social enterprises) eventually co-founded The Reset Foundation, a nonprofit private prison for young adults that focuses on helping them achieve personal and professional success.
Launched in 2013, The Reset Foundation offers programs on career, academics, and healthy living (physical, mental, and emotional), and also provides ample support when students transition back to the community. There are currently two campuses, in New York and the Bay Area, with plans to open locations across the country.
The foundation spends $50,000 per student per year, which is the same amount the government spends per prisoner (which adds up to a whopping $74 billion annually, paid for by taxpayers). The difference is that people who attend The Reset Foundation are much more likely to stay out of trouble than those who have been to prison, since research shows education makes someone less likely to be reincarcerated. “It improves public safety, saves money, and helps families,” she said in a recent TEDx talk.
Transforming Women’s Issues: Elizabeth Scharpf, Founder and CEO of Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE)
How much does having your period affect your day-to-day life? Unless you’ve got killer cramps or crazy mood swings, chances are you don’t give the crimson wave much thought beyond making a point to stash tampons in your bag.
It’s an entirely different story for women in developing countries, who often don’t have access to affordable menstrual pads. And the ramifications of their predicament are enormous: In Rwanda, for example, it means that 18 percent of girls and women are forced to miss school or work, and as a result women lose an average of $215 in wages per year (the sum of about a month’s worth of work absences). The total is a $115 million loss in annual GDP.
Elizabeth Scharpf, 38, is committed to finding a solution. She first learned about the problem as a Harvard student working at the World Bank to help entrepreneurs in Mozambique. After graduating, she headed to Rwanda along with a few other students and quizzed villagers, agriculture experts, and textile engineers to find out whether any cheap, local, raw materials could be used to make pads. Using a blender, they mixed things like boiled cassava leaves and banana-tree fibers, then poured coke on the various concoctions to measure absorbency.
In 2010, she launched SHE, which manufactures inexpensive, sustainable pads (a 10-pack is about 75 cents, and they’re made largely of banana-tree fibers) and employs Rwandan women to produce and distribute them. The long-term goal is to franchise the company globally, and it’s well on its way. By 2017, SHE is on track to have reached more than 250,000 women and girls, created more than 12,000 jobs, and launched 15 profitable franchises.
Transforming Poverty: Doniece Sandoval, Founder of Lava Mae
Public relations executive Doniece Sandoval was walking down the sidewalk of her San Francisco neighborhood when she witnessed a heartbreaking moment: a homeless woman crying because she had not been able to bathe for days. It’s a familiar quandary for many of the city’s poor: The roughly 7,000 homeless people in San Francisco have access to only seven shower facilities.
Moved to action, Sandoval developed an idea to convert decommissioned city buses into mobile public shower and toilet units. Last year, Google awarded her $100,000 through its Impact Challenge project, and the first Lava Mae bus was created.
The bus splits its time between the Tenderloin and Mission districts of San Francisco. It functions by being hooked up to a fire hydrant, and is powered by a 50-gallon propane water heater. The two showers and two toilets are sunny and roomy, and guests can either pre-register or join a walk-up wait list.
Lava Mae is also trying to partner with organizations that have laundry facilities, and work with clothing programs so that members to get clean clothes.
“If you’re homeless, living on the streets, and filthy, you’re trying to improve your circumstances. But you can’t interview for a job, you can’t apply for housing, and you become disconnected from your humanity,” Sandoval has said. “So a shower, just in itself, can be amazing for people.” She hopes to have four buses up and running in San Francisco within the year, with plans to expand the model to other cities and countries.