When 2006 Nobel Peace Prize Winner Professor Muhammad Yunus (also known as the “Father of Microcredit” and “Banker to the Poor”) addressed the Oregon Social Business Challenge yesterday at the Convention Center, he captivated the audience of social entrepreneurs, university students and faculty from across the Oregon University System with the story of how he started the micro-lending movement 35 years ago.
Yunus described how his work has evolved beyond just banking to creating new businesses that solve social problems. He talked about the home solar system company that is bringing light to thousands of homes in Bangladesh that have no access to electricity, and the company he founded to provide an energy-efficient cooking stove to address the health and environmental issues associated with third-world cookstoves, the leading cause of death in the third world.
He also talked about his collaboration with Portland giants like Intel and adidas to create joint ventures focused on social good.
Following Yunus’ inspiring keynote address, several Oregon-based social ventures that have sprung from the state’s leading universities presented their solutions, including OEN member EcoZoom, My Street Grocery and Beavers Without Borders.
EcoZoom: Paving the Way for Oregon’s Social Businesses
Founded in April 2011 by Ben and Amanda West, then students at the University of Oregon, EcoZoom was launched to address exactly the same problem Professor Yunus outlined earlier in his keynote – to provide safe and efficient stoves to people all over the world.
According to EcoZoom Co-Founder and Director of Marketing Amanda West, who took the stage to share the company’s journey, half of the world’s population (3+billion people) still cook on primitive stoves or over open fires and 1.9 million people die each year from the toxic smoke (which is equivalent to smoking two packs of cigarettes a day). EcoZoom has designed an improved cookstove that reduces smoke and emissions by 75 percent and is now being sold in 12 countries around the world.
As a true social startup, West said the company has been operating on $40,000 in friends and family capital and a $50,000 loan from Mercy Corps, which have helped generate $1.7 million in revenue thus far. EcoZoom is now focused on raising additional funding to support expanded growth that will allow the company to reach more people and countries with its sustainable cookstove solution.
As a role model for the kind of innovation and social entrepreneurship that the Oregon Social Business Challenge sought to feature at the first-ever conference, West said, “We are excited to be paving the road for social businesses in Oregon.”