EO Q&A: The Purpose of Life is a Life of Purpose

Article by:

Matt Leedham
EO Staff
Matt Leedham - EO Staff

Recently, I made a trip to Guatemala to visit with Regional Director, Enrique “Kikoy” Montano, where we discussed EO’s growing presence in Latin America. While there, I spent a Saturday volunteering with an organization called Believe Guatemala, which empowers Guatemala City’s poor through education. That day I helped deliver water filters to families desperate for clean water. Only after returning home did I discover that the filters are created by EO Guatemala’s Philip Wilson. Kikoy was quick to provide an introduction, and we connected a few weeks later for this interview.

A 15-year member of EO, Philip graduated from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business and has spent the past 20 years building profitable enterprises. However, it wasn’t until 2012 that his true purpose came into focus: providing
clean water for those in need. To realize his vision, Philip created EcoFiltro, a social business that affords families throughout Central America access to potable water through a clay pot filtration system. I sat down with Philip to talk about his journey, what inspires him and the lessons he’s learned along the way.

After years of corporate work, what motivated you to start a social business?

PW/ “After I turned 40, I was questioning the meaning of life
and looking to make a change. Although I had successfully built businesses and made good money over the years, I was having trouble getting out of bed in the morning. I don’t think entrepreneurs talk about this enough: Once we achieve a certain level of success, many of us go through the process of asking, ‘What’s next?’ I’m
not into buying yachts and Ferraris— I don’t need a lot of material things. I wanted my life to have substance and purpose, yet still enjoy success. My sister is a social worker and nutritionist. She spends her time working in rural communities, and I would occasionally join her. Visiting with the people of these villages, understanding their unique needs and offering assistance always felt good to me. I knew I would be inspired to build something meaningful if I could use my business skills to transform lives.”

How would you describe the challenge your product is trying to solve?

PW/ “There are two primary problems with ensuring all humans have clean water to drink. The first is a lack of water, which is more of a problem in Africa. The second is the quality of water, our biggest challenge in Central America. Take Guatemala, for example: 97 percent of lakes, rivers and streams contain bacteria of fecal origin. More than half of the population does not have access to clean water, resulting in one out of 20 children not reaching age five. This is an urgent problem that needs to be addressed. The EcoFiltro water-purification system I created uses
a clay pot to convert contaminated water into clean water, in turn providing more than two years of drinking water to those in need.”

Your business model is built to scale. Why is this important to reaching your goals?

PW/ “My vision is to reach one million families with clean water, and I have learned many important lessons as we have grown. First, we do not treat EcoFiltro as a non-profit organization. This is a social business with the emphasis on business. I knew I needed to create a sustainable, scalable model to reach our vision. In order to do that, we have to treat the rural, poor families we serve as clients, rather than recipients of charity. Once we made that shift in mindset, everything changed because they became a part of their own solution.

“For example, we don’t give away our filters. When families pay for the filter, they feel a sense of pride and ownership. The challenge was to design a payment structure that allowed families to make affordable payments in the span of three months. We employ local, budding entrepreneurs to be our sales force on the ground and manage payment collection. This way, families have clean water, the local representative earns a living, and we are able to expand and reach more families. Everyone wins!

“Another big lesson I learned about scaling was to create a product that will be culturally accepted by your clientele. When my sister and I first visited villages, we would educate families on chlorination as a means to purify water. However, families did not trust that this was a safe way to purify water, and they didn’t like the taste. We found they would use the chlorine to wash clothes and dishes but not to purify water— the product was not adopted. Once we designed our current product using clay pots, all of the families loved it, and they now purify water daily.”

What lessons can you share about finding meaning in your work?

PW/ “My story is really one of life and happiness. I wish this
for every EO member. As many of us mature, you have less tomorrows than yesterdays, and we may find ourselves questioning the direction of our lives. When I graduated from Wharton, all I thought about was making money. Today, I am most inspired by finding a way to help others in a sustainable, scalable way. I’ve learned that you don’t have to be Mother Theresa to transform lives. In fact, what allows me to make a big difference is building a business that makes money, can afford to pay its staff competitive rates and operates like a for-profit company in the way that it markets and sells to its clients. Using my entrepreneurial talents to help others has become my life purpose.”

Philip Wilson is the founder of EcoFiltro, a social business with the goal of providing one million rural Guatemalans with clean water by 2020. Contact Philip at [email protected]or Matt at [email protected]​​

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