When Seungah Jeong, president and CEO of MPOWERD, says her company aims to empower the three billion people around the world who still live without reliable access to electricity, she means it. As of May 2019, the Luci Light, a lightweight inflatable solar light, has touched the lives of three million people living without electricity and prevented 500,000 tons of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere. In June, I talked to Jeong and founder John Salzinger about how the firm, a certified B Corp located in Brooklyn, N.Y., has been able to keep shareholders happy while achieving their mission-driven goals.

John Salzinger founded MPOWERD in 2012 and the shareholders are a blend of passionate angels, impact venture funds and private equity impact investors. MPOWERD‘s business model has been unwavering since day one. Utilize capitalism and the private sector to subsidize doing good. “We are ‘private servants!’, doing the work that our public servants should be doing,” states Salzinger. “It’s heartening to know that we have built such community around what we are doing with our shareholders and stakeholders.”

As a social enterprise, the firm reinvests a majority of gross revenues to achieve sustainability and fulfill their mission. “Because we’re both a Certified B Corp and a Benefit Corporation,” says Jeong, “that means consumers have reassurance that our values are deeply embedded within the company. We’re held accountable not only for financial results but for our environmental impact and social compliancy.”

If investors have any doubt that social enterprises can succeed, MPOWERD’s track record is impressive. Not only can the full array of Luci solar lights be found at established retail outlets like Target, Best Buy and REI, they are also available in 90 countries globally. “We have a tiered margin structure,” explains Jeong.  “Every domestic market retail sale allows us to reduce our prices to what’s affordable in a local emerging market.”

This business structure means that every time a cross country backpacker purchases the Luci Base Light, or a restaurant owner uses Luci String Lights to illuminate their patio, a portion of those sales goes to help empower communities in developing economies by providing access to light. According to Jeong, most of us take for granted that we won’t have to stop studying or working when it gets dark. Or that we won’t have to burn kerosene, emitting toxic particles that pollute the air and cause serious health problems, particularly in children. “Women in sub-Saharan Africa, for example, are using Luci Lights instead of kerosene or firewood to light their homes,” says Jeong. “And women entrepreneurs are selling the lights in their communities, fostering female empowerment.”

“Some of the best stories come from consumers who are creating new ways of using the lights,” says Jeong. In Southeast Asia, for example, fishermen who were losing their economic livelihood because of depleted fish stocks found that the Luci lights actually attracted fish. The fishermen discovered that using the colored light options was the most effective. Now they are showing the next generation the importance of maintaining a sustainable fisheries environment.

The company works closely with more than 500 nonprofits and NGOs around the world to create impact in all aspects of development as well as disaster relief. “When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico we distributed 80,000 Luci lights to communities based on our retail sales,” says Jeong. “And Luci lights are part of disaster relief efforts with flooding in Mozambique.”

Jeong and Salzinger are especially excited about their five-year partnership with the Save the Children Foundation. The organization is celebrating its centennial this year and MPOWERD has been designated as a Centennial partner. “Together we’re funding 10,000 lights earmarked for Malawi and Afghanistan, where they will be part of community building and school initiatives,” says Jeong. “And we’re raising awareness of the work being done in the U.S., especially in rural areas where people might have to choose between keeping the electricity on or putting food on the table.” 

MPOWERD is continuing to lead the way in solar lighting with the introduction of the world’s first blue tooth connected inflatable solar light and the recently launched 300 lumens Base Light that can illuminate an entire campsite or in emerging markets a community center or school. And according to Jeong they are expanding out of lighting with first solar induction charger that can power two devices using solar and USB and solar. In Jeong’s vision, new technology in this field can be exciting and sustainable and create a lasting impact.

As Jeong and Salzinger steer the company through the fairly new social enterprise space, they are clear that innovation and mission must work together, which is particularly challenging in current economic conditions. “We have additional metrics that traditional businesses don’t,” explains Jeong. “We’re committed to community, to environmental progress, to transparent governance across the supply chain. And we just found out that with the latest round of tariffs we’ll be hit with a 25 percent increase on cost after June 24.”

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