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Paul Polak is widely regarded as the father of market-centered approaches to development. He started harnessing the energy of the marketplace 30 years ago when IDE, the organization he founded, sold 1.5 million treadle pumps to small farmers in Bangladesh, increasing their net income by more than $150 million a year. Over the past 30 years, he has had long conversations with more than 3,000 small farmers who live on less than $1 a day and walked with them through their fields. IDE has now enabled 20 million of the world’s poorest people to move out of poverty by selling them radically affordable irrigation tools made available through thousands of small village manufacturers, dealers, and well drillers, and opening smallholder access to markets where they could sell their crops at a profit.
Paul’s book, Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail, has been widely used as a basic text on practical solutions to rural poverty. He is the founder and CEO of Windhorse International and cofounder and board chairman of Spring Health India, for-profit companies with the mission of bringing safe drinking water to 100 million poor rural customers in the world. Paul is the prime mover for creating and implementing the four social-impact multinationals in this book, each designed to transform the lives of 100 million $2-per-day customers and generate annual sales of $10 billion.
Prior to founding Windhorse, in 2008 Paul established D-Rev, a nonprofit that seeks “to create a design revolution by enlisting the best designers in the world to develop products and ideas that will benefit the 90 percent of the people on earth who are poor, in order to help them earn their way out of poverty.” Paul’s vision inspired the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt traveling exhibition Design for the Other 90 Percent. He was named by The Atlantic as one of the world’s 27 “Brave Thinkers,” along with Steve Jobs and Barack Obama. He has also received the Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year award and the Scientific American Top 50 award for agricultural policy.
Paul graduated from medical school in 1958; worked for 23 years as a psychiatrist, creating innovative models of community treatment; and at various points in his career also worked as a farmer and a hands-on investor in oil and gas, real estate, and equipment leasing. He and his wife, Agnes, have been happily married for 53 years and have three grown daughters. At the age of 79, he still puts in an 80-hour work week and loves what he does.