Alison Hill is the Northeast U.S. regional honoree for the 2021 YPO Global Impact Award. The award focuses on YPO members making impact outside the organization that is both sustainable and scalable, affecting people, prosperity, peace or our planet.
It comes as no surprise to anyone who knows Alison Hill that she built LifeStraw, a water filter and purifier brand and for-profit company, as a vehicle to fund social impact around the globe. Sales of LifeStraw products support multiyear-long programs that provide schools in Kenya and elsewhere with safe drinking water, ongoing health and hygiene education, and local employment for staff who support the programs year-round.
Hill’s path to creating meaningful change began in the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina, USA. The mountains — also called the Appalachians — are the subject of countless American folk songs. Hill grew up in a small town in the shadows of those mountains with her service-oriented parents, both in the medical field.
“The Appalachians are where I have my roots in social impact and being part of communities that are not well resourced,” she says. “But also, it’s where I found my love of the outdoors. I grew up in the mountains with a huge amount of space to run and play and thrive.”
Wanderlust and service
Before Hill finished high school, her interest in travel and culture drew her to Bolivia, where she spent a summer working with a doctor in an indigenous community. After college, she moved to Zambia to work at an HIV and AIDS hospice, where she planned to stay for a year before returning home and applying to medical school.
Hill got a crash course in on-the-ground health care there. The attending physician trained her in everything from lab work to hands-on patient treatment. The hospice had around 40 patients, and the out-patient clinic covered around 600 outpatients at any given time. Hill also did home visits, with patients ranging in ages from five to 50.
As Hill was anticipating her return to the U.S., the organization’s director, who had chosen to take a sabbatical, asked Hill if she wanted the job. The answer was easy for Hill.
“It’s not everybody’s cup of tea to take things on like [a rural HIV clinic],” she says. “The opportunity let me continue my work there in a more meaningful way. I was able to run the health programs, to expand out the tuberculosis programs and take ownership of it.”
Over the next three years, Hill took on a range of duties, from developing programs to looking for resources and materials for the patients. Antiretrovirals were not yet widely available, so there were very few treatment options for her patients. On average, about six patients passed away each day.
“It was incredibly frustrating,” says Hill. “I was compartmentalizing between the emotional side of watching young people die every day to the operational side of keeping them comfortable, supporting their families, and getting them through as many illnesses as possible to keep their immune systems high.”
She learned two major lessons that ultimately led to a decision to earn a Master of Public Health and a Master of Business Administration instead of going to medical school.
The first was about resources. “No matter how many doctors you brought into a situation like what I was facing in Zambia, we couldn’t really move the needle for this population,” she says. “We didn’t have access to antiretroviral treatment or to a consistent supply of antibiotics or palliative care that was meaningful.”
Her second was about the business. “Until I could understand financial flows and how investments work and how to quantify return on them, even if you’re talking about health care return or health outcomes, I was never going to be able to create as much change as I wanted.”
Finding market-based solutions for social impact
Hill returned to the U.S. after three years in Zambia, earned her dual masters from Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, and went on to work in the nonprofit health care sector where the constraints of the system again became clear.
“Where it gets incredibly frustrating for people like me, who are very entrepreneurial and very fast-paced and very driven,” she says, “is that a lot of times in the NGO [non-governmental organization] world, where it is donor based, the speed at which things can go is frustratingly slow. The due diligence behind evaluating outcomes and impact and tying it to financial incentives doesn’t exist in a meaningful way.”
Hill came to believe that alone, the existing model of donor-based funding typical for nonprofits and NGOs is fundamentally flawed and that market-based solutions to global problems are more sustainable and effective; that these approaches can coexist and work synergistically.
At the core of who we are, we’re driven to make things happen. We like to challenge business as usual, we like to challenge the status quo and to show things can be done differently, faster, better, at scale. ”
— LifeStraw CEO Alison Hill share
For Hill, success isn’t just about quality. Scale and efficiency count too. The private sector, she says, is better equipped to solve problems and solve them quickly.
Problem-solving and the private sector
Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsen, owner and CEO of the for-profit public health and humanitarian company, Vestergaard, asked Hill in 2009 to join the business.
“My job offer was likely something like, ‘Come over to my company to do some really cool s–t and change the world,’” Hill says. “That sounds very bleeding-heart. But at the core of who we are, we’re driven to make things happen. That’s the entrepreneurial piece. That we like to challenge business as usual, we like to challenge the status quo and to show things can be done differently, faster, better, at scale.”
Hill started with a carbon-finance program, which incentivized companies to reduce their carbon footprint and, ultimately, help slow down climate change. But when the global market crashed, carbon credits went with them.
Yet, Hill was undeterred. She and colleague Tara Lundy, now LifeStraw’s Chief Brand Officer, set about looking for other opportunities.
“We looked at really crazy business models,” Hill says. “Things like proteins from crickets to be able to improve the health of children under five. We looked at concepts around methane capture on dump sites in Delhi, India.”
The concept that eventually became LifeStraw — now a multi-million-dollar, standalone business — already existed at Vestergaard. Since 1994, the company has partnered with The Carter Center to create a mesh filter to remove Guinea worms from drinking water. Guinea worm disease had long been a persistent health problem in rural communities in Africa and Asia. No medication or vaccine prevents it. The Carter Center has been using public health approaches such as tracking and tracing and, in the 1990s, added the use of the LifeStraw Guinea worm filter to prevent disease. In 1986, when The Carter Center began their work, there were over 3.5 million cases in 21 countries. At the end of 2020, just 27 human cases had been reported worldwide.
In 2005, Vestergaard developed a more advanced version of the pipe water filter that could remove bacteria and parasites in addition to Guinea worm larvae and coined the brand name “LifeStraw.” For the first several years, it was used exclusively for humanitarian efforts, but an opportunity emerged to build a consumer version of the brand for the U.S. outdoor consumer market — and could help fund the company’s safe water initiatives. The company’s board, however, disagreed.
“Their first reaction was no, we’re not in the business to make and sell retail products to the American market,” she recalls. “We’re in the business of improving the health and quality of life of people in low-resourced countries.”
Hill pressed on. She wanted to tie U.S. sales of a water filtration product not to a traditional one-for-one, giveback program, but to the kind of long-term health outcomes that are integral to Vestergaard’s mission. The owner and company board insisted she would have to own the entire value chain, from the cash register at the retail store to a safe water program in schools in western Kenya.
Challenge accepted, Hill launched the retail business in 2012.
A replicable model
Since launching the business, Hill has led the company to remarkable financial success. In the past three years, she says, LifeStraw has had a 30% compounded annual growth rate and become the market leader in its category in outdoor sports. That revenue has allowed the company to expand its commitment to more than 2,000 schools and reach more than 4 million school children with a year of safe water. It’s allowed it to re-commit to some of its original schools for another five years, where local coordinators manage things like filter maintenance, training, hand-washing and other health-education projects.
Many of LifeStraw’s local staff have their own children in these schools. “What has made our impact program successful sits within our communities,” says Hill. “Our LifeStraw team members live in these communities, have their own kids in these schools and run the program — they are the leadership behind that.”
The scope and timelines of those programs are major indicators of how Hill’s approach differs from traditional social impact initiatives in the private sector. Specifically, she says, LifeStraw views its initiatives as long-term revenue-drivers, not cost centers.
“Our long-term investments in these communities build value for the company by delivering unique impact to our customers, by enabling an environment where we receive continuous product feedback, by empowering our own employees across the globe to participate in our humanitarian work, and by authenticating the brand’s ability to deliver safe water globally.”
“The more successful we are as a company, the more we’re able to invest in expanding out our programs, building our technologies and building better products that have more impact,” she explains.
The significance of that, for Hill, extends beyond the bounds of her company. The bigger picture is her hope that LifeStraw’s success — and the vision that’s driving it — might serve as a model for other entrepreneurs and CEOs.
“Do I think LifeStraw has the perfect business model that would work for everybody to be able to do huge, scalable social programs? Probably not,” she says. “But what we have built as a company is an important business case to start pushing CEOs to think differently. And my personality, blunt talk, and the contrarian role that I often take pushes people a little outside of their comfort zone in a way that I hope challenges them to look at corporate impact in a different way.”
New horizons, closer to home
Hill adds that in addition to safe water and sanitation through LifeStraw’s international program, LifeStraw has also been working recently with the local Baltimore community and with populations in the U.S. and on the border that lack basic access to safe water. This includes communities experiencing disasters, people experiencing homelessness and most recently communities that experienced water insecurity due to COVID-19. Many of LifeStraw’s employees in Baltimore and in its other locations in Europe, Vietnam, India and Kenya also participate in local volunteer initiatives throughout the year and the company grants time off to volunteer locally.
As Hill considers what’s next for LifeStraw, her sights are set on strengthening its impact closer to home. The next frontier is household water quality in the United States. As she contemplates what that would entail, her eyes light up. The challenge isn’t daunting, so much as deeply motivating.
“We have a huge amount of work to do in that space to address contamination from heavy metals like lead, pharmaceutical contamination, microplastic contamination,” says Hill. “Drinking water contamination in the U.S. also mirrors what we see globally: it disproportionately affects low-resource communities and communities of color. As a company, we are also in business to address these types of inequalities and the systems that caused them. We are the right company to be able to innovate and pivot and build better design. We will always continue with our humanitarian work as well, but this is the next challenge that we are digging into.
“We are just scratching the surface of the impact that we as a company can have,” she continues. “The power the private sector has to address global problems is significantly underestimated both as a responsibility and as a business opportunity, and we are committed to fighting for good, standing up for what we believe, and erring on the side of action.”