Sophia Sunwoo, CEO and Co-Founder of The Water Collective
Social entrepreneur Sophia Sunwoo believed in her mission so much that she worked without a salary for the first 2.5 years of starting The Water Collective. To make ends meet, she worked at a bakery during the day and built up the NGO at nighttime.
Entrepreneurial at heart, Sophia built a clothing company (celebrities like Miley Cyrus wore her clothesline) and sold it while still in college.
She remained in the corporate world for several months after college. But for Sophia Sunwoo, creating social impact was her calling. She quit her job and began working at a bakery in New York. With co-founder Josh Braunstein, Sophia created The Water Collective to fix and prevent broken water projects in Africa and India.
In this episode, Sophia talks about the challenges of working in the developing world as a female leader and dealing with petty community politics. You’ll also learn what it’s like to run an NGO with a co-founder and why for Sophia it’s like “like a marriage without all the fun parts.”
She was listed as a leading force for social entrepreneurship on the Forbes’ 30 Under 30 List in 2016.
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www.omprakash.org – a site that connects NGOs, people, and projects
Show Notes & Summary
- While in college, Sophia Sunwoo started a clothing line out of her dorm room with her roommate
- She wanted to be a clothing designer since she was 9 years old
- 250 retailers
- Miley Cyrus wore one of her hoodies
- Despite her success, Sophia was unhappy
- Sophia sold her company while she was still in college so she could do what she was passionate about
- She was inspired by a professor asking his students to do something about climate change and social impact
- She regimented a very strict schedule while in college to accomplish everything
- She wanted to enter the nonprofit and social impact industry but nobody would offer her a job due to her lack of experience. She got rejected every time!
- She returned to the corporate world, at a art consulting firm
- She learned to project manage, production schedules, conflict resolution in the corporate world
- Within 7 months, Sophia was ready to quit the corporate world
- Her parents took a step back and trusted Sophia and her decision
- Sophia met her co-founder, Josh Braunstein, at the bar on the day she quit her corporate job
- Sophia worked in a bakery while starting The Water Collective
- Sophia had never met an Asian American social entrepreneur for her first five years in the social impact space
- Josh’s Jewish network was supportive of their work. The Korean American community was less willing to support Sophia because charity is not a part of their culture as much.
- Immigrant parents have a hard time understanding the risky decisions that their second-generation children may take in entrepreneurship or social entrepreneurship
- You need to leverage your immediate network early on to be a successful social entrepreneur
- They had many false starts in the beginning and projects kept falling through for an entire year
- Co-founder Josh Braunstein had worked in the nonprofit industry, specializing in clean water. He had noticed that many projects simply did not work on the ground.
- They noticed that many water systems stopped working after a few years
- Maintenance, troubleshooting, and finding spare parts were largely unaddressed
- Super high-tech or electric-powered water systems were problematic due to technical problems
- Sophia found partner organizations in Africa mostly on-line
- They received an email from a farmer in Cameroon who came from a village that did not have access to clean drinking water
- They hopped on a flight to go meet the farmer in Cameroon
- It’s extremely difficult for NGOs to work in Cameroon, such as roads not being paved. Mud roads got washed away when it rained.
- The Water Collective had dealt with much of the legal work finished during the first year to make things easier for the second year
- Managing community relationships and dynamics is challenging due to competing interests that people within the community may have
- Each community has a village chief and it is crucial for The Water Collective to foster those relationships
- The Water Collective never fully funds a project so that the community can feel as if they are true stakeholders by fundraising and building
- Working with different village chiefs is challenging, as they may or may not have the support of the community or certain members
- Seemingly small relationships within the communities are important
- Sophia believes that you can always create a system or process that can help you, even when managing key relationships or choosing partner villages
- The Water Collective vouches each community where they ask questions, observe, and gather anecdotal data to see if the community would be a good fit as a partner
- Sophia is all about testing ideas, getting feedback, and iterating
- Sophia Sunwoo is a Tim Ferriss fan!
- Sophia needed a confidence boost after being in a country where women are not respected as much and where people don’t know how to handle a women in a leadership position
- People gave her more authority when she told them that she was American
- People from work would invite her for a meeting but would cross the line with their romantic approaches
- People would make offhand comments about Sophia because she was a woman
- She now does not show a hint of her feminine side when in these communities. It’s awkward for her because she’s all about women’s rights and equality.
- She picks her battles when it comes to standing up for women’s issues in developing countries because she wonders if it is her responsibility and it takes away from her efficiency getting the projects done
- Someone of power in Cameroon is usually overweight, since that means he is wealthy enough to eat a lot. Sophia Sunwoo is a tiny Asian girl, the opposite of what most leaders look like.
- Demonstrating a sense of self-worth is important for women in development aid, not accepting sexist comments or unwanted advances or being treated as a plaything
- The co-founder relationship is complicated, it’s “like a marriage without all the fun parts”
- You can go from being best friends to not talking each other constantly. It can get very emotional.
- Building a startup is an emotional process
- “It’s always about execution. It’s never about the idea.”
- A close staff member in Cameroon passed away recently, and dealing with death was difficult for Sophia and Josh. They considered closing down and became depressed.
- The Water Collective has an important gala coming up in New York
- Sophia and Josh meet at least once a week, usually in person
- In one community, the intra-community problems were too deep that The Water Collective could not moderate even with the help of moderators and political leaders. The community chief did not have the support of his community
- It was not in Sophia’s philosophy to try and be the white knight that would throw money at the problems the community struggled with to try and solve it for them.
- They had to abandon that particular community partnership
- The Mundame community partnership is Sophia’s proudest project
- The Water Collective has a rigorous water maintenance program
- They teach the communities how to fix and repair the systems so that it becomes second-nature, kind of like how everyone nowadays know how to use a smart phone
- The Water Collective uses mostly water catchment systems where they will get water from a stream, and sometimes wells
- It’s important for Sophia that women are involved in the communities
- Sophia and Josh worked for The Water Collective without a salary for the first 2.5 years
- It’s important to stay on the pulse when it comes to fundraising so you can evolve
- It’s important for an NGO to have a strong Board that can financially contribute a certain amount each year
- Sophia like to host intimate, private dinners to update key donors
- Sophia finds Board members that she can get along with and will support each other
- They found Board members by searching for specific qualifications
- Sophia likes to meditate and write down how she’s feeling about certain projects
- Sophia loves the Tim Ferriss Podcast!!
- Sophia is currently coaching social entrepreneurs secure revenue for their projects at sophiasunwoo.com