Episode 5: Becky Straw from The Adventure Project

Throughout her career, Becky Straw has seen the impact stable employment can have on individuals and their families. A self-described “advocate for the unsexy,” Becky has repeatedly gotten involved with causes that foster entrepreneurship and job creation in developing communities around the world.

Turning Adversity into Adventure...

Becky’s career in the social sector began when she traveled to Romania to volunteer at an orphanage called Tanner Romanian Mission. In just 10 weeks, she got a crash course in the complexities of doing social impact work abroad. Becky moved to New York and earned a Master’s Degree in International Social Welfare, consulted with UNICEF, and after meeting with the then-unknown Scott Harrison, became one of the first employees at charity:water.

Being a part of charity:water in the early years was an incredible experience. She was able to do some extremely impactful work, bringing safe and clean drinking water to remote regions of the developing world, and be part of an exciting high-growth startup. She was able to see firsthand, the power effective storytelling can have on an organization’s ability to reach donors and raise money. These experiences, combined with her understanding of the difference gainful employment can make in the lives of impoverished families, prepared her well when it came time to launch her own organization, The Adventure Project.

People in developing countries want the same thing as you and me, they want that purpose. And they want that passion of having employment and a job can help change your life and you can change your family's life to provide stability. - Becky Straw, Co-Founder and Chief Adventurist of The Adventure Project

By just about any measure, The Adventure Project has been an incredible success. The Adventure Project exists primarily through the support of thousands of grassroots donors committed to fostering social entrepreneurship in the developing world. Although they’re laser-focused on supporting the entrepreneurs they work with, The Adventure Project has had important ripple effects, helping transform the communities they’re in. 

Increased income helps families be more food-secure. They’re able to send children to school for the first time. The products they create have helped improve the environment and overall health of their communities as well.

In this episode, Becky shares her insights and lessons-learned from her work as a social entrepreneur and founder. She’s a great storyteller and incredibly candid - sharing both the triumphs and setbacks of life spent in the field. We hope you enjoy it!

Key Questions and Takeaways:

  • Storytelling is a crucial strategy for fundraising. If you can make more money by telling good stories, do it!
  • Monthly giving programs are phenomenal accelerators for nonprofit organizations.
  • Don't take no for an answer - tenacity with donors or potential employers really pay off.
  • Even if your organization has a narrow scope of impact, you're likely creating ripple effect that have even greater benefits in your chosen community than you realize.
  • If you have an idea for something to start or get involved in, do it! The world needs more people to take bold action across the cause sector.

Support

Becky

's Work:

The Adventure Project is an organization dedicated to doing things differently. Handouts help today— but a good job will change your life. A job gives people a way to support themselves and their families for the long term. You can support their work by making a contribution, or better yet - join The Collective! Join their community of over 280 members giving monthly to end extreme poverty in our lifetime.

Get Involved

Episode Transcript:

CAUSE AND PURPOSE – EPISODE 5 – BECKY STRAW

[MUSIC]

BECKY STRAW: (sound bite)

MIKE SPEAR

Welcome to Cause & Purpose, the show about the leaders, innovators, and change agents working on the front-lines to solve some of the world’s greatest social challenges. I’m Mike Spear, and today’s guest is Becky Straw. Becky is the cofounder and CEO of The Adventure Project, an innovative nonprofit organization that helps create jobs in developing countries by giving emerging entrepreneurs the tools, education, and resources they need to launch and scale successful businesses. The entrepreneurs they support not are not only able to support themselves and their families, but they’re also working to elevate their communities through improved health, decreased hunger, safer environments, and clean water.

[MUSIC]

MIKE SPEAR

Becky, it’s great to see you today, thanks so much for joining us. How old were you and when did you first know that this is how you wanted to focus your career?

BECKY STRAW

Ooh. it was definitely when I started working retail and that's when I intimately knew I did not want to do that. In my head, I thought like, Oh my gosh, I kind of, I love art. I was graphic design major and undergrad. And so I thought like, Oh, this would be so cool to combine art with fashion and retail. Then I started doing it and I realized how much I hated it. It was so wrong for me. Through trying things, you realize quickly what you don't like, and I didn't like it. So during that time, I really thought about like, when was I most alive? When did I really enjoy myself? And it was, it was traveling then it was also giving back and those opportunities I had to do volunteer, work other places.

MIKE SPEAR

So what sort of volunteering did you do?

BECKY STRAW

Oh, gosh, well, I grew up in quotes in a church, which is what people sometimes say to be hokey,  like, Oh, I grew up in the church, but I grew up in Burke near Berkeley, California. So like hippie church where we did a lot of social justice work and  just through my youth group I also was a college swimmer. I swim in college, so I didn't have a ton of time. But that also played a role because I felt like I had spent most of my life or childhood through the college years, intimately focused on things that brought me joy and things that,  were inward,  working out swimming, lifting weights, you know sorority,  things that really made me selfishly happy. And so I was, I was keen to see like, well,  what is the other half of the world look like? And yeah, it,  through having nothing or very little that's usually when I had the most joy was when I was out in the middle of nowhere with other people and, and just being around family and friends that I really realized,  that's, what's most meaningful. And I, I wanted to move my life towards that.

MIKE SPEAR

Interesting. Was there like an organization you were drawn to in particular or was it just through the church that you got to do these things?

BECKY STRAW

It wasn't actually was that I hated my job so much, but I wasn't a quitter. So I was like, well, how can I quit without quitting? It's like, when you're doing your first job, you're like 22,  you don't know what to do. So I basically just told them, I decided I'm going to go back to grad school, but first I need to get some international relevant experience. So I'm going to Romania in two weeks. So I put in my two weeks notice and decided to go volunteer in Romania, Romania. Quite frankly, I wanted to work with children and it was the cheapest opportunity available at the time. Flights were cheaper to Romania. I've been to Africa. That's one of the main reasons that the decision, but it ended up being a life changing decision because I learned so much there and it was such a wonderful, warm organization I'm still giving to.

BECKY STRAW

And part of it's called Tanner Romanian mission, but it's essentially these couple from Ohio who, after the fall of communism and 89 decided to volunteer there and they basically never left. Like they, they had kids in college, they realized they were just staying. And they ended up saving for lack of a better word in adopting 34 kids out of the government orphanage and helping to raise them. So they adopted 34 kids. Yeah. They have, like, I want to say they have about four homes now. Like the girls home boys home, they have  a lot of these kids were disabled. What's so fascinating about this time period in Romania was because the communist and they were really trained to build up the military. And so if you had, you were required, if you were female, I believe to have five children.

BECKY STRAW (00:04:29):

And there were certain levels. I think if you had nine kids, you got a free government card. Like there were all these bonus structures, it new produced a lot of offspring, but that also meant if there was something wrong with your children in quotes, you were it was socially acceptable to give them away. And so a lot of the times the kids would just have  cerebral palsy or they would have some minor limp or a cleft palate. And that was reason enough for you to be like, okay, well, communism, right? The government will take care of the kids. And so tragically, what happened is there's a lot of government orphanages that were kind of hidden away in these little villages where kids were abused and tragically. A lot of them passed away. They were malnourished because there was just not enough money or funds to actually take care of these children.

So it was really tragic. For example, a lot of kids spent the first 10 years of their lives. I'm with one other kid. So when this couple came in, they did teach a lot of kids how to walk. They were very stunted and malnourished. When I was there, there was a 12 year old that I was helping teach how to ride a bike.  there's just simple things that these kids never got to experience cause they physically spent their entire lives in a crib. It was heartbreaking. But through experience, I really realized that a lot of the pervasive poverty and this village was tied to the fact that nobody had a job and that economically things were not good. And so trade was low and people were really subsisting rather than thriving. So it inspired me to say like, Oh my gosh, I don't want to work in this sector my whole life and be, I know nothing about how to do that. So I really need to go back to grad school and get a degree in international development because I'm really passionate to try and figure out some of these problems.

00:06:15:00

MIKE SPEAR

Can you talk a little bit about the employment aspect of that? I know it's, it's obviously tied to the venture project and you know what you're trying to do there, as well as I, I noticed a few quotes on the site about like the number one thing, right. The parents’ dream of is having a job. Talk a little bit more about the importance of that within the community.

BECKY STRAW

Yeah. Well,  I can share at least in Romania that like I remember one time being out to dinner and I was 24 at the time. And someone came, they brought the chef and the chef basically said like, I cannot take care of my kid anymore. And he was crying like he was weeping. So it wasn't that he didn't love him. It was that he physically didn't have enough money to take care of his kid had special needs. And so you realize so much of the problems today are tied to wealth and prosperity. And  that, that I could talk about that for days. But  if you perfect example is that,  in Kenya, like primary education is free. But a lot of people can't send their kids to school because it lacks the four to $5.

It takes to buy the uniform or to buy the textbooks. So there's all these barriers that are intrinsically tied to the economy where you, you don't, you just, when you think about that, but it, it makes perfect sense. A lot of people are just doing their best to survive off less than $2 a day. It's really heroic of them to be putting,  a step forward every day, when you have so many barriers that make you risk averse it makes  really have to prioritize how you are going to keep your family fed while trying to grow. So, yeah. For me, at least I really feel strongly that having a robust economy and having wealth and I mean wealth by just,  middle class wealth, having a little bit of money can completely transform the trajectory of your life.

00:07:50:00

MIKE SPEAR

Yeah, absolutely. So how long were you in Romania for before you came back?

BECKY STRAW

I was there for 10 weeks. So it wasn't a long enough, it wasn't a long enough trip. It's also really cold.

MIKE SPEAR

10 weeks? You did this all in ten weeks? That's incredible.

BECKY STRAW

Yeah, no, it was great. And then I think,  I  I did another, before grad school, I went to Denver and I worked for the Denver rescue mission as working with homeless families, helping them get into permanent housing. And again, most people who are homeless are actually not what people think of when they think of a homeless person. It was actually the families with children.  and that, that means sometimes they're staying on a friend's couch or staying somewhere or sitting in a car that they are homeless. And one of the main reasons that they can't find housing is they never save enough for that deposit plus the one month's rent. And so it was a really innovative program that was the Denver rescue mission was running where they were just saying, Hey, like, let's get you some coaching and financial budgeting. We'll pair you with a mentor and then we're going to pay your first month's friends free deposit. And I know over 90% of those families were still in permanent housing after year one. And so it was just a really innovative program that was solving a real need. And I was really inspired by what they were doing there too.

NARRATOR

After earning a Master’s degree from Columbia University, Becky became a consultant for UNICEF, working on data analysis for water and sanitation projects around the world. She quickly realized though that working for a large, bureaucratic organization just wasn’t for her. So, when one of her mentors invited her to a meeting with Scott Harrison, who was just in the process of launching a then-unknown organization called Charity:Water, she jumped at the opportunity.

BECKY STRAW

I did a lot of spreadsheets. No, it was, it was quite it was such a fascinating lens into the inner workings of the UN. But yeah, I was in,  this window is cubicle really looking at data around the globe in terms of financing and what was being expended on water and sanitation and what types of programs to try and glean some insights into what each country was doing in water and sanitation.

And just having an advocate like that was phenomenal. And I'm one of those people was like, well, I'm not hiring, but I'm meeting this guy, Scott, who's starting this water charity in New York and he's a real hustler. And I'm meeting him at a diner at 8:00 AM tomorrow. And so that's essentially what I did. I crashed his breakfast meeting with my resume and all the things printed out and I was dressed, dressed like an intern, like a nerd, you and he looked at me and he said like, I don't have money. And I don't, I don't want to hire a nerd. He was like, I don't want you on person. Like, we're a cool charity. I just kept emailing him.

And right before I left my internship at UNICEF, I stole all of, I didn't say steal their free, but like all of the publications that they put out obviously took all of that from every country. So it basically then went back to him and I said like, look, you haven't responded to my last group emails, but I'm willing to volunteer. I have 142 countries of data on water and sanitation,  and that's what I've been doing if I can help be helpful. And so that's when he finally said like, well, why don't you talk to a board member? And then I basically crashed in his Soho loft on the couch and, and worked from there for months for free until there was enough money to, to bring me on.

Most importantly as I was looking at all of the data and all of the research, it was so simple that,  at the time it's like one in 10 people are living without clean drinking water. That's a huge, massive issue. It was more than a billion at the time, 10 years, 15 years ago. And I knew there needed to be somebody like Scott in the sector. Somebody young, somebody energetic and somebody didn't really show, he came back with all these wonderful photos. And I was like, this guy's going to be on fire because America needs to know this story and they need to know that there is, there are solutions out there,  water was one of the most underfunded sectors. I was really jazzed about. I believe in him and I'm glad.

00:11:19:00

MIKE SPEAR

What a unique opportunity! At the time, it was rare to have an organization so focused on storytelling. Even today, spending money on brand and marketing is still somewhat taboo, but at that time, it was really a revolutionary idea.

BECKY STRAW

Yeah. And you know what, I think people outside it's so easy to say like, Oh, you shouldn't spend any money on marketing. I would argue that being in UNICEF and being on the other side where we were building consortium's of nonprofit partnerships in the U S trying to get them more funding their marketing sucks. Like I hate to say it, but it's like, well then you saw you raised 24 million a year,  because charity water is doing it or now they're raising 75 million. Telling really good stories and really powerful stories drives revenue. And there's proof of that. You know [inaudible] is a great author that I follow a lot and he talks a lot about investing a dollar to help bring in $4 of revenue. That's great. You should try and find donors who want to do that.  I always see, like, can my board help me cover administrative expense and does that administrative expense end up bringing in four times the revenue? And that's great.Iif you play the game and the game doesn't change and you're not bringing in more money than I would argue that that's not really where your money should be going. Right.

MIKE SPEAR

That must have been an amazing time to be part of charity:water. What was your role there, as someone who was a bit more analytical and program-oriented than what charity:water is known for.

00:12:41:00

BECKY STRAW

So managing our portfolio, it spent about a third of my time, mainly in Africa and Haiti just vetting new water programs and managing those water programs in that portfolio. It was all hands on deck at first and then I kind of really was drawn to the water aspect and that was kind of where my background was. So it was really fun and really, really fascinating. I just feel there's so few opportunities to join a unicorn and I was really thankful to be on that, that ride.

MIKE SPEAR

The truth is, charity:water is a lot more data-driven than most people realize.

BECKY STRAW

I think so. Cause I think there was demand from, from the public for that people want to know where their money's going and they want really good work. Yeah, I mean, I would, I would say that's kind of always been a focus in the background, even though most people see the marketing and the video and the photos making sure that the money went to the right place was very important.  I was there for three years and then I was asked to resign and I think for me that was a really hard conversation and a hard period of my life. And, but without that, I never would have left. And I think at the same point, like the adventure product never would have existed because I probably would have stayed there forever. I really loved the organization.

I will just share that like for better or worse, I was completely blindsided and that was really hurtful on a personal level, but it was also helpful in the sense that a few months later I launched the adventure project. I was just kind of like, well, what's next? One of my really strong beliefs and especially at the time of being at charity water is that a lot of people were thanking us for the water. Even though I was so fortunate to be on the ground and hearing directly from people who had received water or clean  rehabbed well or something, but then there was always somebody asking me to like, well, are you hiring? And I really felt strongly and passionate about, gosh, we spend so much money flying people over and there's missionaries and volunteers, and everybody wants to dig their own well. But people in developing countries want the same thing as you and me, they want that purpose. And they want that passion of having employment and a job can help change your life and you can change your family's life to provide stability.

And I really feel strongly that one of the best ways that we can really help people who are living on less than $2 a day is to walk with them and listen to what they want and build capacity, which is a very UN term, but it's true. It's like, you can't just keep saying like, we're going to send over volunteer doctors. It's like, well, what if I get sick when your doctor isn't here?  That's what I think sometimes as a country, we're so philanthropic focused. I know you've seen this a lot of state classy, like you are, you are that to your DNA was like, how do you motivate people to give and get them involved and start fundraisers. People do incredible things to help others. But I just really felt passionately. Like if we're going to have so many people, so amped and jazzed to raise money, to help it should be going to the right places and the right reasons.

So to circle back to that, that thread with charity water, I was really passionate about sustainability of work. And one in three wells in Africa are broken. So just this idea that there's so many nonprofits raising money to drill new Wells, when an actuality, a lot of the reasons these walls are breaking is just because they don't have spare parts. They don't have tools. They don't have train mechanics and nonprofits choose not to really do that work because that's so hard, it's hard to get funding for, but it's also not really sexy. And it means you have to stay in the village for a long time. You have to build capacity build capacity, and it's not as fun as being able to go in and drill a well, take a picture, send it to your donors and everybody's crying cause we're weeping tears of joy that the village now has water. So I guess I'm proud to just be the advocate for the unsexy. Basically just all the things that we don't have a picture of, but make a world of difference about whether that child has water 30 days or a year from now. That's what I care about most.

00:16:34:00

MIKE SPEAR

I think that’s great, and it has been a common thread among the guests we’ve had so far - doing those unsexy things that need to get done. A lot of people think that philanthropy is all about galas and quote-unquote giving back when you can, But social impact takes real grit, and I think it’s something that doesn’t get enough attention. I know you sacrificed a lot to launch The Adventure Project, but it’s a side of social entrepreneurship that most people don’t get to see.

BECKY STRAW

Along that homeless conversation as I told you, so I didn't take a salary for over a year and a half. And so when my credit card kind of maxed out, well, two cards maxed out that was really the sign of like, Oh, but I ended up moving on to friend's couches and I just like lived on friend's couches for 10 months. But I also had to take some vulnerability and be like, I need help. And what ended up happening was I was just overwhelmed with people, offering out places to stay and saying you can stay with me. It was really like just such a warm reception of people who wanted to be part of that story. And I think that was such a loving lesson that I learned that if you need help, there are so many people out there who just want to help. They just want to know how.

00:17:38:00

MIKE SPEAR

But I think that’s incredibly common, and Jessica Murrey talks about this too in her episode. There are just so many causes that need support, it’s hard to know where to begin, and people just don’t believe enough in their ability to have an impact where it matters. It definitely underscores the need for powerful storytelling. Another thing you do at Adventure Project is take a holistic approach, where you’re not just building one targeted solution, but providing wraparound services to ensure the objectives are met.

BECKY STRAW

We work in water, health, hunger in the environment and we're looking at what are the some of the reasons that children under five die and how can we solve some of those problems by creating jobs? So well care takers, for example, like could we support local organizations that are training men and women to be well caretakers and well mechanics, am I learning those skills? They're earning a living, fixing those Wells communities have buy-ins meaning the community is paying 4 cents per Jerry cans. They're paying a nominal fee. And then they know that they have access to clean water and it's essentially a business model. We're looking, that's kind of the adventure. Then you, and when we called ourselves, the adventure project is how can we philanthropically gifts, but look through a business lens.

So, we almost act like a VC. So, we're ventures that are adding something positive to the world and how can we solve those problems more cost effectively and sustainably. So, it's no, I think you're exactly right. I think what you're talking about as being holistic, which is really, really smart, and I think that's exactly how everyone should be looking at it. I think so often it's so easy to fundraise if you're like, Oh yeah, this community doesn't have a school. We need to raise money for school.  I tell this story about Romania a lot, because this is one of my first big mess ups, we saw all these street kids without shoes and it was negative 10 degrees out. I was freezing, they kept calling me like the sorority girl from California, but I was freezing the whole time.

Kids had holes in their socks and were wearing flip flops and it was like phone flip flops. And so we did a big fundraiser like these kids shoes, all my friends donate us. This was before state classes. They wired us money or something like that. We were like the Oprah of shoe givers that day pass that on shoes. We felt like champions. And then we went back the next weekend to town to go buy our food. And the kids had chews on, they were all back to their phone. And it was devastating. It was like, what, what is going on is that their parents had sold them. And I think that was my first lesson was like, Oh my God, I'm such an idiot thinking that the most important need that that family had was shoes for that kid when maybe the parents needed money for medicine or food or,  to pay a bill and how you get testicle and white savior am I to think that that was the most important pressing need of that family? So that's always kind of in the back of my mind, whenever I'm thinking through our programs was how can it be driven by the local community and to filling a need the community has voiced and listening to them and trying to see how can we raise money to make that happen?

For me at the heart of everything I did was I just wanted to be very genuine in whatever I took on. I also talked to a lot of organizations that I knew were incredible and doing incredible work. And I said, look like what you're doing is great, but nobody knows about it. Like how can I help you? Or could I, could I join you and then help raise money for you or get millennials involved in what you're doing? And they all came back to me and said, no, but if you started an organization like this, like we would love to receive support from you.

And so that was really interesting for me where they were like, we don't want to manage thousands of donors. That's not what we're interested in. We work with the Gates foundation or we're really data driven, as an implementing partner, but we would love it if you told our story. And so that was another infinite, because I wasn't just like, well, I'm going to do this because I want to be a founder or something like that. It was really based on oppressing me both from local community led organizations and, and also, you know people like my co-founder, Jody is an incredible woman. She has six kids. Which now that I have two children, I feel like I owe her a million dollars. Because I can't believe you launched an organization when you had six children.

She was just the wife of a worship pastor and two of her kids are from Sierra Leon. And so she knew that she wanted to raise her kids to be very globally minded. And she was very concerned about just making sure money went to the right place. And I think that's how we all feel. She said, I'm never going to be rich. I just want to know that what I'm giving is actually helping people and operating them. So that was a big inspiration for us. And that's who our audience is. It's people who say look, I'm never going to be Bill Gates, but I want to give, and I want to know that it's going to the right place. And it's actually helping parents like myself raise their families and strengthen their families and save children's lives. So that was,  a big kind of vision for us was could we build an organization full of likeminded people who also share the same values we have and, and we're so thankful we do, we have about 10,000 individuals now who are supporting us.

00:22:30:00

MIKE SPEAR

That’s huge! Why do you think you’ve been so successful at engaging younger, grassroots donors?

BECKY STRAW

I think a lot of it comes from the trust factor. Relate-Ability a lot of people desire, a little bit more education or they want to peel back the layers of the onion to know where their money is going. It's kind of like, it's like people who like to invest right. Or they like, they like actually look at their stocks. They want, they don't want to just like give it to somebody to manage. They kind of are. They're curious about why their money is being effectively spent and  what are the stories or what are the lessons they can learn by giving to create jobs versus just,  helping give something away.

MIKE SPEAR

That’s a good point though - how do you select entrepreneurs to be in the program?

BECKY STRAW

So that's kind of our secret sauce is that we do a lot of heavy vetting and site visits to determine who are the most effective local organizations out there that really need catalytic support to grow. And so then we come alongside them and we say like, how can we get you primarily funding? But then also marketing support tech support, the tech support monitoring and reporting,  how can we help amplify their work and help them expand either where they're working or helping them scale to new places.

MIKE SPEARK

What do you look for? How do you evaluate whether or not that that business or entrepreneur is, is someone or something that you want to fund?

BECKY STRAW

We fund everyone from people who are making charcoal efficient, clean cookstoves to helping to train women, to run water, kiosk businesses, it kind of runs the gamut. Typically, we say, we look, we look for three things. The first being leadership, do they have a strong leadership? Do they have a cohort that we believe in, secondly do they have good, a demand driven product, which I think is really key it's so often you see these new innovations that come out kind of the life straws,  all these cool techie things, especially with water filtration systems, but if they're not needed by the local community, your local community doesn't see them as a viable model. Then I wouldn't say that they're appropriate. So it's really looking at what is there appropriate technology there?

And then third, do they have the power or capacity to, to serve a billion people living in extreme poverty? We don't want to just support something that kind of only works in one place or one region, but we're really looking at, okay, could we take your business model and replicated other places? Do you share that vision? Going back to the Well Mechanic Training Program of water for people is implemented that program in one district in Uganda. And now it's been so successful, they've fixed every well in the district. We're starting to drill deep bore holes in regions, where there is no water at all. But the goal is like, could you provide a hundred percent coverage in one district, which would be the first district on the continent pretty much, especially in East Africa, and then could that replicate somewhere else. So I think this year they're starting in a different district in Uganda and seeing if they can replicate the same exact business model in new areas.

MIKE SPEAR

How do you go about evaluating the success of a project longer term? And when somebody maybe quote unquote graduates from the program, or it becomes something that you're not going to align yourselves with?

00:25:25:00

BECKY STRAW

Oh my gosh, that's such a good question. We were just talking about this last week. We have great partner in Kenya and Tanzania doing triple efficient stroke programs and training women to become entrepreneurs. And what that means is a lot of women come in with very little experience and then I leave with hopefully a lot more. And so we've been talking like, for some women they've done two to three years of the program, some are asking for more support, what does that mean? What are they asking? But then most importantly, like what's the Delta, like, what are they going to learn or produce from this next traunch of funding? Is it, is it worth putting more money into their business or into their mentorship? What would we get out of it in terms of growth? Because you didn't look at it very literally and be like, okay, well, if we invest $2,000 in training, one woman, how much is she then earning after a year?

And, and sometimes you can look at it and say like, Oh gosh, well,  she's only earning an extra thousand dollars a year more  some people would argue like, well, maybe you should have given her the thousand dollars, but conversely,  she's not only earning a thousand dollars per year profit on her own, but she's employing three people which is creating more jobs. And then she's producing 10,000 stoves, helping 10,000 families gain access to lifesaving product that they need in their homes.

I guess if any of your listeners don't know about stoves are fascinating, but they're such an interesting innovation and one of the largest killers of women and children's respiratory illness for breathing in the smoke. Most women are cooking their meals, I'm generalizing, but it's usually women, let's be honest cooking meals over open fires. They breathe in about two packs of cigarettes per day of smoke, having an affordable, clean cookstove, drastically cuts emissions. It's also really good for the environment, saves about six trees every year from being cut down and turned into fuel for that family stove. So there's numerous effects. So when you look at it that way, you're like, wow, the $2,000 spent on training, one woman is actually producing an enormous amount of social benefit, not only just the economic to her family or her business.

MIKE SPEAR

The impact from that must be incredibly difficult to track. How are you measuring the success of your programs?

BECKY STRAW

It’s so important. And I think one of the blessings of doing our work is you can easily see whether something's working or not, because people are buying the product. We're not ever giving anything away. People have to purchase the product from the entrepreneur that we're training. So if they're not happy, they're not buying it. So we're able to really see how sales are going and if we're creating an impact or not. Yeah, I mean, it's true. It's fascinating. Like you want to make stoves. If people have access to Chartwell, it usually means they're in an urban area. You want a fuel Firebase stove. People have firewood nearby and prefer collecting firewood.

MIKE SPEAR

How has that evolution gone from you and being a co-founder basically to bootstrapping and living on couches to where you guys are now?

BECKY STRAW

Yeah, six months ago, I would've said something completely different about growth rate which I think everyone, everyone feels that way, but yeah, it's been interesting that we started with I remember $4,000 in a Google spreadsheet, this kind of saying like, here's what we have to do to get started. I can't take credit. It's literally those tens of thousands of people. We have over 300 monthly donors who are like the core of our organization and they are just so committed and incredible people that are making this happen. We wouldn't be here without people like that who are just giving so generously month after month and helping us grow and continue to take on new organizations and, and new countries. Even though it was a pandemic, because of them were able to expand our work to Togo and Ghana this year, which, considering, the crisis and just how chaotic and awful this year has been, we've still been able to make some really good traction and give generously because of people like that.

MIKE SPEAR

Have you guys taken a hit revenue wise during the pandemic or has it been okay?

BECKY STRAW

We are doing great with individuals. we did get some money from the Dutch government this year, which is really lovely. I will say a lot of retail partnerships that we had in the works did pause, which I understand. But I will say going back to those monthly donors, we've had three people I'll reach out and say, I need to pause my gift because I lost my job. One person already resigned up just the Testament of people who are like, I lost my job, but I still want to give, or,  people who are hanging in there and making philanthropy a priority, it brings me to tears. It's so heartwarming, these are people that they've never met, but recognizing that they have a much worse off dealing with this pandemic,  to be in Africa, like imagine trying to say like, okay, I've got to present my kids from getting COVID, but we don't have clean water.  like that's heartbreaking. So having individuals who are so philanthropic, we call them our collective, but these are people that are collectively giving each month is what keeps me going.

MIKE SPEAR

For organizations who haven’t yet invested in a monthly giving program, how did you first launch The Collective?

BECKY STRAW

We built a program around the idea that each month you're supporting a different job creation program in a different country. I'm still learning. I'm still trying to figure out what resonates with our audience. I sent an email and we said like, look like with all the subscriptions out there around the world, if you were feeling totally overwhelmed, this is a subscription that you'll feel really good about. You can set it and forget it and know that, or you're not going to forget it, but every month you're going to get an email knowing where your money went. You're checking one thing off your plate by becoming a monthly supporter with us.  in the end data is showing that like, there are people who that's their first gift is actually a monthly gift. It's not the one-time gift, or it's not the email signup. There are a lot of people now who are just like, yeah, I get this and I want to join. So it's really encouraging.

I think we launched our giving pro our monthly giving program five years ago. And I, I wish I launched a long time ago. If you're a nonprofit or you're starting something, I always say, just start with monthly guests. And I will also say too, like a lot of our monthly donors. I'm a monthly donor and I still make a gift at the end of the year to, it's not going to detract me from giving. And if you're thinking about becoming a monthly donor, if you're just an individual, it is like the best way that you can really support an organization you love, because you're able to help that organization breathe a little bit and say, okay, how much money are we do we have assigned for this program or that program let's forecast ahead. Can we hire someone? You know you're giving them access to data basically that they can rely on some money for years to come. Even if it's $5 a month or $10 a month, it helps organizations make decisions.

00:32:50:00

MIKE SPEAR

That recurring revenue is incredibly important for stability and planning. You know, if you study great organizations, they tend to increase their investments in growth and human capital during times of adversity. I even listened to an episode of How I Built This where one of the founders of Lyft was saying he thought COVID represented one of the best opportunities for starting a business - just because markets, and demand for products, and how we operate a society will change as we make our way through the pandemic. Similarly, you launched The Adventure Project during a time of great personal uncertainty, and you’re weathering another storm now. What are your thoughts on people getting involved with social entrepreneurship today?

BECKY STRAW

My own story came from a story of uncertainty. As you can imagine, starting at charity water, I wasn't making a ton of money to begin with. And I was volunteering the first few months too, so it's not like I left there with a lot of savings. And so it was a really scary time for me personally, but it was also a great time to be like, I'm going to take this risk. I'm going to take this momentum and this energy and channel it and just see what happens because what, what do I have to lose? One of my board members said something really astute to me where he was like hearing my pitch. And he was like, tell me all the reasons why we should launch the venture project.

And I gave him all the reasons and he said, well, tell me the reason not to launch it. And I basically thought for a second, I was like, I guess just the fear that I might fail, like that's scary. And he said, well then this is what you're going to do. You're just going to not worry about feeling. So, because what happens is everyone worries about failing and they don't go anywhere because they're spending so much energy worrying about failing. You're just going to focus on working. If you do the work, you're going to be successful. And I thought that was so freeing. And I think some people just need to hear that, like, it's okay to fail. I think we're taught you have to be perfect. You have to get the four point, Oh, you have to fill out all the bubbles correctly and kind of follow somebody's plan.

But you're going to end up learning a lot more by figuring it out. And there's so many other people like yourself to listen to and get resources and insights from. So don't let your fear limit you from doing something brave. We need more people to step up now. Looking at our own economic and social injustice right now domestically and our healthcare crisis,  there's so many needs that we have,  so we need brave people right now to step up and say, I'm going to do something about it. I'm not just going to sit in my bubble.

00:35:17:00

MIKE SPEAR

Imposter syndrome is real too. It’s easy to sit back and say, “Someone more qualified probably has this covered.”

BECKY STRAW  

I think also people think that's not me, or I can never be like, blah. I'm so fortunate to have worked under Scott. When you peel the onion off, it's like, they're regular people. They're human beings. I think so often we want to put people like that on a pedestal for all the incredible work they've done, but at the end of the day, they make faults too. They're not perfect. So don't think you need to be like gilded some sort of crown in order to do something. We've been given so much in the U S and so much education, so much opportunity that you actually owe it to the world to put your thing out there and do something that is meaningful because there are so many people who aren't in your position who would die to have the opportunities that you have.

MIKE SPEAR

Yeah, that's right. And, personally, I feel an obligation to sort of earn that retroactively,  I've been given so much and a lot of what I'm working on is trying to,  make good on that, on what I've been given. It's clear from a lot of what you've talked about and kind of how your work experience, you are very data driven. How do you guys focus on, how do you guys look at your impact at a venture project and, and how do you measure it?

00:36:37:00

BECKY STRAW

There are a few different ways. Like I mentioned, like economically,  how are we helping to stimulate not only the entrepreneurs profit margins,  are they opening bank accounts which is a huge sign that people actually have some money to save, which is,  really revolutionary for a lot of people. And then a social societal impacts of,  what, what are they putting out into the world, whether it's stoves or keeping Wells working or healthcare really working with world class organizations that are doing kind of random control trials and really always learning and testing new ways of working to figure out,  how can they deliver a better product to somebody in need at an affordable price? So there there's many indicators. This is like we work with the Dutch government on a data to development grant seeing like, could we help stimulate more revenue for people in water, in agriculture by utilizing data?

What that means is like we have Android phones in the field that runs off OCFO, which is a Dutch organization software, to collect the data in real time. And then it caches until you get to a Wi-Fi hotspot. It's kind of built for the field and field tested, and then that money, that data goes into the backend and we're able to make decisions off of that data in terms of survey data,  asking customers,  how do they like their product or gathering entrepreneurs’ data, how are they doing? Have they sent a kid to school? Which is actually my favorite indicator from everything that we we've done is that entrepreneurs are saying that they buy more food for their families. And secondly, that they've been able to send at least one more kid to school for the first time of their kids. I love just saying we're not a sponsorship educational organization, all but 1100 kids have gone to school for the first time because those parents actually now can afford to send them. And that's phenomenal. And I think that's a really true testament of giving somebody, they're now working in self-sufficient. We're no longer funding them or pouring more money into that entrepreneur, but that you're, you're seeing that whole family stabilized because of that.

MIKE SPEAR

I noticed you have The Adventure Project’s core values posted on the website, which, being clear on core values is another key attribute of great organizations.

BECKY STRAW

It speaks to what we care about and what, how we want to do our work and what we put our effort and our energy towards cause ultimately our supporters have to have affinity towards that. They have to share their same values that we share because it's their choice to give,  they don't have to give, they can give to one of a million organizations, but I think we want to just be as real and as transparent and relatable as possible. I want to give to an organization that I trust. And that's where I give philanthropically to, I give to organizations where I trust them.

00:39:22:00

MIKE SPEAR

So looking ahead,  what's next for you guys at well for you personally, I know you, you recently had, well recently another kid you're coming back from that leave. What's next for you personally and for the adventure project?

BECKY STRAW

I think it's all intertwined eventually when you're running your own thing. Right. Personal and business is the same. We're still growing. We're working remotely now. We had an office in Brooklyn for the last two years and with COVID, we've decided to go remote, but I think one beautiful thing that's come from that is that we've really had to get hyper focused on our own growth and meaning that we can run even more efficiently and in some ways, so we've been hiring remotely, which is diversifying our talent pool, which is great. We're trying to really work towards diversifying everything we do from our board to our team, to our interns. How can we make sure that we're being a very social justice minded anti-racist organization and really meeting with people of color in charge, which is my ultimate vision.

With that being said, I'm trying to break off pieces of our business and see how can we find the right people or experts to run these divisions. And they don't have to be all in New York, all coming in for the Monday meeting. It changes culture and team dynamic, but it's also in some ways a beautiful thing. I hope as a society, we all kind of chillax a little bit and just reframe expectations for what it means to be a parent or a woman or a  professional that we need to get more grace to people and also focus on what's most important. I'm keen to really grow an organization with that mindset. And with people who are just really top of their game and excited to kind of help end extreme poverty in our lifetime.  I mentioned to you that we expanded two countries this year. We're hoping to expand to more. I think we wanted to expand to five. That was kind of a bummer with COVID and we realized we needed to scale back, but  one of the most awesome things we've seen is that people that we helped hire 10 years ago or are still working,  and I think that's what I want to keep repeating to people is when you're giving someone a job and a livelihood so that they can stand on their own it's not an endless cycle of funding.

We're slowly strengthening economies and strengthening families and saving children's lives because they now have access to people and professionals and essential workers in these villages. So that aid isn't needed. Aid is just the catalyst to help transform society for the better.

MIKE SPEAR

So I just want to close with a couple of questions. I've been asking each guest what's the, what's the path not taken for you? What, what would you be doing today where it not, if you weren't working on the adventure project?

BECKY STRAW

Oh gosh, I didn't think about that a lot because I like being a mom. And so I think there's that tension of like, Oh man, like I want to really participate in the preschool thing and the craft thing. And then like, I don't know the sewing thing being crafty, but I love what I do. And I'm still really driven and excited about being able to help people. And that really keeps me going. So I don't know what I would do otherwise. I feel really, really lucky that I'm figuring out how to do both, how to be a parent and how to run the organization, with the asterisk caveat that I feel like I'm filling every day. And I feel guilty every day. If I'm with my kids, I'm like, I should be checking my phone, you know? Loosening those ex expectations and trying to carve out more time to bucketize those things is something I struggle with.

MIKE SPEAR

I think everybody's struggling with that. I think for myself, and those I’ve talked with through this podcast and friends, it's been an opportunity to refocus on what really matters. Outside of social entrepreneurship and economic development, what is the most important cause that humanity can be tackling right now?

00:42:55:00

BECKY STRAW

I feel very torn that I'm not doing more domestically. But I still feel completely 110% strongly that we need to be focused in Africa right now. And that's where our time should be. There's no reason that a child should die because they don't have access to medicine that costs $2, or they don't have clean water.

MIKE SPEAR

Looking back from the future, when you're ready to hang it up and pass the torch and whatever what would you like to have accomplished in your career? I mean, if it's the same answer is helping people of color and things you've already talked about. Great. But looking back, what, what impact would you like to have had?

BECKY STRAW

The most powerful stories to me are like the individual people I meet, who've moved out of poverty.  and it's their individual stories that made me realize like, Oh my gosh, we're doing something great right now. For me, the challenge of my job is it never ends. There's always going to be 800 million people that are living in extreme poverty. It's not a solvable problem that the venture project can take on by itself. I think a lot of the things I think about is like, well, how can we create this data? Or how can we share things so that other people in other organizations can take it on and do it? I get really excited when I see charity water, talk about broken Wells and talk about their well mechanics that they're training, things like that. I'm so glad other organizations are also doing this work and how can we all amplify it together versus like, well, I want to be leading an organization that's dominating everything.

MIKE SPEAR

Last question is sort of a softball for you.  what can people who hear this podcast do to support your work at The Adventure project?

00:44:25:00

BECKY STRAW

Yeah, that is a softball question. Go to TheAdventureProject.org to learn more, join our email list become a monthly donor. That's where we really would love to have you. I always say this too, but people can email me at beckystraw@theadventureproject.org. One of the most important things is how can we just get more people involved?  By no means am trying to take all the credit, right? Like we would not be anywhere without other people standing up and saying, I'm going to do something in my local community or I'm going to do a bake sale. We have military families, two executives at Silicon Valley who just give really generously and do really generous things to help tell the story of what we're doing and why it matters. If there are people out there love that I would love to talk to you. Or if you want to start something and want advice, happy to talk to you too.

MIKE SPEAR

Anything else you want to talk about?

BECKY STRAW

No, I'll just say we haven't talked about this, that I I'm so proud of. And I think to think about all the ways that,  you have impacted so many people and other charities it's really it's really inspiring. And I think you probably are behind the curtain and sometimes aren't really in front of it to see all the good that you've done.

MIKE SPEAR

Thank you. That means a lot. Well, thank you so much for doing this. It's been great having you great talking to you, catching up reconnecting.

[MUSIC]

00:45:43:00

NARRATOR

So that’s our episode for today. Thank YOU for listening, and Becky, so awesome to catch up and hear your stories. If you want to learn more about The Adventure Project, you can visit their website at www.theadventureproject.org, and on our own website, at CauseandPurpose.com. I know The Adventure Project has some exciting announcements coming up that we weren’t quite able to talk about today, so hopefully we can get Becky back to talk about those when she’s ready.

We love hearing from you as well, so if you have any questions, comments, or guests you’d like to hear from, please leave us a comment or two through the website.

Please join us next time when our guest will be Zionna Hanson. Zionna, or Z as her friends call her, is the founder of Barbells for Boobs, a breast cancer awareness organization that encourages women to get screened at a much younger age than the medical community typically recommends. We’ll talk about that, their partnership with the CrossFit community, and a new program they’re launching called Resources after Diagnosis. You don’t want to miss it.

Cause & Purpose is a production of Moonshot.co. On behalf of myself, Becky Straw, and our entire team, thank you for listening, and we’ll catch you next time around.

#

END [00:46:53:00]

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More about

Becky

:

Prior to starting The Adventure Project, Becky spent three years helping to launch charity: water, an organization bringing drinking water to people in developing countries. Becky has consulted for UNICEF’s Division of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene, and graduated from Columbia University with a master’s degree in International Social Welfare.

Credits:

Cause & Purpose is a production of Moonshot.co
Postproduction by Lisa Gray of Sound Mind Productions
Original Music by Justin Klump of Podcast Music and Sound

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