…I had more questions than answers. I was a teenager.
“You have a choice.” shared a well-wisher of mine with warmth in his voice. I still distinctly remember the words, “You can either give them a crutch or you can give them your shoulder to lean in to solve their problem. Then, they have a chance to lean forward on their own – with pride and self- sustaining confidence.” The context was homeless folks, struck by poverty.
And those words echoed when I heard the story of a social entrepreneur, Paul Polak. He did not speak those words – he acted on them with his own twist that paid rich dividends.
Like many families in the Americas [dating back to varying degrees of ancestry], his family were immigrants. His father had the fortitude to foresee the marching German army to Czechoslovakia. He had a flourishing plant nursery business – he sold everything at steep discount and moved his family to the Americas.
Paul grew up and became a psychiatrist. He eventually settled in Denver. As he prescribed medications to the institutionalized, he noticed a recurring pattern – they consistently returned. He felt heavy that he was treating a symptom and not the real problem. He imbibed the entrepreneurial spirit of his father. Without any formal business training, he naturally espoused two business tenets (101 of sales) – listening, [fully listening] and showing up where customers are. By doing that, he helped one of them start his own business of lending makeshift locker boxes to fellow vagabonds for a nominal amount.
A remarkable change happened. By not looking at the homeless man as a recipient of charity rather as an owner of a business, the recurring pattern was broken! That experience sprouted the social entrepreneur inherent in him. He bloomed for next 40 years. He is now 82 years young, supple and active with great achievements to his credit. The biggest of them – according to me, was shattering a long held belief- “If you give a man a fish, he can feed himself for a day. If he spends the time to learn how to fish [with your help], he can feed himself for a lifetime.”
The implicit words, never stated and we all implicitly assume are “If he spends the time to learn how to fish with a fishing rod, he can feed himself for a lifetime.”
Where Paul found his life long meaning was the changed words, “If he spends the time to learn how to fish with tools he bought with his own money, he can feed himself for a lifetime.”
The two subtleties – every tool is not a fishing rod and people exit poverty not when they are donated or provided the tools, rather when they invest their own money and time.
His life mission was to create tools that they can afford and learn easily. That singular construct is the edifice on which he built his social empire – market based solutions to poverty. Truly a contrarian and a self described bohemian who brought meaning into money; with something we humans take pride in –ownership.
Connecting the Dots: What it means to the problem solver in you?
His aha took a moment for me to register. When it did, I smiled – I could relate.
When you look at his aha from the prism of business and not a social act – it makes sense. Here is an example closer home, based on my experience. When Marketing creates a warm lead, the traction with sales is hardly tacit. I flipped it during my sales leadership role – sales team provided hard to crack accounts as a list and marketing converted them into warm leads. Collaborative fireworks happened – immensely pleasing to the senses for everyone around. When sales folks created their own lead generation wish lists for marketing, the magic of ownership happened!
What is true for business could be true in a social setting. That never occurred to me until I read Paul’s life works aha. Like many great things in life, it is crystal clear in retrospect. I was happy to learn that Paul was named by The Atlantic as one of the world’s 27 “Brave Thinkers,” along with Steve Jobs.
In all this, one thing is clear – problem solvers have a place in this world. What real problems we choose to solve defines a lot of our meaning. Serendipity and curiosity to solve real problems is the underbelly of Paul’s story – holding it together and nourishing it with thoughtfulness and success on what is truly meaningful.
Do you want your life to have more meaning that gives you joy? Do you see shades of Paul in you? If your answer is yes, join us at Good Works Houston, an ecosystem for social entrepreneurs at the heart of the energy world. We focus on 4 areas: wellness, health care, environment and upward mobility (economic opportunities to achieve self- sufficiency and quality of life).
Author: Karthik Rajan