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Startup Savants Podcast: Interview With John Salzinger and Seungah Jeong of MPOWERD

In this episode of the Startup Savants podcast, hosts Ethan and Annaka are joined by John and Seungah of MPOWERD, a Certified B Corp that aims to light up the world. The company has developed a solar-powered lighting system which it distributes through a network of over 700 NGOs. John explained why bringing on an external CEO can be the right move, and Seungah spoke at length about the impact that MPOWERD has on the global community and why more companies should follow suit. 

How did you get started with MPOWERD?

John Salzinger: MPOWERD was founded 10 years ago … So this is our 10-year anniversary as a [Certified] B Corp and a benefit corporation. With the idea that business can affect change and that we can use capitalism as the track for that change. And so what we’ve done is create a model whereby our retailers, our D2C, and our corporations can give us healthy margins. And then we can reduce and have a healthy impact by tearing down margins and localizing pricing for people that really need our solar tools around the world.”

What made you select the Luci Light to be your first product?

John Salzinger: We realized that the lantern market needed to be sort of turned upside down … kerosene lanterns are very harmful. They cause fires [and] pulmonary disease. They’re actually the leading cause of disease in Sub-Saharan Africa. There’s a small company called Coleman that sort of has a handle on the lantern market, but we were naive enough and brave enough to go into that market, aggregate technologies, see what was out there, better design, and add solar. And we did that. And so our form factor is such that we had about 40 iterations early on in order to get an inflatable solar light that we have patented across the world, utility, and design. And it was such that it would be portable. In other words, collapsible and fit into your bag or your pocket. We could fit 30,000 in a container. So logistics friendly. Waterproof, durable. You could throw it at a colleague or a talk show host if you didn’t like them that day.

But seriously, we wanted to make products for people. And this was our first product, Luci original. And it’s the same exact product that you would find in the MoMA or Bloomingdales or Nordstrom that you would find in Kibera in Kenya in one of the largest slums in the world. And we felt that by making those products with a wow factor, people would actually use them. And that was the key.”

How did the recruitment process for the position of CEO unfold?

John Salzinger: “Good question. Seungah went through the rigmarole of, I think, 19 interviews … we found Seungah through a headhunter, but Seungah also found us. We had something a little different to offer than a large company like Procter & Gamble. We had a mission, and we were impact-focused, and we bring purpose, not just to those who we serve, but to everyone who works for us, to anyone who invested in us, to our vendors, to our retailers, to our whole diaspora. And so I think it’s a two-way street. 

I think one, you have to have an alluring position in an alluring company with an alluring idea with somebody who’s very smart, mission-driven in our case, but also brave. So from going to large companies to small companies, from corporations to startups, one sort of has to have the stomach for that. And that was one of the things we tested with Seungah, and she sure has had that. And so that’s how we chose each other, I think is a good way to put it. And it’s been phenomenal as she’s brought a ton of processes that we didn’t have previously.”

Seungah, how did you approach your new role as CEO?

Seungah Jeong: “It’s extremely hard to have a successful startup … I like to think that there’s always some secret sauce to those companies that succeed. And when you come in from the outside, you have to listen carefully to what that secret is. And with MPOWERD, I found that it was a combination of things. Certainly the genuine ethos, the brand, the mission, the product line, the innovation. So those are the things that I wanted to rally around and to use my prior skill set, to help support, elevate and nurture.”

So, one important way in which you were able to contribute was by implementing a variety of technical processes, right? 

Seungah Jeong: “That’s why I think John and I are such amazing partners. It’s really the skill sets that we each brought to the table in pursuit of something we both believe in very much.”

But the company’s objectives and culture had a personal appeal for you as well, not so?

Seungah Jeong: “So I was just proud to move from the “traditional business world”, back into the world that I really wanted to be in, which was something, a tool to help me change the world… and business had evolved in the decade since I had been in more traditional forms of business. And I was just thrilled when I learned about MPOWERD and knew that here was a company that in its very founding and ethos was doing something every day that I wanted to be doing. So I couldn’t be a bigger brand ambassador in some ways. Champion of what we’re doing. And we both very much want to demonstrate that it is possible to have a for-profit business where every single thing that we do is also in service of helping those around the world.”

A B corp can be characterized by the attention it pays to factors such as impact, mission, belief, and service – was it those features that led you to start one?

John Salzinger: “Yeah. So I had done a lot of things in my life before, from the Associated Press to ABC, to payment systems … I had a progressive upbringing from my parents. Progressive in the true sense, actionable, and felt that … my jobs were not changing the world in the way I wanted to. And that’s your life when you work a lot, and most people work a lot. And so if you’re lucky enough to have a choice and have an opportunity or build an opportunity, I think that’s key. So it’s important to live what you believe. And if work is life for most of the time, then you might have to make some tough choices in the beginning.”

What function does a B corp perform?

John Salzinger: “When you are a B corp when you are an impact company or for purpose and for profit, you are a tool for other people’s morality. You’re a tool for other companies’ CSR end-of-year reports. You’re actually very useful to consumers who make choices based on what type of company they buy from. So actually, it’s an advantage if you can add morality, environment, [and] humanity to your business, because everyone in their core, wants to do good. If one’s own grandmother is walking across the street, everyone wants to help her out and help her across the street. So this is just sort of a manifestation of that on a macro scale, without really any heavy political aspects to it. We take less expensive, abundant solar energy and help the planet and help people all in one. And it helps everyone involved in the MPOWERD community. Everyone we touch, including our consumers most of all.” 

What is CSR?

John Salzinger: “Corporate social responsibility. So many larger corporations have a different arm that they utilize in order to do good. With MPOWERD, it’s all in one, but because our lights can be co-branded, we’re able to take a corporation’s mission, add our lights to it, and really help them out with their CSR report and make it actionable.”

What is the difference in scaling a B corp as opposed to a C corp?

John Salzinger: There’s really no difference.” 

Seungah Jeong: “We are technically a C corp … and that [means] we are beholden to our shareholders not only for standard profits but also for our impact.”

And so in terms of scaling, it means that separate from a corporation that has CSR as … a separate arm, everything that we do, all of our decision-making needs to be consistent with our values. So as an example, if we have a choice between two factories and one factory employs, good practices, when it comes to paying employees and the environment, et cetera, and the other factory just gives us a good price. While we as a B corp need to look very hard at all of the other practices at the factory. So that’s just a simple answer, but those decision gateways are everywhere in a business. And so we strive with every decision that we make to take into account the human factor and the environmental factor.”

Is there a trend toward consumers patronizing CSR companies?

Seungah Jeong: “It is definitely becoming more of a trend. It hasn’t always been that way. Sometimes when I tell my story about my background and the other businesses I worked for, I came from the beauty industry. I remember we used to tell people what they needed in order to feel more beautiful, to smell better, et cetera. With MPOWERD, we’re not telling people what they need. We’re being transparent about who we are, what we offer, and how they can engage with us. And we are finding that today’s very educated consumer is looking for that. They care about how their products are made, they care about how the team behind the products is treated, they care about the supply chain, and they care about so much more than just the product. Because we have so many choices and we have so much information now at our fingertips. We don’t need to be told anymore what we need to purchase.

We can decide, and we can create content around it. We can champion the brands and the companies that we think are doing well. It’s one way that we have some power to be able to shift things in a way that’s more harmonious in terms of, again, people and planet.”

John Salzinger: “It’s modern, and it’s the positive polar opposite of a boycott, right? You’re choosing, it’s sort of voting in a consumer fashion.”

You work with over 700 NGOs, which is a lot – how did you initiate and develop those relationships?

John Salzinger: “One by one, I think our first major NGO or global NGO was Save the Children, they’ve been with us since. But we’ve worked with everyone from React World Vision. Most recently, we’ve worked with Save the Children, but also World Central Kitchen in Kentucky. We’re working with a great group of Marines, US Marines called Waves for Water and the Numi Foundation and Good360 that connects corporates with NGOs.” 

Can you provide an example of a project, in the Luci Light, was involved?

John Salzinger: “We have lights in basements in Ukraine today. There’s not really a single scenario in reference to a natural or humanitarian disaster that MPOWERD hasn’t been in. We work with corporates to fund the NGOs, we work with NGOs to procure. We even give our consumers the ability through our give program on our website, which if you just Google ‘Ukraine’ and ‘MPOWERD,’ you’ll be able to contribute to either our water and light program or just our light program.”

How is your offering monetized?

John Salzinger: “‘Could they pay for it?’ If they couldn’t pay for it, we’d find a corporate that also aligned in their CSR. And so then it would be [a] gift in kind to that NGO. Otherwise, they would procure it, but one at a time, and it goes all the way down to a very small organization in Papua New Guinea for a women’s buying group. And sometimes those hyper-localized organizations are best because they know the community and the customs very well.

Lastly, I would just say we’re always looking for new corporations, and we are extremely effective because when there is a disaster, it’s in the news, and therefore that corporation’s giving is in the news cycle too, which helps them. Frankly, we are not an NGO, and we want to make sure it is truly sustainable in a capitalistic manner. We track our impact through [inaudible] Statistics, which is an organization that measures solar impact. And so we’ve impacted 4 million lives to date. The people that did not have clean electricity, we’re only 17 people in our company, and we’ve averted 3 million tons of CO2. And we can track that through our ERP system, measure that.”

What kind of impact does your product actually have?

Seungah Jeong: “I grew up in a home without electricity or running water… we did have a kerosene lantern. And I remember my grandmother telling me to please stay away from it… because she was afraid I would get burned. And that is a fear that many families live with all around the world. Over 3 billion people have either intermittent access to electricity or lack electricity altogether. So in those situations, we work with the various NGO partners we mentioned to build capacity. So our lights may be used in female entrepreneur networks, whereby women sell the lights to each other so that the lights are used instead of harmful kerosene or firewood. We’ve also had our lights keep mobile medical clinics open or our lights are used as incentives for vaccinations for families who are hesitant to be vaccinated.

There are so many examples of entrepreneurs who are able to work. We had one amazing story from a fishing village in the Philippines whereby the fishing stocks had become depleted. And so, this entire village was not able to sustain their living. And then they noticed that one of our color lights attracted plankton, and so … through using our lights, they were able to actually earn enough money to employ more sustainable fishing practices. And we learned about all of this from one of our NGO partners, who sent us a letter and photos of this initiative. So sometimes it’s really our customers who write in and tell us amazing stories. Our lights have been there at fires, floods, you name it. We’ve had people whose lives have been saved by our lights. It’s really, I cannot explain how rewarding it is. We’ve talked about some of our metrics, but when you hear real stories of real people using solar lights, and mobile chargers to enhance their lives or in reaction to a natural disaster, it’s just so difficult to convey how rewarding it is.”

John Salzinger: “One and a half million children in Sub-Saharan Africa die of kerosene-related fires yearly. And that’s nothing compared to the number of people that have lung issues because of kerosene lanterns or burn firewood without ventilation. So it’s really, really basic, the necessity and the need that we’re trying to fulfill.”

How are you funded?

Seungah Jeong: “We actually have VC and PE backing the company … Private equity typically comes in during the later stage of a company. They have very specific metrics that they look for, most likely around EBITDA and the ability to grow and convert within a certain timeframe, generally anywhere from three to seven years. VC typically invests in a broader range of companies. They’re looking for entrepreneurs, and maybe one out of 10 of their companies will provide a return. And so they factor that typically into their calculations of who they invest in. So just from that overall perspective, they have a different thesis when they come into the companies. Generally, PE is looking for greater efficiencies, the ability to scale, et cetera. Whereas VC is hoping for that blockbuster idea.

I think that’s probably why you haven’t seen very many PE-backed startups because they generally don’t get involved very early on. I think we’re unique in that again because of the mission-driven nature of what we do. We also understand that in order for us to be successful and scale, we need to be profitable. So, PE is taking a greater interest in some unique areas of growth and opportunity with that said, my advice to any entrepreneur is to be really cognizant of alignment around your funding. So I know that’s such a difficult thing to say when as a startup, you feel like you always need 10 times more money than you have, and you needed it 12 months ago. But those initial choices you make will reflect on your ability to fulfill your vision. And so the more that you can retain some control over your company, be very careful about funding, ensure there’s a lot of values alignment in terms of the go-forward plan, the better … with the understanding that sometimes you don’t have those choices.

But here, I think it’s so important for any entrepreneur who has ever had experience in various realms of fundraising to be able to share and support each other. I know, sorry to revert to my gender again, as a female in the tech industry, it is challenging.”

You mentioned that when you started MPOWERD, you were young and naive — o you think that those two factors were an advantage or, perhaps, the opposite?

John Salzinger: “I wasn’t that young … and I had had a lot of jobs. What I would say it’s probably akin to an artist that never went to art school or a photographer that never went to photography school … I learned through the fire, and I made mistakes, and I think mistakes are important. If you get an MBA, you learn what to do. You don’t quite learn what to do when everything goes wrong, absolutely everything. And so I think it was sort of priceless to learn as I went. And I think everyone that’s ever been in a founding position at a startup will tell you, oh, if you ask them what went wrong, they would just say, “do you have all day? everything.” It’s not just easy. I would say what pushed me into doing it was just trying to find purpose in my life.”

That meant a lot of anxiety in those early days, right? 

John Salzinger: “It’s not really fear-based. It’s not really bravery. It’s neither. It might be stupidity. It’s very hard to start your own company. It’s increasingly hard these days with corporations getting gobbled up and competition getting tougher against big corporations. That said, I think it’s increasingly important to support independent businesses … it’s at the core of innovation.”

What advantage might a startup have over an established business? 

John Salzinger: “I think that one advantage you have when you start a company is you are small, and you can pivot, and you can make a mistake, and your stock price doesn’t go down to the point where everyone’s fired and you’re thrown out of business.

It’s actually just about your business. It’s not about a market or anything like that. And I think that plus being sort of your own, I won’t say your own boss, because that doesn’t last forever. But being your own pathway to your own strategy, to what you want to do, you can really actualize that… I think it’s drive. And if you have that and you have an idea … there are so many things that the world needs to do better, cleaner, and more humanely. There are a gazillion ideas. I recommend it to anyone. Why I would recommend it to someone that’s young and younger than I would be … you’ll have more energy or the same way that your investment portfolio would take on more risk because you have time on your side.

I’ll say … naivety is a two-way street. So yes, you should do it, but yes, you should learn and listen from people around you that have done it. You’re not reinventing fire or the wheel, you’re reinventing your new electric toothbrush that’s cleaner for the environment or whatever it is with a rechargeable source. In our case, it was lights and mobile charging.”

What is your number one piece of advice for early-stage entrepreneurs?

John Salzinger: “Work hard, and then number two works hard, and number three is working hard. Nothing is given to you in life … If you’re living in a developed world economy like we are, realize how grateful you are and make a difference.”

Seungah Jeong: “I think my advice would be to learn from everyone around you who’s willing to offer their thoughts, advice, and expertise in whatever area they may reside in. Because oftentimes, in a startup, there are a lot of things that you may encounter that you’ve never encountered before that you didn’t even know you would have to contend with. And that ability to understand all facets of running a business, from insurance to legal requirements and whatever it may be. And all you need is just a little bit of knowledge, but more importantly, the understanding of who to call when you need help, advice, et cetera. Because as we’ve seen the last couple of years, it can be a pandemic, or it can be an impending recession. You don’t know what you’re going to encounter as a business. Even if you have a very solid idea of what you’re trying to accomplish. So having a full roster of people you can talk to, ask the advice of, et cetera, is something that I’d recommend. So things like your podcast are fantastic because these sources of information are super critical.”

You can listen to more episodes of the Startup Savants podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts for more startup stories, entrepreneur advice, and industry insights. 

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