Howard Weinstein #PiMaker - Contagious optimistic and lovingly stubborn social entrepreneur
Howard Weinstein is a #PiMaker. He is the founder of Solar Ear, a social business that sells affordable hi-tech hearing aids that are invented, manufactured and distributed by people who are deaf.
Howard is the personification of what a #PiMaker is. Just read through his interview and watch the video at the end to understand immediately what we mean with it. We are tremendously honoured and grateful to have him in our community, and most importantly, to have gotten to know him. He is an example and inspiration to us. We love his clarity and stubbornness in what he wants, we love his passion for what he does through what he is.
How did you come to do what you do? What’s your personal background story?
"When I went back to work after a week, I was fired"
In 1978, I bought a small plumbing business and sold it 15 years later to a big corporation, while retaining the managing job of the Canadian division. Living in Montreal, I had a life that most people only dreamed about, with a luxurious home and a country villa overlooking a lake. Then came that night of June 6, 1995. Sarah, a perfectly healthy child, died in her sleep. When I went back to work after a week, I was fired. They thought that I couldn’t make a profit for them any more. From a business standpoint, they were right, as I was totally lost, feeling like I was living in a fog.
"I decided to go to a developing country to apply my experience as an entrepreneur to social problems"
I took a year off. After that, I started a new company to make electronic toilet seats for people with disabilities. I went personally bankrupt and lost my home, savings, and all other assets. My heart wasn’t in it.
I decided to go to a developing country to apply my experience as an entrepreneur to social problems. I wanted to be able to provide an income to women so that they could afford medication for their children and not have to suffer like he suffered.
In 2001 I was invited to go to rural Africa as a volunteer. There I would earn only a small living allowance, live in a one-room mud house, but help start an NGO which would employ rural deaf women to build low-cost solar-powered hearing aids. The Africans have a saying: “The blessing lies close to the wound”. I knew it was for me. This could be my blessing.
"It took a year before I could give a hearing aid to Sarah"
In the middle of the morning of January 24, 2002, I heard a knock at his door. I had been only 3 days in Otse, a village of 3,500 in the south of Botswana. It was a teacher from the local School for the Deaf with one of her students. She had heard the Canadian entrepreneur was there to make a low-cost hearing aid and wanted one for the girl with her. “Her name is Sarah. She’s seventeen”, she said. That just happened to be the name of my daughter, who would have been that same age if she hadn’t passed away because of a brain aneurysm six and a half years earlier. I thought: I have a reason to be here.
It took a year before I could give a hearing aid to Sarah. When I arrived at Otse, I worked with engineers further developing the new technology: a low-cost hearing aid, rechargeable batteries, and a solar charger called SolarAid. The African NGO, called Godisa Technologies, was the only manufacturer to produce low-cost hearing aids in Africa, and the only one in the world that hires deaf people to make them. Godisa in the local language means “doing something to help others grow”. The social business concept was created by Camphill Village, an African NGO whose mission is the empowerment of people with disability. Godisa was started in this special village.
How do you feel you are positively impacting your society and environment?
"I then turn THEIR hopes and dreams into a sustainable business which THEY dreamed and which THEY expressed"
For past 16 years I have been working with a variety of under-represented members of society, be it people who are deaf, people with Down's Syndrome, youths in a favela, rural very poor community members in North Eastern Brazil, Palestinian refugees etc.
The discussions always start with them telling me about their life,.. their problems as well as their hopes and dreams. I then turn THEIR hopes and dreams into a sustainable business which THEY dreamed and which THEY expressed. After all, it is their community, their life, their hopes and dreams.......
What's your dream, your vision?
I dream we have a more equitable capalistist system, where profits do not over rule the will of the people. Where we share our knowledge, technology to the benefit of the masses. That we live in the present moment plus know and accept what we do not know.
My other dream is to dance with my daughter at her wedding.
Do you feel you have found your meaning and purpose in life? Why?
I try and earn my life every day, not just earn a living. Yes I have found the road of purpose and try and walk on it, appreciate it, all the time (see video).
I love life. Ernie Banks who played baseball many years ago, after winning a game would shout out at the end of the game: "Let's play two", meaning another game immediately following the game he participated and won.
I would like on my tombstone: Let's play two - as I am ready for another life as I have gained knowledge, wisdom and love from so many different types of people that I would like another life rich in experiences. As the one I am presently experiencing.