Big dreams start with small steps. I had absolutely zero experience running a non-profit, doing humanitarian field work, or designing solar lights. I just had a vision to pull people out of poverty through solar lights. So, I accepted every opportunity to share my dream, including speaking at a bake sale in the cafeteria of a local company. It seemed like a possible waste of time, but I caught the ear of an engineer there who provided some technical advice. They helped me refine my light design and later teamed up to help me get the light patented. It starts with small steps.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewingNancy Economou.
Nancy is the founder and president of Watts of Love, a global nonprofit with a mission to bring solar light to the nearly one billion people living without electricity. Nancy designed and patented a unique solar light that is inclusive, high quality, durable and long-lasting, and combined with an education model that teaches how that light is the key to unlocking self-worth, it can provide poverty alleviation in one generation. Nancy’s incredible vision, never-ending curiosity, commitment to excellence, and bold refusal to accept the status quo has resulted in the delivery of the Watts of Love program to 46 countries, distribution of over 55,000 lights and 385,000 lives forever changed.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?
I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. My father loved to travel, and we went on great adventures in different parts of the world. The interesting thing is that he would only plan the first and last days of our trips, forcing us to be spontaneous and adaptable. We often traveled off the beaten path, to the lesser-known cities, to appreciate local and real-life experiences. We learned to value cultural differences and really pay attention to what we can learn from other people. For my father, the journey was often more important than the destination.
I have also struggled with dyslexia my entire life. School was a challenge. Growing up with dyslexia gave me compassion for the underdogs and stirred the desire to help the most marginalized people. For example, people always want to help the best students — but because of my dyslexia, I would not have been helped. People need a tool and an opportunity to create their own solution. Now, when I go on a trip to the field, I make sure we give to everyone.
You are currently leading a social impact organization that is making a difference for our planet. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?
I am convinced now more than ever that a simple light and its impact can change the world. Watts of Love is a global nonprofit bringing people the power to raise themselves out of the darkness of poverty through solar lighting. We accomplish our mission by 1) seeking out the hidden poor and the last-mile communities, to distribute solar lights where there is no access to electricity, and 2) training our light recipients how to leverage their new solar light to gain a foothold on the economic ladder to self-sufficiency, educational attainment, health and hope.
Light is a simple asset that provides increased safety and security, more hours for work and study, and improved health and longevity by eliminating smoke inhalation and kerosene pollution and associated financial, health, and environmental costs. We designed our lights to be long-lasting, durable, waterproof, and bright (275 lumens).
As we distribute the lights, we work with local leadership to implement financial literacy that empowers families to optimize these benefits and save their resources. Along with local leaders and NGOs, we help beneficiaries start their own businesses, save, and manage their finances.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
In 2009, I accompanied my husband on a business trip to the Philippines and was curious to learn more about the local people. So, I decided to volunteer at local feeding program where I met a girl whose face was burned and scarred by a kerosene lamp. I learned that most of the population lived off grid using only deadly, dangerous kerosene lights.
As a mother of five, I could not imagine having to light my home with an open flame and put my children at risk every night. I knew I had to do something. It inspired me to find a solution.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?
After returning from the Philippines, I dreamt about lighting the world, but had no idea how to make it possible. Not knowing what to do next, I shared my experience in the Philippines and my dream with an acquaintance. She told me, “You were given that dream for a reason. Don’t give up on it.” This conversation was exactly the push I needed to act. It is amazing how impactful a simple encouragement can be. Sometimes all people need is an “you can do it” to be that trigger for global transformation.
Many people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?
Sharing the vision with others and being vulnerable is important. People will always cast doubt, but you will find the people who will come alongside and support you.
I took the leap of faith and ordered 1,000 solar lights before I had a solid plan for funding or distribution. Taking that first step was scary but simple because I had a mission to serve the poorest of the poor. Having an order for 1,000 lights pushed me to get the word out and start fundraising. Once I started meeting with people, my vision started to fall in place. I would speak to anyone willing to listen, which created a great conduit for feedback and natural networking opportunities.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
The earthquake in Nepal in 2015 was devastating for tens of thousands of people. Watts of Love was able to respond quickly and effectively. While distributing in the mountains of Nepal, we were introduced to a community of lepers.
Knowing we had always wanted to go to the most marginalized people, we were excited to bring our lights to this community. However, watching the people with leprosy struggle to turn on our lights, I knew I find an inclusive solution. I returned to the U.S. and drew up designs for a solar light for users without fingers. This led to a prototype and patent for a LED solar-powered light that was water resistant with a powerful battery that will last up to ten years.
Returning to the same leper colony with this product and a team that included the engineer who helped manufacture the solar light was one of the most incredible experiences. Being able to tell them that this was designed for especially for their use and introduce them to the engineers who helped make it possible was amazing.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?
The first 1,000 lights I ordered got were stopped in customs when we arrived in the Philippines for our first distribution. I honestly thought I was a failure. I had raised money, made promises to donors, and now my mission was literally stuck. However, I did have with me three lights I had carried over in my bag, and these first three lights turned out to become the pillars of Watts of Love distribution and educational model.
The first light went to an older woman named Nini. She had never owned a pair of shoes and the back of her house had burned in a kerosene fire. When I told her I was there to give her a solar light, Nini said, “I cannot accept this from you. I’m too poor for you to love me.” This struck me, but only further my motivation to deliver more lights. By the end of our time together, Nini was singing and saying, “I may be poor, but I am loved.” I realized this solar light was a simple gesture with a direct path to their heart.
The second light was given to a mother of seven, and the following day I was curious to see how the mother did with her first night free from darkness. When I visited with her, she shared that she had stayed up all night and made a thousand bamboo BBQ sticks to sell at market. I realized that given the opportunity — people will instinctively invest in themselves, and their business.
The third light went to a family who was so poor, they were licking salt to trick their body into thinking they were eating. When I returned a month later and visited them, the wife excitedly shared with me that their family had never gone hungry since receiving the light. I asked how that was possible, and Ruth told me that she had diverted the money she was spending on kerosene to buy food for her family and realizing the power of savings for the first time. I realized then the importance of financial literacy.
We illuminate homes, hearts, and minds, and that is when we see real transformation. Those three lights I managed to distribute despite the shipment being stopped in customs were the most important lights we have ever shared.
None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?
The most helpful coach to me early on was Diane Butler. Diane was one of the first to walk side by side with me on my learning curve. Diane believed, invested, traveled with me, and championed me for corporate sponsorship. She continually challenged me but also stood alongside to help make it happen.
Are there three things the community, society, or politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
Absolutely! Champion, Invite, Invest.
Champion — Share our story and talk to people about the Watts of Love solution for the more than one billion people living in the darkness of poverty.
Invite — Run a fundraiser on Facebook or other platform and invite others to support us.
Invest — Join us as partners with an investment of resources or time.
We have a simple solution to alleviate poverty through solar lights, but one that requires thousands of people to achieve. Whether you are an individual who wants to travel with us, or a corporation that wants to have a measurable impact, join us!
How would you articulate how a business can become more profitable by being more sustainable and more environmentally conscious? Can you share a story or example?
Some of our most valuable partners have chosen to support Watts of Love to combine purpose with passion. They understand that corporate responsibility executed with a charity that is aligned with their organizational mission will retain employees, attract customers, and boost their corporate reputation. With so much attention on the UN SDG 2030 goals, corporations can be part of the solution by supporting sustainable, environmentally conscious organizations like Watts of Love.
An example is a large brokerage firm that caught wind of our mission. They wanted to give back in a meaningful way and initiated an employee giving plan, as well as underwriting employee travel to the field. The response was profound, and employees felt that there was a purpose. I remember one employee saying, “I felt fortunate to work for a company willing to contribute to making the world a better place.”
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Big dreams start with small steps. I had absolutely zero experience running a non-profit, doing humanitarian field work, or designing solar lights. I just had a vision to pull people out of poverty through solar lights. So, I accepted every opportunity to share my dream, including speaking at a bake sale in the cafeteria of a local company. It seemed like a possible waste of time, but I caught the ear of an engineer there who provided some technical advice. They helped me refine my light design and later teamed up to help me get the light patented. It starts with small steps.
- Trust your instincts. I was not a good student in school because I struggled with dyslexia. Although I had a clear and confident vision for Watts of Love, I doubted my abilities professionally. Reading a quote from Richard Branson as he described how he manages his own dyslexia inspired me; he said, “The business world often gets caught up in facts and figures — and while the details and data are important, the ability to dream, conceptualize and innovate is what sets the successful and the unsuccessful apart.” I know that to be absolutely true. My dyslexia allows me to come at problems from a different, possibly unconventional angle. I have learned to trust my abilities and disabilities when making decisions.
- Be bold and ask for what you need. People want to be part of something big. By asking for help, you offer them the opportunity to make a difference in the world. They can always say no, but they will never say yes unless you tell them what you need. A few years ago, I was negotiating a contract to purchase a small building for a Watts of Love office. On a whim, I asked if the owner would consider gifting us the building instead of selling it to us. I felt like I had nothing to lose, and they said yes.
- Beware of mission drift. There are many problems facing the extreme poor, but for me, it comes down to focusing on one, simple solution. I give a light to someone in extreme poverty, and immediately they can do work at night. We give people a light with financial literacy training, and immediately they can start redirecting kerosene expenses toward investment in a chicken, pig, or education. Replacing toxic, dangerous sources of lighting with free lights and a plan to reinvest the spend is all it takes to alleviate poverty. I have seen it happen thousands of times. Poverty is complicated but sometimes the solution can be simple. When things start to get convoluted or off track, I know to pull back to our mission and be patient.
- Relationships are the secret sauce of success. I am a heart-forward person. Early on at Watts of Love, I met Nini in the Philippines, who could not accept a solar light because “she was too poor to be loved.” This experience stopped me in my tracks — to think someone felt unloved and undeserving of a simple light! It was such a profound experience for me, that now we make sure that love and respect are baked into every aspect of the design and delivery of our solar lights. What I did not realize when I first started Watts of Love is this heart-forward approach is also the secret sauce to our business success. Developing honest, respectful business relationships has opened more doors and opportunities than I could have imagined. From donors to board members to corporate partners, being heart-forward, with loyalty and respect, pays dividends with deeper relationships and greater buy-in from partners, advisors, and donors.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
As a mother of five young men, I am very familiar with this question. The answer is not to over complicate things and determine how to put your unique gifts into action. One of my sons is a talented digital artist who makes films that help Watts of Love reach potential donors. Another son is a talented carpenter, and he can bring his building skills to the developing world. The trick is not to try to solve all the world’s problems. Find a simple path using your skills, interests and talents, and just do it!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“If you don’t quit, you win.” I shared the story about 1,000 lights being stuck in customs in the Philippines and feeling like a failure. If I had quit, I never would have met the three most courageous and brilliant women who became the foundation of Watts of Love financial literacy program. Sometimes just staying in the game requires all the strength you have, but it is worth it.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Yes! I can’t choose so I’ll invite two people! I would love to meet Joy Mangano, the CEO of Ingenious Designs, LLC, for breakfast because I see a lot of myself in her as an inventor, entrepreneur, tenacious brand champion, and heart-forward leader. For lunch, I would invite Richard Branson to Watts of Love to celebrate how dyslexia is an asset to people with big visions and a daring sense of purpose.
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This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!