Some entrepreneurs spend more time on the road than at the office. For charity:water founder Scott Harrison, traveling to the field is a core part of his organization's mission to bring clean drinking water to people in developing countries. In partnership with Cadillac, The Pursuit explores charity:water's SoHo workspace where Harrison and his dedicated staff tackle one of the world's pressing development issues.
When I spoke to Scott Harrison, founder of charity: water, he was in a car to the airport, heading to Ethiopia for the twenty-fourth time. "I would say a laptop on a plane would be more of a desk for me," he told me, "or connected to a satellite unit in the field." Though he takes ninety planes a year and works out of a solar backpack when off the grid, his organization’s offices are set up in New York’s SoHo. There, his desk sits in the common area alongside his team members, volunteers, and interns.
Harrison started charity: water eight years ago and has since extended its reach to twenty-four different countries, bringing clean water to about 5.2 million people in 16,000 villages. Harrison happily rattles off data on the organization’s successes, but always couches it in the daunting context. "Every day charity: water helps over 2000 people get access to clean water for the first time." Without missing a beat he added, "But there are 750 million people worldwide who don’t have something that many of us take for granted every single day."
Booked for over a hundred speaking engagements each year, Harrison got a tip from veteran presenters to protect his voice: herbal Throat Coat tea. But as an entrepreneur he didn’t start his business for fame or fortune. "There’s no stock in charity: water. Every single person who works at this organization has transferred their equity to the most marginalized people in the world," he explained, "For us, success is serving others, helping as many people out of extreme poverty as we can."
charity: water has raised 170 million dollars since its start, and Harrison remains interested in finding creative ways to get more people involved. Many of the objects on his desk are produced through partnerships with companies as a fundraising effort. One is the Soma filter, a beautifully designed glass carafe that makes water filtration more sleek.
The sunglasses are a partnership with Toms Shoes – every pair sold generates a donation to charity: water ("And, of course, I’m wearing sunglasses every day in Africa," he noted). The Jambox is a collaboration with Jawbone, and Harrison always brings it with him on his trips. "Over the next week I’ll do probably 35 to 40 hours in Ethiopia in cars. It’s nice to be able to have some tunes along."
Harrison got his start as a photojournalist embedded in Liberia, where he was appalled to see the destitute conditions people were enduring. When he returned to the States he honed in on water as the transformative issue that would have a rippling impact on society, from hygiene to education. "Water makes people healthier and it makes people wealthier," said Harrison.
He still keeps a camera with him in his travels because the organization — which works under the photojournalistic philosophy of "show, don’t tell" — relies on visual communication to raise awareness. "From day one, Charity: water has proved every single water point publicly on Google Earth," Harrison told me, "You can actually see satellite images of all the wells we have ever built."
Next month in Ethiopia he’s taking that philosophy a step further, filming a virtual reality piece, which explains the VR goggles on his desk.
The idea is to "literally put donors in the moment that water strikes and how people are celebrating the change in their village." Or, to bring them alongside a young girl hauling a jerry can of water for hours in 90-degree heat. Bright yellow and brandished with hazard signs (they were originally used as fuel cans by Germans in WWII), the containers hold five gallons and, when full, weigh forty pounds. Harrison chose this for charity: water’s logo, as the warnings are not without irony. "Usually it’s dirty water in those cans," he tells me, "and it’s how hundreds of millions of people get their water throughout the developing world. For me, it’s a great reminder of how much more work we have to do."