Other than air, water is the barest necessity

Members of Hydrated World St. Paul's GreenHouse

“Don’t ask me why we thought we could do this,” says Aleks Poldma of the company he started with fellow UWaterloo Mechanical Engineering graduate, Spencer Kelly. “We’re not the most stylish guys and we didn’t know anything about the apparel industry, but we wanted to help people and make a difference.”

Making a difference they are. Aleks and Spencer launched their social enterprise company Hydrated World during an e-co-op term during their final year at Waterloo in the fall of 2013. Rejecting earlier ideas (including connecting sales of ugly Christmas sweaters with soup for people in need), the two talked over coffee each day about the fact that they wanted to help people and make a difference. Both Aleks and Spencer had enjoyed work terms for various firms, but they wanted to make a more immediate impact.

“Other than air,” says Aleks, “water is the barest necessity and the most urgent social issue for many people around the world today.” They are right: 1.2 billion people globally do not have access to clean drinking water. More than 3 million people die annually from water-related disease.

The two couldn’t simply be aware of those statistics and be unwilling to act. Spencer recalls being a child and seeing homeless people living under highway overpasses in the U.S. or having classmates in grade school being bullied. “It was devastating because as a kid, I couldn’t comprehend the concept of inequality or disparity. I can comprehend it now but that sadness is still there.”

As engineers trained in providing solutions for people, the pair moved quickly from sadness to trying to figure out how they could set up a social-purpose corporation that could address this issue. They credit a variety of mentors in the UWaterloo entrepreneurial network for helping them figure out how to do that. E-co-op program coordinator Wayne Chang introduced them to GreenHouse director Tania Del Matto, who in turn introduced them to Bruce Taylor, founder of Enviro-Stewards, an Ontario-based engineering firm that works with entrepreneurs in Africa building bio-filter systems.

That was where it all came together. “Bruce wowed us with their Safe Water Project,” says Aleks.”The Safe Water Project is development work, not just relief. Instead of simply providing African people with water filtration systems, Enviro-Stewards teach people to build filters out of local materials and make businesses out of them so it’s a sustainable enterprise. When The Safe Water Project leaves, these local people have the tools and knowledge they need.”

Not only were Aleks and Spencer impressed with the concept, they were also excited from a business perspective: Because The Safe Water Project’s filters are small-scale projects, partners can make a significant, measurable difference within a matter of weeks, rather than years, with other organizations.

The duo decided that their mission would be to end the global water crisis, and their business model would be to create and sell stylish apparel—T-shirts and hoodies—where funds from every sale would go directly to fund bio-filters in South Sudan.

The sale of each item provides 500 L of clean water per year for 25 years.

Today, one short year later, sales of Hydrated World products has provided safe drinking water to 400 people. The company has become a sustainable business, now with a team of five (including three senior UWaterloo students). Aleks and Spencer work for Enviro-Stewards—and operate Hydrated World. Part of their conditions of employment with Enviro-Stewards included a day off to work on Hydrated World, but they also spend many evenings and weekends on their own company.

“It’s been a crazy, crazy year,” reflects Aleks.”If we hadn’t been connected with GreenHouse and Tania, I don’t think we’d be where we are today. We would still be doing what we’re doing because we’ve got a passion for the cause and the brand, but we wouldn’t be close to where we are.”

- Susan Fish is a Waterloo-based writer who operates Storywell, an editing company, and who has two published novels (Seeker of Stars and Ithaca).

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