On July 14 this year, the accomplished social entrepreneur Priya Karim Haji unexpectedly passed away of a heart attack at age 44, survived by her two very young children, Zen and Omi.
Fast Company named Priya “the best social entrepreneur of a generation.” She cofounded four social enterprises prior to her untimely passing. She was described at her funeral as living by three guiding principles: 1) Be loving, 2) be humble, and 3) be selfless. She combined her deep sense of social purpose with true grit, exhibiting an uncommon ability to “get things done.” Most of all, she applied complete pragmatism to social problems, which cemented her legacy as someone who was—beyond all else—authentic.
As we mourn her untimely passing, we also reflect on what she accomplished and, more importantly, how she accomplished it. We jointly wrote this article, based on interviews and experiences that we shared with Priya and her two World of Good (WOG) cofounders, Siddharth Sanghvi and David Guendelman.
Priya’s entrepreneurial endeavors started early in life. She cofounded her first social enterprise—a medical clinic—at age 14 with her parents, while still in high school, and went on to found Free at Last, a nonprofit for people suffering from drug addiction, as a Stanford University undergraduate. WOG came next: While completing her MBA at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, Priya and her cofounder Siddharth conceptualized a business that would source goods from BOP communities for purchase by first-world consumers.
Although ecommerce outlets like eBay and Amazon went public a few years earlier, at the time, most consumers still shopped in retail stores. So WOG started there: It placed self-contained kiosks in stores (“stores within stores”), replenishing items as they sold and removing items that didn’t sell well. The elegance and simplicity of this solution quickly gained traction with a variety of retailers. Whole Foods’ Susan Oelker liked WOG’s model so much that she asked Priya, who had just pitched the idea, to leave behind her demo kiosk, and immediately put it on the sales floor. Susan later encouraged other Whole Foods’ to place kiosks and helped streamline Whole Foods’ purchasing of craft items overall.
WOG was one of the earliest social enterprises to scale; it was also one of the first hybrids—a traditional C Corp for-profit, with a nonprofit owning five percent. (Its nonprofit side, World of Good Development Organization, created a fair wage guide that promoted a web-based calculation tool to ensure that workers earned fair pricing for piecemeal work.) Priya believed that the goals of both organizations were intertwined, yet separate. She explained: “In the not-for-profit world, I found that the donor constituency and the constituency you were trying to help were not always aligned. So it was in the desire to demonstrate that you could create a market-based model, in which you could align the customer’s interest and the opportunity to generate income with the solving of a social or environmental problem. This way, as the business grows and as the market grows, you are actually solving the problem in a self-renewing manner.”
By 2005, David had joined the team to provide financial expertise and WOG won two important business plan competitions: UC Berkeley’s Global Social Venture Competition (GSVC), a worldwide graduate school competition, and the university’s business plan competition. Based on Priya’s presentation at these competitions, two judges recused themselves to invest in WOG. Winning these competitions also led to a $250,000 seed investment from Draper Fisher Jurvetson, a traditional venture capital firm, and an initial investment by Omidyar Network.
In 2006, eBay manager Robert Chatwani discovered artisans making beautiful handcrafted goods during a trip to India; he brought a sample, and they sold quickly on eBay. Robert felt that this small experiment could turn into a real business—an idea that led him to Priya, who was trying to significantly scale WOG’s sales outside of its more traditional brick-and-mortar retail outlets. Based on their conversations, WOG and eBay formed a partnership; WOG’s team began building out eBay’s craft goods business, and eBay eventually acquired WOG in 2010.
While Priya’s death makes no sense and while losing such a notable, charismatic social entrepreneur seems wholly unjust, let us pause and reflect on her legacy. What can social entrepreneurs learn from Priya? Think big. Commit fully. Fix what you can. Unabashedly sell your vision, and say yes! Say yes to an important customer taking your only demo product; say yes to investors who want to recuse themselves from a business plan competition; and say yes to a strategically important partner even if their business is the size of an elephant and yours is the size of a mouse. It’s easy to let our fears get the best of us. When opportunities arise, we say “maybe” until we get more information or “no” because there are too many unknowns. How many of us are truly wiling to go on a limb, and just say yes?
If there is one thing that Priya’s memorial made clear, it’s that she believed anyone could create social change. As she said in a Makers video: “I really think the best ideas are still out there … and [if] you know you have a way to solve a problem using business or technology or a creative approach, don’t just sit there and don’t doubt yourself—just try.”
Kristin Groos Richmond, CEO of Revolution Foods, said about Priya’s passing: “She was a key inspiration and role model for me and Kirsten Tobey as we were launching and building Revolution Foods. We thought anything was possible as a woman, entrepreneur, leader, and, recently, a mom. She was a pioneer in our space.”
Thanks to Priya, many social entrepreneurs have now founded companies that blend financial and social value—ultimately helping create a world of good.
To support future social entrepreneurs, a fund has been established in Priya’s honor. See more information here.