Making a Global Impact: Meet the UN's First-Ever Resident Entrepreneur
September 15, 2014 | Focus on Women
By Lisa Wirthman
After climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro with a group of celebrity activists to raise awareness of the global clean water crisis, Elizabeth Gore, who was representing the United Nations Foundation, had extraordinary plans to turn that awareness into action in the days ahead.
But after descending Africa’s highest peak, Gore’s heart sank when she reached the UN staff members waiting for her at the base of the mountain. It was January 2010, and a devastating 7.0 earthquake had just struck Haiti. The United Nations was redirecting attention and resources to support life-saving efforts on the now-devastated island, and Gore realized her group’s advocacy efforts for clean water would have to wait.
“Everything shifted and everything was put on hold because people were responding to save lives,” she said. “I always remember that as an example that there is a balance between entrepreneurism and moving things forward, and absolute human need.”
Now, Gore is marking her one-year anniversary as the first-ever Resident Entrepreneur of the UN Foundation. A longtime social entrepreneur, Gore draws on her previous experience as vice president of Global Partnerships at the UN Foundation and her grassroots efforts in founding the Nothing But Nets, Girl Up and Shot@Life campaigns.
Her current job is to bring entrepreneurial thinking and innovation to the global development agency tasked with providing humanitarian relief and responding to the world’s disasters. “We have to pause to think about how to adapt new technologies and new processes for an organization whose day job is to keep people alive and safe,” Gore said.
To assist in her task, Gore chairs the foundation’s Global Entrepreneurs Council, a group of 10 entrepreneurs under the age of 45 who volunteer their time for two years. Rather than simply writing a check, the entrepreneurs lend their networks, business acumen, intellectual capital and technologies to increase the impact of the United Nation’s many humanitarian campaigns, such as empowering women and girls.
For its part, the UN Foundation provides both global reach and cultural understanding to those efforts. “Most of all, we really understand the triple bottom line of people, planet and profit,” Gore said.
Gore hopes to redefine entrepreneurship to reflect the intersection she sees between innovation for profit and for social good. “An entrepreneur is someone who can create something out of nothing that can go to scale,” she said. “It might make a profit, or it might save lives, or it might do both.”
She pointed to the growing market for clean-cooking stoves as an example. Indoor pollution from open stoves is one of the largest killers of women and children across the globe, according to the World Health Organization. In response to increasing demand for safety, entrepreneurs have created different clean-cooking devices across Africa and Latin America—ventures that are not only earning profits but also saving lives.
As the Global Entrepreneurs Council chair, Gore escorted council members on a visit to the Nakivale refugee settlement in Uganda to witness the entrepreneurial efforts of the refugees. There they met three Somali girls—best friends who had lost their families and their homes—who worked together to create a beauty salon and supply store. “The girls plan to use the profits to put themselves through the vocational school in their settlement,” she said.
The group also met an older woman who runs an Internet café using solar power in the camp. “You walk in and everyone in that room is on Facebook,” said Gore. “We are absolutely redefining the word ‘entrepreneur.’”
Back at the United Nations, the council is now working on solutions to support innovation at the refugee camp with additional technologies, education and resources. “Nothing is more sustainable than that which is done by a strong team or partnership,” Gore noted.
Besides building partnerships, Gore’s personal passion is to help the UN Foundation learn how to scale innovation. “We are seeing all of these extraordinary ideas come to bear, whether they come from a UN staff member, an outside entrepreneur or a marginalized girl,” she said. Yet, the foundation has a 90 percent drop-off rate for proven pilot projects that never reach scale.
By the end of this year, Gore plans to create a model to help projects transition from the pilot phase to full-scale implementation. It will address the need for unrestricted funding, partnerships with outside groups, and marketing and communication resources to help garner support and political will.
These are the same components that startup accelerators provide to young companies to help them grow, Gore said. But for the United Nations, the growth of innovative projects also helps save lives.
Take the long-lasting insecticidal bed net, a technology developed in 2005 that has been distributed to 300 million people across Africa and other areas, Gore said. Thanks to the net, malaria deaths have been cut in half in 11 countries.
“What other technologies are not being scaled in that capacity, where we can save millions and millions of lives?” asked Gore.
By building a bridge between innovative ideas and the capacity of the United Nations to implement those ideas on a global scale, Gore hopes to find out.
“I’m very optimistic about where we are in the world thanks to entrepreneurs,” she said.
Lisa Wirthman writes about business, sustainability, public policy, and women’s issues. Her work has been published in The Atlantic.com, USA Today, U.S. News & World Report, Fast Company, Investor’s Business Daily, the Denver Post and the Denver Business Journal.
This article originally appeared on Northwestern Mutual Voice on Forbes.com.