From CEO To Social Entrepreneur: How Jeff Church Is Changing The World

The story of how one businessman used his experience to make a difference in the developing world.
Freelance Writer and editor, Self-employed
July 21, 2011

Jeff Church is an ordinary guy. He’s in his mid-40s, has four kids and lives in San Diego. What isn’t so ordinary about him is his mission: to make a difference in the developing world.

For the past 25 years, Church has spent his time working in the business world, heading up several companies—but a few years back, he felt his thoughts shift direction.

“I started asking myself what’s it all about,” he says. He wanted to give back, but wasn’t sure how. So in 2008, he and his family boarded a plane for Africa for a month-long vacation through Ethiopia and Kenya. They were astonished by the absolute poverty experienced by locals. Especially shocking was the fact that many villages lacked clean water, forcing young girls and women to walk long distances to wells.

The Church family went on several ‘water walks’ during their visit. On one particular day, Church’s 15-year-old daughter, Nina, piped up.

“Nina looked at me as we were walking and said, ‘The girl next to me can’t go to school because she is busy getting water. Can we do something about this, Dad?’” Church says.

Nina’s question got Church thinking. Upon returning home, he put together a business plan where profits of bottled water sales would help to bring clean drinking water to developing nations.

With the help of fellow Harvard Business School alum and friend Michael Stone, the pair founded NIKA (Zulu for ‘to give’) in March 2009. “We sell bottled water in the U.S. with the idea of creating a donation model where 100 percent of our profits go to sustainable water projects around the world,” Church says, adding that in addition to acting as the co-founder of NIKA, he is also the CEO of Flank Digital, an Internet development company in San Diego.

Employees from NIKA do not dig wells. Instead, the for-profit company partners with (carefully vetted) non-profit companies on the ground to help fund clean water projects.

So far, NIKA has donated $400,000 to clean water projects and helped to provide water to more than 7,000 people. The company’s bottled water is sold in 700 stores—mostly in California—including Whole Foods.

I sat down with Church to learn a little more about his mission and advice for social entrepreneurs.

Q: What challenges have you faced entering this market?

A: One of our challenges is that we want to grow, but bottled water is very heavy to ship. We realize that in order to be a national player, we have to have co-packers in other parts of the country.

Another challenge is tackling distribution in such a crowded space. Bottled water is a $12 billion business. We’ve gotten around that by creating vibrant, colorful products, and being carbon neutral and environmentally friendly. We also have a very viral approach. We are active on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.

Q: Why are you so passionate about bringing clean water to the developing world?

A: I’ve learned that the dollar goes incredibly far in making change in the developing world. It only costs $20 to bring clean water to a person for a lifetime.

Water in the developing world is 50 to 70 feet below the surface, and people do not have access. If we can help drill a well, they will have clean water for life.

Q: What advice can you give to young social entrepreneurs?

A: First, learn on someone else’s nickel. Don’t quit your day job to launch something. Get work experience and make mistakes.

Second, really understand and think about your business plan. Make sure your passion is aligned with what you are trying to do. I see a lot of people who want to do something, but they haven’t gone through a SWAT analysis yet. You need to think about your organization as a business, not just a cause.

Third, act boldly when raising money. It is kind of like applying for a job. Don’t be humble. Don’t lie, but act confidently and be aggressive.

Fourth, smartly price and value what you are offering. The other day I spotted maple syrup where the proceeds go to a good cause, but the price was 20 times the grocery store cost. Most consumers will not pay that.

Fifth, outsource as much as you can, but try to keep the quality of the brand. I see lots of businesses get into trouble because they try to vertically build everything.

Sixth, realize that everything will take twice as long as you think it will and cost twice as much money. When you build financial models, make sure you have ample runway.

And seventh, don’t quit. In any entrepreneurial activity, you will have moments where you think about quitting, where you have used your last dollar. Push through those moments. On the other side, I’m sure you will find an order and maybe new relationships. A lot of great things have been abandoned when almost there.

Freelance Writer and editor, Self-employed