By Teresa Hartford
Lifestraw, the award-winning humanitarian brand and manufacturer of water filtration and purification products, announced last month that long-time Managing Director, Allison Hill, would assume the role of CEO.
Fifteen years after starting the brand and more than 20 years leading Lifestraw’s parent company, Vestergaard, Owner and CEO Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsen passed the reigns to Hill. Frandsen will remain with the brand continuing to drive humanitarian entrepreneurship businesses through a position on Vestergaard’s board.
Allison is well-respected as a trailblazer. In the last five years under her direction, Lifestraw has grown more than 80 percent in the outdoor sports and emergency retail markets and, in 2019, Lifestraw entered the household market with the launch of LifeStraw’s Home Water Filter pitcher. The brand reached a milestone providing three million kids safe drinking water for a year through its giving back initiative and expansion into Mexico and Ghana, and the growth of Lifestraw’s retail business drove the launch and success of the largest private investment to provide kids around the world with safe drinking water
The following is SGB Executive’s exclusive interview with Allison to talk about what’s next for LifeStraw as she takes over as the highest-ranking, senior executive in the company.
Congratulations on your new post. Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
Foundationally, my education goes back to public health, healthcare, community-level engagement, and working toward inequities in communities and countries around the world.
My passion for the public health space can be traced back to when I was a child spending time in my father’s office, he was a doctor practicing medicine in Western North Carolina where I grew up. I would give water injections to oranges.
At 15, I told her parents I was going to take the summer and travel to Bolivia, and entrepreneurially, I found a volunteer position working in an indigenous community that was bringing healthcare to that population. Throughout my college years, I worked for Planned Parenthood in California engaged in reproductive health in underserved communities and recognized after college that I needed to decide whether to go into medicine or public health. I was most interested in women’s reproductive health and infectious diseases like HIV and moved to Africa to work in an HIV clinic when anti-retroviral medication was not available. I found a position at a hospice clinic and started right in doing HIV hospice patient care.
In 2002, when I was 22 years old, I planned to move back to the U.S. to go to medical school, but the Director of the HIV clinic was leaving her position and asked me if I wanted the job. I jumped into it with an entrepreneurial outlook and welcomed the challenge. At any given time, I had 30-to-40 inpatients, a Tuberculosis ward, an HIV hospice, a school for orphan children of deceased patients, and 600 outpatients the facility managed. I quickly realized that my greatest skill set was thinking outside the box in rethinking how to do more with fewer resources rather than follow a script in a clinical situation and prescribe medication. In large part, the situation called for it — living in the middle of rural Africa — I had very few tools, medicine or otherwise, to combat the diseases.
On the job for three years, I had an amazing and foundational experience. The position taught me to become self-confident and to kick through any glass ceiling. But I recognized that I needed more tools in my toolbox, so I returned to the U.S., entered Johns Hopkins University, and earned a dual degree in International Health and Infectious Disease and Business. It became very clear to me in my previous work that resources make or break any program, and until you understand how financials work, it would be hard to do my next job effectively.
Upon graduation, I worked with Johns Hopkins on its international Malaria policy, and that is where I met Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsen, the Owner of Lifestraw. He recognized my entrepreneurial spirit and I joined the company soon after. Together we wanted to disrupt and look at public health from a different lens, and that was the beginning of my 10-years with Vestergaard.
Over time, I developed a climate business that linked scalable big water programs to carbon finance to show it’s not just about giving people a product; it’s training them to use it and creating and enabling an environment for them to change their behavior. For better or worse, the carbon market imploded, and that program didn’t go to scale as fast as I needed it to.
For my first big project with Lifestraw, I went to the Western Provence of Kenya. I worked with 8,000 employees to deploy water filters, train and educate 877,505 households in just 25.5 days to implement the water filter program. My team hit 40,000 households a day using smartphone technology to cover more than 90-percent of the Provence. It was a fantastic experience for me. Lifestraw still maintains the filters for the Kenyans living in the area.
Every time I was able to develop a new idea to take to scale and to impact more people, I would present it to Mikkel and the Vestergaard Board. If it was a solid business plan and had a solid impact plan behind it, they gave me the bandwidth and the resources to move it forward.
In 2012, I rolled out the Lifestraw business into its own business unit under Vestergaard and, at that time, started servicing the outdoor industry even though Lifestraw was not a retail company but a public health company.
I went to Mikkel and the Board and said that there was an emerging sector in the outdoor space, and they said, “we are not in business to create products for wealthy communities in the U.S.” And I replied “what if I can use this market to take the program into under-resourced communities to scale—so for every product I sell, it’s not just a marketing commitment, but I own the entire value chain to implementing access to safe water at a school for a schoolchild and then document every time that the purifiers are used including maintenance, training and education, and implement it at the rigor of a public healthcare plan so when I commit in a retail perspective to a consumer, for this product that will deliver safe water for a year to a schoolchild, we own the entire value chain and the responsibility to deliver to that child and see that that child can carry the health impact of that program.
Since 2012, retail has grown tremendously for Lifestraw. The public health DNA of the brand and story behind it resonates with retailers and customers. The trust of the products, developing technology that works in open river water in Kenya or South Sudan, and being able to apply the program to backcountry water. People have trust in that.
Who are your role models, and why?
Along the path, I have had important mentors. Our Owner, Mikkel, has been instrumental in coaching me and giving me space to make decisions and to learn from my mistakes and enjoy my successes. He has the sniff test of business acumen that has always been important to bounce ideas off of, and he foundationally is an entrepreneur. So, as my entrepreneur mentor, Mikkel has played that role.
In terms of an overall life role model, since college its been Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg because of her relentless work towards women’s equitable pay and women’s leadership.
Day to day, my role models are my team. Tara Lundy, head of brands, is one of my role models. We have worked together for eight years, and she comes from my public health and business background. Tara, too, is an entrepreneur and a die-hard worker. What she can do to think creatively and to elevate the brand is incredible. We work side-by-side to raise this brand and to build the business. And it’s people like Tara on my team that have become my most significant role models.
What’s one moment you wish you could freeze in time? Nine years ago, there was a moment after the first project I executed here at Lifestraw. When my team of 8,000 people in Kenya worked over 25.5 days to implement the distribution of water filters, training and educating to 877,505 households (or 4.5 million people) on the use of Lifestraw products. It was the first project of its kind, and the biggest project funded privately. Getting through that 25.5 days and showing that it was possible to implement and impact to scale and privately funded, was a moment that shaped my attitude that anything is possible. It resonates still to this day.
AT Outdoor Retailer + Snow Show last month, I posted an Op-Ed in the OR Show Daily about the need for the Outdoor Industry to do more on social impact. But whether it’s the Outdoor Industry or any other industry, I find the private sector making CSR contributions lose sight of what scale means. They don’t lose sight of what scale means when it comes to their customer base bottom line or their P&L. I think we forget that when we make commitments on social impact, what scale means. And I think if a company just Lifestraw’s size, based on the last 4-to-5 years of sales, can cover more than three million kids with safe water programs, what does that mean that larger companies couldn’t do? I think that we, as business leaders, sometimes forget to challenge ourselves.
As you’ve traveled the world, who have you met that has both challenged and inspired you?
I enjoy travel most when I am in some of the poorest countries that have the most significant challenges with safe water. I have been surprised by how much I learn from the customers of our Lifestraw products in rural areas of Kenya, South Sudan or Ethiopia. If you take the time to sit down to your absolute last mile customer, they have a tremendous amount to teach you with feedback on the product and product distribution.
Poverty and access to safe drinking water are not limited to developing countries. Here in the U.S., we have significant challenges with water quality and equitable access to safe drinking water. What motivates you to keep fighting for clean water initiatives here and abroad?
We believe that safe water is a human right. We are country agnostic. Why I use the term under-resourced communities or developing communities is because a lot of those under-resourced communities are right here in the U.S.
A year before Flint, Michigan, there was a recognition that there were fundamental problems with the water infrastructure in the U.S. and that the age of the infrastructure between a water treatment facility and a household across all urban or semi-urban communities were similar. There were epidemics in single-use plastic use, and it was just emerging that there were issues with microplastics in water found on testing. We started investing heavily into our R&D pipeline to go much broader than technologies that were appropriate for African communities or backcountry water to understand that (1) the challenges of water in the world affect all communities and (2) that the challenges of water are not the same across all communities. So, you have to innovate technologies and products that address a vast range of potential contaminants.
If you look at equity challenges to safe water, I think water contamination is the more significant issue for all of us. I also believe that the data that you need to identify what the problems are disproportionate and goes to communities that can afford it. And why you see Newark, NJ, and Flint, MI is because the money wasn’t there—either at the municipal or academia level—to be able to test and to identify that there was a problem with lead contamination. The red flag in Flint, MI, was just an academic who was looking at developmental epidemiology in the Flint area with children who identified this.
We’re not going to solve the issues in the short run of the aging infrastructure that we have here and abroad. We know that contamination from heavy metals, pharmaceuticals, microplastics and chemicals is going to continue for the foreseeable future and escalate. And I don’t think that we have the resources in every community to be able to test water levels. I believe that responsibility for companies like ours is to make the best and broadest spectrum protection in our technologies as possible and make sure they’re accessible to communities that need them.
Lifestraw has been lauded globally for its humanitarian work. What are the most important short- and long-term goals you are addressing?
There are two pieces to that. We are focused on expanding our efforts to emergency response. With climate change, you have a combination of issues that we, as a company, can start tackling. One is climate change. You have more acute water contamination problems for communities that are impacted by natural disasters.
We have a program department at Lifestraw that responds to these emergencies. We are working in Peurto Rico, Bahamas, India and Bangladesh after the natural disasters that hit those areas hard. First and foremost, we will continue to plan out our reach in emergency response to ensure safe water is set up as quickly as possible for communities impacted and also for the response workers. We’ve also seen the need to be a coordination body in these emergencies to be able to coordinate other donations of products or supplies and to set up distribution points, warehousing options, to be able to bring in other rescue aid and to deploy that out to communities, and work with the hospitals on how to set up triage. We have a unique perspective as a company with a history of emergency response to be able to do that.
We are also working on expanding our community engagement programs here in the U.S. We are making sure that our products are appropriate to meet the needs of a community. Over the last five years, we have invested in technologies that can address these problems. And in the previous six months, we have been introducing those solutions. Over the next 12 months, you will see us have a domestic component to our give-back programs, and you will also see us working with emergency responders.
How have the world’s waterways changed or improved since the brand started 20 years ago?
Water contamination has a vast range of issues, causing a variety of health impacts. Twenty years ago, we partnered with the Carter Center to eradicate guinea worm disease. In 1986 there were 3.5 million cases in 21 countries. Last year there were roughly 53 cases in the world. We created a simple mesh filter to remove Guinea worm larvae from drinking water.
In total, Lifestraw provided over 38 million LifeStraw Guinea worm filters to The Carter Center and its partners for the eradication of the disease without the use of a vaccine.
Overall in areas of the world that people acknowledge and openly report on contamination issues, there have been improvements. What is missing from the statistics are all of the communities and countries who never thought that they had a problem with water quality. The U.S. is a great example. Twenty years ago, we didn’t know we had a water quality problem, and we are just waking up to the real issues in our water quality. With the amount of disposable single-use plastic the U.S. and the world use, microplastics in our water are not going away. And we don’t have the long-term solution infrastructure upgrades.
In areas of the world that recognized that they were not providing safe access to their population, they’ve made progress, but in the regions that thought their water and their people were accessing safe water, the water quality has degraded.
What areas of water purification are overlooked?
We’re moving into an area where issues on water quality are not overlooked. Here in the U.S., our water quality problem is probably more extensive than we think it is whether you are on city water or well water. It’s hard to advise without the data. People just need to stay on top of the information, so when they purchase products, they’re giving their families the broadest range of protection.
What projects are you working on?
We’re continuing to plow vast resources into innovation and technology. Our five-year product pipeline is about bringing better technologies that are for broader connection. There are leadership initiatives that I am excited about in the Outdoor Industry specifically. I would like to pull together a social impact working group. Not only do companies in the Outdoor Industry have the tools to take their impact to a much bigger scale than they challenge themselves to, but the consumer is crying out for it at retail. I think we have a consumer that wants this level of social and community engagement and wants more than a product. The Outdoor Industry is poised to be able to come together, and we think the way we look at the impact. I would like to bring that discussion to an executionary level next year.
In addition to your role as CEO for Lifestraw, you are a Mom raising a three-year-old and an eight-month-old.
I have always taken my responsibility at work and at home as separate but equal forces in my life. I prioritize time for both. When I decided to have kids, I joked that I had to get a lot more organized with my time and my travel to make sure that I was present —present at work and present when I’m at home. My husband is an incredibly engaged partner who actively adjusts to make sure that I can juggle both. Neither of us lives close to family, so without him and that support, I would not be able to do both. For that, I am very grateful.
I lead an organization with a lot of female leadership in it. And many of the women are many age or younger. It means that I need to create a work and functional environment where I can expect my team to come to work 200-percent but can be flexible enough that when they have to balance their family obligations, they have space to do that. It goes much deeper than HR policies, but I do think running a company as a woman with young kids and having much of my leadership team as women with young kids, it’s a necessity. You find the system that works for everyone on the team to be successful. Successful parents will be successful at work.
It’s obvious you love your work.
Over the last ten years, it’s been such a fun ride. There’s so much more to do. It just doesn’t feel like going to work every day. For me, it is my passion, my pastime, my hobby, and I love it. I’m excited for the next 10 years. I have a family and career that’s not a career and I’m very appreciative of all that.
Photos courtesy Lifestraw