THE IDEA FOR DRINKWARE COMPANY Powwater came about for Ellie O’Neill ’11 in the wake of a traumatic experience— her boyfriend Jack Hartpence’s near-death car accident. O’Neill, who was working in finance in New York at the time, found herself jolted awake by the intensely contemplative conversations she and Hartpence began to have in the aftermath of his trauma.
“Jack felt like he’d been given a second chance,” O’Neill recalls. “We talked extensively about what good we were doing in the world, and it ultimately became clear that we both felt our lives lacked meaning. Our careers weren’t fulfilling us. At that point, we realized there was no real reason we couldn’t take a step back and start again on a different, less-traveled path.”
From there, based on the shared view that water scarcity is one of the most pressing issues of our time, O’Neill and Hartpence cofounded Powwater, a social business selling reusable water bottles, coffee mugs, and wine tumblers that reinvests profits into sustainable clean drinking water systems across the globe.
“By 2025 two-thirds of humanity will live in water-scarce regions, and that’s not just in developing countries,” O’Neill explains. “In many of these regions, women spend half their day fetching water—precious time they could spend doing something else far more productive, like getting an education.”
Social businesses give consumers the power to make an impact with every purchase. They’re designed to tackle global issues by empowering communities to solve their own problems, creating jobs and stimulating economic returns.
And while social businesses like Powwater are for-profit, their profits are channeled toward social causes rather than being pocketed by investors or owners. In the words of Nobel Peace Laureate and Powwater advocate Muhammad Yunus, “A charity dollar has only one life; a social business dollar can be invested over and over again.”
When you purchase a piece of Powwater drinkware—after the company recoups its costs—the leftover profits go to the company’s partners, microentrepreneurs heading water systems in Africa. Instead of merely giving the impacted regions clean water, Powwater provides the tools and education for these communities to build and maintain water systems and lasting solutions.
“It’s amazing to think about the potential of our impact as we grow,” O’Neill shares. “We’re hoping to be able to launch a water project here in the States in the near future. Not many people realize that the water crisis exists in our very own country, but it’s a real problem.”
In addition to O’Neill and Hartpence, there are two other cofounders of Powwater, and each of the four team members brings their own area of expertise. The company hopes to expand from drinkware in the future and broaden its impact by offering additional product lines. While O’Neill feels positive about Powwater’s progress so far, she acknowledges the difficulties that arise in a start-up culture.
“When you build a company yourself— or with only a few people—there’s not really anyone to validate your work and your progress,” she says. “So that’s been hard. It’s a challenge I’ve never had to face in my professional life, until now.”
While O’Neill’s uncertainty is natural for anyone who starts their own business, Powwater’s numbers speak for themselves. Since launching in August, the company has already brought clean water to over 20,000 people in need. And that number only continues to grow.
O’Neill attributes both her passion for making a difference and her entrepreneurial spirit to her years at Taft.
“Taft was the most pivotal experience of my life,” she reflects. “To leave home at such a young age really forces you to grow up quickly. And Taft’s motto about giving back is so important and was what made me aware of my privilege. It taught me that so many others hadn’t been given what I’d been given. That knowledge became rooted in me; it has shaped my life.”
—Carola Lovering Crane ’07