Katie Hunt Morr works with Sir Richard Branson to leverage entrepreneurship to solve some of the world’s most intractable problems. Director of Community at Virgin Unite, Katie shares how her work catalyzes the best entrepreneurs to collectively benefit our planet and our humanity. We talk “giving forward”, evolved enterprise, and why empowering girls and women in the developing world helps us all.
Melinda Wittstock: Welcome to Wings Katie.
Katie Hunt Morr: Thank you; really excited to join you.
Melinda Wittstock: Me too. I know you’re doing such amazing things for people and the planet at Virgin Unite. And in so many of your previous entrepreneurial and corporate roles, what are you working on right now that you’re most excited about?
Katie Hunt Morr: The engine that we’re building is called the Virgin Unite Constellation, and we’re set to launch next year. The concept is that we all have a deep wealth of resources, our skills, our networks, our passions and ideas, along with philanthropic dollars, that can change intractable problems in a very deep way.
So the idea is that we can circumvent the old chain of non-profit work and philanthropy, having a fund raising event that then leads to donations that then leads to extraction on profit with very few resources to go out and contract and send the money and then try to get to their eventual goal. And if we can circumvent the entire chain, we can get to a place where individuals are actually importing their skills directly into the non-profit achieving their goals.
So it’s an exciting time, and it sounds a little bit abstract, it’s going to be a community of entrepreneurial figures who are truly dedicated to making a difference on a number, a huge variety of causes, and are most interested in digesting an ongoing set of different problems, through education and exposure, and then that additional application of all of the things that they can possibly offer to move a cause forward.
Melinda Wittstock: That is wonderful. I think there are a number of trends right now in business, you know, people have commented that they’re driven a little bit, or a lot, by Millenials, who only really want to buy from companies that have a clean supply chain, or diverse management or are actually doing something really good for the world. You know, a social good cause as part of their business models. Some people call it conscious capitalism, some people call it evolved enterprise. But more and more, we see this trend and where the non-profit world, as you describe, yeah, that strapped non-profit. And so, really, with Virgin Unite, and this whole movement that I see really growing, entrepreneurial skills and entrepreneurial mindset, and entrepreneurs themselves, can give so much to actually improve the world with their models.
Katie Hunt Morr: Yeah, absolutely. And I think it can happen in a lot of different ways. What you’re talking about with business, this shift in business, which is a long time coming, but we are really seeing standard business dissolve. And hopefully standard non-profit mechanisms dissolve so that we actually are meeting in the middle and entities are acting in a way that gives them profit but also fulfills a deeper purpose and has a clean supply chain and is ideally carbon neutral and low impact on the environment.
It’s going to take a long time. We’ve had 150 plus years of doing it the wrong way.
Melinda Wittstock: Right.
Katie Hunt Morr: There’s a lot built on it. So, what we’re seeing is these small changes. I think we’re in an era where transparency and educated consumers are probably the most important thing. Even very pure companies that care a lot about what they’re doing, like Patagonia is a fantastic example. They’re still unraveling their supply chain. And it’s complicated. But as long as companies are offering that transparence and consumers are rewarding the companies that are making progress, rather than being overly critical of any ugliness that’s unearthed … I think we tend to be inundated with information and therefore most attracted to the shiny bits and then as soon as you see something negative come out about a company, you’re making your decisions to move your purchasing dollars elsewhere. When in reality there’s a lot of ugliness behind most of the goods we consume and most of the products and services that we consume.
So really, rewarding the transparency and the progress of companies is critical in making that wholesale transition. Which I think will happen and it’s happening pretty quickly. You know and not being distracted by silly marketing gimmicks and … The term recyclable makes me crazy, because most things are recyclable. It doesn’t mean that the product is any better for the environment. So people see that and then it’s like, “Oh great. It’s checking the boxes, environmentalism, and I can buy this.” You’re really being a savvy consumer and thinking to the next level of the messages that you’re seeing I think is really important.
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah, so much of it is education. I think what’s interesting though from the perspective of a female entrepreneur… there are so many women who really want to do good for the planet. You know, for other people, for the environment, for social causes. And traditionally have been drawn into running non-profits, even now, rather than saying, “Hey, you know what? I’m going to do a for profit around this social good cause.” Are there more avenues do you think now, for women to really go and do good by making money? Like they’re not necessarily mutually exclusive, whereas, they’ve been seen that way in the past.
Katie Hunt Morr: Absolutely. I think we’re in an era of acceptance in which it, you’re not reputationally dinged for having a profitable enterprise connected to something social or environmentally related. Used to be that business would go off and do its thing, and then they would write a check. And whatever the check-writing entity, a corporate foundation or whatever else, would need to be totally separate. And there was like a sanctity around non-profit enterprise piece that could never be connected to the money making side. And the reality is, that destroys both sides. You need businesses with this ability to get away with whatever they want, and no accountability on environment and social issues, and then you strap the non-profits by not giving them enough buy in.
So really creating these business that are thinking about the triple bottom line in every step, especially for entrepreneurs starting in businesses, what an incredible opportunity to be staring a business now, when there are so many resources and so much education and tools available. You can start in exactly the right way, rather than trying to retrofit these older organizations. Which is really hard to do.
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah. I love what you said about the triple bottom line. Our research at my company Verifeed bears that out. We’ve seen, just from the analysis of social conversations we do, that brands and businesses that have an evolved enterprise or the transparency that you speak of, in terms of working out different models and different ways to pay it forward, if you will, you know whether it’s buy one give one or donating a portion of their top line revenue to a cause or actually really, really very much baked into their business model itself, those companies that do it authentically, we see have so much more customer engagement. So much more loyalty; so much more traction! And you can actually tie that back to an improved bottom line. They do better than their competitors. It even speaks to the valuation of a company. It’s amazing to see.
Katie Hunt Morr: Yeah, you know, and in the early 2000’s there was a thought around regulations that … It was carbon capping was the big term then that we were going to see markets move according to environmental metrics – because there would be some kind of government regulation. Obviously we haven’t seen that. What we have seen instead is the rise in consumers having pretty strict demands. I think impact investing is a really interesting movement. And gaining traction even at the large investment firms, which is really cool to see.
And then businesses taking it on themselves, which I don’t think any of us would have predicted. Companies like Unilever, no public pressure to undertake what Paul Pullman has done. There are a lot of CEOs who have stepped up to just say, “This is the right thing to do and so we’re going to do it.” And what is very often revealed is a huge amount of cost savings as soon as you start looking at reducing your environmental impact.
Melinda Wittstock: It’s so interesting too, because the sort of business models that women, more women than not, come up with, tend to be much more around solving big problems. Whether it’s in education or healthcare, transportation or the climate or whatever. So it’s almost like these trends are really good for women. Do you get that sense as well?
Katie Hunt Morr: Absolutely. I mean we have an incredible sea change happening with women around the world. It is slow. We were so far behind globally, in terms of the quality and the more we can open up a compassionate conversation, and this includes allowing men to have a more diverse set of emotions. There’s a lot of social pressure for men to either be fine or angry and nothing in between. And it doesn’t allow for them to express empathy, to be sad, to be hurt in ways that open up more than just a violent response to any kind of problem.
We’re seeing this, sort of an evolved consciousness happen. Which is a really cool thing, and a recognition that we had some huge problems ahead of us, be it economic, environmental or social, that we really need to engage the entire population around and it doesn’t work if you exclude 51%.
Melinda Wittstock: I see entrepreneurs really at the forefront of many of these changes. Do you see that as well?
Katie Hunt Morr: Well, you know, entrepreneurs are adaptable. And I think that the struggle that we see in any kind of change, is people being afraid of reframing the status quo. Entrepreneurs are uniquely positioned to not be afraid of anything when it comes to change.
Melinda Wittstock: Well exactly.
Katie Hunt Morr: Because they know every single day, they’re attracted to every single day being different, right?
Melinda Wittstock: Exactly, that’s the one, one of the main reasons to become an entrepreneur, that’s every day is going to be different.
Katie Hunt Morr: Right? It is.
Melinda Wittstock: That’s funny.
Katie Hunt Morr: Yeah, so coming to an entrepreneur and saying, “Well look, the social contract is different now.” And I guess what we’re seeing with, starting with Harvey Weinstein, but all of this discussion around what sexual harassment really is and what abuse of power really is, I think has changed men’s perception of their behavior and women’s perception as well, of what’s acceptable. Having credible conversations with female peers, I’m thinking, you know, a lot of stuff that went down was just completely inappropriate and I didn’t even realize.
Melinda Wittstock: Yes.
Katie Hunt Morr: But it’s, the conversation is now a totally different one. I think we’re in an inflamed state. I think men feel a little bit powerless and they … Really well intentioned men feel like they can’t say anything to women without second guessing themselves, but we’re gonna land in a great place of, I think, open conversation. And that’s really what it is, you know, when you’re talking about are entrepreneurs best equipped to handle these social changes, absolutely. Because you can come to them and say, “Look, the social contract looks totally different than it did a month ago.” If you can believe that, and they can roll with it I think. Obviously everyone’s, in those respects, a unique individual, but I think entrepreneurs and change is the ideal marriage.
Melinda Wittstock: Absolutely. So I mean, you work very closely with Sir Richard Branson obviously, at Virgin Unite and here’s something having had the honor and pleasure of meeting him several times and being so inspired by his, I don’t know, sense of fun, but also purpose. Just, okay, we’ve got this problem now here in the Caribbean; let’s make it hurricane proof. Let’s, you know, doing things like that that are really big and epic, but having fun along the way.
What a delight to be around that, and what are some of the big things that Virgin Unite is really going to go and do in the few years?
Katie Hunt Morr: Yeah, Virgin Unite is an extraordinary organization. I’ve been with the company for 18 months, so I think I can speak still as a relative newcomer. Extraordinary in that it harnesses that entrepreneurial spirit as you would apply it to business or any commercial venture, but applied to huge problems. So, we don’t have a specific cause. And I think that throws people off. You know, when you tell people you work for a non-profit the first thing they say is, “Well, what do you help with?” And not having a cause is I think confusing to people sometimes.
It’s because we have a model. And the model is to consider which problems we can uniquely affect and to have deep partnerships. To invite a conversation amongst all the entities that will be needed to address a problem. And having the good fortune to work in a way that we don’t need to promote our own brand, so we can actually have a fairly neutral and open discussion with government entities, with commercial entities, with other non-profits, those relationships are absolutely key. And to actually collectively decide what a great new solution might be to a problem that is probably been hit from a lot of different angles.
And then we act in many ways as an incubator. It’s the same kind of thing you would do with a business idea. We tend to stay in that first part of the chain of creating the conversation, ideating a solution as a collective with these partners. And then incubating and then we’ll usually start over.
And a lot of amazing organizations have been birthed from this process. So The Elders is one that is just unique and special. The B Team, the Carbon War Room, which is in partnership with The Rocky Mountain Institute. Ocean Unite. And then these entities go out in the world, and they’re addressing the problems that they’ve decided to take on in connection with Virgin Unite and many others, but often an independent entity. So they’ll take it and run with the idea, which is phenomenal.
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah. I love too, this idea of this constellation, because I would, I’ve got this sort of female web thinking brain or systems thinking, where I see so much value and opportunity in connecting the dots in new ways. And like cross-disciplinary ways or bringing people together in ways that haven’t, they haven’t before, and I see what you guys are doing with that whole constellation structure is awesome, because it’s so empowering, you get people working together. And so much value is invariably going to come out of that. So it’s really inspiring.
Katie Hunt Morr: Yeah, the Constellation is an incredible opportunity because we recognize that this model that Virgin Unite has is one that we can take to scale through other people. So inviting the community to come together as entrepreneurial thinkers that are most driven by having continuous education; a continuous set of problems put in front of them. Sometimes it will be things like ocean health and removing carbon from the atmosphere, and other times it’s women’s empowerment and ending the death penalty in the U.S. That huge spectrum, really the ability to apply their ideas, their skills, their networks, as well as their philanthropic dollars to these problems in a very tangible way.
And I think entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial thinkers are very results driven. So our concept is that coming together as a community of true peers, we’ll be able to take on little pieces of a much larger problem set and get quick results so that we can move on to the next problem set. It’s all about demonstrating fast action and fast results. In a way that’s really fun and keeps people learning and excited and inspired!
Melinda Wittstock: It’s really inspiring. I mean, I love the model and I think it’s so important too. You know, when I think of my mission, and Katie, you and I have talked about this before, you know I think about my mission for the podcast, you know, Wings, this whole idea of lifting women up. It shouldn’t just be first world women, you know, with nice scalable technology businesses getting capital, although that’s a really pressing problem. I have this vision of being able to extend that out, to really lift up women in, you know, developing countries as well and kind of open up those connections between us all so we can go and, as you say, solve a lot of these problems together. And I think the opportunity to do that is so very exciting.
And I say this too, because I want to segue into the work that you do, really educating young girls in developing countries through your own non-profit. Tell us a little bit about that and the work you’re doing there.
Katie Hunt Morr: Yeah, we started Jiamini 10 years ago, two friends and I, one of whom still lives in Tanzania where we were raised. And we started really with the idea of giving kids access to education, because the barrier for us is so low. It was $75.00 to keep a kid in school who would have no ability to get $75.00 a year together. So we saw these kids who were having to drop out of school. And education is core to everything from environmental capabilities to stable social platforms and stable governments. Aside from empowering individuals, feeding their families, sponsoring their relatives to get educated, it’s a virtuous cycle and it is absolutely, in my opinion, the most important thing we can do for development and the evolution of the human race.
And it’s so cheap.
Yeah, this extraordinary author and mentor of mine for a long time, Paul Hopkins, did a study called draw down, which looked at, by megaton, what the most critical solutions, top 100 list of solutions to climate change. And what they’re looking for is that draw down point, how we reverse climate change. ‘Cause it’s not enough just to lower it down, it’s actually not enough to stop it. What was the most fascinating to me is that the list is full of things that you’d expect, solar, wind, all of the solutions that we well know about. The number six solution, by megaton, is educating women and girls. And the number seven is family planning and access to family planning resources.
Melinda Wittstock: Linked to climate change.
Katie Hunt Morr: If you can … To climate change. And this is [inaudible 00:27:09 we’re not looking at social [inaudible 00:27:10, not looking at anything else, we’re just looking at how we reduce carbon. They use carbon as a use [inaudible 00:27:19 for all of the warming gases, so that’s the part of that calculation. How we’re getting to negative warming and getting, reversing climate change.
So taken together, number six and number seven solutions, empowering women and girls around the world is, by megaton, the number one solution to reversing climate change. And it is one of the cheapest.
Melinda Wittstock: That’s amazing.
Katie Hunt Morr: We can put a girl school for an additional year for $75.00.
Melinda Wittstock: That’s …
Katie Hunt Morr: Compared to the retrofitting of energy systems that we’re looking at. Which is also important, but it’s like, why wouldn’t we just do this? Then you obviously have the incredible social implications as well then.
Melinda Wittstock: Absolutely. And when we’re talking about women creating an ecosystem for women to really help lift each other up, we can also at the same time, be lifting up girls and women in developing countries for, yes, a tiny sum of money. You’re saying $75.00 and solving these big problems at the same time.
I love this because I think our brains kind of work this way. We’re a little bit less linear than guys, we can say, okay, this and this but not this but this over here and like, honey your socks are over there. And this is really a wonderful, efficient and creative way to solve problems.
So, at Jiamini, Katie, what have been some of the most rewarding experiences that you’ve had in this massive 10 year give forward that you’ve been leading?
Katie Hunt Morr: There’s a single moment that stands out above any other. And I was in Newsela, which is where we’re raised, very rural part of Southern Tanzania, and it happened to be International Women’s Day. And I hadn’t really thought about making that connection to our girls, we do a girl’s empowerment seminar every year. Which is both for girls and boys, but girls learn for two days and then the boys come in and the girls teach the boys. And it is amazing to watch. And I wanted to run the seminar on International Women’s Day and just see what their response was.
One of the things that I included as part of this was giving them reusable menstrual pads. It, we didn’t think there’d be a great pick up for them. We thought girls would be fairly neutral. But we had seen this very small amount of spending money that we gave to girls, was being invested in pads. Whereas the boys, who get the same amount of money, were buying books! They’re investing in solar lamps so they can study at night. They’re able to put that money towards furthering their education.
So just biologically, there’s this disadvantage. But I thought, you know, there’s just such a stigma around all things menstruation, and I just, these are kind of weird, the idea that you’re, you have something that’s reusable and explain it, we gave them to the girls and they jumped out of their chairs, started screaming and hugging each other. Now these are … Exactly. These, and we know, worldwide, women have to stay home from school, women and girls, when they’re menstruating, very often, if they don’t have access to some kind of period protection.
These pads that can be used for a year, and you know, longer if they’re well taken care of, they cost $5.00. So for $5.00 you have given a woman incredible power. And this is for professional women as well, or women who are farming or women who are doing any kind of activity that women do, the ability to be a person and function in your job or function in your education or function in your social life. Every day of the month, which is something which I think I … I did this about five or six years into working in Tanzania. And I had completely taken it for granted.
So I think that was one of the greatest moments, in just realizing how simple it, well, one would in this [inaudible 00:32:16 society we live in. When we’re talking about the global village. But too, just how easy it is.
Melinda Wittstock: It’s amazing, it’s so easy to not really realize these things and have an impact and it literally costs us so very little. It occurs to me that you need to meet one of my other guests who was on Wings not so long ago, Dr. Sophia Yen, who, her whole medtech business, Pandia Health, helps … You can, I don’t know if you knew this, but you can actually stop your period and start it and stop it. She’s figured out this nice med-tech way of being able to do that. Her hashtag is #periodsoptional.
So, as we sort of wind the interview down, what are your really top pieces of advice for female entrepreneurs? In particular, female entrepreneurs that really do want to combine social good with their businesses?
Katie Hunt Morr: I think, start really critically thinking about this as soon as you’re thinking through your business concept. How it can link, well, how it will link to social environmental good or harm, and then how you will mitigate any harm or eliminate it and how you can actually contribute.
And I would encourage everyone to not be overly concerned about how they’re going to contribute. I think what can happen is we get stuck. We get stuck in the enormity of the world’s problems. We get stuck thinking, what is the absolute best organization to give my $50.00 to? There are so few bad actors in the non-profit space. And I think we end up paralyzing ourselves by trying to get to a perfect place. Especially people who are business folks and maybe not familiar with the landscape…
Seek advice where you can, try to make smart decisions, but do something. And just start. And I think that’s what entrepreneurs are best at. So, making sure that you treat your non-profit engagements the way you treat your business relationships. Start out and then see what happens. And see what you can do and build and evolve. And if you have to change partners then that’s fine too.
And I think, making sure you’re seeking small organizations. As the head of a small organization, I’ll give a plug to the small non-profits around the world. Because smaller businesses, we can be incredibly flexible. We just started a partnership with Spa From Ordinary, and it’s two women entrepreneurs who are running a spa chain. They are absolutely incredible [inaudible 00:36:07 and really original. So because we’re small, we’re able to write an individual thank you note to every one of their customers and keep them deeply informed on the project that they selected, that they want. And it actually is the menstrual pad project. They’re going to be funding our menstrual pads for our girls, and they can get back to all of their customers, give them all the marketing materials.
So if you go with a small non-profit, you can actually have a partnership that probably wouldn’t be possible with a large organization. You can develop a project together; we can track response and be a part of their work. And that’s what’s rewarding. So much more than just giving any amount of money.
Melinda Wittstock: That is beautiful advice. And so, for everyone who’s listening today, who really wants to make an impact, and I hope everybody does, I know that women can really change a young girl’s life. Just for $75.00 right? And can sponsor one of your students at Jiamini. How do they go out and do that?
Katie Hunt Morr: Oh they can just email me. My address is Katie, K-A-T-I-E @jiamini, which is J-I-A-M-I-N-I.org. And I’ll connect with kids, there’s a huge wealth of girls that need support. And boys as well:It’s all part of the same chain.
Melinda Wittstock: That’s awesome and …
Katie Hunt Morr: It’s as easy as it sounds.
Melinda Wittstock: That’s awesome. So I will make sure that that’s in the show notes for everybody. And if people want to get involved or are interested in Constellation or any of the other things that you’re doing at Virgin Unite, how should they, should they also email you about that Katie?
Katie Hunt Morr: Yeah, absolutely.
Melinda Wittstock: Okay. That is wonderful. Thank you so much for putting your wings on and flying with us today.
Katie Hunt Morr: Thank you, it’s been a pleasure.