Water for Water
Jonathan Greenblatt, Tufts graduate and co-founder of Ethos Water, talks about social entrepreneurship and the world water crisis.
You may not know who Jonathan Greenblatt is, but every time you pick up a venti latte, you may catch a glimpse of the impact the 1992 Tufts graduate has had around the world. As co-founder of Ethos Water, Greenblatt engineered an opportunity to steer investment in clear water initiatives worldwide through the purchase of bottled water. Ethos, which is now sold in more than 6,000 Starbucks locations but will expand to more than 100,000 retail outlets across North America this year thanks to a partnership with PepsiCo, and will invest more than $10 million through 2010 to bring clean water to children and communities around the world.
Though Greenblatt is no longer directly connected to Starbucks and Ethos, he remains passionate about world water issues. He spoke about Ethos and its impact with Padden Murphy (A'09), editor of Discourse, a new student journal "dedicated to the power of reason and the exchange of ideas" published by the Institute for Global Leadership.
So how did the business take off? Was Tufts involved?
When Ethos first started, there were only two people — Peter and me — and it was a struggle to raise money. We were first-time entrepreneurs, and we were just selling water that wasn't scientifically re-engineered or some exotic sort of thing. It was just plain water. We were competing for shelf space with big multinational corporations like Coke, Pepsi, and Nestle. And our ambition was to help children get water — which we aspired to accomplish by raising awareness of the issue and donating 50 percent of our eventual profits. That was the model. As you might imagine, prospective investors thought this was a fairly preposterous idea.
Tufts was core to our initial lift-off. Among all the people we engaged, two of my friends took a chance and invested a bit of money to supplement our quickly depleting savings accounts. One of those two angel investors was Steven Koltai, a Tufts alumnus who also serves on the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service Board of Advocates. Steven's support of Ethos was a key component of our early success.
Even as we started to attain scale, most investors didn't get it, but consumers did. So, Peter and I started making the product by ourselves. We made our own little supply chain with Scotch tape and Dixie cups, so to speak. We would go to cafes, coffee shops, natural food stores, and trade shows. We would show consumers and retailers our bottle and explain what we were doing. Many times, you could just see the light bulb flicker on as someone would say, "Hey, wait a sec, when I drink this water, you mean somebody gets clean water? I get it. Why would I drink anything else?" And they would make that link. The cause was relevant to the product. They believed.
Getting back to Tufts, Ethos initially happened in part because of Steven's seed capital. A second Tufts connection that was critical to our success took place after we started to ramp up our operations. We were present at the annual TED Conference in March 2004, and met Pam and Pierre Omidyar. I was manning a table at the event, and they just came up and we started to talk, not about Ethos but about ourselves and our experiences at Tufts. We literally started with that rudimentary discussion about dorms at Tufts, which broke the ice before we ever started to talk about Ethos. Eventually the Omidyar Network invested in the business and helped us in many ways beyond the money. It was a great relationship that benefited our business enormously.
An Ethos display at a Starbucks in Medford, Mass.
Pam and Pierre clearly are committed to the notion of strengthening civic engagement and empowering people. I think that they have demonstrated this passion through numerous Tufts-related activities, such as starting the Tisch School or launching the micro-finance fund. I think their support of Ethos seems aligned with these investments.
On a personal level, Tufts opened my eyes to the promise of engagement and participation. Exposure to programs like EPIIC or my junior year abroad challenged me to think beyond New England, beyond boundaries and beyond borders. I guess you could say that gave me a more global view. (continued)
Interview by Padden Murphy (A'09). A longer version of this interview originally appeared in the Spring 2008 issue of the student journal Discourse.
Photo of Greenblatt by Corbis. Ethos photos by Joanie Tobin, University Photography.
This story originally ran on July 28, 2008.