One principle—the desire to find work with purpose—has guided John Salzinger on his winding career path through a variety of jobs, from advertising to entertainment and others in between. Eventually he found his job with meaning, inspired to shine a light and provide a sense of safety for people around the world through solar lanterns. In launching MPOWERD in 2012 after witnessing the devastating effects of an earthquake on people in Haiti, Salzinger started a business that created a profit while also serving a social and environmental purpose.
“It aligned with the values that had been ingrained by my parents: people and planet; everyone was equal,” he says. “You watch enough documentaries, you read enough articles and books, you realize that we’re destroying what we have. With what’s been going on with climate change, this was a perfect opportunity to change the world for the better and use business to do so.”
By connecting with NGOs around the world, MPOWERD is able to provide solar-powered lanterns to victims of natural disasters, including the 2020 Puerto Rico earthquake, and to those who live with unreliable sources of electricity without access to a grid and typically rely on kerosene and other harmful materials for light. Salzinger says the sense of safety that a light provides is invaluable and universal, which fuels the company’s donation program. Through its product line—lanterns, string lights, its new bike light, and more—MPOWERD customers help others through their purchases and have the option to add $10 for a donated lantern to their order. “If a consumer buys a light, they’ve already contributed. There’s not a heavy lift,” he says.
In speaking with Salzinger recently as part of my research on purpose-driven companies, he told me that MPOWERD has broadened the scope of its donation program through partnerships with corporate partners, giving companies a corporate social responsibility (CSR) option that has proven to be well-received by sustainability-minded employees.
“We are a turnkey solution whereby a light can go to your consumers as a value add, or to your employees for engagement or gifting and, frankly, another light to our program,” he says. “When a natural disaster happens, our lights go there. It’s a way to give, but it’s sustainable.”
MPOWERD’s Luci products sit on the shelves at big-name retailers including REI, Target, and Best Buy, and are available online. The margins these products command at retail enable subsidized and localized pricing into impact situations around the globe. The solar lights and mobile chargers are designed with functionality and safety in mind, Salzinger says, noting that the concept of self-empowerment inspired the company’s name.
“We create products for people. So we don’t think, ‘Oh, let's create a product for Zimbabwe,’ or ‘Let’s get a product for Walmart or Target,’” Salzinger says. “We make a product that works across all of those. So it’s good for camping, but at the same time it’s good for a refugee camp, and it’s the exact same product. That is really important: The same product that’s being sold here and used here is used everywhere else.”
Salzinger shares more about MPOWERD’s history and hopes for the future in the questions below.
Chris Marquis: Why did you choose lighting as the product to donate as well as sell at retail?
John Salzinger: People generally have six areas of need: transportation, medical, security, water, food, electricity. When you go to a country that’s underserved or has been sort of globally neglected, you need to figure out where you can fit in and where you can help. I didn’t have a history in any of those areas, but I did have a history in retail and marketing and sales. I just felt like there had to be something that I can sell to retail in the United States to reduce pricing, to and subsidize for other markets.
Lighting was obvious. It was a crowded market, but I felt like design was flawed, utility was flawed. Light also improves people’s lives in many areas, including education, medical care, business entrepreneurship, and safety for women. It’s what we take for granted. The problem I saw was that the light that was used—because people don’t live in darkness—was either candles, firewood, or kerosene burning in homes without proper ventilation. It's a leading cause of death—pulmonary issues in emerging markets and underserved communities around the world—so to me that was something that I could relate to a market.
And it's not just no electricity, it’s intermittent access to power. Plenty of countries have regularly scheduled brownouts throughout the day. When you give someone a light, in a way you’re giving them the fishing rod and not the fish; you’re giving them the ability to change their own world or bettering their own life.
Marquis: How does MPOWERD coordinate its giving in response to natural disasters? Who do you partner with on that work, and what are some of the challenges involved?
Salzinger: In some way, shape, or form we’ve delivered lights into 90 countries. I like to use NGOs and relationships with NGOs and utilize them for deployment because they’re incredible or hyper localized.
We started as a B Corp and benefit corporation rather than an NGO because of the regulations on what they can do and how they can raise money and then what they can do with that money, although they are necessary and fantastic.
NGOs rely on a good economy and wealthy donors, and it was very challenging last year because of COVID-19. When COVID hit a lot of money, rightly so, went into medical and PPE. There was a real difficulty with COVID resources because people had donated their money, but there was so much need. Unfortunately one of the unwritten stories is how COVID affected emerging markets and underserved communities around the world. Education, health, safety, medical women's rights, water, food—all of these causes were neglected because of COVID. All the money went to the developed world and, unfortunately, the rest of the world is suffering, not only from their regular problems, but now from COVID.
We like to get funding from our consumers who can buy lights through our give Luci Program. So can corporations, through our corporate social responsibility program—cause marketing initiatives that actually increase loyalty. It brings them closer to the consumer, and they’re a better company for it. This helps make it affordable for us to get lights into areas that need it through our business model and subsidizing just through you buying a light.
When a natural disaster strikes, it’s in the news and people react. When something happens, people see it, people want to help. We just make sure that when someone needs something, we get it to them. We find an organization that can deploy it and we find a partner in the corporate world that cares about that cause.
Marquis: What shapes your product development process? Any new or upcoming products in the works?
Salzinger: Design is really important, because good design equates to people using your product more frequently. It’s utility—making sure things are functional and last long. Our first international customer was in Japan. They really care about emergency preparedness and they really care about design. It really helped us in terms of refining and structuring lights that are beautiful and usable and intuitive.
We come up with the ideation here in New York. Holding patents in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office I think is essential because it just demonstrates that anyone can create. I surround myself with people who are smarter, including our CEO
Seungah Jeong and Jason Snyder, one of my cofounders.
Part of our development is to teach that next generation about clean energy. So we have a deconstructed STEM Luci lantern in every Barnes and Noble. My 3 year old kid knows how every single light works, and when they don’t work he knows to put them in the sun. Of great relevance, we have just come out with a Solar Bike Light set at a time when it is more important for people to commute in a safe and environmentally conscious manner than ever before!