Philanthropic Entrepreneurship: Up Close

magnify.pngRecently, I read a great blog post entitled “Emmanuel’s Gift” by my VC friend (and fellow blogger) Matt McCall up in Chicago. In this piece, Matt puts forth the premise that small companies or groups of people can have an emormous impact on the world. Our collective job, he states, is to find those opportunities and entrepreneurs that have the potential to do this.

I’ve thought about his comments for the past few weeks. This morning I found myself pondering a great quote by Margaret Mead, the late American anthropologist:

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

As I was reflecting on this quote, and on Matt’s comments in his aforementioned article, I thought back to the people I’ve worked with over the years, or have had the pleasure of befriending. Some of them exuded such a powerful sense of social responsibility, while others seemed oblivious to its sheer existence. One recent personal story bubbled up to the forefront of my reflections, and I’d like to share it with you this morning.

Tom Flaim is a very close personal friend of mine. Tom and I met about 5 or 6 years ago as next door neighbors – we lived across the street from one another. We were drawn together by our mutual love for the arts, in particular, the art of outdoor plein air landscape oil painting. While we don’t get to do it as often as we’d like these days, we both enjoy packing up the portable easels and finding a great scenic spot somewhere in the mountains or out in the country. We used to spend hours there, creating our own renditions of mother nature’s handiwork. Great fun!

Above: Tom Flaim working away at a great plein air spot in the N. Georgia mountains!
Above: Yours truly hard at work on a masterpiece sure to fetch at least $6.84 via ebay (and probably $100M once I’m dead).

Tom is also a fellow Atlanta business executive, and is the CEO of a firm called Group 1 Solutions. Group 1 provides a software platform for first-responders (fire, police, etc.) and the military. In his copious spare time (ha!), he co-started a firm with his brother Steve called First Water Systems, an organization they run as a ministry (no compensation for anyone). Steve recently retired from his position as Vice President of Sales at Coca Cola Enterprises and now does this full time.

First Water focuses on providing a variety of solar-powered water purification systems for the developing world and domestic emergency management.

The mission of First Water is to help the world address the need for ultra-pure water in areas suffering from waterborne illnesses or natural disasters. Millions of people throughout the world, especially in developing countries, do not have access to water that is safe enough to drink or use for clinical operations. Worldwide, one of every two hospital beds is taken by a person suffering from a waterborne illness! In developed countries, clean water is rarely available after natural disasters such as hurricanes and tornados.


First Water’s flagship portable product is called The Responder (pictured above), and it has been successfully implemented in Southeast Asia for tsunami relief, in Africa and India for monsoon flooding relief, throughout the Caribbean and Latin America (particularly in Haiti), and most recently in the US Gulf area after Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma. Instead of access to clean water, people risk consuming water that likely contains E-coli, malaria, influenza, hepatitis, and other waterborne contaminants that cause significant suffering, and ultimately death.

First Water’s products allow folks to literally convert that contaminated water into potable drinking water. In addition to the Responder that purifies 60 gallons per hour, or enough water for many hundreds of people per day, they also have a model that does 180 per day and one that does 720 gallons per hour to easily handle several thousand people. To top it off, all of the units are solar powered!


After Katrina ravaged the gulf coast region, Tom and the team loaded up several small Cessna planes full of backpack-sized water purifiers and headed down to ground zero. Once there, they were able to provide much-needed assistance to the local storm-ravaged populace. Literally, these fellows were walking around New Orleans pumping water directly off the streets, and then drinking it! That’s a pretty powerful demonstration!


Pictured: Gulf Port, MS. – getting ready to purify some standing water


Pictured: Tom on a typical flooded New Orleans street before the arrival of federal help

Wherever natural disaster strikes, the First Water team is prepared to lend a hand. They have at their disposal not only great technology, but great hearts. Indeed, the world is a better place because of their efforts.

Tom, Steve and the rest of the First Water team are a credit to their community. We can all learn a lesson from their personal sacrifice, and willingness to lend a hand to those in need. I believe that these are exactly the type of thoughtful, committed citizens that Margaret Mead had in mind. I also believe that these are the types of “ethical entrepreneurs” worth investigating. They have a great product, a huge market, and need driven by mother nature, and the passion to help their global neighbors.

If you’d like to assist them in their efforts around the world or when the next hurricane, tornado, earthquake, etc. strikes our homeland, or if you just want to learn more about what they are doing, I encourage you to visit their website. If you are affiliated with a disaster relief organization, a government agency, or some other interested organization, and you would like more information on obtaining your own portable Responder or other solar based water purification system, please visit First Water Systems.



  1. Yes, it is always a handful of people who try to change the world. I enjoyed your post and I felt glad to see that a person like Tom is dedicating his full time for helping other people. More research should be done about The Responder and if it can become economically viable then it can be a very good answer to the growing water crisis in many parts of the world.

  2. Hi Razib,

    Thank you for your kind words, but I’m really just one of many. While I am humbled by the blog article here, so many others give as much or more.

    Thanks again for caring.

  3. Great work!

    A great example of how business-minded individuals can get things done so quickly when called to action in emergencies.

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