The open-air wedding party in the remote West African village of Guinagourou, Benin was in full swing when suddenly the rented generator powering the electric lights failed. With no light to dance to, the party crashed to a halt. That was when Sam Goldman pulled out a clearance-store LED headlamp, and lit up the courtyard. With yells of glee, the party resumed and Goldman had found his calling.
Since that night four years ago, Goldman, BSc ’01, has worked to bring affordable, safe, and efficient lighting to the rural poor in developing nations. About one-quarter of the world’s population relies on candles and kerosene for light, says Goldman, who worked in Guinagourou for the American Peace Corps after graduating from UVic with a degree in Biology and Environmental Studies.
The romance of candles and kerosene disappears when you are forced to rely upon them, says Goldman. Kerosene lanterns emit noxious smoke, their poor quality of light hampers work and study, and they start fires that burn thousands of people each year. “And it’s a significantly large emitter of carbon dioxide, which you would never think of when you light one candle, but if you light two billion, it’s a different story,” Goldman says.
After realizing the potential for LED lamps to improve the lives of 1.6 billion people, Goldman couldn’t find manufacturers interested in serving the developing world. He decided to form a company and do it himself. But first he had to learn how, so he took an MBA at Stanford.
“Stanford was one of my top picks primarily because it has a very social entrepreneurial atmosphere to it, but it also has this class called Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability.” He and four classmates designed and field-tested durable, bright and cheap lighting systems that can be recharged with solar energy. They formed a company called d.light design, won a couple of prizes, including $250,000 for their business plan, and secured funding from the same venture capitalists who backed Hotmail.
Now Goldman is in Delhi, establishing d.light design’s global headquarters. Their lighting systems, designed specifically for the rural poor, are being distributed in batches of 5,000 across India. Orders are also coming in from Africa.
Reached via an Internet video link, the 28-year-old CEO seems unfazed by a week of 19-hour days hiring staff and scouting properties. He maintains a laidback, West Coast vibe. “Our goal is pretty simple. I mean, here we are in 2008, we’re in an age where I can talk to you and see your picture on my computer screen and have this conversation for free. And yet one quarter of the world’s population is still using a flame as their source of lighting, whether that’s a candle or kerosene lantern. It just seems unacceptable.”
Hence d.light design’s objective to bring better light to the rural poor within 10 years.
A Brighter Idea | 2