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Editor’s Note: Entrepreneur’s “20 Questions” series features both established and up-and-coming entrepreneurs and asks them a number of questions about what makes them tick, their everyday success strategies and advice for aspiring founders.
At 663 million, the amount of people who do not have access to safe and clean water around the world is mind boggling.
It is an issue that affects not only health but also education and economic opportunities, especially in sub-Saharan Africa and Eastern and Southern Asia where the lack of access is most prevalent.
In 2004, Charity: Water CEO Scott Harrison left New York City to volunteer in West Africa.
“I spent a couple of years volunteering as a photojournalist for Mercy Ships in Benin and Liberia, West Africa. I began volunteering with Mercy Ships after having spent 10 years as a selfish nightclub promoter in NYC and realizing that I needed to turn my life around. Being on that mission brought me face to face with the water crisis for the first time and inspired me to start Charity: Water.”
In 2006, he began the nonprofit to raise awareness about the crisis and create environmentally sound, community-owned water projects.
The organization recently celebrated it’s 10th anniversary, and to date it has raised more than $244 million, funded over 22,936 water projects in 24 countries and provided over 7 million people with safe and clean water.
We caught up with Harrison and asked him 20 questions to figure out what makes him tick.
1. How do you start your day?
When I’m not on the road, I try to let my wife sleep in and make my son breakfast. While he’s eating, I dive into my phone to triage emails. This usually only takes a minute or two, but there’s a certain release I find when I can delete the evening’s non-actionable emails, forward the few that can be delegated immediately and know I’m headed to work with only a five to 10 email debt.
I take my son to school, and we count off all the people and things we’re grateful for on our walk. This helps put me in a positive mindset.
2. How do you end your day?
I pray with my son in his bedroom, and we end the day by saying the things we’re grateful for. Currently, the grandparents’ riding mower is top of his list. Beginning and ending the day with gratitude is so important. It’s so easy to get stressed out about things that aren’t important and focusing on gratitude helps ground me in positivity and thankfulness.
3. What’s a book that changed your mind?
Getting Things Done by David Allen. This book made me into a list-maker and helped me become more productive in countless ways. When it comes to creative ideas, I can easily lose them, if I don’t immediately capture them. I then later agonize about “that idea” I was really excited about and wanted to bring to the team, but forgot. Writing down ideas and putting some space behind them also has a filtering effect. Some feel irrelevant or even downright stupid upon deeper consideration.
4. What’s a book you always recommend?
The Elements of Persuasion by Robert Dickman and Richard Maxwell. It’s a great, short book about the importance of storytelling, which is something that's been essential to our success at Charity: Water. By telling powerful stories about the communities and individuals we serve, we inspire people to get involved and connect donors to their impact on a personal level. I think the ability to tell compelling stories that bring your work and mission to life is paramount to the success of any business.
5. What’s a strategy to keep focused?
I’m always looking to find time to think on something deeply without interruption. Carving out time away from devices and screens can be extremely beneficial to focusing. Take the time to go on a walk or sit in the park.
6. When you were a kid what did you want to be when you grew up?
I grew up with a mother who was incredibly sick, so I wanted to be a doctor to help people like her.
7. What did you learn from the worst boss you ever had?
Nobody likes to be micromanaged. Don’t do it.
8. Who has influenced you most when it comes to how you approach your work?
Dr. Gary Parker, the chief surgeon for a humanitarian-aid group called Mercy Ships was the biggest influence on me. He donated three months of his time in the humanitarian service of others and was so moved by what he saw, that three months turned into 30 years. I’ve never met anyone with that kind of commitment and passion to serve others day in and day out with his time, talent and money.
9. What’s a trip that changed you?
I lived in a remote Ethiopian village where a 13-year-old girl hung herself after accidentally dropping her clay pot and spilling the dirty water that she had walked miles to collect for her family. I left forever changed and wrote about it here: The Last Walk for Water.
10. What inspires you?
Compassion. Radical generosity. True humility. Virtue.
11. What was your first business idea and what did you do with it?
I sold Christmas cards door-to-door in the country. I didn’t make much money, but I learned how to knock on the door of a stranger with a smile.
12. What was an early job that taught you something important or useful?
I worked at McDonald’s when I was a teenager. One time I dressed up as the Hamburglar to earn time and a half pay. You simply can’t take yourself too seriously when you can’t fit your bun through a doorway without tilting to the side.
13. What’s the best advice you ever took?
Put integrity at the core of everything you do. So much more important than what you do is how you do it. For Charity: Water, that means sticking to our promise of radical transparency and using 100 percent of public donations to directly fund water projects in the field.
14. What’s the worst piece of advice you ever got?
Growth is everything. While we had eight years of consecutive, and often breakneck, growth, we didn’t grow in our ninth year. We focused on foundational efforts, made great strides in increasing the sustainability of our global programs and built a new subscription-revenue program. But I had a personal sense that something was wrong, that I’d failed the organization, because I’d placed so much effort in “always growing.” We grew again the next year and, looking back, I realized how important it was to have that experience, stay the course, and stay true to our values and vision.
15. What’s a productivity tip you swear by?
Write things down before you forget them.
16. Is there an app or tool you use in a surprising way to get things done or stay on track?
I use an app on iPhone called Clear. It’s a glorified list-maker that I can’t live without.
17. What does work-life balance mean to you?
I have an amazing wife and two kids under 3 years old, so I’ve tried to make the transition from work to home as seamless as possible by eliminating a commute. While we live in a tiny apartment in New York City, I can walk to work in 8 minutes and my family “drops by” every few weeks. My son Jackson has been known to come running down the hallway and break up one of my meetings with a big grin on his face. I also try to fly less. Before my first child was born, I took 96 separate flights in one year. I now try to keep that number closer to 50 annually.
18. How do you prevent burnout?
Prayer, family time and sleep.
19. When you’re faced with a creativity block, what’s your strategy to get innovating?
Long car rides in Africa. I wish this solution wasn’t 3,000 miles away, but some of my favorite creative breakthroughs have come in Malawi, India, Niger or Ethiopia in the back of a Land Rover.
20. What are you learning now?
I’m learning about moving from sprinting to marathon mode. For the first 10 years of Charity: Water, every year was all-important. We only felt we were as good as our last year’s donation totals and our impact in the field -- people served with clean water. Now, as we enter our second decade, we’ve begun to shift some of our thinking to the long term. How can some of our innovations be scaled non-linearly? What impact are we having beyond just people served? How will we continue to reinvent charity and use the lessons we’re learning to serve others who are doing important work?