That African saying pretty much describes the life of Howard Weinstein. In 1995, Weinstein had it all: a fancy home in Montreal, a country estate, the presidency of a giant plumbing company he’d built and sold for a tidy sum to a Fortune 500 company, and a beautiful 10-year old daughter. But his world fell apart the night his daughter died in her sleep of an aneurysm, and one week later, he was fired from his job. After several years of therapy and a half-hearted attempt to start a new company that went bankrupt, in 2001, he was offered a job to help poor Africans for $1,000/month. That was the genesis of Solar Ear and the rebirth of Weinstein’s life.
In Otse, Botswana, Weinstein was given the task to set up a company to produce affordable hearing aids for hearing-impaired Africans. The problem was, Weinstein knew nothing about audiology and even less about deafness. But he did understand, with a businessman’s keen intuition, the tremendous need: 250 million people in the world are hearing- impaired, 2/3 of them in the developing world. Hearing aids can make a critical difference, but they cost about $750– with batteries that last a week and cost $1 apiece. For people in Africa who make $1 a day, these prohibitive costs mean they are condemned to live in silence.
So Weinstein went to work – looking for grants, talking to manufacturers and electronics geeks, forging alliances with microprocessor giants, and ultimately producing Solar Ear: a hearing aid and solar charger with rechargeable batteries that would last for two to three years…and could be built and sold at a profit for less than $100.
Then Weinstein had his second burst of inspiration: to do the microelectronics and fine soldering work involved in making the hearing aids, he hired only deaf people, with the masterful hand/eye coordination honed by learning sign language. By giving disabled people in Botswana the dignity of work, an income, and making them role models for other hearing-impaired folks, Weinstein used the Solar Ear as a device to change society’s perception of the disabled. And profits from Solar Ear fund HIV education, which has reduced the prevalence of new cases from 35% to 10%.
From its base in Botswana, Solar Ear now sells its devices in 31 African countries, but Weinstein is just getting started. He opened a Solar Ear plant in Brazil and is working with University of Sao Paolo engineers to produce the second-generation digital hearing aid to distribute all over Latin America. He is also working with CISEPO (see post 11/24), setting up a plant in Jordan to cover the Middle East – hiring deaf young adults from Palestine, Israel and Jordan in a peace-building Solar Ear effort there.
In the past seven years, Solar Ear has sold 10,000 hearing aids, 20,000 solar chargers and 50,000 batteries in 51 countries, with plans to open fifteen more independent operations over the next five years, and employ over 1000 people with a hearing disability. And every one of those Solar Ears can unlock a new world of possibilities for a deaf person: allowing a child to go to school, an adult to find work, or an outsider to join the conversation.
For turning his own personal tragedy into a blessing for so many others, my $100 today goes to Howard Weinstein and Solar Ear. To join me, click here!