Speaking volumes by listening

Entrepreneur Paul Polak, MD’58, DSc’08, aims to end poverty

By Jason Winders, MES’10, PhD’16

Paul Polak

If Paul Polak is quiet, you know he is working.

The legendary social entrepreneur has spent the majority of his eight-plus decades simply listening – and what he learned in doing so has offered hope to millions of the poorest among us.

For more than three decades, he has been viewed as a social entrepreneur icon. His first book, Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail, is a guide for practical solutions to global poverty. He was named among the world’s Brave Thinkers by The Atlantic Monthly, along with Barack Obama and Steve Jobs.

At Western, Polak, MD’58, DSc’08, studied Psychiatry, an attraction he attributes to reflection on his family’s escape from Czechoslovakia in advance of the Nazis occupation in 1938.

“My father had an eye for seeing the obvious. I absorbed that through my skin. When my dad came to the conclusion we have to get out of there or die, he tried to convince others. They said it was just a flash in the pan, this will blow over. Besides, what would we do with our things? He saw what was coming. He had worked hard to establish his business, but he left it all behind to save our skin. And he was right.”

Book_Out of Poverty

Polak continued, “With everything that happened to my family escaping from the Holocaust, I was interested in understanding why people did the things they did. My grandmother died in the gas chambers at Auschwitz. I was interested in learning how people could do this. It is not as simple as just saying, ‘Hitler did this’ and ‘Hitler did that.’ Hitler managed to convince a whole country to elect him. I was interested how a whole country would participate in mass murder and how they would rationalize that participation.”

From that crippling darkness, he found inspiration in his life’s work.

After graduation, Polak worked at Fort Logan Mental Health Center in Denver, Colo. Innately curious about “anything that walks or moves,” he often visited the homes and workplaces of homeless veterans and mentally ill patients to better understand what influenced their behaviour.

“To talk with people – really talk with them – you have to be self-confident and willing to listen to what they have to say, even if you don’t agree with it. You have to be open to learning stuff. I enjoy interacting with peo-ple. I was born that way.”

His father’s peasant upbringing always remained with Polak. Poverty was something understood in his home. This influence and a trip to Bangladesh drove him to apply his curious nature to serve the world’s poor.

In 1982, Polak founded International Development Enterprises, a non-profit venture that provides impover-ished farmers access to affordable irrigation tools.

In 2008, he created Windhorse International and design incubator D-Rev. Operating under the guideline “cheap is beautiful,” his companies design and sell affordable and useful tools – including manual-treadle pumps for irrigation or solar-powered water purifiers – the world’s poor can use to make a living.

Polak bucked traditional methods of helping others by talking directly with the people in need, often in their homes. To him, it was all about listening – something larger organizations were seemingly incapable of doing. (Don’t get him started on the job he believes governments and large aid organizations are doing forcing solu-tions on the poor. He is not impressed.)

Still actively solving problems at 85, Polak boils his success down to a simple formula.

“You can take any problem and find a practical solution. Any problem. The trick is, you have to be willing to quit telling and just listen.”

Photography by Brendan Smialowski, The New York Times/Redux

This article appeared in the Fall 2019 edition of Alumni Gazette