2014-07-29

Co.Exist

Remembering Priya Haji: "The Best Social Entrepreneur Of Our Generation"

With her mix of passion, smarts, and approachability, Priya Haji was a precocious, prolific, and pioneering force in Silicon Valley. She died earlier this month.

The story of Priya Haji's life is full of numbers. There are upsetting numbers, like 44—her age when she died earlier this month from a suspected pulmonary embolism. There are awe-inspiring numbers, like the 500,000 people (at least) in 70 countries served by her socially conscious startups. And there are tongue-in-cheek numbers, like 325,510, a rough estimate of the total voice mail messages she left family and friends—messages full of her warmth, optimism, insight, self-deprecating humor, and advice.

These and other numbers were projected onto a screen at a recent memorial service for Haji at the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley. As her friends and relatives, still stunned by the news, spent hours putting together the tribute, they wondered how they could do justice to such a prolific, pioneering, and dynamic entrepreneur and friend. Then they thought about what she would have done. They decided to apply the strategy that had served her so well in business: quantifying the impact of her work.

Watch Haji give a TEDx Talk in 2011.

Casting a wider net to others friends and former colleagues, they amassed all sorts of data, some conventional, some not (such as hours of advice given, solicited or not), and created a PowerPoint presentation about Haji. It was inspiring, personal, and funny—pure Haji. "We were absolutely channeling Priya," Jagadha Sivan, a former colleague and close friend, tells Co.Exist.

As a social entrepreneur, Haji was rare: a big dreamer with the pragmatism of a dutiful MBA. For her, the business ideas worth pursuing were those that changed people's lives, in ways you could actually measure. Like SaveUp, a clever rewards-based financial app and her most recent company (she was CEO). In its first two years, SaveUp has helped Americans pay down $856 million of debt and increase savings by $1.2 billion.

Van Jones, another close friend and an accomplished social entrepreneur in his own right, told the Haas audience that Haji was "the best social entrepreneur of our generation." Unlike most social entrepreneurs who are fortunate to start one successful organization, she started five. Unlike most who choose for-profit or not-for-profit organizations, she created both. And unlike those who focus on one issue, she tackled a remarkable breadth of problems: health care accessibility, third-world poverty, drug and alcohol addiction, and crippling debt.

Van Jones eulogizes Haji.

"Priya was completely fearless about diving into something new and conquering it," David Guendelman, a close friend and the CFO of SaveUp tells Co.Exist.

Haji began her career as a social entrepreneur at 16. She opened Health for All, a free health clinic in Bryan, Texas, a town of 78,000 between Austin and Houston, so that her father, a doctor, could see low-income patients. A sense of activism and social justice ran in the family, says Aleem Ahmed, a younger cousin and a fellow entrepreneur. Haji's maternal grandfather had run a similar clinic in India. Her grandmother had marched with Mahatma Gandi. "All of this was in the air, around us," says Ahmed. "Priya put her unique entrepreneurial twist on it."

At Stanford, Haji considered becoming a doctor, too, (she was pre-med and got into medical school) but figured she could help more people by creating the right organization. As an undergrad, she learned about the widespread drug and alcohol addiction in nearby East Palo Alto. Dressed in cowboy boots and hoop earrings, Haji became a fixture while co-founding Free at Last, a treatment center that became a national model. The prevailing wisdom, she told a TEDx crowd in 2011, was to bring in outside experts. She did the opposite. "At 21, you see the problem differently," she said. "Communities could rebuild from within."

After earning her MBA at Haas, she and a classmate started World of Good in 2004. Haji had been troubled by global economic disparity since childhood, during family trips to India where she first saw firsthand its vast slums. As an adult, she traveled to other developing countries and became convinced that the key to reducing poverty was helping women. Many were trying to support their families by making handcrafted goods. With a novel business model—for-profit and nonprofit operations supporting each other—World of Good gave importers of Fair Trade goods access to the U.S. market at Whole Foods, Disney and Hallmark stores, and online.

"Priya was one of the first people I knew who was making a for-profit business in Silicon Valley with a social mission happen," says Lisa Gansky, a longtime entrepreneur in the Valley and the bestselling author of The Mesh.

Haji's passion, unshakable conviction, work ethic were contagious. "You dreamed her dream," says Sivan, whom Haji convinced to leave IBM and join World of Good early on. "You believed you could change people's lives, and we were all in it together. I don't think I’ve met another person who made me feel that way."

Haji was also adept at articulating and deciphering the crux of a problem. In one of her first meetings with eBay, which became a major partner and eventually acquired World of Good, she came up with a way to streamline a potentially confusing online marketplace for Fair Trade crafts. "She took this complicated industry—sellers, producers, supply chain partners, certifiers, all the different dimensions of social responsibility—and simplified it," said Robert Chatwani, the head of Internet marketing at eBay, who became a close friend.

To be friends with Haji was to have the same analytic powers she deployed in her work applied to your life and your problems. "She had this way of seeing deeply into who you are, but also who you could become, which you might not be fully aware of yourself," says Guendelman.

She seemed to know when to take matters into her own hands. Like the time that World of Good co-founder Siddharth Sanghvi's apartment burned down while he was out of the country on vacation. Haji picked him and his wife up at the airport. They were expecting the worst. Instead, she drove them to a new place she had outfitted for them in no time. After the fire, she had rushed from the office in time to salvage some of their belongings, tiptoeing in heels through the charred scene.

Haji, whose mother nicknamed her Firecracker (her birthday was the fourth of July), was an unusual CEO—approachable and relatable. She didn’t believe in putting up a wall between her work and personal lives. Dating woes. Trying to have a baby as a single woman. Haji put it all out there. "What set her apart, and this is something that is important for leadership in the corporate world—she wasn't afraid to expose her vulnerabilities, things that were difficult for her," says Guendelman. "That created an amazing trust."

While raising money for SaveUp, she wouldn’t hesitate, in follow-up meetings with venture capitalists, to mention that she was pregnant. "Priya wasn’t even showing," Guendelman says, "but she'd say, ‘I’m going to be a single mom, and I'm going to be CEO of this company. You should fund me.’"

As her friends like to say, "There was one Priya." She was the same whether she was with high-profile CEOs (among her mentors was former Gap CEO Bob Fisher), her colleagues, or impoverished artisans she met in her travels.

Since her death, people in Silicon Valley and beyond have been eager to help her family as she helped others. Cheryl Dahle, the founder and executive director of Chicago-based Future of Fish (and a former Fast Company editor who oversaw social capitalism coverage) started a Fundly campaign for the education of Haji's children, two-year-old Zen and 11-month-old Omi. So far, the effort has raised more than $93,000. Veteran venture capitalist Tim Draper promised them scholarships at his entrepreneurship school if they're admitted. President Obama wrote to Zen and Omi, extolling their mother's legacy. Sivan read the letter at the memorial service.

The friends, relatives, colleagues, and coworkers who organized the event call themselves Team Priya now. They've vowed to keep meeting on a regular basis, to remember and celebrate Haji—even emulate her. They'll listen, advise, and support one another. "We want to do for each other what Priya did for each of us," says Sivan.

That kind of ongoing impact is hard to quantify. But one thing's clear: It will continue to multiply.

[Image: Priya Haji via Flickr / Centro de Innovación BBVA]

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