How GSEA Social Impact Prize Winner Joe Knopp Started Something That Matters
The EO Global Student Entrepreneur Awards (GSEA) is the premier global competition for students who own and operate a business. Nominees compete against their peers from around the world in a series of local and national competitions in hopes to qualify for the GSEA Global Finals. GSEA delivers on its vision to empower student entrepreneurs to become the world’s most influential change-makers by supporting them with mentorship, recognition and connections to take their businesses to the next level of success.
In the 2022 GSEA Global Finals competition, Joe Knopp represented the United States. He won the GSEA Social Impact Prize for his work in helping to solve the global water crisis with his company, Ripple.
At its core, Ripple is dedicated to serving others by leveraging high-quality product lines to solve real-world problems. The problem at hand: Access to clean water.
Joe started the company in November 2020 from his dorm room at Walsh University in Ohio. Inspired by the book Start Something That Matters by Toms founder Blake Mycoskie, Joe decided to tackle the world water crisis.
Investing every bit of his savings from summer internships —about US$14,000 — Joe purchased 2,000 high-quality water bottles. He then sold them at a cost that included $6.50 from each bottle to go toward building a modern freshwater well in Uganda. Selling 2,000 bottles pays for one well. In essence, each bottle sold provides 2.5 people with clean water for the rest of their lives.
“It took six months to sell our first 2,000 bottles and make the US$13,000 to build our first well. That journey included nights of packing bottles to the point of exhaustion as well as cross-country trips to deliver bottles to businesses,” he said.
Fast-forward just two years to today, and Joe’s growing team has financed and built 21 modern, solar-powered water wells in Uganda. The business is thriving, but he isn’t stopping there.
Joe sees Ripple as an ongoing journey to bettering the world. If he took a pebble and tossed it into still water, ripples would appear. His first “ripple” is the company, Ripple.
The second ring of the ripple is already in progress. Joe is collaborating on an entrepreneurial enrichment program available to university entrepreneur centers across the country.
“I learned so much about how to run a business from starting Ripple,” Joe said. “With this entrepreneurial enrichment program, we can add so much more value to the world.”
We asked Joe about his GSEA experience:
What challenges have you overcome during your entrepreneurial journey?
I lost my father at an early age. At one point, after graduating high school, I was homeless. I moved out of an abusive household, had barely enough money to buy a used car, and slept in that car. I had to figure it out; there was no safety net. I bounced around from couch to couch. When I got to college, there was a deep exhale because I finally had a dorm room to live in.
Tell us about your trip to Uganda to dig that first well.
After selling our first 2,000 water bottles, Ripple had US$13,000—enough to dig the first well. I connected with a university alumnus, Michael Balumba, who was teaching Ugandans to uplift themselves from poverty. Using Ripple’s funds, Michael and his team built the first-ever modern solar-powered water well in Uganda.
We chose solar because traditional hand pump borehole wells typically only last 20 years, which is why Africa as a continent is plagued with thousands of dead wells. In order to mitigate the wear and tear on the well, we utilized clean solar energy to bring the water from the aquifer into a water tower for distribution.
Solar has another benefit. We can use solar power to pump water into a water tower, and distribute it across the community. That way, local elementary schools can have access to water for the first time.
During the height of the pandemic in 2020, our first well was nearly completed. I flew 26 hours to Uganda. I got off the plane, met Michael Balumba in person for the first time, and spent time with the people in the village.
I’ll never forget our first launch day in the rural village of Katiiti. There was a little girl who just stood in front of the well, gazing at it in wonder. I gave out water bottles, and she chose a pink one. Then we filled up our bottles with fresh water from the well, and we clinked them together in celebration!
In two years, we have funded 22 clean water solutions of which 16 are completed and in use. The other 6 will be completed before the end of this calendar year. Overall, more than 50,000 people are seeing a better quality of life from the impact of the wells.
How did you discover the GSEA competition? Tell us about your journey.
My fellow competitor, Blake Faulkner, from Miami University of Ohio, told me I should enter—the week before our local GSEA competition! I scrambled to get my application done and worked on my pitch. It was enough to capture the hearts and attention of the judges. After that round, EO members mentored and helped me hone my pitch before competing in the US Nationals.
I had never been in a pitch competition larger than the one at my own university! After US nationals, I won the Social Impact Award and US$5,000 at GSEA Global Finals.
I used part of the cash prize to go to Uganda in September and used US$1,000 to run a Menstrual Equity Workshop at two schools we’re supporting there. We distribute menstrual supplies for those who can’t afford them. Instead of one-time use, we bought reusable pads that can be washed over and over again.
What are your plans for the future?
I’m working on the We Build a Well Program in universities across the country. The program will give entrepreneurial students the tools and support they need to ideate and build their own businesses. In the next three years, we aim to be in 50 universities.
Participants will sell 200 water bottles each. For every 10 participants, we’ll have enough to build one more well. The top student will go to Uganda for the experience of launching that well.
What would you tell other student entrepreneurs about the GSEA competition?
Apply! Do it now! The worst you’ll get is a no. If you’re lucky, the competition will teach you to fail faster. And if you do fail, build out your idea some more, and come back. Don’t be afraid to share what you’re passionate about.
When you really love something, you’re excited to do it daily. That’s when life starts to get good, in my eyes. I get the most joy in taking an idea from nothing to something.
Everyone creates their own ripple in the world. You get to choose whether or not your ripple is going to be a positive ripple.
The 2022-23 GSEA competition season is now open. If you are a university student running a business, apply today!
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