A SI360 alum and mentor, James Downer founded Colibrí, a company provides solar energy to clientele in Nicaragua through financing options and installation.
In his entrepreneurial journey, he left no stone unturned. He founded the company while he was still a student at Tufts University with financial support from the school and a slew of other small donors. The winter after his junior year, he traveled to Nicaragua for the first time with half the funding from a grant and the other half from his side hustle of shoveling snow.
His customers are typically rural households with an average of five and a half people residing under the same roof. Their household income is generally tied to agriculture, with a daily wage of $3.50 — and 90% of his clients have never had formal credit. Colibrí breaks up payments over the course of a year so that solar power is affordable for everyone.
James believes that most companies choose one side of social impact to focus on: externally serving the world with planet-friendly products or serving traditionally underserved customers, or internally by hiring diverse candidates and treating their employees well. Colibrí prides itself on doing both. They strive not only to provide environmentally-friendly services to underserved populations, but to also provide them with excellent customer service. Colibrí is also making special efforts to employ women and is building an all-woman tech team for installation and customer service. James also believes that training and capacity building is good for their employees to make investments in themselves and the business.
The SI360 Connection
SI360 directly influenced his work and professional journey through the people he met. By serving as a mentor, he met his co-founder — and the rest is history.
He also learned from the speakers SI360 hosted on his campus — and one in particular stuck with him. The presenter captured the idea of not focusing on the symptom but focusing on the upstream problem. She used a metaphor of a child caught a the current and being rushed down a river. You save him from drowning. But then you see the same situation in a continuous cycle. You can’t save them all one by one — maybe you should go upstream to investigate the real problem and prevent the situation from happening altogether. This changed the way James imagined businesses of the future.
The Future of Social Impact
He believes it is inevitable that businesses are going to be held more accountable to social responsibility in the future. With social networks like Twitter, it is about social scalability. A message or value that one person speaks about can reach millions of people which keeps companies more accountable.
“We are in an era with unrivaled opportunity to build your personal values and personal mission into a business. Do you care about civil rights? Do you want to employ a specific demographic? That’s something you can scale. The people you work with will believe in it and work with you and it will change the world.”