Paul Polak is the co-founder and CEO of Windhorse International, a for-profit social venture with the mission of inspiring and leading a revolution in how companies design, price, market and distribute products to benefit the 2.6 billion customers who live on less than $2 a day. Windhorse International combines radically affordable, life-saving or income-generating technology with radically decentralized supply chains to earn profits serving bottom billion customers.
Prior to founding Windhorse, in 2008 Polak founded D-Rev, a non-profit that seeks “to create a design revolution by enlisting the best designers in the world to develop products and ideas that will benefit the 90% of the people on earth who are poor, in order to help them earn their way out of poverty.” Polak is best known for his work with Colorado-based International Development Enterprises (IDE), a non-profit he founded in 1981 which is dedicated to developing practical solutions that harness the power of markets and attack poverty at its roots. IDE has ended poverty for 19 million of the world’s poorest people by making radically affordable irrigation technology available to farmers through local small-scale entrepreneurs, and opening private sector access to markets for their crops.
Early life and education
Polak was born in the Czech Republic and raised in Canada. As a twelve year old in Canada, Polak learned that he could make five cents a quart picking strawberries. This sparked his entrepreneurial spirit and he, along with two partners, Morley Leatherdale and Ed Cummins, started a strawberry farm that earned him seven hundred dollars for two summers’ work (equivalent to about seven thousand dollars today).
After earning his M.D. degree at the University of Western Ontario in London, Canada, Polak worked as an intern at Montreal General Hospital. In 1959, he moved to Denver, Colorado to do his residency at the University of Colorado Medical Center. Polak received his certification from the American Board of Neurology and Psychiatry in 1968.
Work as a psychiatrist
Polak practiced psychiatry for 23 years in Colorado. To better understand the environments influencing his patients, he visited their homes and workplaces. Polak’s career in medicine includes a stint as a deputy coroner and as a medical officer in Melrose, Scotland. In 1971, Polak founded the Southwest Denver Community Mental Health Services Inc., which played a prominent national and international role in advancing both the concept and practical working models of community based care for severely mentally ill clients. He has published more than seventy articles on psychiatric research, psychiatry, and community mental health.
After a trip to Bangladesh, Polak was inspired to use the skills he had honed while working with homeless veterans and mentally ill patients in Denver to help serve the 800 million people living on a dollar a day around the world. Employing the same tactics he pioneered as a psychiatrist, Polak spent time “walking with farmers through their one-acre farms and enjoying a cup of tea with their families, sitting on a stool in front of their thatched-roof mud–and–wattle homes.”
Based on extended conversations with more than three thousand small-acreage farmers in developing countries, Polak devised the simple operating principles of the organization he founded, International Development Enterprises (IDE), which has helped more than 15 million people who survive on less than a dollar a day to move out of poverty.
D-Rev: Design for the other 90%
In 2007, Polak founded D-Rev “to create a design revolution by enlisting the best designers in the world to develop products and ideas that will benefit the 90% of the people on earth who are poor, in order to help them earn their way out of poverty.” D-Rev is a technology incubator that designs and delivers market-driven products to improve the health and incomes of people living on less than $4 per day. D-Rev's headquarters are in Palo Alto, California.
In 2007 Polak also founded Windhorse International, a private company that is the first element of his vision of fomenting a revolution in business to benefit the bottom billions. The first division of Windhorse International, Spring Health Water (India) Ltd., sells affordable safe drinking water to rural Indians through local kiosk owners using a simple electro-chlorination technology. Spring Health aims, within ten years, to reach at least 100 million customers who live on less than $2 a day. Spring Health has received investment from First Light Ventures.
Three principles guide Paul Polak Advisors, Windhorse International and the breadth of Paul’s current work:
- 1) To have a sustainable impact on global poverty, businesses should treat poor people as customers and producers rather than as recipients of charity;
- 2) Businesses can generate positive returns for investors by serving consumers in base of the pyramid populations with average household income in the range of $1–$2 per day; and,
- 3) By changing how they design, price, market, and distribute their products, businesses can make a transformative contribution to ending extreme poverty, while making profits for their investors.
Awards, honors, and accomplishments
- 2008 Polak received an Honorary Doctorate of Science from the University of Western Ontario
- 2008 Polak received Il Monito del Giardino for contributing to the preservation and safeguarding of an environment
- 2008 IDE received a $27 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
- 2006 IDE received a $14 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
- 2004 IDE received The Tech Museum Award for Technology Benefiting Humanity, Accenture Economic Development Award
- 2004 Polak was named the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year for the Western States
- 2003 Polak was named to the Scientific American Top 50 as an Agriculture Policy Leader
Polak has written more than a hundred papers and articles on water, agriculture, design, and development, as well as in the field of mental health. He has been the subject of articles in print media such as National Geographic, Scientific American, Forbes, Harpers, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal.
Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Methods Fail
Published in 2008, Out of Poverty is Polak’s first book. In writing the book, he was responding to the following sentiment—“I hate books about poverty that make you feel guilty, as well as dry, academic ones that put you to sleep. Working to alleviate poverty is a lively, exciting field capable of generating new hope and inspiration, not feelings of gloom and doom. Learning the truth about poverty generates disruptive innovations capable of enriching the lives of rich people even more than those of poor people.”
- D-Rev - Design for the other 90%
- "D-Rev Design Revolution: About Us". Retrieved 2011-08-18.
- Polak, Paul, Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Methods Fail, San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2008, p. 9
- D-Rev: Mission 
- D-Rev: People 
- Paul Polak, Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Methods Fail, San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2008, p. 9. 
-  Paul Polak's book Out of Poverty
-  International Development Enterprises
-  D-Rev: Design for the Other 90%
-  Paul Polak’s Website
-  Paul Polak on The Hour with George Stroumboulopoulos
- Presenter at Cusp Conference 2008
- Paul Polak speaking on The Future Corporation at TEDx MileHigh