Lighting it up: MPOWERD’s Seungah Jeong
As the CEO of MPOWERD, Seungah Jeong is showing how making money and making an impact can go hand in hand. - By Tracy Ross
One of Seungah Jeong’s most indelible childhood memories occurred when her family returned to their native village in South Korea to visit relatives. She was six years old, and recalls watching the light of a kerosene lamp and feeling frightened. “My community still didn’t have a toilet by then,” she says. “We didn’t even have what would be called a latrine. It was a hole in the ground … a scary hole. It was pitch black, and I was always terrified of slipping and falling in.”
Almost four decades later, as the CEO of MPOWERD, Jeong’s memory of the poorly lit village inspired her to improve the company’s solar-powered lights for use in one of its worldwide humanitarian projects. At her urging, MPOWERD began brainstorming with an organization called iDE to develop a solar light that could easily be installed within household and community latrines in Bangladesh. When the team started talking about the project, they focused on where to install the lights—but only in the context of the best place to capture solar energy. It was Jeong’s idea to incorporate a spot inside the latrine where users could hook up the Luci lantern to focus light at their feet, primarily because “I remembered how scary the latrine was for me,” she says.
It’s one example of how Jeong’s unusual path from a rural village in South Korea to CEO of a Certified B Corporation makes her a unique—and effective—leader. Since joining the company in 2016, Jeong has overseen a radical period of growth on two key fronts: consumer sales of MPOWERD’s collapsible, solar-powered lights for recreational use, and distribution of its lights for humanitarian and disaster-relief scenarios.
Founded in 2012 by Jeong’s executive partner, John Salzinger, MPOWERD sells its inflatable solar lights at retail outlets ranging from REI to Nordstrom in order to subsidize selling lights to developing communities around the world at a steep discount. To date, the company has delivered light to millions of individuals in countries ranging from Papua New Guinea to Tanzania. And by replacing dirtier light sources (wood or kerosene), the program has prevented the release of some 650,000 tons of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Sounds great, but Jeong isn’t satisfied yet. She wants to prove MPOWERD’s model is sustainable and scalable, and perhaps attract the interest of a mission-driven mega-corporation that will help grow the company exponentially. “Scale is what we need to create change because it isn’t happening quickly enough at the policy level,” Jeong says. “Help isn’t getting to actual people. And that’s what I love—when actual people write in to thank us.”
The roots of Jeong’s ambition can be traced back to that South Korean village, to a house with no plumbing or electric light. Jeong was born there in 1976. Less than a year later, her parents emigrated to Texas, taking her older sister but lacking funds to bring their younger daughter. Raised by her “aunties and various villagers,” Jeong’s first fully formed memory is of deplaning in Dallas, after her parents sent for her in 1979, and seeing her father, whom she recognized only from pictures.
The family was reunited, but that didn’t mean an end to hardship. America was not quite the land of opportunity Jeong’s father had imagined. To scrape by, he worked three construction jobs while Jeong’s mother stayed home. The family was too poor to afford toys, says Jeong, so the girls played with “Pillow” and “Umbrella.” Neither parent could read, so they didn’t own a single book. She remembers dumpster diving for books behind her elementary school in Farmer’s Branch, Texas. She discovered a treasure trove of textbooks the school had abandoned, and dove in to pick through the pile. The kindergartener would find ones that looked especially intriguing, take them home, and pore over them in her bedroom. The best books were ones the teachers had marked up with notes. “I knew the questions to ask, and the answers,” says Jeong. “I could be the teacher and the student.”
Her adolescence was a challenge even after the Jeongs moved into the middle-class tax bracket. “There was a ton of racism in Texas,” she says. “But I was singled out for more than my ethnicity. Due to our financial situation in my early years, my family always lived like we didn’t have money. We didn’t go to museums. We didn’t eat in restaurants.”
But she was an attentive student who made her way to the University of Chicago on scholarships and earned a double major in philosophy and environmental studies. Then she went to the University of Cambridge, where she pursued a Master’s degree in geography (focusing on environment and development). But she found the classes frustrating. Half of the students were from developing countries, half from the West. And the Western students dominated the program, she says. “I was struggling. I didn’t know how I could become one of those [Western] people telling [people from less-developed countries] what to do.”
She felt like she was back in high school, where minorities were invisible, and partway through her program, she decided to drop out and pursue a career in business. It appealed to her more than law or medicine, but some of her fellow policy students gave her hell for the choice. “Before I went down that path, I’d gotten a degree in environmental studies. I’d also worked on a farm, leading nature walks and training birds of prey.” And she’d gone far enough down the policy route that she understood how that path worked. “I had a globe on my résumé,” she says, laughing. Despite her newfound corporate ambitions, the seeds of social and environmental impact had been planted.
Her decision to go into business might have been an unlikely transition, but it coincided with a new policy at Proctor & Gamble that prioritized finding talent from outside the company and outside of business majors.
One of her first responsibilities was to be plant liaison at the Oil of Olay factory in Nenagh, Ireland, in 2000. Here, she could have had a conflict as a young Asian woman working with a bunch of “tough, Guinness-drinking Irishmen.” But on her first day, when all of the guys gathered at the local pub after work, she joined them, even though she usually didn’t drink. “I was downing Guinness!” she recalls. The icebreaker smoothed the perceived barriers of her age, gender, and ethnicity, and the team became more receptive to what she had to say while welcoming her transparency about what she needed to learn.
After Proctor & Gamble, Jeong joined a cosmetics company and then co-founded the Candela Group, a home and fine-fragrance company that was subsequently sold. Then, in 2016, MPOWERD came calling.
At the time, MPOWERD, four years old, was “in debt, with legal and financial difficulties,” she says. The company was in a place where it needed new vision, and Jeong surfaced as the ideal candidate.
What makes her so effective, in part, is her ability to take complex ideas and distill them into something digestible. Or, as her former Proctor & Gamble boss Bhavesh Shah says, “She can translate Plato’s Allegory of the Cave so simply it would make sense to a six-year-old.”
With Salzinger’s support, Jeong got to work overhauling the company, from funding to governance to employees to retail strategy. Before her arrival, MPOWERD had just one kind of light—the Luci Inflatable Solar Light. Now it sells a wide variety of lights (all solar powered), plus STEM light-building kits.
But as a B Corp, MPOWERD’s sales success wouldn’t matter without a commensurate improvement in the brand’s humanitarian mission. And since Jeong arrived, hundreds of thousands more lights are reaching those in need, thanks to strategic partnerships she and Salzinger have driven.
These partnerships work in several different ways. One is the cause-market – ing model, by which revenue from retail purchases subsidizes sales in developing countries. Sometimes discounted Luci lights are distributed through NGO partners. Sometimes religious or mission-driven organizations like The Church of Latter-day Saints buy Luci lights in bulk to deploy through MPOWERD’s 650 NGO partners. Along the way, Salzinger pioneered a program selling lights to corporations in a twofer plan: for example, Direct Energy in Dallas, Texas, bought lights in bulk to give as customer gifts, and purchased an equal number of lights for disaster relief and humanitarian aid.
MPOWERD is not alone in pioneering creative ways to incorporate a give-back element into its business model. Outdoor industry companies such as LifeStraw, BioLite, Sawyer, Cotopaxi, and MSR— to name just a few—have made significant commitments to humanitarian aid. BioLite’s HomeStove delivers energy to sub-Saharan Africa; LifeStraw’s Community purifiers, Sawyer’s Bucket Filters, and MSR’s Community Chlorine Maker provide safe water to families, schools, and communities.
Such charitable giving is not without criticism. In October, E/The Environmental Magazine questioned if companies like MPOWERD could have a bigger impact through alternative models. The article quotes The Economist, which warns that, “Handing out aid in kind … could suck life from local markets, and foster a culture of aid-dependency.” Jeong pushes back. “In some circumstances, aid is absolutely necessary. For example, our lights are used in disaster relief and refugee camps. And [in my community], having light helps fulfill a basic need.”
That controversy isn’t the only question impact companies must face. Jeong says that many such companies rely on a model in which they need to raise capital beyond profit to fund humanitarian projects. “This can result in several rounds of fundraising, yet the companies still have to satisfy primary investors,” says Jeong. “So that model isn’t sustainable. If we’re going to talk about businesses really doing well by doing good, you have to find the model that works without this heavy reliance on outside fundraising.”
Jeong’s success at maximizing profit and humanitarian work makes this the most fulfilling job she’s ever had. “Yes, there are hard days when you have to make tough decisions,” she says. But it’s those instances when she can provide real help, as MPOWERD did last October when it got 70,000 lights to Californians struggling with power outages and fires, that keep this CEO striving to grow.