More than 5,014 companies founded in the last several decades have been the progeny of Stanford community members, according to the Wellspring of Innovation Project. While many of these companies fall squarely in the tech industry of Silicon Valley, several Stanford graduates have founded organizations that tackle social and environmental issues elsewhere.
One of these graduates is Ned Tozun B.S.’01, MBA’07, who found his true calling by utilizing his entrepreneurial skills to found d.light , which designs affordable and durable solar powered LED lights for people in developing countries with no or limited access to electricity.
As a computer science and earth systems double major, and later a graduate of the Graduate School of Business (GSB), Tozun never saw the need to narrow down his interests into a single profession.
Instead he decided to use his interdisciplinary education and diverse skill set in design, engineering and business to create his own start-up.
After obtaining his undergraduate degrees, Tozun worked as an engineer for seven months before dabbling in a few start-up ideas. During the same time period, Tozun and his fiancé did volunteer work with HIV/AIDS patients in Africa.
“I found doing work that had a social impact to be deeply meaningful and fulfilling,” Tozun said, explaining that his work had “a very significant impact” on his view of the world.
Tozun described how returning to Silicon Valley to work on technology startups failed to give him the same feeling of fulfillment.
“I started to look for a way to blend my skills in the start-up tech world with what I really felt I was called to do,” he said.
While Tozun was researching the needs of the developing world, he met his future co-founder Sam Goldman MBA’07, a former Peace Corps volunteer.
Goldman had discovered a need in the developing world that could be filled by modern technology. In slums and villages around the world, he noticed, inefficient, dangerous and expensive kerosene lamps are the main source of light. With innovations in LED and solar technology, Goldman found that better solutions existed.
With experience from a few start-ups and a greater familiarity with issues in the developing world under their belts, Tozun and Goldman attended the GSB to explore their entrepreneurial ideas.
Tozun said he chose the GSB for its social entrepreneurship focus and for a single class at the Institute of Design, “Design for Extreme Affordability.”
After taking the class, Tozun and Goldman went to Southeast Asia to assess the need for affordable technology in the region.
“The amount of money people were spending on kerosene lighting was insane,” Tozun said. “People really wanted better technologies, but they weren’t well distributed or available [at] affordable prices.”
The pair decided to spend their year designing a business strategy to meet this demand for modern lighting in the developing world. They launched d.light in 2008.
Last year, Tozun and Goldman were featured on the Impact 30 , Forbes’ first-ever list of 30 top social entrepreneurs.
What has proved the most challenging for the pair is operating in distant markets and catering to customers who have very particular needs for their products. These needs can prove almost impossible to conceive from behind a desk in Silicon Valley.
When Tozun and Goldman realized that their company would not be able to reach its full potential from the United States, the pair split. Tozun is based Shenzhen, China, overlooking production and design, and Goldman is based in India working on marketing and distribution.
Tozun emphasized human-centered design, effective distribution networks and targeted marketing as key pillars in d.light’s operation.
According to Tozun, marketing was crucial because customers, especially those living below the poverty line in rural areas, were unlikely to be aware of the benefits of a solar-powered portable lamp.
Tozun mentioned that even those customers that had seen solar powered technology before were disenchanted by their unreliability. It was through customer education on the part of d.light that the company gained a footing in the developing world.
d.light’s products are distinguished by their durability and simplicity.
“I think our products are the best products in the market,” Tozun said. “But in the end it’s the distribution and the marketing side of the business that will really give us long-term value.”
Tozun credits his success to the time he spent at Stanford.
“At Stanford, you have such an amazing diversity of world-class departments,” he said. “To have people coming together from different backgrounds and disciplines, but with a shared sense of wanting to change the world, that’s how the really good stuff ends up getting started.”