Appreciation: Priya Haji, Champion of “Inspired Competition”

The world of social entrepreneurship, and all those who believe in redefining business, lost a pioneer this summer.

Priya Haji photo
Priya Haji, a Berkeley-Haas graduate who launched no fewer than five thriving social enterprises, died unexpectedly in July of an apparent pulmonary embolism. She was 44, the mother of two children, and the CEO of her most recent venture – SaveUP, Inc.

“She was the best social entrepreneur of our generation – that’s who we lost,’’ said Van Jones, the long-time environmental and human rights advocate, and a formidable social entrepreneur himself, who spoke at a Haas memorial for Priya. “Nobody even comes close.”

Priya was a force of nature who found new ways to tap the power of markets and entrepreneurship in addressing difficult social problems. Her ventures provided health care for the poor in Texas; treatment for alcohol and drug addiction in East Palo Alto; market access to craftspeople in low-income countries; and help for Americans with crippling personal debt.

Beyond the organizations she created, which are still strong, she left a major legacy in the models she honed for what she called “inspired competition.”

“What if you could have a profit-making business that drives itself and is actually creating good in the process?” she asked the audience at a TED talk in 2011. “Is that possible? Can we even do that?”

The answer was yes. Three things were key, she argued: building up a market of informed and socially aware consumers; delivering entrepreneurial products; and providing clear standards for ethical labor and environmental practices. With those elements in place, she argued, more and more for-profit companies would see social responsibility and sustainable business as part of their competitive strategies.

Priya started her career early.

At 16, she helped her father, a family doctor, open a free health clinic in their hometown of Bryan, Texas. As a 21-year-old undergraduate at Stanford University, she co-founded Free at Last, an addiction treatment center in East Palo Alto. That center combined a community-based approach with long-term programs, including for housing and training, to help addicts rebuild their lives. It was a sharp break from the conventional wisdom, which held that the key to treatment was in taking people out of their communities and the problems that came with them.

Today, the center is recognized for helping reduce both drug addiction and crime in East Palo Alto, and it has become a national model for treatment.

“The best thing about being 21 is that you don’t know that something is impossible,” Priya recounted in 2011. “We had an idea that, in a community of African-Americans and Latinos, the community’s own members could heal itself. When you think you see the problem differently and you see a solution, and you just go for it, what we ended up building became a national model program.”

In 2001, Priya came to Berkeley-Haas for an MBA, explaining that she wanted to develop the skills to scale up new strategies and organizations for bringing about constructive change.

In 2004, one year after graduating from Berkeley-Haas, she co-founded World of Good, an online marketplace in partnership with eBay that connects artisans in low-income developing nations with retailers and consumers in the United States. The venture has lifted incomes for tens of thousands of craftspeople in more than 70 countries, especially producers who are certified as paying livable wages and employing sustainable environmental practices. In 2010, eBay acquired World of Good.

In 2011, Priya launched SaveUP, a website and personal-finance app that offers rewards and prizes to people who build up savings or reduce debt. Each time customers reduces their debt, for example, they get credits that they can use to enter contests or lotteries that offer prizes. In its first two years, the company estimates, it has helped Americans pay down $856 million in debt and build up $1.2 billion in savings.

Anyone who knew Priya remembers her for her passion, audacity, determination, and pragmatic brilliance. She embodied all of Berkeley-Haas’s defining principles: Beyond Yourself; Question the Status Quo; Confidence Without Attitude; and Always a Student. Just a few months before she died, Priya came back to Haas to participate in an “all-star” panel at the annual Global Social Venture Competition.

We at the Institute for Business and Social Impact join many others in mourning the loss of Priya.

But we also recognize that she greatly advanced our understanding about new strategies for addressing the world’s difficult challenges. We will be learning from her for years to come.

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