The social entrepreneur providing light to rural communities

April 7, 2019 - Interviews

As we’re kicking off the 2019 GATHER Fellowship alongside our partner Seeds of Peace, we’ve caught up with one of last year’s Fellows to hear more about his experience of the Fellowship and what he’s up to now. Meet 2018 Fellow Yo’av, the activist and programmer who set up affordable solar energy solutions for rural communities in his homeland of Israel.

Tell us a bit about yourself and how you came about setting up your company SolarBox?

For the past 10 years, I’ve been on a mission to use technology to create political changes in my society. I love coding, love making things. But it’s much more fun when I feel it helps creating a better world too. I started building systems that helped workers unionise, websites and campaigns that called leftists to go out and vite, and many other tools and systems.

A few years ago I was then exposed to solar energy and I actually built my own solar system and lived off the electricity it produced for three years. I was thrilled to see how mature the technology was but I also saw how under-utilised it is, and I wanted to bring it to more people. I then met my future business partner from Gaza when I was at a summer programme in the US, and heard from her about the desperate need for independent, sustainable electricity sources in Gaza. It didn’t take long until we were working together.

Why did you apply to last year’s GATHER Fellowship?

I applied to GATHER because I wanted to learn and develop my management skills. I had set up my company and was doing a lot of work, but I could tell I wasn’t doing it the best way possible. I wanted to improve. Also, I felt lonely. Running a social impact business can be very lonely. Navigating between investors, media, and customers can be super challenging. I wanted to talk to people who do similar things.

What did you enjoy the most with the Fellowship?

People, inspirations and relationships are probably what I’m most grateful for from GATHER. It’s a community and we’re still following up with each other and checking in, even though the programme is over. I have much to learn from many of them. I think GATHER made me take what we’re doing much more seriously. It also brought a very honest mirror and showed me where I’m at, what I can solve by myself, and what I can’t. These are enormous tools.

What been your biggest learnings during the Fellowship? And during the development of your company?

I’ve never stopped learning while running SolarBox. I’ve learned some things about myself – what I’m good at and what I’m not, and how I can change. Running a company means you’re exposed to a lot of criticism. As a CEO, you can ignore it of course, but what’s the point? I wasn’t born a manager. I’ve learned how to better express my expectations. What things I can compromise on and what I can’t. I’ve learned that there are many ways to measure the success of a company. Of course, I’ve also learned a lot on technical side – how to raise investments, grants, how to make all sorts of financial documents. I’ve had to develop a whole new set of skills!

What would be your recommendations to this year’s Fellows?

For this year’s Fellows I would simply say that the biggest thing they’d get from GATHER is each other, and the staff of course. I’ve personally had people that were either Fellows or staff that helped me keep my head up a couple of times. Classes and things like that are nice, and I actually enjoyed the little studies we had on GATHER, but the time during the incubator week in Sweden is limited and if I could go back I would spend it on talking with the rest of the Fellows as much as I could.

What’s happening with your company now, what are you currently doing and what are your hopes for the future?

SolarBox is currently under many changes. We’ve actually raised more funds and our installations are bigger than ever. We have supplied electricity to almost 1,000 people already. It makes me happy. But things have changed and the focus of the company is now in places I can’t physically go to. I’m still running the company but it’s a part-time job for me, and I’m now launching a new company (raising the first pre-seed investment now!) and it’s a completely different beast. But no matter how different it is, the knowledge I got from running SolarBox is nevertheless useful every single day. My hope for SolarBox is that we’ll find a way to be profitable and to provide people with good standard of living and the same time. It’s a huge challenge. Running a true social impact business is a huge challenge. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth trying though!

Photo credit: Stina Svanberg