Wristbands for Water

February 21, 2020


How entrepreneur Kevin Sofen turns untapped craftsmanship into clean-water results

Raised along California’s Pacific coast and later settling near Lake Michigan in Chicago, Kevin Sofen has spent much of his life around water. The founder and CEO of the social entrepreneurship business Wristsponsible (Chicago), Sofen’s love for living shoreside goes hand-in-hand with his commitment to clean water.

Wristsponsible is a social enterprise that purchases bracelets handmade by artisans in Asia, Africa, and parts of Europe. It then resells those bracelets around the world to help finance water infrastructure projects for communities that face crucial water and sanitation needs. Image courtesy of Kevin Sofen/Wristsponsible

Wristsponsible buys handmade, woven bracelets from local artisans in Nepal, Thailand, Greece, and Kenya. It sells these bracelets around the world, using the profits to fund the purchase and installation of water filtration systems, or to support beach or wetland clean-ups.

Since 2015, Wristsponsible has raised over $150,000 to support critical water projects, developing multiple partnerships with charities and environmental organizations in the process.

From Passion to Participation

During college, Sofen traveled to 14 countries over four months during a Semester at Sea. The trip exposed Sofen, to the consequences of large-scale water pollution, unsanitary waste disposal, and open sewers. Seeing life without adequate sanitation firsthand left a lasting impression even after he returned to the states, Sofen said.

“Obviously, being a sheltered American living in an upper-scale community, I hadn’t seen a lot of this stuff,” he said. “Seeing that, I knew at that point I really wanted to do something aligned with water and water empowerment.”

After graduating, Sofen started working for a water solutions company that manufactures pumps, trucks, and equipment for first responders and military personnel. Sofen sought to bring the equipment to developing countries in need of portable, decentralized water treatment systems, but the cost was prohibitively high, he said.

Kevin Sofen founded Wristsponsible in 2015 after various small-scale fundraising efforts. Sofen comes from a background in the water solutions industry, which helped inform his philosophy of staying versatile and flexible to find the best solution to the challenges faced by Wristsponsible’s target communities. Image courtesy of Sofen/Wristsponsible

In April 2015, a magnitude-8 earthquake struck Nepal, causing approximately 9,000 deaths and nearly half of the country’s entire gross domestic product in damages. Recognizing the urgency, Sofen decided to fundraise in hopes of installing one of his company’s water treatment solutions in the region. He partnered with H2Open Doors, an offshoot of Rotary International, and organized two charity golf tournaments.

Despite rain in the forecast ahead of both tournaments, Sofen’s efforts raised $50,000 to pay for the implementation of three solar-and-wind-powered water treatment systems — one at a hospital, one at a school, and one more in a rural village. He even helped install the systems himself, traveling nearly 12,800 km (8,000 mi) to work alongside volunteers and construction crews in Nepal.

 “It felt great to help them with a solution that worked for them,” Sofen said.

Becoming Wristsponsible

Sofen wanted to replicate the success of his golf tournament fundraisers but the time commitment and weather risks were unsustainable. Prior to both tournaments, forecasters predicted showers and thunderstorms, which made planning, managing, and promoting the tournaments stressful, Sofen said.  

“I wanted to find something that could be an ongoing fundraiser for financial capital and social awareness for water causes,” he said.

As luck would have it, it wouldn’t be long before Sofen discovered his next fundraising opportunity. While traveling in Thailand after the installation project, Sofen met a traveling artist from Chile who designed and hand-crafted colorful bands and trinkets. He decided to purchase 600 bands and sell them, using the profits to help finance water projects.

Soon, what Sofen calls his “full-time side hustle” was in motion. In 2015, Sofen established Wristsponsible as a startup in Chicago. Since then, the enterprise has sold over 3,000 bands in direct-to-consumer sales, online and in-person. Band sales have contributed over $30,000 to such water nonprofits as H2Open Doors, Water is Life, and the Friends of the Chicago River, he said. Other funding has come from incentivized crowdfunding and corporate sponsorship alignment.

Sofen stressed that Wristsponsible’s mission is geared toward supporting grassroots efforts, with a particular focus on building financial and social independence in its target communities.  

“The ultimate goal of charity is not to exist anymore, so our goal is not to create dependency with projects, but really try to create empowerment,” Sofen said. “I have vetted a lot of different charity nonprofit partners that have the same philosophy. We want to work with groups that really want to do it the right way and do more projects on a grassroots level.”

Specific Solutions to Specific Problems

Wristsponsible is currently engaged in Kenya, working alongside H2Open Doors to deploy solar-and-wind-powered water treatment systems. The company is also working with the National Clean Water Collective (New York) in Flint, Mich., to provide households and community centers with sustainable water treatment.

Sofen says he hopes to grow Wristsponsible, hiring additional wristband artists, creating more grassroots partnerships, and undertaking new projects related to water treatment and public education. Image courtesy of Sofen/Wristsponsible

“We have been focused on is implementing holistic, sustainable water solutions that involve point-of-entry [treatment systems], replacement of pipes within house and fixtures, point-of-use filters, and ongoing water quality testing,” Sofen described. “It’s a more expensive solution per household and community center, but enables clean water not only for drinking, but also cooking, cleaning, and peace of mind, too.”

Sofen’s experience working in the water solutions industry continues to help him evaluate and research effective treatment strategies for the diverse needs of various communities.

“There are a lot of established water treatment and water-pump companies and a lot of stuff that’s off-the-shelf that works really well,” he said. “After working in the water solutions industry for 9 years now, I have personally tested, and broken, and fixed, and used a lot of different products successfully.”

Sofen says he hopes to grow Wristsponsible, hiring additional wristband artists, creating more grassroots partnerships, and undertaking new projects related to water treatment and public education.

“There are so many ways to treat water,” Sofen said. “But the best solution for a local community is the best solution that works for them. That might be a $50 tank and chlorine tablets, or might be a $30,000 solar-and-wind-powered water treatment system that builds social enterprise.”

Learn more about Wristsponsible at its website.

— Katherine Saltzman, WEF Highlights

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