May 24, 2019 | 62° F

Ethos Water founder spills success secrets

Photo by Nelson Morales |

Peter Thum, founder of Ethos Water, explains how a visit to a small town in South Africa inspired him to start his bottled water company last night in Trayes Hall of the Douglass Campus Center.

His mission was simple — to help children get clean water.

But for founder of Ethos Water Peter Thum, establishing his socially conscious business proved harder than expected.

Thum, who spoke last night in Trayes Hall at the Douglass Campus Center, said the idea for the bottled water brand, which donates a portion of its proceeds to aiding the world's water crisis, hit him in 2001, when a business project brought him to South Africa.

In the developing town he was visiting, Thum saw for the first time people living in abject poverty. Their houses had dirt floors and lacked many of the aspects Americans take for granted.

What startled him the most was the repetitive sight of women and girls traveling miles for clean water every day. In the developing world, women spend three to six hours per day collecting water — about 25 percent of their lives, Thum said.

"I saw this repeat itself over and over again, this same image. I realized there wasn't anyone doing anything about this," he said.

That trip opened his eyes to water issues, invisible to many from developed nations, Thum said.

"Water was sort of this lost issue, and I didn't understand why," he said.

About 1.2 billion people do not have access to safe water, and 2.4 billion do not have sanitation services, Thum said. This can cause bacteria from waste to comingle with the water, brewing diseases that can kill about 2.4 million children annually.

"To me, this was a really visceral, difficult problem," he said.

Thum then began researching how he could help alleviate the problem without just starting another charity, identical to the many already advocating for the cause.

He soon realized his biggest hurdle — people in the developed world were unaware of the water crisis, as bottled water, tap water and clean toilets are the norm. If they were unaware, they would not care, Thum said.

The entrepreneur decided he needed to create a level of awareness that matched other causes people were passionate about, like hunger, AIDS and homelessness.

While working in England for a soda company, Thum soon discovered the solution to his dilemma — create a communications platform that would connect those who had water to those who did not to raise awareness. If people felt better about the product, they would pay more, and this money could help those who needed it.

For Thum, bottled water seemed like the natural solution, despite the market's intense competition. At the time, there were about 700 bottled water companies in the United States, compared to about 1,500 today.

Thum left his job to dedicate his time to launching the Ethos water business. After a year of failed attempts at securing investors, Thum and his partner pulled together $10,000 to start the company themselves and peddled their product around Los Angeles.

Soon, through a series of high-profile business connects, the small, six-person company landed a meeting with Starbucks Chairman and CEO Howard Schultz.

Starbucks eventually acquired the company in 2005, exclusively selling Ethos Water in their 5,000 stores.

This meant the product was reaching about 40 million customers a week.

For every bottle of Ethos Water Starbucks sells in the United States and Canada, the coffee chain donates 5 U.S. cents or 10 Canadian cents to the Ethos Water Fund, said Thum, who later became the vice president of Starbucks.

The result was more than Thum and the company expected. They soon had about $6 million in grants, more than 420,000 people were given safe water, people were educated on hygiene and sanitation, and millions were made aware of the cause.

One woman affected by Ethos' work was Marta, who lives in Honduras, Thum said. She traveled miles a day over rolling hills to retrieve water for her children, who were often sick from the poor quality of the water. The money from Ethos was used to install a sink next to her house. Her children are no longer ill and attend school.

"These are some of the poorest people in the world, yet these are some of the happiest people I've met," Thum said.

But Thum emphasized that the students and alumni in the audience do not need to go to a developing nation to make a difference.

"There are people all around who can use your help and who you can learn amazing things from if you allow yourself to," he said.

Thum advised college students looking to make a change through social ventures to start early.

"Start doing it while you're a student in small steps," he said.

This advice resonated with audience members Ray Li and John Vitug, students who this year launched Heart Juice, a beverage that aims to promote a healthy heart while raising awareness for heart disease.

Li, a School of Arts and Sciences senior, and Vitug, a Kean University graduate student, said the lecture inspired them, as their business also has a social mission.

"His was a social mission [also]. He didn't sell out to accomplish what he wanted to," Vitug said.

The pair hopes they can one day accomplish what Thum has and raise awareness for heart disease, the No. 1 cause of death in the United States.

"Like he said, a lot of people can [gain] awareness with a product," Vitug said.

The lecture, a part of the L'Hommedieu Visiting Lecturer Series, was sponsored by the Associate Alumnae of Douglass College, which works to promote the innovative education of Douglass women, said Valerie Anderson Cabbell, executive director of the association.

Cabbell said Thum is proof of how social change can open up leadership opportunities in the global world, something she hopes Douglass women aspire to.

"You can take a concern and care dear to your heart and make it a career that is rewarding and prosperous," she said.

Mary Diduch

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