Venture Capital

RISE by Sundara: The Impact Fund That Supports Female Entrepreneurs in Under-Served Communities

RISE supports early stage female entrepreneurs, as well as male entrepreneurs committed to serving women with their innovations. These entrepreneurs live in middle- or low-income countries and are working on ventures to improve the water, sanitation and hygiene in the communities in which they live. The Fund gives critical funding and mentorship to these entrepreneurs.

Interview with Ali Sassoon, Director of Operations for RISE by Sundaya:


Please tell us about your program RISE: Rewarding Innovative & Sustainable Entrepreneurs. How do you empower entrepreneurs to establish small, sustainable businesses that improve access to clean water, sanitation and good hygiene?

Sundara’s RISE program was built out of the desire to shift the focus to women at a community level across the globe. It became alarmingly clear that in many of the places where we conducted programming, there was a lack of resources for many women who had inspiring and innovative ideas to make their communities healthier. Our program strives to close the access gap to entrepreneurs with high-impact ideas in the WASH space. We distribute critical seed funding of $5,000 to early stage entrepreneurs, who have income-generation and innovative business plans to improve access to water, sanitation or hygiene in their communities. Additionally, we provide mentorship, M&E, and fundraising opportunities for our fellows to ensure they are building their hard and soft skill sets to become successful and impactful leaders.

Every day, on average, over 800 children under 5 years of age die from diarrhoeal diseases due to lack of clean water, compromised sanitation and hygiene. 780 million people are currently utilizing water from an unsafe drinking source. 2.5 billion people lack access to decent sanitation. That’s 1 in 3 people across the entire globe. 

What led you to focus specifically on female entrepreneurs, as well as male entrepreneurs committed to serving women with their innovations?

As a fully female-run organization, the Sundara Fund has always gone by the saying: ‘For Women, By Women.’ This ultimately led us to design our programming to focus solely on supporting entrepreneurs that would primarily benefit women and girls in their communities. Although we had planned to originally only support women, we received applications from strong, co-ed teams of social impact leaders and engineers who were designing WASH solutions to improve the safety and health for women and girls in their communities. Our primary focus has shifted to not just female, but co-ed teams who have strong proposals and performance indicators aligned with the direct benefit of female beneficiaries.

In many developing countries, there are still few women in leadership positions. Only 9% of startups in Africa are founded by women. Female entrepreneurs have less access to mentorship, capital, or role models in business, unlike their male counterparts.

How do you measure the success and impact of the venture that you invest in? What are some of your KPIs?     

RISE’s initiatives are delivering critical services and products to populations lacking essential health benefits, so the measurement of social benefits and improvement of quality of life is essential in measuring success of the venture. RISE’s human-centered design approach has enabled us to interact directly with the customers within the entrepreneur’s market, so we can best understand what matters to them, and what is making a significant impact. Working closely with our entrepreneurs, we will work to collect, analyze, and synthesize data to better understand the impact of these WASH initiatives and how they are improving the lives on people in the targeted communities. Our goal is not only to create an effective reporting structure, but to also help our fellows understand areas of improvement in their operations, allowing them to improve their overall businesses and expand the reach of their product or service.

Additionally, in order to best measure impact, we work with entrepreneurs to design KPI’s that are customized and aligned with their business plan. While these vary from project to project, we may assign a KPI in the first 6 months along the lines of: “how many toilets have you produced in Q1?” for a solar latrine project, or, “how much additional funding has been raised?” after the first year of the venture to measure their ability to continue to raise capital and expand their project.

Tell us more about the unique and collaborative donor-partner relationships of RISE.

Since RISE is an entirely new program- we have been given the opportunity to expand our partnership platforms and create new and meaningful connections. Our most recent partnership with Johnson & Johnson’s CaringCrowd, a crowdfunding platform that leverages smaller donations for water, sanitation and hygiene projects and doubles the impact, has allowed us to market our program through more channels than ever before. Because we have shifted our focus from our traditional programming to innovation, it has enabled us to connect and create partnerships with companies and individuals that we formerly would never have been able to work with.

Please share with us about some of your inspiring and successful case studies.

The RISE team has been amazed by the number of talented applicants that have applied to our program. So far, we have received 305 applications from 46 countries! A particularly inspiring fellow that we currently work with is Obichi Obiajunwa, who leads a co-ed team of innovation and WASH experts in Nigeria. His project, Alterfold, is a solar powered toilet that creates biofuel for communities. The toilet, made of recycled material, will not only tackle the issue of open defecation and contaminated water sources, but it will also be a safe hygienic space for women and girls to utilize, while also decreasing the chances of sexual assault and rape.     

Director Bio:

Ali Sassoon is the Director of Operations for RISE by Sundaya. In addition to her work with RISE, she is a Program Manager working in innovation and strategy for New York City’s Office of Emergency Management. Previously, she worked in research, innovation and on public health programs for the International Rescue Committee for over four years.  Ali studied Arabic, Economics and Public Health at the George Washington University in Washington DC, and has WASH and research field experience in Myanmar, the Middle East and throughout Sub-Saharan Africa.

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