A Designer Lighting the Way to Justice
Xianyi Wu is cofounder of d.light design, an international business "whose purpose is to create new freedoms for customers without access to reliable power so they can enjoy a brighter future." With a design originating in Silicon Valley, d.light designs, manufactures, and distributes solar light and power products throughout the developing world. As of the end of 2012, d.light has provided light and power to over 10 million people.
On a reporting trip to Hong Kong this winter, Chris Horst sat down with Xianyi to discuss how his Christian faith informs his "human-centered" design work in solar lighting, recently lauded by The Economist as the next big innovation for the world's poor.
Tell me the story of founding d.light design.
In a graduate class at Stanford called "Design for Extreme Affordability," my team focused on electricity and power. We were focused on human-centered design, designing for people. When we first started out, we were interested in solar power—specifically super-cheap lights distributed widely—but nothing really came out of that class. Our first design was actually quite lousy.
After that class concluded, our group came together and looked at each other and said, "So, do we still want to do something?" During that time [early 2007], I went to Urbana and really felt God prompting me to go for it. So we decided to move forward, and we designed a new prototype and recruited a friend who was an electrical engineer to build it.
From that point forward, I dove in full-time. We prototyped the product and began entering startup competitions. We won a few small cash prizes, but our "Kairos moment" came later that spring, when I was doing field research in a village in Cambodia. One of the other founders Skyped us and told us we had won a $250,000 business plan competition through DFJ. And that's when things got serious.
Wow. That had to be a fun phone call. Were you surprised?
Absolutely. My two partners entered a particular business plan competition we thought we had no chance of winning. They used the pitch we always used: They held up a smoking, smelly kerosene lamp. And then they contrasted that with our product, an affordable solar product that could provide light and power small household appliances like radios and cell phones. From there, many investors and venture capitalists got involved. We raised $1.6 million to launch production.
That whole time I was sleeping on friends' couches. Every four weeks, I would move to someone else's place and pull out my air mattress and guitar. At the end of 2007, we had developed our first product in Silicon Valley and began exploring global production. Our market was in Africa and Asia. So we decided to manufacture in China. I moved to Hong Kong in 2008 to set up operations in China.
We've grown every year since that point, through blood, sweat, and tears. There have been so many moments when we could have just failed and run out of money. There were a number of times that we were inches away from closing. But, God provided every time. And now we have just celebrated ten million lives impacted. We're now in more than 40 countries, primarily in Africa and Asia.
How did you decide on the name of your company?
I actually came up with the name "d.light" one day when I was reading Psalm 37. Verse four says, "Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart."
Why did you decide to launch a for-profit company rather than a nonprofit?
Nonprofits that were in the solar power industry were either giving solar lights away or highly subsidizing them because the design and business approach was so poorly done. Handouts haven't worked. Giving stuff away hasn't changed anything. We asked, "What would happen if we leveraged capitalism and great design to reach more people?" When we launched d.light, we were able to prove that we could deliver a high-quality product at a very low price point.
We take a lot of pride in being the first company to really demonstrate this in the solar industry. d.light's success is built upon well-designed, high-quality products at very low prices.
How did you actually design these products?
My interest has always been in design. But I didn't want to make iPods—though I did work at Apple at one point. Every village you go to is slightly different. The levels of affluence and energy-use and electricity vary dramatically, even within a country. In terms of design, we wanted to make something that caters to all of these people. We did a lot of field-testing all over the world.
What has surprised you about the process of founding d.light?
One of the really surprising things was that we realized was how much in-country marketing for our products was needed. We've really needed to educate folks about how these products can help them and why it's a good solution for them.
Did you plan to get into this industry?
No. When I was young, I always thought I would be a missionary. School was something I felt I should do to make my parents happy. As I went through college, however, I began to develop an interest in engineering and product design. The Urbana conference and my Christian friends began to challenge me to ask the question, "What is missions?"
All the way, the timing was just right. More and more people were discussing the intersection of business and missions. I thought, I can use the skill and abilities I have to both help people in their immediate needs—the Bible is so clear on helping the needy—and demonstrate my faith all the while.
How has your experience changed your perception of missions?
Being a missionary isn't limited to our traditional definitions. I may not be that guy out in the field in Africa, but I am a minister of the gospel where God has me. God's given me a specific skill and, like the Parable of the Talents, I am called to do something with it in design and in the marketplace.
I believe that there is a repurposing of society's view of businesses that needs to happen. Just like the approach we at d.light take with user-centered products, businesses should be about providing goods and services with the view of adding value to people, and thus society at large, and not focused solely on profit maximization. I wish more Christians believed this. How do we encourage people in their everyday jobs to see that they can add true value to the kingdom through their work? Profit should be the result of the value-added goods and services businesses provide, not the goal of business.