The Pivot: Gary White
Gary White seeks to create water equity around the globe.
What’s your role in public health?
I am the co-founder and CEO of Water.org and WaterEquity, and I lead these organizations to create and execute market-driven solutions to the global water crisis. Water.org is a nonprofit organization that harnesses philanthropy to empower people in the developing world to gain access to safe water and sanitation. WaterEquity is an investment manager dedicated to ending the global water crisis, with an exclusive focus on raising and deploying capital to water and sanitation enterprises throughout the developing world.
Water.org is the result of a merger between WaterPartners, which I founded in 1990, and H2O Africa, which was co-founded by actor Matt Damon. We were brought together by a common goal to pioneer smart solutions to the water crisis. Through our work together with Water.org, we have empowered more than 33 million people with access to safe water or sanitation.
I came to the UNC Gillings School for a Master of Science degree because of the faculty and the School’s reputation for focusing on water supply and sanitation in low-income countries. This decision was largely influenced by Dan Okun, Don Lauria and Dale Whittington.
I ended up doing what I am doing now because of my experience in the Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering (ESE) at UNC. I was able to connect with like-minded faculty and students who were also interested in tackling the global water and sanitation crisis. It was these individuals who rallied around the concept of launching a non-governmental organization (NGO) dedicated to this cause.
Can you describe your focus area in one sentence?
Creating an enduring capital market to deliver the financing needed to ensure that everyone has access to sustainable water and sanitation services.
How did your time at UNC impact you and your future career path?
The insights and expertise around finance as it relates to water supply and sanitation are some of the most important things I took from my UNC experience. This led to the founding of Water.org and, subsequently, WaterEquity. These two organizations blend together the concepts of engineering and finance in a way that was novel and had great impact.
My experience at the Gillings School was the basis for starting WaterPartners. I have been the CEO of WaterPartners (also Water.org and WaterEquity) since my UNC days.
During my time in ESE, so many students and faculty came together to launch the fundraising events associated with the creation of what was then WaterPartners. Countless volunteer hours were spent soliciting food and drink donations so we could host events at the Morehead Planetarium. These efforts were critical to the launch of WaterPartners and built great esprit de corps among the ESE students and faculty.
How have you pivoted in response to the coronavirus pandemic?
Because our focus has always been on helping those living in poverty access improved water and sanitation, I did not need to pivot. I only saw the need to double down on our current efforts. I did certainly see the pandemic as yet another signal to the world of the importance of safe water access at home, and we messaged that even more emphatically.
Why is it important for the Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering to continue for another 100 years?
Clearly there is the potential to shape the careers, minds and values of an untold number of students. A UNC education focuses on advancing knowledge and contributing to society, and the ESE department can generate impact that can change the course of human health and quality of life.
To help the department celebrate its centennial, I will be giving the keynote lecture on “Why Water Action Must Be Part of Climate Action.” I encourage all to join on April 9 at noon.