Conner Hazelrigg had her first lightbulb moment as a college intern at the Sunshine Electronic Display Co. in St. Joseph, Missouri. A friend had just returned from a trip to Haiti after the earthquake and told her, “You know, everyone has cellphones, but no one has access to electricity.” Learning that upward of 80 percent of Haitians own mobile phones, yet about 12 percent have access to electricity, Conner set to find a way to bring power to the impoverished. She approached the CEO with an idea. Three days after receiving the green light, she had a prototype of Sunshine Box, a portable solar-charging station that provides electricity for mobile devices.
That was eight years ago. Today, Conner runs 17 73 Innovation Co, a small business she founded in 2015. She honored the country that inspired her idea by naming her company after the geographical coordinates near Port-au-Prince. In the past six years, 17 73 has sent 105 Sunshine Boxes to 18 countries that, along with Haiti, include Peru, Guatemala, Honduras, Papua New Guinea, Thailand, Malawi, Rwanda, Uganda and more. To date, Sunshine Boxes across the globe have charged more than one million mobile phones.
In July, Conner took home $25,000 in prize money at the inaugural HI-HERImpact pitch competition in Kansas City sponsored by 1863 Ventures. After successful events in Miami, Washington D.C., and Detroit, the group brought this “Shark Tank”-like event to the Midwest region. With support from the Ford Motor Company Fund, HI-HERImpact aims to help women social entrepreneurs to scale their enterprises and achieve long-term sustainability.
During her five-minute presentation, Conner wowed the judges with her plans to use the Sunshine Box to bring economic independence to her customers in developing countries. She estimates that the market value for cellphone charging services in the world’s 25 poorest countries is a $4.2 billion industry. By selling solar charging boxes to individuals who can serve as agents, she can deliver a twofold benefit by providing jobs and delivering a service to customers who need reliable access to electricity.
Her background in mathematics makes Conner a natural problem solver. For example, after learning that the Sunshine Box agents selling charging services were accepting cash payments and then becoming targets for crime, she pondered how best to reduce the threat to her vendors. “We started talking to people on the ground and asking them about the idea of a payment system in the box and being able to pay them securely, being able to give them access to newer technology, and they were all for it,” said Hazelrigg.
The latest project underway for 17 73 Innovation Co is developing an app-based payment system to provide more security to the agents. She also hopes this will generate recurring revenue for her company and deliver a better way to measure the impact and performance of the Sunshine Box.
Her current customer base consists mainly of charitable organizations, church groups, and not-for-profits, but she envisions tremendous growth by getting more Sunshine Boxes in front of individuals. She says trying to determine the intrinsic value of a cellphone through social entrepreneurship is what drives her each day. “I have been captivated by that question, not necessarily to solve it, but find an answer to it. Can we quantify it? Can we ever imagine what it means to people in these countries to have a cellphone?” said Hazzelrigg.
She credits her academic background in math and physics for her business acumen, but her drive for success comes from a much deeper place. She has an identical twin sister with who she competed in basketball and tennis. Her hunger for competition fuels her entrepreneurial spirit, but she says her love of language is helping others. “I don’t know if that’s built within me or comes from constantly wanting to see my twin succeed.”
Now her sister is focused on Conner’s success. As her biggest champion, she patiently listens to product designs and growth plans. When Conner is deep in the weeds, her sister brings outside perspectives and asks probing questions. “She actually calls it ‘Box Talk’ for fun. She likes to say she could do my presentations, and when I get too serious, she brings a lot of comic relief,” said Hazelrigg.
Conner appreciated competing with other women in the HI-HERI Impact event in Kansas City and would one day like to figure out how to push more women into technology careers and not just stereotypical employment positions. “Entrepreneurship … you gotta love to do it. But when we find young women who enjoy technology or enjoy building things, we should be encouraging them to go as high as they possibly can.”
If Conner can figure out a way to deliver Sunshine Boxes across four continents, perhaps she will light the path for future female social entrepreneurs.
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