LuminAID is on a mission to provide a basic human need in the wake of disasters — light. The Chicago-based business produces portable solar-powered lamps that fold flat. We asked co-founders Andrea Sreshta and Anna Stork to tell us how their business came about and how it’s evolved.
ACCESS: How has the spirit of innovation inspired your product design and problem solving, and fueled your success?
ANDREA SRESHTA: Anna and I came up with LuminAID lights in 2010, just after the earthquake in Haiti. We saw stories of people left with very little infrastructure, including light. They had to use candles and kerosene lanterns, which are dangerous and toxic. And we thought, “There must be a better way.” That’s what sparked our idea.
We made them inflatable because we knew they had to be compact for easy transportation and distribution in large numbers after a disaster. We also thought it would be useful if the lights were completely waterproof and could float so people wouldn’t have to worry if they got wet. We wanted people to be able to use them in many different situations without a lot of instructions, and blowing something up is fairly universal. Blowing up LuminAID lights is super-easy. The inflatable cover also acts as a lampshade that diffuses the light from the LEDs inside.
ANNA STORK: Early on, we made it a priority to show prototypes to disaster relief organizations and ask for their feedback. They would distribute it, test it and provide us with critical information about what worked, what didn’t and how to improve it. That process of taking in feedback and iterating has been a really big part of our business and has helped us grow.
ACCESS: Describe a time when you knew your products had made an impact.
SRESHTA: Anna and I had the opportunity to travel to Malawi, where our lights had been distributed after a devastating flood seven months earlier. Many people were still getting back on their feet, living in temporary shelters, and some were still using LuminAID lights. We got to talk to people about how the lights had helped them and to see that they were still able to use them. It was incredibly meaningful to see our lights in action.
ACCESS: What’s Chicago like for small businesses? Do you have a professional network there?
STORK: Chicago has been a really great place to grow our company — it really is an innovation center. There are a lot of great manufacturing companies and other start-ups creating really amazing new technology. And there’s a lot of support for small business; we get a lot of attention as a women-owned small business.
LuminAID’s based in a co-working space, so we’re surrounded by other entrepreneurs. It’s a really nice place to be because we’re always inspired and able to connect with like-minded people doing interesting things.
ACCESS: Describe what being part of a connected world means to you.
STORK: LuminAID’s purpose requires us to be connected all over the world. Being connected has allowed us to manufacture our product in a different country and distribute it all over quickly and efficiently.
SRESHTA: It also means connecting people to communities in need around the world. Our “Give Light, Get Light” program enables customers to order lights for themselves or friends and family, and sponsor an additional light that we send to a charitable organization. We partner with organizations that help kids and schools in places without electricity or, when there’s a disaster somewhere in the world, with relief organizations.
ACCESS: What kind of philosophy do you bring to your team and workspace?
SRESHTA: Our philosophy is that we would never ask anyone to do things we wouldn’t do ourselves. That creates a culture where people work together more. We have dedicated responsibilities, but at the end of the day, it’s also just about getting the work done and being able to rely on each other. Our team has been an incredibly important part of growing our business.
ACCESS: Describe the “lighter side” of your success: customers using your lights for fun and recreation.
SRESHTA: We have a lot of customers who use our lights for camping trips, boating — anything outdoors, since they’re super-lightweight and waterproof. As someone who’s never been outdoorsy, it’s been a lot of fun to get to know communities of outdoor enthusiasts all over the country who use LuminAID lights on their adventures.
Other customers buy them for their personal emergency kits and keep them in their homes or cars in case of a power outage. I also know people who use them when they’re barbecuing and entertaining in their backyard. I think it’s kind of cool that, in addition to being used for disaster relief and outdoor adventure, we’ve created lights that can be used in everyday settings as well.
Want more people, places and ideas shaping the future of our connected world? Check out the FYI List
LuminAID won $15,000 in the 2016 FedEx Small Business Grant Contest. Find out how you can apply for the 2017 contest.