Eleanor Allen is fiercely compassionate about improving global water and sanitation services. She believes societal change can be accelerated through social entrepreneurship and organizations like Water For People, a global nonprofit working with four million people in nine countries in Africa, Latin America, and India.
As the CEO of Water For People, she keeps her organization transparent and cooperative, providing leadership in development work in water, sanitation, and hygiene A speaker at our previous Make + Believe event, Eleanor is a civil engineer who has lived and worked all over the world and speaks four languages.
Here, we talk about solving one of mankind’s greatest challenges and the joy of getting a fire hydrant for Mother’s Day.
All of us interact with water throughout our lives. What made you take the next step and become an advocate for this precious resource?
I’ve always been fascinated by water and solving societal problems. This led me to civil engineering. I felt I could help improve the world by designing and building water infrastructure, which proved to be true. Last year I really found my “why” when I did a career pivot from for-profit consulting to non-profit international development. This took me from large-scale engineering of major infrastructure (water and wastewater treatment plants) in cities around the world in developed countries to working with rural communities, government, and businesses in developing countries.
Water For People facilitates the development of high quality drinking water and sanitation to those that don’t yet have these services. Having access to water and a toilet changes everything and our vision is to make that happen for everyone, and to have it last forever.
Coloradans are well aware of water issues. We live in a water-sensitive state that will continue to proactively manage water use, supply, and demand as our population grows. This is true in other places around the world too. In fact, water crises are ranked as one of the top global risks. There is a water crisis going on right now that many people in the U.S. are not very aware of. About one quarter of the world still doesn’t have safe access to water and one third doesn’t have access to a toilet. Some people find this hard to believe, but it is true! The more people know about this crisis the more we can help raise awareness and put pressure on the developed world and the developing world to invest in these basic services. The benefit/cost of this investment is 5:1—people can go to school and work if they are not sick, don’t have to haul water, and don’t have to find a place to go to the bathroom. Quality of life and productivity improve tremendously as do entire economies—and consequently so does the global economy.
Why is Denver an important hub for Water for People and what keeps your work centered here?
We were founded 25 years ago by the American Water Works Association (AWWA), which is headquartered here in Denver. Our roots are the North American utilities and engineering firms. They are still great supporters (among many others) today! Typically our enthusiasts are people who really want to see the impact of their investments on improving people’s lives and helping communities progress through social change. Water is life. When it is hard to get, or is not good quality, life is very difficult. Many people that have traveled globally and have first-hand experience with bad water are big supporters of Water For People. Also people that work in the water or tech sector really understand and appreciate the work that we do.
Do you have a favorite TED talk?
Yes: Simon Sinek’s talk on How Great Leaders Inspire Action.
What’s something few people know about you?
I am named after three amazing women, all of whom I admire greatly: my grandmother Eleanor (my father’s mother), who was an incredible advocate for women’s rights and a community activist; Juliana, the former queen of The Netherlands who helped the country become active in international development, peace, and humanitarian work post World War II; and Maria, my mother, who is Dutch. She immigrated to the US and has been my lifelong advocate and coach. I have quite a legacy to live up to!
I also love going fast—whether riding my road bike, driving my car on the track, or flying a plane—I have a need for speed!
What’s the last thing that made you laugh uncontrollably?
My husband, who is my number-one supporter, gave me an honest-to-goodness, full-fledged 180 lb. cast-iron fire hydrant for Mother’s Day. We named her Flo! She is now a “sculpture” in our living room, and she is beautiful. My love of water pervades my life in many ways!
When did you last make time for make-believe?
I made time for make-believe yesterday, while putting my 10-year-old son to bed. I regularly tell him stories about Roger, our dog. Last night’s story was about Roger going skydiving. He invited us to come along. We had a wonderful time watching the clouds from the plane, and then we jumped together and did a beautiful star formation. It was fun!