Solar light entrepreneur first Canadian to win Bronfman Prize

Sam Goldman

VANCOUVER —  Vancouverite Sam Goldman, 34, will be $100,000 richer this fall when he’s officially awarded the Charles Bronfman Prize, presented annually to a visionary and dynamic humanitarian under age 50. The criteria for the award is that the individual’s work be informed by Jewish values, have global impact that changes lives, and that it inspire future generations.

Goldman, the first Canadian Bronfman winner in the award’s 10-year history, has these – in spades.

The co-founder of d.light, his goal was to replace dangerous kerosene lanterns used by millions in developing countries with safe, affordable solar lights. Since he shipped his first container of solar lights in 2008, he’s brought this change to 33 million people in 62 countries.

Born in Springfield, Mass., he spent his formative years exclusively in Third World countries as he accompanied his parents, who worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development, around the globe. 

“My parents were doing work around health, agriculture and economic development, so I grew up seeing people who were living fundamentally different lives than I was and had very different ways of seeing the world,” he said. 

After graduating with degrees in biology and environmental studies from the University of Victoria, he joined the Peace Corps and headed to Benin. 

“I wanted to go into a rural village with no amenities, where foreigners didn’t go, and understand what it meant to be a subsistence farmer,” he explained.

That’s where the absence of electricity forced him to use kerosene and to learn how it affected the lives of those who used it daily. 

During his stay in Benin, he saw a neighbour suffer from third-degree burns to his body as a result of a kerosene accident. The experience was a catalyst for Goldman, who started researching alternatives right away. 

“I realized kerosene wasn’t just an inconvenience for me, but a life-and-death issue for a lot of people. Everyone had stories of burns or deaths as a result of kerosene.”

Goldman headed to Stanford University and enrolled in an MBA program, taking classes in entrepreneurial design for extreme affordability. It was there that he met the co-founders of d.light, fellow business students and engineers. Together they built the first prototype solar light, formed the for-profit company and started fundraising so they could mass produce their products. 

The solar lights range in price from $10 to $200 and come in various models, from a single study lamp that resembles a hockey puck on legs to a small solar home system with multiple lights and light switches.

Awarding the prize to a for-profit company was a departure from the norm for the Bronfman family and one that instigated some discussion, Stephen Bronfman said. 

“We hadn’t awarded the prize money to someone in the for-profit sector before, but in Goldman we saw a young fellow who is able to take a life-saving product and distribute it through all kinds of means. He doesn’t want to stop until he’s sold 100 million lights, and by being for-profit, he can leverage financial institutions and get the product out to non-electrified areas around the globe.”

Added Goldman, “We’d seen a lot of models that were non-profit and that hadn’t produced scalable results. We knew if we were creating value for people, they’d pay money for it, and we were tackling a solution that meets the needs of two billion people. We didn’t know how to raise that kind of money in the donor world and knew that only by charging for it would we know the product was good. Also, we could we use the profits to expand our reach further and faster.”

Bronfman said his family’s involvement in selecting the award recipient each year is an inspiring process. 

“We never really understood how great it would be for all of us involved,” he said. “This year’s selection was really interesting, and Sam is the first social entrepreneur we’ve ever awarded the prize to. There were a lot of similarities with my dad [Charles Bronfman], him being Canadian and doing large-scale international work. But regardless of nationality, he was the top entrant out of five finalists. His background, whole life and raison d’etre really shone through and we were thrilled to award him this year’s prize.”