“If you are scared, remember that the fear appears bigger than it actually is.  Be brave and open to taking calculated risks!” – Shilpa Alva

Growing up as a California resident, you are constantly reminded of how precious a resource water is. For Californians, concerns center on using water responsibly; making sure there will be enough for future generations to enjoy. We’re lucky our concerns are protecting this natural resource rather than having access to clean water in the first place.

For a large part of the global population, access to clean water and proper hygiene facilities is a luxury they’ve only dreamed about. Instead, the same river they use to wash clothes is the same one providing water for drinking and cooking.

Thanks to people like Shilpa Alva of Surge For Water, access to clean water and proper hygiene facilities is becoming a reality for many communities around the globe, including Haiti, India, the Dominican Republic, the Philippines, Nepal, and Cambodia. Shilpa and her team provide an all encompassing program for the communities they support. From working with local businesses to build everything, to providing educational programs, the Surge team works closely with leaders in each community to ensure long term success and sustainability.

Me: How did water and proper sanitation come to be the focus of your give back efforts? 

Shilpa: My passion lies with global development and sustainable ways to end the cycle of extreme poverty. Adequate access to safe water and sanitation is one of the fundamental ways of addressing this issue. I imagine a world, where no person loses a life or lives in a cycle of poverty because they lack access to this basic human right.

Me: Where did the idea to build Surge For Water first come from? 

Shilpa: My motivation began when I was a child visiting extended family in India. Issues related to the water crisis were so prevalent that I saw children my age who didn’t have the luxury of playing; instead many were fetching water for their family’s survival. Even as a seven-year-old child, I knew this was not the way the world should be. Access to safe water is a critical aspect of daily life, and everyone should have it. Children should not bear the responsibility of a family’s survival.  I knew then that I wanted to make a difference, I just didn’t know how.

When I was 21, I spent a few months on a volunteer assignment in Rajgarh, a remote Indian village. I was confronted with water and sanitation issues for the first time as an adult. In an effort to save the limited water we had access to, we could only shower once in four days, flush the toilet sparingly and often had to wash our clothes in a murky river. We were among the fortunate ones who had some access to this precious resource; many of our friends in the village didn’t share in this luxury. It was through this first-hand experience that I realized it was now my responsibility to make a difference.

The founding of Surge in 2008 was in response to this life-long calling: It was my way of making a lasting impact. We were going to transform people’s lives by providing them with access to safe water and sanitation!

Me: In the early days of Surge For Water you managed to balance a full time corporate job while also running in the organization. Since then, you’ve been able to take a one-year sabbatical to focus solely on Surge For Water’s efforts. How did you manage to find a livable work life balance (or did you)?

Shilpa: While I had a full-time corporate job it was really difficult to find the right balance. It was clear that I wanted Surge to be a top priority in my life. To give it space, I had to consciously evaluate how I spent my free time and then actively remove things that did not align with my life goals. The changes included simple actions such as getting rid of television, to working more efficiently at my corporate jobs, to making mindful decisions on my social engagements and relationships.

However, as much as re-prioritizing helped, I never found the much-desired panacea! The reality is that I had taken on too much and just handled it in stride. I kept my focus on the cause that was much greater than me.

I learned a lot about the importance of having enough sleep, strengthening personal bonds, and giving myself enough time to stay holistically healthy.

Me: How did you come to the decision to take a year sabbatical? What steps did you have to take to make this year a reality?

Shilpa: As Surge continued to grow, the demands on my time also grew quite significantly. I realized that pulling all–nighters was just not cutting it  – for me or for the organization. This is when I made the decision to dedicate at least 1 year to the cause that I’m so passionate about. My 1-year sabbatical is now on it’s 16 month and counting!

There was a long planning period from when I made the decision to when I acted on it. I went through several distinct phases:

  • Convincing myself – It seemed like I had been working in a stable, secure corporate job forever. I would be transitioning from a growing, steady income to none. I would be transitioning from a beautiful, downtown Chicago apartment to no home of my own. And there’d be many more similar changes. Even though this was a temporary move – it was still incredibly scary. I went back and forth convincing myself why I should or should not make the leap. In the end, I realized that the fear was much less than I was making it out to be. I realized that I had very little to lose and so much more to gain for myself as well as the people I’d be serving!
  • Convincing family and friends – Throughout my sabbatical – family and friends have provided a significant support structure – from listening, to providing advice, to offering a place to stay.  This support helps me get through the difficult days – so having them feel comfortable with my decision was a very important step.
  • Making it possible – Once I had made the decision, I had to figure out a way to make it logistically possible. I created a rough budget that included all major trips (I’ve been in 16 countries on 5 continents for Surge and personal travel since I started.), fixed expenses and discretionary funds. Through a conscious change in lifestyle, I was fortunate to be able to save enough funds to take on this journey!
  • Action – I chose a date, planned the first couple of months and took on everything else in stride. It’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made!

Me: Has giving back always been a significant part of your life? Or something that came about later in in life?

Shilpa: It’s been a part of my life for as long as I can remember.  I believe that every person has this capacity and acts on it in their own way.

Me: You refer to your mission and to Surge For Water as part of the global ecosystem. For those that don’t know much about clean water and proper sanitation efforts, can you explain what you mean by this?

Shilpa: Very simply, water is life, and life, as we know it cannot exist without it. Our tangible (forests, desserts) and intangible (climate, air) environment has a symbiotic relationship with fresh water access and quality.  At Surge, where we assess the water conditions in our communities – we also learn about the overall environmental conditions, and we try to use solutions that are in harmony with nature.

Me: I love that when Surge For Water goes into a community, you really work with the locals to resolve their own water and sanitation issues. Surge For Water has made working with the entire community a priority, rather than coming in and simply building everything yourself.  Why choose to work so closely with the locals?

Shilpa: We believe that in order to make a significant, transformational difference we have to gain deep insight to the inner workings of each community. This allows us to understand the issues more clearly and work with community members on finding the right sustainable water and sanitation solutions. Since our projects are community-driven, the locals have a significant stake throughout the process. This ownership as well as the deep relationships are important elements to our success in the field.

Me: Surge For Water works in several different communities on several different continents; each community is incredibly diverse. How do you go about selecting each community Surge for Water decides to partner with? Additionally, when you do begin engaging with the community, how do you select the vendors in the communities you choose to work in?

Shilpa: We go through a rigorous vetting process once we identify potential partners and communities. Factors we assess include: alignment with mission and value system, partner and community need, product sustainability (social, economic, environmental, technology), partner sustainability, communication, organization structure, opportunity for growth, entrepreneurial spirit, openness to share and learn, etc.

Our team members have personally visited all of our active partners around the world to ensure that they meet our requirements and to start building life long friendships!

Me: Surge For Water’s work in each community is so much more than simply building a well. You also spend a lot of time focusing on education. Why is it so important to educate the communities you work in about the importance of safe and clean water?

Shilpa: Our projects take on a holistic view of the water and sanitation crisis. Products by themselves do not address the full issue. Communities need to be educated on the product, as well as critical sanitation and hygiene practices. By providing education, we empower communities to stand on their own.

Our curriculum is unique and engaging – critical lessons are delivered with games, songs and other interactive activities. We’ve used versions of this program with children, households, schools, families and community leaders.

Me: The Surge For Water team is 100% made up of volunteers. How do you find your volunteers and keep them motivated?

Shilpa: Our volunteers come from a variety of sources ranging from friends and family to active recruitment efforts. Over time we’ve transitioned from accepting anyone who’s interested to ensuring that the volunteer is a right match for Surge.  Since it is a volunteer role – it’s important for our volunteers to have a shared passion for our mission.

Keeping volunteers continuously motivated is challenging and we are constantly learning and evolving.  It’s important to rally everyone around the cause – so they feel connected to our mission.

Me: What has been the most surprising part of your experience and time spent working on Surge For Water? The most inspiring part of your give back endeavors?

Shilpa: I’m most surprised with how easily I’ve adapted to my new lifestyle and several precarious situations around the world. It’s truly amazing how much we can take on – when we believe in our life’s purpose and ourselves!

The most inspiring part is being in the field and interacting with the precious children that our work directly impacts. Seeing them study, laugh and play is motivating, and truly priceless.

Me: What is the one piece of advice you would want to share with someone who wants to follow in your footsteps of using their own unique talents and life experiences to give back? 

Shilpa: There [are] 3 lessons I’d like to share:

  • If you are scared, remember that the fear appears bigger than it actually is.  Be brave and open to taking calculated risks!
  • Find the balance between “World” and “Self”. You can absolutely change the world – you just need to ensure you look after yourself too.
  • Get Started! Even if a cause seems overwhelming, remember that even a small, simple action can make a difference.  Every single life improved or saved makes it all worth it!