“What can we do to help homeless folks in the streets, struck by poverty?” I posed that question to an uncle of mine when I was a teenager.

“You have a choice,” he shared with warmth in his voice. I still distinctly remember the words: “You can either give them a crutch, or you can give them your shoulder to lean in to solve their problem. Then, they have a chance to lean forward on their own—with pride and self- sustaining confidence.”

Problem solvers play a critical role in this world. Tweet This Quote

Those words echoed when I heard the story of entrepreneur, Paul Polak. He did not speak those words. Rather, he acted on them with his own twist.

Like many families in the Americas (dating back to varying degrees of ancestry), his family immigrated. His father had the fortitude to foresee the marching German army to Czechoslovakia. He had a flourishing plant nursery business, but he sold everything at a steep discount and moved his family to the Americas.

Paul grew up and became a psychiatrist, focusing on supporting the homeless population. As he prescribed medications to them, however, he noticed a recurring pattern: they consistently returned. He felt heavy that he was treating a symptom and not the real problem, so he imbibed the entrepreneurial spirit of his father. Without any formal business training, he naturally espoused two business tenets: 1) Fully listening, and 2) Showing up where customers are. By doing that, he helped one of the homeless men to start his own business of lending makeshift locker boxes to fellow vagabonds for a nominal amount.

People exit poverty not when organizations donate tools, but rather when they invest their own money and time on tools that can help them. Tweet This Quote

When he moved from just practicing psychiatry for the homeless to deeply listening to them, and in turn helping them build a future, a remarkable change happened. By not looking at a homeless person as a recipient of charity, but rather as an owner of a business, the recurring pattern was broken.

That experience sprouted the entrepreneur inherent in him. He bloomed for the next 40 years. He is now 82 years young, agile and active with great achievements to his credit.

The biggest of them, according to me, was shattering a long-held belief: “If you give a man a fish, he can feed himself for a day. If he spends the time to learn how to fish [with your help], he can feed himself for a lifetime.”

The implicit words never stated that we all assume are, “If he spends the time to learn how to fish with a fishing rod, he can feed himself for a lifetime.”

Where Paul found his life-long meaning was the changed words, “If he spends the time to learn how to fish with tools he bought with his own money, he can feed himself for a lifetime.”

What real problems we choose to solve define a lot of our meaning. Tweet This Quote

There are two subtleties here. First, every tool is not a fishing rod. Second, people exit poverty not when organizations donate tools to them, but rather when they invest their own money and time on tools that can help them and their business.

His life mission was to create tools that the people living below the poverty line can afford and learn from easily. That singular construct is the edifice on which he built his social empire—market-based solutions to poverty. He’s truly a contrarian and a self-described bohemian who brought meaning into money with something we humans take pride in—ownership.

Closer to home, I relate to his insight. As a parent, I am always looking for ways to help my two young daughters enjoy eating vegetables. I often ask them to help pick vegetables at the farmer’s market or the grocery store. Then, I sense their feeling of ownership when those vegetables are served to them at the dining table.

Opportunities to take ownership often lead to progress. Tweet This Quote

What is true with our kids is often true in a social setting—opportunities to take ownership often lead to progress. That never occurred to me until I read Paul’s life works. Like many great things in life, the lesson is crystal clear in retrospect. I was happy to learn that Paul was named by The Atlantic as one of the world’s 27 “Brave Thinkers,” along with Steve Jobs.

In all of this, one thing is clear: problem solvers have a critical place in this world. What real problems we choose to solve define a lot of our meaning. Serendipity and curiosity to solve real problems is the underbelly of Paul’s story—holding it together and nourishing it with thoughtfulness and success on what is truly meaningful.

A version of this post originally appeared in the Huffington Post.

About the author

Karthik Rajan

Karthik Rajan

Karthik is a startup mentor and strategy consultant in private equity and venture capital. He also writes about entrepreneurship and impact investing, and his columns have appeared in the Huffington Post, FOX, and Entrepreneur.com.

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  • Thank you Unreasonable Institute and readers for the opportunity to present Paul Polak’s story.

  • Thank you for sharing. I think it’s valuable to look at how market forces can help to solve problems and also pair the participation of governments, civil society and academia to the solution of a social problem to help mitigate risk of failure.