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Raising entrepreneurs – Auckland girl’s social venture aims to bring water fountains to parks and playgrounds

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22 March 2021

Ten year old Lilah McDonald was horrified to discover that only 5% of Auckland parks have drinking fountains and decided to do something about it. With the support and guidance of her mum, University of Auckland alumna and entrepreneur Kate O’Leary, she has started Water Us. The social venture sells stylish and environmentally-friendly toilet paper that will help fund water fountains for the community.

The venture’s origins are a family overseas holiday. Lilah says “I noticed a big bank of drinking fountains and I wondered why I had never seen anything like this in Auckland.” She also noticed people filling up big single-use plastic bottles that would otherwise have been thrown out. Lilah realised the implications public access to water has on community health and sustainability and when she returned to New Zealand she did some research to find out the scale of the problem. She discovered that only 16% of playgrounds have drinking fountains, and lack of access is worse for parks overall. 

Prior to launching Water Us, Lilah had been working for nearly 2 years on her foundation, the Public Water Project, that aims to double Auckland’s drinking fountain numbers. They had early public sector support, however public funding for administration of the Public Water Project foundation fell through when Covid-19 impacted budgets, and funding was withdrawn. Similar problems arose when corporate funding was explored. 

The rising tide of social enterprise

Water Us utilises social entrepreneurship to help raise funds for Lilah’s Public Water Project. She has sourced a tree-free toilet paper, made from fast-generating crops of bamboo. The hygienic paper wraps have been designed by University of Auckland Elam School of Fine Arts alumnus and award-winning artist Reuben Paterson. Lilah has reached her $30,000 Pledge Me goal which will allow her to complete her first production run, establish an online store and start the process of becoming a carbon-neutral business. 

Kate says initially “The main rationale for launching Lilah’s business with a crowdfunded production run through the Pledge Me platform was to ensure that our family didn’t end up with a 40ft container of toilet paper to work our way through over the years!  It’s also created her first customer base which she is hoping will convert to become a subscriber base once Water Us launches a subscription offering.” Another benefit of crowd-funding has been the surge of enthusiasm the project has received. “Lilah has received a lot of media coverage during the process which has resulted in reach outs from Local Boards in Auckland, who seem to be very keen to address the lack of drinking fountains.”

Kate sees social enterprises being on the rise in New Zealand, for good reason. “Charities have realised that reliance on traditional sources of income like bequests and donations is not a sustainable business strategy. Not only is there increasing competition for these types of income but 2020 was a good indication of how reliance on others’ philanthropic motivation was not strategically smart – the global pandemic would have negatively impacted many charities’ income as individuals and corporates looked for ways to save money. The idea of a social enterprise is much smarter – you are not asking an individual to contribute money outside of their normal household budget – you are simply asking them to switch their spend on a consumable from a commercial brand to a social brand, and to do good through a ‘micro donation’ contained within the purchase price.

“A new generation of entrepreneurs is wanting to have impact beyond making money for shareholders. We’ve had many high profile examples of this, not only in New Zealand (Eat My Lunch is one) but also globally.  And it makes sense. Most entrepreneurs are driven by a passionate desire to solve a problem by providing a product or service to alleviate that problem. If that is your main motivation (vs the pursuit of money), why not achieve your goal in a way that benefits more than just you, in a way that gives back to people and the planet?”

Generating entrepreneurs

Lilah has the support and guidance of her mum Kate, an established business leader who has previously served as Director of Ceres organics and is a founding member of ArcAngels, alongside an array of other experience. Kate herself comes from an entrepreneurial family. Initially after completing her commerce and laws degree Kate moved to New York then back to Auckland where she worked as a management consultant at McKinsey. “That career change coincided with 9/11 and the consulting environment was not that enjoyable so after a couple of years I left and started a business in Australia – distributing my parents’ food brand.”

Kate says that her experience as an entrepreneur has influenced the way she parents. “I am extremely proud of Lilah. She has decided to tackle a big project and has shown resilience and innovation in how she has approached it. I definitely see this as a learning opportunity – in so many ways! Not just in learning how to start a business (and all the skills that come with that) but also in terms of learning how to manage her emotions and deal with different situations and different people. 

“My husband is also very aligned with the idea of instilling a strong work ethic in both our girls. We decided early on not to pay pocket money (mainly because we believe that chores are a whole family obligation that no one should get paid for) and to encourage the girls to work if they wanted to earn money. So they have had their own ‘kid sized’ businesses since Lilah was about 5. Selling fruit from their grandparents’ farm, selling monarch butterfly plants, selling handmade craft items … The world is changing very fast. Kids need to be able to keep up with the changes and adapt quickly and an entrepreneurial mindset ingrains adaptability.”

Advice for start-ups

Kate says it’s essential to be clear on what the problem is that you are trying to solve and to really understand if your solution will actually solve that problem. “Starting a business is expensive – not only in terms of money but also in terms of time – and you have to value both. If you haven’t started any kind of business before, then get a mentor – someone who will help guide you and save you from the expensive mistakes. Remember that a social enterprise is still a business and must be sustainable, otherwise you won’t be able to have the impact that you are looking for.”

Lilah says “It can sometimes be really hard to keep going, but the product won’t sell itself. It will be hard at times, but when you’ve achieved your goal, it will all be worth it, because if you don’t do something to solve the problem, nobody else will.”

Lilah cannot wait for the day she gets to see her first drinking fountain installed. “I would really like to have my drinking fountains installed in public spaces, such as parks and playgrounds and also by public transport. I would also love a couple to go in at the Takapuna beach playground because so many people use it everyday and it is such an amazing playground – all it needs is a drinking fountain or two.”

To follow Lilah’s journey and support her work to nourish our community, sign up to the newsletter on the Water Us website. 

Velocity Team 2020
Velocity Team 2020

social media

22 March 2021

Ten year old Lilah McDonald was horrified to discover that only 5% of Auckland parks have drinking fountains and decided to do something about it. With the support and guidance of her mum, University of Auckland alumna and entrepreneur Kate O’Leary, she has started Water Us. The social venture sells stylish and environmentally-friendly toilet paper that will help fund water fountains for the community.

The venture’s origins are a family overseas holiday. Lilah says “I noticed a big bank of drinking fountains and I wondered why I had never seen anything like this in Auckland.” She also noticed people filling up big single-use plastic bottles that would otherwise have been thrown out. Lilah realised the implications public access to water has on community health and sustainability and when she returned to New Zealand she did some research to find out the scale of the problem. She discovered that only 16% of playgrounds have drinking fountains, and lack of access is worse for parks overall. 

Prior to launching Water Us, Lilah had been working for nearly 2 years on her foundation, the Public Water Project, that aims to double Auckland’s drinking fountain numbers. They had early public sector support, however public funding for administration of the Public Water Project foundation fell through when Covid-19 impacted budgets, and funding was withdrawn. Similar problems arose when corporate funding was explored. 

The rising tide of social enterprise

Water Us utilises social entrepreneurship to help raise funds for Lilah’s Public Water Project. She has sourced a tree-free toilet paper, made from fast-generating crops of bamboo. The hygienic paper wraps have been designed by University of Auckland Elam School of Fine Arts alumnus and award-winning artist Reuben Paterson. Lilah has reached her $30,000 Pledge Me goal which will allow her to complete her first production run, establish an online store and start the process of becoming a carbon-neutral business. 

Kate says initially “The main rationale for launching Lilah’s business with a crowdfunded production run through the Pledge Me platform was to ensure that our family didn’t end up with a 40ft container of toilet paper to work our way through over the years!  It’s also created her first customer base which she is hoping will convert to become a subscriber base once Water Us launches a subscription offering.” Another benefit of crowd-funding has been the surge of enthusiasm the project has received. “Lilah has received a lot of media coverage during the process which has resulted in reach outs from Local Boards in Auckland, who seem to be very keen to address the lack of drinking fountains.”

Kate sees social enterprises being on the rise in New Zealand, for good reason. “Charities have realised that reliance on traditional sources of income like bequests and donations is not a sustainable business strategy. Not only is there increasing competition for these types of income but 2020 was a good indication of how reliance on others’ philanthropic motivation was not strategically smart – the global pandemic would have negatively impacted many charities’ income as individuals and corporates looked for ways to save money. The idea of a social enterprise is much smarter – you are not asking an individual to contribute money outside of their normal household budget – you are simply asking them to switch their spend on a consumable from a commercial brand to a social brand, and to do good through a ‘micro donation’ contained within the purchase price.

“A new generation of entrepreneurs is wanting to have impact beyond making money for shareholders. We’ve had many high profile examples of this, not only in New Zealand (Eat My Lunch is one) but also globally.  And it makes sense. Most entrepreneurs are driven by a passionate desire to solve a problem by providing a product or service to alleviate that problem. If that is your main motivation (vs the pursuit of money), why not achieve your goal in a way that benefits more than just you, in a way that gives back to people and the planet?”

Generating entrepreneurs

Lilah has the support and guidance of her mum Kate, an established business leader who has previously served as Director of Ceres organics and is a founding member of ArcAngels, alongside an array of other experience. Kate herself comes from an entrepreneurial family. Initially after completing her commerce and laws degree Kate moved to New York then back to Auckland where she worked as a management consultant at McKinsey. “That career change coincided with 9/11 and the consulting environment was not that enjoyable so after a couple of years I left and started a business in Australia – distributing my parents’ food brand.”

Kate says that her experience as an entrepreneur has influenced the way she parents. “I am extremely proud of Lilah. She has decided to tackle a big project and has shown resilience and innovation in how she has approached it. I definitely see this as a learning opportunity – in so many ways! Not just in learning how to start a business (and all the skills that come with that) but also in terms of learning how to manage her emotions and deal with different situations and different people. 

“My husband is also very aligned with the idea of instilling a strong work ethic in both our girls. We decided early on not to pay pocket money (mainly because we believe that chores are a whole family obligation that no one should get paid for) and to encourage the girls to work if they wanted to earn money. So they have had their own ‘kid sized’ businesses since Lilah was about 5. Selling fruit from their grandparents’ farm, selling monarch butterfly plants, selling handmade craft items … The world is changing very fast. Kids need to be able to keep up with the changes and adapt quickly and an entrepreneurial mindset ingrains adaptability.”

Advice for start-ups

Kate says it’s essential to be clear on what the problem is that you are trying to solve and to really understand if your solution will actually solve that problem. “Starting a business is expensive – not only in terms of money but also in terms of time – and you have to value both. If you haven’t started any kind of business before, then get a mentor – someone who will help guide you and save you from the expensive mistakes. Remember that a social enterprise is still a business and must be sustainable, otherwise you won’t be able to have the impact that you are looking for.”

Lilah says “It can sometimes be really hard to keep going, but the product won’t sell itself. It will be hard at times, but when you’ve achieved your goal, it will all be worth it, because if you don’t do something to solve the problem, nobody else will.”

Lilah cannot wait for the day she gets to see her first drinking fountain installed. “I would really like to have my drinking fountains installed in public spaces, such as parks and playgrounds and also by public transport. I would also love a couple to go in at the Takapuna beach playground because so many people use it everyday and it is such an amazing playground – all it needs is a drinking fountain or two.”

To follow Lilah’s journey and support her work to nourish our community, sign up to the newsletter on the Water Us website. 


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