Katherine Clopeck – Innovating Solutions

water

Majoring in aerospace engineering, Katherine Clopeck (MAE ’06) spent much of her time at the University of Virginia imagining solutions that lay among the stars. Instead, she has created a career grounded in one of humanity’s most basic needs, making an often lifesaving difference in the lives of thousands of people every single day.

Clopeck is the founder of Community Water Solutions, a not-for-profit organization that catalyzes sustainable water businesses in communities of the developing world. “I actually started thinking about this my first year at U.Va.,” said Clopeck. “I was interested in international development, especially in the deployment of appropriate technologies. Appropriate technologies are created from local materials and made for people to use in very rural areas. But I didn’t really have direction in terms of the field to apply my interest.”

Then she began to learn about water scarcity. “I heard all these statistics about how almost a billion people don’t have access to safe drinking water, and how millions of children die as a result every year. I focused on the fact that waterborne disease is preventable, and that appropriate technologies were cheap, effective and available to address the problem.”

A project with U.Va. classmates in Cameroon solidified this interest and, after getting a master’s degree from the Technology and Policy Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Clopeck was ready to begin her journey.

“What we do at CWS is launch water entrepreneurs,” she said. “We go into remote villages in Ghana that currently do not have access to safe drinking water. In all of the villages where we work, the people are currently fetching water from a surface water source—so, from a pond, a river or a lake. We identify women who are interested and capable of working on the problem and teach them how to use products available in their local markets. These women launch businesses that can transform their communities.”

Clopeck recognizes that regional solutions have a long history of failure, due to a number of reasons that range from cultural to geographic. So Clopeck and her team help the women implement businesses that operate at the community level, treating water for an entire village from a centralized location and selling it at an affordable price. “After the opening day, these businesses are completely run by the women. We don’t see any money from the sales.” CWS representatives continue to monitor the businesses for a period of five years, helping the women manage issues, including climate-based fluctuations in demand.

Clopeck regularly leans on the lessons she learned fulfilling her Business Minor in the Engineering School. “One of the things I think U.Va. does really well is to go beyond providing a traditional engineering education. U.Va. helps students learn about what it is like to be an engineer in today’s world. We learn what it means to have real business acumen, knowing what it is like to start your own company or seeing the effects that a technology or an invention has on society. And that is incredibly valuable. Because more and more, whether you want to start your own business or you want to just get a job in today’s economy, having an engineer that understands the broader implications of their job and their place in the technological society is just huge.”

This article originally appeared in UVa Engineering Unbound.