Before Anna Stork and Andrea Sreshta became founders of LuminAID, which makes inflatable solar lanterns, they were architecture students at Columbia University. After the devastating earthquake in Haiti in 2010, they were directed to create a product to support relief efforts. In addition to necessities like food, water and shelter, they pondered another vital essential: light.
At night the makeshift tent communities set up after the earthquake turned dark, unwelcoming, and quite often dangerous. People would frequently rely on open candles, diesel generators, and kerosene lanterns as a form of light and electricity – which can be unsafe and costly.
Sadly, those caught in earthquakes and other natural disasters aren’t the only ones left in the dark.
“More than 1.1 billion people worldwide lack reliable access to electricity,” Andrea said. “Humanitarian and disaster relief organizations have difficulty finding ways to get safe light to those who need it most.”
To answer this unmet need, the grad students took to the drawing board, coming up with a bright idea: a compact, inflatable and rechargeable solar lantern. They constructed the first 50 pillow-like prototypes themselves.
Then, in early 2011, the duo was on a class trip in Japan when an earthquake rocked Sendai and the surrounding regions. Electricity was lost, as was just about everything else.
“Our hearts went out to the millions homeless and we wondered where they were sleeping on that first night,” Andrea recalled.
To combat the rolling blackouts that followed, the women used one of their own prototype lanterns.
“That portable rechargeable light was critical in a place with robust infrastructure like Japan and was a real wake up call for us to see the potential impact that our device could have in times of need,” Andrea said.
Returning home with a bit more validation and determination, they filed a patent for their inflatable solar light and ran a successful crowdsourcing campaign, making the launch of LuminAID official.
Shortly after LuminAID’s induction, the brand kicked off a crusade called Give Light, Get Light. Anyone can “sponsor” a light that will later be sent to a nonprofit who distributes them to those in need. To date, more than 50,000 lanterns in more than 100 countries have been donated through the program. Even more impressive, through their partnerships with various NGOs and nonprofits, more than 250,000 LuminAID lanterns have been used by those without safe and reliable electricity.
From there, the brand’s popularity and philanthropy spread like fire. While they gained some exposure in the media, the best commercial for the brand came in 2015 when they were invited to pitch their invention before the famed business moguls on the ABC show Shark Tank.
Much to their surprise, they received offers from all five Sharks.
“I think each Shark saw the potential both in LuminAID and in Anna and myself,” said Andrea, “which was unexpected but also very validating.”
Anna agreed: “Showcasing our efforts in the disaster relief aid market was a big factor in convincing the Sharks to make an offer. We understand the work we are doing, and they were excited about that.”
Ultimately, the pair settled on a deal with Mark Cuban and continues to work with his team today.
Then in 2017, yet another disaster stuck, this time in Andrea’s hometown of Houston, Texas. Hurricane Harvey flooded homes and spurred emergent evacuations, with families all over the state struggling to connect with loved ones.
“Mobile phones became crucial, and people had a hard time finding a way to recharge them,” she said. “That further encouraged us to integrate solar phone charging into our solar lanterns, to better respond to the relief and recovery needs of families like mine.”
Thanks to a Kickstarter campaign that was fulfilled in just eight hours, the PackLite Max 2-in-1 Phone Charger was born.
Very quickly, LuminAID’s innovations were being utilized outside of emergency situations, lighting up outdoor adventures too. People recognized the utility of these compact, waterproof, lightweight and portable lanterns for camping, hiking, boating and hanging out at a beach or in a backyard.
As such, in 2018 the brand introduced their latest brainchild: the Smart Solar Garden Line.
“We’re passionate about empowering all people to live sustainably beyond the grid in any and all situations,” Andrea said.
Not only are the garden lights eco-friendly like their hallmark lanterns, but they also light up an array of colors, have fun shapes, and can be completely controlled by your phone.
The women continue to visit regions affected by natural disasters, most recently hand delivering lanterns after Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico in 2017.
“Through our personal experiences with disaster, we’ve only become more determined to create this important product,” Andrea said.