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The mission of the Your Mark on the World Center is to solve the world's biggest problems before 2045 by identifying and championing the work of experts who have created credible plans and programs to end them once and for all.

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Devin D. Thorpe
Devin Thorpe

Aziz Memon: Pakistan’s Social Entrepreneurship King

This post was originally produced for Forbes.

Aziz Memon has built a business empire called the Kings Group of Companies in Pakistan with $100 million in annual revenue while simultaneously devoting much of his time and energy to charitable purposes, especially the eradication of polio.

About half of the annual revenue from his businesses comes from King’s Textile Industries, a textile business that includes farming of organic cotton and production of organic cloth. He says, Walmart and other customers like to include 5 to 10 percent organic cotton in their products. As he built the organic cotton business and began farming the cotton, he built schools for the farmers’ families.

He also owns a solar power business called Orion Solar Power that provides solar power for street lighting and for operating swimming pools. Pakistan’s climate is well suited for solar power.

He owns a number of retail franchises in Pakistan as well, including a United Colors of Benetton store I visited in Islamabad. In addition, he also owns a medical supply business and also develops real estate.

Aziz Memon is the master franchisee of this store in Islamabad. Photo by Devin Thorpe.

Aziz Memon is the master franchisee of this store in Islamabad. Photo by Devin Thorpe.

Most of his business interests have a social purpose in their mission. Memon also places an emphasis on treating employees well and fairly. In the textile business, he says the clients, including JC Penny and Sears in addition to Walmart and a variety of European companies, have strict standards for working conditions and employee benefits. “Everything is written down in the social compliance agreement. We feel a pleasure doing all this. We feel our workers are our partners,” he says.

Memon, always socially minded, joined his local Rotary Club in 1995. That decision not only had a remarkable impact on him, but on the country.

In the 1980s, Rotary announced a global effort to eradicate polio. At the time, polio was still endemic in most countries outside of the U.S., Western Europe and Japan. Today, Pakistan is one of only two countries where polio is endemic—the other is Afghanistan. With most cases originating in Pakistan, eyes of the public health world have turned to Pakistan.

At the center of that attention sits Aziz Memon. Now, devoting himself almost full time to the effort as a volunteer, he sheepishly notes that his brother and nephew now run the day-to-day operations of the business, while he, as Chairman, weighs in only on strategic issues.

Memon has served in a long list of volunteer leadership positions in Rotary, including serving as a District Governor for the 2007-2008 service year. Today, he sits on the Rotary’s International Polio Plus Committee and as the Chairman of Rotary’s National Polio Plus Committee.

Even the WHO could not provide good records for the number of polio cases in Pakistan prior to the early 1990s. In 1995 when Memon joined Rotary, there were 2,555 cases of polio in Pakistan. So far this year, the WHO has tracked 11 cases in the country.

This progress fills Memon with a sense of urgency. “We are running short of time. There is no tomorrow. We cannot postpone,” he told me in a meeting in Islamabad. He added, “Getting rid of polio is the top priority” in his life.

Dr. Rana Muhammad Safdar, the Coordinator of the National Emergency Operation Centre, is the government’s senior most leader in the war on polio. There are “no words,” he says, to describe the respect he has for him. “I ask him to be there and he is there.”

Memon, for his part, is committed. “If I’m needed, I’m there,” he says.

Dr. Michel Thierin, who’s title is abbreviated simply as WR, serves as the World Health Organization’s Representative to Pakistan. “I see Aziz Memon as a member of the team.” The Global Polio Eradication Initiative is the partnership of Rotary International, the WHO, the U.S. CDC, UNICEF, Gates Foundation and world governments. “The GPEI in Pakistan is the quintessential definition of partnership,” Thierin adds.

Aziz Memon, by Devin Thorpe

Aziz Memon, by Devin Thorpe

K.R. “Ravi” Ravindran, President of Rotary International from Sri Lanka, says, “Aziz is the consummate Rotarian. He has had the ability to build a business, the charm to cultivate an impressive list of contacts and the guts to lead Rotary into areas that only the brave can tread. He is our most valuable resource in Pakistan.”

Memon’s polio work isn’t all administrative. Not long ago, he says, he was out with volunteers visiting households of families that had refused drops to invite them to reconsider. He was accompanied by Ramesh, a Pakistani-born polio survivor who was raised in the U.S. and was visiting Karachi where Memon lives.

Memon identified a “refusal family,” one that had refused polio vaccinations, on the sixth floor of a building with no elevator. He volunteered to go up. Ramesh volunteered to go with him on crutches. Up they went. When they arrived, Memon said through the door to a skeptical mother, “We don’t have drops, we just want to give you some sweets for your children.” The woman opened a tiny security window in the door to receive the treats. When she saw Ramesh, he could see her straining to raise herself up to look down through the window to see his crutches, legs and feet.

“Is this what is called polio?” she asked.

When Memon explained that it was, she said, “No one told me this.” She then invited Memon to give her children all the drops he wanted.

Aidan O’Leary, UNICEF’s Team Leader for polio eradication in Pakistan says that “Memon has been hugely influential in maintaining and supporting” key relationships with “political leadership, business leadership, media leadership, religious leadership and the medical leadership.”

Memon was formally recognized for his humanitarian and community service by the Government of Pakistan in 2011. He was awarded the Pride of Performance by the President.

Although Memon is no longer engaged in his business on a day-to-day basis, he remains an active Chairman and is involved in all key decisions. Business remains an important part of his life, despite devoting most of his time to humanitarian pursuits.

Overall, revenue has grown 20 percent this year. Memon says, “I think God sees that I am neglecting the business for a noble cause.”

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