Social entrepreneur tackles water security in Kenya

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Whether it’s building prosthetic limbs or developing a rainwater filtration system, Adrian Lievano has always been a problem solver.

Growing up in Miami as one of six children, Adrian’s commitment to education was a relief to his Cuban immigrant parents. “I stopped having to check his grades, because I knew they would all be A’s,” recalls his mother. From an early age, Adrian’s love of science was undeniable.

“I was always asking questions," he remembers, "even when my teachers and parents didn’t want me to.” His passion for learning, and for the STEM fields in particular, would come to define him as a student and a leader.

Adrian began his Posse journey in 2013, when he won a full-tuition STEM Posse Scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania. On campus, he was known for his engineering research and his commitment to make Penn’s community more dynamic and inclusive. The Daily Pennsylvanian named him one of the “10 Most Influential Students on Campus.”

Adrian decided on a major in mechanical engineering and applied mathematics. Through his experiences with Penn’s world-class faculty, he learned to translate lab ideas into the real world. After designing a mechanical prosthetic arm for children during his junior year, Adrian turned his attention to the water security crisis in Kenya.

Adrian Lievano (center) in the field.
Adrian Lievano (center) in the field with collaborators.

“Once I became aware of the magnitude of this problem,” says Adrian, “discovering how many people drink unclean water every day, how many die from waterborne diseases each year, I knew I had to jump into it.”

He set off for Kimana, a rural village in Kenya where access to clean drinking water was a daily struggle. Three hundred people depended on a single, distant well. Children often missed school because they had to walk miles each day to carry water back to their families.

Posse saw Adrian's ability to consider others' needs and ask important questions.

Clean water advocates previously had introduced high-tech straws to filter contaminants from water while drinking. But locals never adopted the technology—drinking from obviously dirty water was simply too unappealing.

One quality that Posse saw in Adrian as a young student leader was his ability to consider others’ needs and to ask important questions. Adrian identified why the problem had resisted solution, and sketched out an idea for a sustainable rain-water catchment and filtration system using inexpensive, locally sourced materials.

“When it comes to water filtration, we have to bear in mind the culture we’re designing the system for,” he says. “If it’s not culturally acceptable, it won’t be sustainable.”

Adrian graduated with both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering from the University of Pennsylvania. The school was so impressed and inspired by Adrian’s work that it honored him and his partner, classmate Matt Lisle, with the inaugural President’s Engagement Prize. They received $150,000 to return to Kenya to design and implement their filtration prototype. It was on that trip that Everwaters was officially born and began to receive international media attention.

In 2016, the duo was invited to pitch their filter on CNBC’s “Make Me a Millionaire Inventor.” The appearance resulted in a crucial investment from Alicia Syrett, who singled out Adrian’s commitment to social justice as a key both to solve a problem and build a healthy enterprise.

It’s no surprise to Adrian’s Posse community that he has built a career on improving the lives of others.

“I always knew he would choose to work on something that gives back to so many people,” says his mentor, Amir Gold of Goldman Sachs. “He’s always asking, ‘How can we help as many people as possible?’”

In 2017, Posse awarded Adrian the prestigious Ainslie Alumni Achievement Award, given each year to an outstanding alum who has demonstrated incredible leadership and success while giving back to the world. He continues to work to build Everwaters in Kenya, and beyond.

Watch: Adrian’s Ainslie Alumni Tribute Video

2017 Ainslie recipient Adrian Lievano with Michael Ainslie

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