Most of us see advertising as the stuff that stands between us and the media we like — music, TV or online videos. Sometimes ads themselves can be entertainment, but mostly they are the stuff-before-the-stuff-we-want. Social entrepreneur Paul Polizzotto has a different view. His company, EcoMedia, is a portal through which advertisers provide financial support for "critical, yet underfunded, environmental, health, and education projects in communities nationwide." The goal is to connect media consumers (that's you and me) with innovative local projects, advertisers with worthwhile nonprofits and, of course, advertisers with consumers.

It's a win-win-win and gets some of the almost $171 billion that's spent on advertising in the United States redirected to those who really need it. 

The premise behind the company (read the the nitty-gritty details here) seems like a no-brainer. But why hasn't a portion of ad budgets — while important economically, not exactly a life-saving business — not always included philanthropy too? Because it took a creative thinker and social entrepreneur like Paul Polizzotto to come up with the idea and make it work for everyone involved. Since the company was bought by CBS in 2010, it has been ramping up with wellness and education ads and winning Edison awards for social innovation and impact. It's the fastest-growing division of CBS, providing millions of dollars for nonprofits from ad campaigns in all types of media, including radio, interactive TV, outdoor, and publishing. 

Although there are plenty of people working on business programs that benefit social and environmental programs, most of them keep walking the same well-worn paths. So how did Polizzotto figure out how to shift the paradigm in a new and totally creative way? How did he move from the lofty idea of getting big companies to fund urban reforestation schemes, fresh water protection, kids meals, and community gardens — to actually getting them to do it?  

surfer in huge wave

Polizzotto says surfing and the waves helped inspire him to follow through with his big ideas. (Photo: BarryTuck)

Polizzotto credits lessons he's learned from the natural world, especially the ocean. He explains it by telling this story when he lectures to students at NYU, Fordham and USC's Marshall School: 

"I grew up surfing way before there was the Internet, in the late '70s and early '80s. My friends and I would take off work and go down to Mexico for a week and sit on these cliffs looking at the waves, and sometimes we had bad luck. No waves for a day. But that doesn’t happen anymore. You can get incredibly detailed wave information for places as faraway as New Zealand and you don’t just go out without knowing that there’s going to be waves for a week.

"Not so long ago, a friend of mine got on the Internet and got buoy readings, drew the graph, and figured out where the swell direction was going along the coast to find the most direct, biggest waves [the next morning] — North of LA, near Oxnard. We all got up and got out there early and the surf was massive. The technology gave us the exact waves that were predicted.

"And my friend and our other friends took one look and said: 'I’m not going out there.'

"I did, and my friends thought I was crazy. I paddled out there, got thrown around like a ragdoll, but that is what I came to the ocean for. It turned out to be the most amazing surf session of my life — a surf session I’ll never forget. So I tell my students: If the technology gives you what you ask for, are you going to paddle out?

"So many businesspeople don’t paddle out. They have these great ideas, but they never get them out there, let alone deal with the chaos of marketplace once they are out.

"If you think about surfing, before you can ever ride waves, you have to go through the chaotic ocean, you have to push through. To me, it's the same in entrepreneurship. The ocean looks like the marketplace — from a distance it’s so beautiful, so vast, yet so powerful. But when you're in it, it's chaos and mayhem and people can get hurt. 

"Surfing done right is harnessing the power and chaos of the ocean. Social entrepreneurship reminds me of surfing because it’s this elegant and graceful dance."

Innovative, creative programs that offer help where it's needed don't happen overnight. Like any successful idea, getting them off the ground takes guts and perseverance. Polizzotto says that it helps that social entrepreneurs are interested in more than just making more money than the next guy. That means their jobs can be more challenging (more stakeholders, more moving parts, more goals), but also more rewarding. And when you're helping others, inspiration is never in short supply — even if sleep is. 

It can seem daunting, but there is no more complex system than the natural world. As Polizzotto says, there's both education and inspiration in the ecosystems that surround us. So paddle out there, fight the chaos, and don't forget to enjoy the ride. 

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Starre Vartan ( @ecochickie ) covers conscious consumption, health and science as she travels the world exploring new cultures and ideas.

Paul Polizzotto: 'Entrepreneurship is like the ocean'
CBS EcoMedia's Paul Polizzotto says his biggest business influence has been the ocean.