One of the few fortunate people who can recall a defining moment when they clearly realized what they wanted to do with their life, Jasmine Burton proudly remembers the moment she knew toilets were her future.
“I went to the Georgia Tech Women’s Leadership Conference, and I learned that half the world doesn’t have access to toilets to enable safely managed sanitation and how that reality disproportionately impacts the livelihoods and career advancement of women, girls and marginalized communities around the world,” says Burton, who was 18 at the time and attending Georgia Tech. With a passion for social impact and pursuing a major in product design, she saw a tangible way to combine the two — and in a way that would limit waste and help those most in need.
“That was an ‘aha’ moment,” she says. “I called my parents and was like, ‘I want to design toilets,’ and they were like, ‘What?’.”
Now, more than a decade later, Burton holds a patent and several trademarks through her hybrid social impact organization Wish for Wash. Her invention: “modular toilets for resource-constrained communities,” she explains. “The idea behind it is sit or squat, so you can sit or squat depending on your preference or needs. It also works in different waste management realities. So, if you have running water, you can connect it to the sewer line. The idea is that it could work as a flushing toilet, but if you don’t have running water, or if you’re living off grid and you want a compost toilet, it could work in that way as well.”
Approaching the design from a “cradle-to-grave” mindset — one focused on producing less waste — was important to Burton as sustainability is another issue she is passionate about. “I didn’t want to design trash. I didn’t want to design something that people would throw away,” she says. “So that became the opening door for me to start exploring what it meant to be in the impact space, what it meant to work in sustainability, what it meant to create products that were meant to last for people who are typically not prioritized.”
Now a Consortium fellow and MBA candidate in the one-year accelerated program at Emory University’s Goizueta School of Business, Burton is taking her passion for public health, sustainability and social impact to another level. With a desire to make public health more efficient via private sector approaches, she believes her MBA will provide her with the foundation and skill set – including a more strategic mindset – to do so.
Building a Solid Foundation
Originally from Atlanta, where her parents ran a healthcare practice together for 20 years, Burton says the experience sparked in her both an interest in healthcare and an entrepreneurial mindset
“My sister and I have both found our way into the health space,” says Burton. “I think growing up in a family-owned business, you really are influenced by a lot of things. The fact that my parents built careers in the impact economy shaped and inspired me from an early age.”
Her time in undergrad at Georgia Tech further deepened her passion for public health and social impact, and following graduation, she pursued her interest abroad. “I lived in Zambia and did some work in Kenya and Ethiopia,” she says. “I then lived in London to get my master’s in public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and did some work in Switzerland before heading back to Atlanta to work on a contract at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).”
During this time, she witnessed the effects of the pandemic on already cash-strapped social-impact and nonprofit organizations, with many around the world that were struggling, and continue struggle, to stay afloat. For Burton, the experience pointed to the need for a solid business foundation regardless of what sector you’re operating in. Unlike some people in the nonprofit space, in which Burton had spent most of her career, she recognized that profits aren’t inherently bad and, in fact, are useful in driving sustained impact.
“Being at the CDC made the case for why I wanted to go to business school, to really learn how to use private sector practices to help make health equity and public health work more efficient,” she says. “Another reason why I wanted to go back to school was to help make nonprofits and social impact organizations more resilient by helping them – including my own – have more diverse revenue options.”
At Emory, Burton is gaining the knowledge and tools to be successful from a business standpoint. For Wish for Wash specifically, she plans to use what she is learning to grow and scale the organization.
Changing the Conversation
With both a for-profit and nonprofit arm, Wish for Wash seeks to “bring innovation to sanitation through culturally specific research, design and education,” Burton says. The nonprofit, operational arm consists of 100-plus associates, largely under the age of 30, who are working as researchers, product developers and engineers. “We’re really trying to equip the next generation of makers, of interdisciplinary thinkers, to work together in a way that is cohesive,” she says “— and disrupt the status quo.”
Using the educational curriculum it developed, Wish for Wash has also been working with Georgia schools and Atlanta Girl Scouts to minimize the stigma around hygiene-related topics and encourage people to think differently about sanitation. “When we’re talking about sanitation in particular, it’s a universal [fact] to recognize that everybody poops — that is our mantra at Wish for Wash,” Burton says. “There are feelings that are universal, that transcend culture, age, et cetera, that relate to sanitation. Tapping into that human side of sanitation unlocks peoples’ minds to what is possible.”
Another Wish for Wash project that touches on an equally uncomfortable topic is Period Futures. Designed to spark a larger conversation as well as innovation around menstrual health, Period Futures is a mix of education and provocation, Burton says. “It’s a project that is sparking conversations around what the future of periods could look like so that we have a more equitable, sustainable and inclusive society where people who have periods can operate at their highest capacity,” says Burton. By reframing this natural bodily process, Period Futures is challenging people to develop sustainable solutions. “Once you frame it from a problem into an opportunity, people are like, ‘Cool, this isn’t disgusting. This is something I can write a business model around or create a product for to meet a true need,’” she says. “We’ve done this with middle schoolers, and seeing the number of mix gender youth who get excited about creating a business around periods is a really cool sign of what could be if you just frame it in a different way.”
The for-profit side of Wish for Wash holds its IP — and is where Burton is hoping to develop revenue-generating opportunities to support its social impact activities. Thus far, Burton has supported the organization through her third venture, The Hybrid Hype, which has allowed her to combine her background in product design, public health and business to do independent contract work for organizations like Planned Parenthood and the Toilet Board Coalition — which she hopes to do more of after earning her MBA.
“Hybrid Hype has been a very big piece of the Wish for Wash story because it’s given us the autonomy to have funding, to be a little bit flexible,” says Burton. “It has also enabled me to celebrate my intersectional professional identity because I am a hybrid professional.”
More than 10 years after that fateful day at Georgia Tech, Burton has made a niche for herself by combining her knowledge and skills in design, public health, sustainability and, now, business to improve sanitation. But, more than realizing her professional ambitions, having a social impact is Burton’s bottom line.
“Beyond sanitation, beyond product development, beyond toilets, it really is this ecosystem of ‘what does it mean to create products and programs and organizations that are driving sustainable gender equity, health equity and racial justice outcomes,’” she says. “I recognize that I come from a mixed personal identity – as a Native American and Black American woman – where folks like me, who look like me, don’t always have the same opportunities that I’ve been afforded. I feel incredibly privileged because of the communities that have paved the way for me to explore this work and to pioneer businesses in the impact economy.”
As a result, Burton wants to make sure others, particularly women of color, have equitable access to opportunities to thrive in both business and society.
“My ultimate life goal is to become a door holder, to lift and enable others who come from my communities and identities into these positions of power,” says Burton. “I’m excited to be a part of The Consortium community to continue to pour into the next generation – because #everybodypoops.”