Sir Ray Avery at SEWF 2017: get ready to "dream big"

Sometimes good things can come out of terrible situations. Ahead of his appearance at the Social Enterprise World Forum in September, serial social entrepreneur Sir Ray Avery explains his motivation to make millions of people's lives better.

The story of Sir Ray Avery is extraordinary. He survived a childhood of brutalisation that involved physical and sexual abuse, that in turn led to homelessness. He went on to become a social entrepreneur whose inventions have changed the lives of millions of people. 

What follows is a potted history that will briefly try to join the dots, but for the full story his autobiography is recommended. 

SIr Ray Avery

After educating himself in libraries and becoming a forensic scientist, he went off to find himself, travelling through Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. He says: “For the first time I’d seen real poverty. I didn't know what to do about it but it certainly had a profound effect on what I would do later in life.” 

Some years later he became the technical director of a pharmaceutical company in New Zealand and went on from there to work for the Fred Hollows Foundation.

He had an idea for a machine that could make intraocular lenses, which are implanted in the eye to counteract cataracts or myopia; they’d been handmade up to that point.

The machine sped up the production of lenses and collapsed the prohibitive price. The result is that there are now somewhere between 16m and 20m people that have benefitted from his invention.

The average life expectancy has 30,000 days, so plan what you are going to do with’ll be much more successful

And he didn’t stop there. Avery founded Medicine Mondiale and went on to invent more effective incubators to combat child mortality and amino acids that can be more easily absorbed by those suffering from malnutrition. The estimate is that these will have helped half a billion kids in Africa by 2030.

When asked how he feels about the impact that he has made he simply says: “What it did teach me was that one person can change the world.”

It was his early terrible experiences that provided the motivation. “Part of it is embedded in my history," he says. "When you’ve had the brutalisation that I’ve had as a kid the only way to make sense of it is to do something absolutely outstanding, because then it makes sense.

“I haven’t quite got there yet, I still keep striving to ameliorate the bad things that happened to me by doing something, to say that that was the price that I paid for being extraordinary."


What are you going to be speaking about at SEWF?

Making the world a better place in terms of using innovation. I'll also be launching a Sir Ray Avery innovation award – we want people to start thinking about designing things that are good for our planet.


Why have you chosen to pursue your goals via social enterprise?

For me it’s just a fundamental part of who we are, to do things that are good for us, for our species. It’s what we all should be doing.

Early on in the evolution of mankind everything was a social enterprise. The earliest villages in the UK were formed because people worked together to scale together. Councils were formed and the local community benefitted.

Scale has distorted things. Governments now make decisions on behalf of the stakeholders and they’re not often in the best interests of the people or the country or the environment or whatever. 

So, social enterprise is about working for us as a species – it’s the most natural thing in the world if you think about it. But we don’t do it generally because people that hold the money want the money to go to the shareholders rather than the community.


What’s your advice for young people who want to become social entrepreneurs?

Have a plan. If you’re smart, when you’re starting a business, have an exit strategy. The exit plan will help design the strategy for that business. 

We’re the only species that knows we are going to die but do nothing about it. The average life expectancy has 30,000 days, so plan what you are going to do with it. If you do that you’ll be much more successful. If you’ve got a plan you’ve always got to make sure that things fit in line with what you are trying to achieve.

Most importantly, measure yourself against your objective and your dreams.


What are you hoping to gain from attending the SEWF?

I'm hoping to inspire others to dream really big. One of the things people say is that you can’t take it with you when you go. When they’re about to put me in the ground I hope that I’ll slide the top to one side and say: “I’ve just got another idea.” 

You don't die if you have lived on in somebody's mind. So what I'm hoping to do is inspire young people to get things going.

Often people will meet me and tell me that I motivated them to get off their butt and you do the work for those reasons. You don't do it for the the people who might meet you and thank you for restoring their child’s sight. You do it for the promise of them doing something extraordinary.

The people that are crazy enough to believe they can change the world are the ones that do.

Pioneers Post is media partner to the Social Enterprise World Forum 2017, which will be held in New Zealand on 27-29 September. For more details, see

Photo shows a woman receiving treatment for cataracts in Zanzibar. Credit: US Army Africa