(Editor’s note: One World Play Project and SiliconValleyOneWorld.com are unaffiliated.)
WEST BERKELEY, Calif. — In the narrow streets with clapboard housing, old industrial buildings and funky restaurants that constitute West Berkeley, the offices of One World Play Project fit comfortably next to the Westside Café and Ashtanga Yoga Berkeley.
Chief Giving Officer and co-founder Lisa Tarver executes her duties for the five-year-old company from a second-story loft office. On a recent workday afternoon, a handful of casually dressed young women and men sit at modern work stations in two large open rooms below. Pink, blue, green and yellow balls clutter shelves and other surfaces throughout. Tarver is joined by Frew Tibebu, an Ethiopian-American and East Bay resident engaged in a One World “campaign.”
One World Play Project’s signature product is a nearly indestructible soccer ball. (“You could take a machete to it … ,” Tarver speculates later about one of the few ways it might be destroyed.) The company’s less obvious but more powerful output is the opportunity for structured play. Soccer may be the world’s most popular sport, but millions of children in city slums, refugee camps or excruciating poverty don’t have a proper ball. Instead, they draft an object to approximate including wads of plastic, cloth or other debris.
“Most of the world plays soccer on dirt fields or whatever space is available,” Tarver says. “There are rocks and glass — .”
“—and barbed wire,” adds Tibebu, who spent his childhood and first adult years in and around Ethiopia’s capital city, Addis Ababa.
“Balls don’t last a day,” Tarver says.
Philanthropist rock star Sting funded the research and development to create One World Play’s ball and its unique material, which is in the same class as Crocs brand shoes. Tarver’s inventor and co-founder husband is also a lyricist and music-event producer who has worked with the British musician. The balls, which never deflate, are intended to last a decade or longer.
“When I saw this ball I knew what an impact it would have on kids,” says Tibebu, who fled war in Ethiopia in the late 1970s but has never lost his Ethiopian love of soccer. “But I didn’t realize the impact it would have on education.”
Tibebu has served since 2009 on the board of Ethiopia Reads, which builds schools and libraries and trains teachers for the East African country of nearly 100 million people. Tibebu has pledged to send 5,000 One World soccer balls to Ethiopia, working with partners like stewardess Trish Hack-Rubinstein and Santa Cruz mother Kathleen Halat. So far, he has sent 1,200. “Whenever these balls are available at these schools, the boys come,” Tibebu says. “Play unleashes the human potential.” Tarver nods.
One World Play is part of a new and growing subset of companies—benefit and certified B corporations (close but not the same)—that operate as profit-making, tax-paying endeavors but with stated social goals for employee, community or the natural environment. Fundraising platform Kickstarter PBC and outdoor clothing retailer Patagonia Inc. are benefit and certified B corporations; Patagonia was California’s first benefit corporation ever, in 2012.
One World Play oversees product creation and innovation and relies on “campaign” partners like Tibebu and existing in-country organizations to fundraise and distribute the balls, which are donated by private individuals and corporate sponsors. So far the business mission and approach work. They’ve had limited loss of balls related to corruption or theft, which Tarver attributes to One World Play’s screening and follow-up with recipients.
“We have gotten balls into places where no one sends GIK—gifts in kind. It’s that thing of play; people see the value. We have had shipments go to South Sudan, Chad, Niger, China—no one does GIK to China—Haiti, almost all Latin American countries and the Caribbean,” she says.
Since its 2010 launch, One World Play has distributed more than 1.7 million soccer balls to schools and other organizations in more than 170 countries. It estimates more than 45 million lives have been touched. “What kid who plays soccer doesn’t dream of becoming a soccer star?” Tarver asks. “It’s the power of imagination,” Tibebu says.