How I Did It: Tried to Save the World

Juwon Melvin of LifeSoap

Juwon Melvin Juwon Melvin is a born entrepreneur. From a young age, he and his friends shoveled neighbors’ walks and did yard work to make money.

“When I was a kid in the neighborhood, we were always scheming something,” says Melvin. “Back in elementary school, I used to draw tattoos on my friends and charge them 10 cents each.”

Beginning With the Basics

Melvin, 28, grew up in Aurora, Colo., a suburb of Denver. He attended Hinkley High School, which has an 86 percent minority student population and where 69 percent of all students are designated economically disadvantaged, qualifying them for free and reduced-price lunch.

During his senior year in 2004, Melvin and five of his basketball teammates became the first members of an after-school program called the Hinkley Finance Club, started by their coach, David McConico. The club met on Saturday afternoons and introduced students to the basics of personal finance, including money management, credit and debt, insurance, and investing in the stock market.

Melvin’s experiences in the finance club reinforced lessons he already was learning at home, particularly from an aunt who was a successful entrepreneur and real estate investor.

“The first and foremost thing my aunt told me is to think about the future,” says Melvin. “She said the most important thing you can do when you get any sort of money is to put some of it away in a rainy-day fund.”

We wanted to inspire first-generation and low-income students to think past the barriers that were immediately in front of them. We wanted them to see that if other people can do it, and they’ve been through the same things, then perhaps you can do it, too.

Experimenting With Entrepreneurship

Melvin enrolled at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colo., where he took business courses. During his sophomore year Melvin and his friend, Aaron Madonna—another Hinkley alumnus—turned a class assignment into their first venture.

Using a business plan they wrote as a final project, Melvin and Madonna qualified to receive matching funds from the Individual Development Account (IDA) program from Mile High United Way, which they used to start a media company called DreamReel Media. Their first project, an audio series called “Destination College,” told true stories of young people on campuses around the country who had overcome obstacles in order to attend college.

“We wanted to inspire first-generation and low-income students to think past the barriers that were immediately in front of them. We wanted them to see that if other people can do it, and they’ve been through the same things, then perhaps you can do it, too,” says Melvin.

Melvin with students of a LifeSoap water project school in San Lorenzo, Nicaragua.

Going Global

In the years since that first project, Melvin and Madonna have co-authored two books and started a socially responsible company called LifeSoap, through which they sell private label soaps to raise funds for clean water projects in developing countries.

The idea for LifeSoap emerged as Melvin and Madonna swapped postgraduation travel stories. Melvin’s travels in Nicaragua and Morocco had exposed him to poverty on a whole different level than what he was familiar with at home.

“Aaron and I sat down and asked ourselves how we could use our background in business not just to make money, but to make a difference,” says Melvin. “We started researching the big issues affecting kids in developing countries and access to clean water came up over and over again.”

They just needed to choose a product. Madonna—who has sensitive skin—suggested organic soap.

“The idea just stuck,” says Melvin. “Soap is an easy enough product to put together, and it’s something we all use. It’s the kind of thing most of us don’t have an emotional attachment to—we just pick it up off the shelf. Why not choose a soap that makes a difference?”

Since its launch in 2011, LifeSoap has funded six projects at four schools and helped approximately 1,200 students in developing countries get clean water. Although they are not yet drawing a salary from LifeSoap, Melvin and his business partners are driven by a different motivation.

“I am fascinated by this idea of using bath and body products to bridge the gap between the people who buy them—who themselves may never go to Nicaragua or Africa or South America—and the children in these communities, so that they can all be a part of this story that is unfolding,” says Melvin.

Sticking to What He’s Learned

Melvin says he could not have accomplished what he has without the foundation laid by the Hinkley Finance Club and the mentorship he received from McConico, who himself graduated from Hinkley in 1978.

“Watching [McConico’s] example showed me what was possible for a kid from the neighborhood,” says Melvin. “He lives the financial principles that he teaches to his students.”

Melvin also regularly refers to one of the club’s core messages: Use the assets you already have.

“The most important thing is to start,” says Melvin. “And to do small things with great care. I believe that we all have the potential to have incredible impact, but potential is a relatively common thing. It’s almost meaningless because—as one of my mentors says—potential means that you just haven’t done anything yet.”

[Any reference to a specific company, commercial product, process or service does not constitute or imply an endorsement or recommendation by the National Endowment for Financial Education.]