College of Liberal Arts | Spring 2021

Meet Emerging Voice Award honoree Amy O’Shea

Amy O’Shea never experienced an a-ha moment, but looking back on her post-graduation trip to Uganda, she knows exactly when her company, Bright Books, was born.

While volunteering at a rural health clinic, O’Shea came to realize that the Ugandan patients’ most common ailment – by far – was upper respiratory infection. Burns also ranked high on the list in terms of frequency.

The connection between the two common conditions? The presence of kerosene and paraffin lamps in the patients’ homes.

“The physical flames are really harmful, and then the fumes from kerosene emit a toxic fume, and most people have them indoors so there are also links to blindness and cataracts from these fumes,” said O’Shea, a 2018 recipient of the College of Liberal Arts’ Emerging Voice Award. “And also there is particular matter that you’re breathing in where cooking over an open stove makes it like a campfire inside your living room. Living that and breathing that every day, it’s just a ton of soot and particulate in your lungs.”

After returning home from the trip and entering the professional world, the Purdue alumnus (B.A., 2009, political science and international relations) started brainstorming over ways to address the problem.

The answer was not as simple as establishing a traditional electrical grid in Bumwalukani, where she lived for a couple of months. For starters, the area is economically strapped and geographically remote. Even if a utility company wanted to develop the infrastructure to provide power for the residents, the region – full of rugged terrain – lacks the roadways necessary for equipment trucks to reach many areas in need of service.

However, renewable energy was an option that made far more sense.

“We have this technology and we have this huge problem with all of these people – premature deaths and burns and critical illnesses that are causing kids to miss school and not be able to do their homework at night,” O’Shea said. “It just seems like this huge hindrance and development all tied to this fairly simple issue.”

And thus Bright Books was born. The company, which O’Shea launched in 2015, provides solar lights to families in need through the sale of journals. For every two journal sales, one Nokero (or, no kerosene) solar light goes to help some of the world’s 1.2 billion people who still rely on kerosene lamps for light. Incidentally, Nokero  founder and CEO Steve Katsaros (B.S., 1996, mechanical engineering) is also a Purdue alumnus.

Bright Books’ journal sales have provided a light for nearly everyone at the Arlington Academy of Hope, the Ugandan primary school where O’Shea worked after graduation. The company has also provided solar lights to Syrian refugees at a camp in Lebanon and to residents of Puerto Rico whose lives were upended by Hurricane Maria in 2017.

“In Lebanon, they had them all strung up in a tent so kids could hang out at night and have a safe place with light,” O’Shea said. “There was one sort of unofficial community leader who was in charge of them and would just charge them every day and hang them up at night.”

O’Shea conducts business for Bright Books in her spare time while also working a full-time job with consulting firm Grant Thornton LLP. She worked in Washington, D.C., with federal government clients that included the Department of Homeland Security and the United States Patent and Trademark Office before recently accepting a project in New York City with the Department of Veterans Affairs administration.

She would love to someday devote her full attention to Bright Books should business improve to the point that it would be a realistic possibility. It takes time, hard work, a high-quality product, and a sizable helping of good fortune to develop a prosperous brand, but the give-back movement is home to other companies whose success serves as a model for Bright Books.

One company in particular.

“I would love to be the next TOMS Shoes: a very well-recognized brand who produces great products and is in a lot of big stores,” O’Shea said, referencing the shoe brand that famously donates a pair of shoes to a needy child for every pair sold. “I want to be a recognized brand and be able to help build awareness about this cause and also be producing well-made – sustainably made with recycled paper – journals, and taking away from products that might be lesser quality or produced in places where they’re not providing good jobs or good environmental standards.

“So I want to have a better product and have it reach a ton of people and give lots of lights to people. That’s my ultimate vision.”