Living the Mission
WomenVenture honors three individuals for their personal and professional achievement.
By Monica Wright
Mpls St. Paul; September 2004
Unsung Hero Award
It seems that inspiration can strike in the most obscure ways, and
for Martha Port it was no different—in 1988 it landed on her doorstep
in the form of the Bemidji Pioneer newspaper. That was
where Port read about two Ph.D. students who had created a simple solar
oven that could easily cook food. It was the catalyst that started her
and her husband’s journey in solar cooking.
“When I read that story I was really intrigued, and I could see
the many wonderful things this would mean for families,” Port remembers.
One thing she envisioned was creating solar ovens and delivering them
to needy families in poor countries around the world.
In countries such as Kenya and Afghanistan women can spend up to seven
hours a day searching for fuel to run their stoves, Port says. By giving
them a fuel-less oven that could provide economical and nutritious meals,
Port believed families would experience a “win-win-win situation.”
To that end, Port took a 60 percent pay cut and left a career as an
insurance underwriter in order to help create just such an oven. Although
she had no formal training in building ovens, Port came up with the final
design with help from the oven’s users and several engineers. Her
requirements were that the structures were durable, easy to manufacture
in each of the countries that needed them, and affordable. Several trials
later, she got what she wanted. Today, after five years of work, Port
is confident that her organization, Solar Oven Society in Minneapolis,
has created the ideal alternative to primitive, fuel-consuming stoves.
And it didn’t take much to convince the women Port set out to
help. When a shipment of 400 ovens went to Afghanistan in November 2002,
she estimated it would take three days to sell them (SOS prefers to sell
the ovens, which have varying costs, so women have the “dignity
of purchase,” Port says). But after a demonstration for the townspeople,
the ovens were sold out in less than four hours, with demands for more.
For Port, that incident made every sacrifice, late night, and scrapped
model worth it. “The greatest satisfaction was the deep inner sense
of sticking to the goal that we believed we could impact people, and
that has really been purposeful to me,” she says. “There
are times that it has really been a challenge to continue, but it was
a privilege just to see the reaction to the oven.”
Port’s next challenge is to bring her oven to more needy families
around the world and if the past proves anything, she’s up to the
“I wouldn’t have risked starting this project,” she
says, “unless I genuinely believed in the need.”