Tackling East Africa’s social problems with a startup

A few years ago, Markey Culver (MBA ’17) was working and living in Bushoga, a rural village deep within Rwanda as a Peace Corps volunteer. In the midst of a country where extreme poverty and primitive living conditions are the norm, Culver was inspired by the power of business. “Business, I believed, could be harnessed as a tool to tackle social problems, namely malnutrition, lack of economic opportunity, and social inequality. Bread became my medium for opportunity creation and good business.”

CulverIn 2013, Culver started The Women’s Bakery (TWB), a social enterprise providing East African women with basic business and vocational skills. By the time Culver began her MBA, she had already launched two independently operating bakeries in Tanzania and was in the process of opening a third in Kigali, Rwanda. She came to Olin to learn the nuts and bolts of running a business and how to turn her startup into a sustainable business. Culver applied to the CEL to engage a team of her peers as business consultants.

Women's bakery with flourSocial impact projects driven by student passions such as The Women’s Bakery have been supported by generous alumni sponsors like Jack Wareham (MBA ’68). Wareham, who serves on Olin’s National Council, along with his wife, Lois, believeeducation and research are the most important areas for their philanthropic mission, which is modeled after the well-known adage, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

“The Women’s Bakery proposal exemplified the kind of innovative learning experience and potential for impact that defines the Practicum program,” said Ron King, Olin’s Academic Director of the Center for Experiential Learning and Myron Northrop Professor of Accounting. “We are very thankful to Jack and Lois Wareham for a generous gift that covered the expenses and fee for this unique project.”

Over spring break, Culver and the consulting team traveled to Rwanda to see TWB in action. Her Practicum team included three first-year MBA classmates with strong backgrounds in financial service and consulting, and a second-year MBA CEL Graduate Fellow.

During the visit, the team met 15 graduates from TWB’s training program and attended the grand opening of a bakery in the village of Remera. “The women are eager to start making bread and selling it in the next few days,” the Practicum team blogged from Africa. Womens baker grads“Many of these women walk one hour each way just to get to work, and most of them bring their children with them—evidence of how committed they are to becoming entrepreneurs and real breadwinners!” Each bakery creates three to 10 jobs for otherwise unemployed women who care for an average of four children each. Culver claims that the women in TWB’s program have the opportunity to double their incomes after working only a few months.

“Our team was asked to develop a strategy to replicate TWB’s model throughout rural Africa,” explained team member Mark Smid (MBA’17). “We looked at different ownership and management structures, evaluating from a cost perspective what was actually viable in terms of how much training they could provide, how many people they could hire, and how much funding they would need.”

The Practicum team made two major recommendations to TWB:

  • Control more of the value chain, specifically the hiring organizations and oversight of each bakery.
  • Add a third phase to the training program that focuses on the successful commercial side of business operations.
Olin Practicum team with members of The Women's Bakery team.

Olin Practicum team with members of The Women’s Bakery team.

“The Practicum team’s efforts and deliverables exceeded my expectations,” said Culver in an email from Rwanda this summer. “Their recommendations were informed and thoughtful, and our team is currently reviewing/updating the ‘Phase Three’ recommendation for implementation at our next big training, scheduled to begin in October.”

For Courtney Lee (MBA ’17), whose work experience was in traditional financial services, consulting with the social enterprise has permanently altered her views. “It’s opened my eyes to how business can be done successfully, differently. It provides a perspective I can apply to case studies and in any career I pursue after business school.”

The Women’s Bakery Practicum experience, like dozens of other CEL projects each year,reinforces what alumnus Jack Wareham said when asked why his Philanthropy Mission funded the project. Most of us learn best by doing, rather than watching or reading. There is no better learning alternative than experience.”

Watch video by clicking on image at top of page or here.

This article was originally published in Olin Business Magazine, 2016.

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