Student Perspective: “Dollars and Change” Recap, April 14

As social enterprises grow and expand, how do they best serve their communities?

On a sunny morning in mid-April, several guests gathered in the cozy Wharton Sirius XM studio to talk about their experiences understanding the needs of their social enterprise consumers. Hosts Katherine Klein, and Sandi Hunt, led the in-person discussions with four unique organizations. Here’s what I learned from sitting in on the live radio taping.

Lesson #1: Understand the community needs

Sharon Ravitch, Senior Lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education and Founding Co-Director of Penn’s Inter-American Educational Leadership Network, and B. Venkatesh Kumar, Professor and Chairperson for the Center for Governance and Public Policy, kicked off the discussion with an overview of their work in corporate social responsibility (CSR) in India. Professor Kumar talked about a unique model in India where state-owned enterprises are under a government mandate to engage in CSR. Both Professors Ravitch and Kumar noted that bottom-up planning through participatory research plays a critical role in executing CSR well.

Professor Kumar shared a story about one model for CSR that worked particularly well in India. A state-owned shipping company conducted a needs assessment with the community where they operated. To their surprise, they learned that there was a significant need for agricultural and dairy development, and were able to mobilize community resources to fill these gaps. Without conducting an assessment to better understand the specific community needs, the CSR initiatives would not have addressed the gaps in that community.

Lesson #2: Understand the current pain points for consumers and producers

In the second segment, Kate Thiers and James Steere, Co-Founders of I-Drop Water, shared with us how they are completely changing the way clean drinking water is sold in Africa. Kate, a Wharton School of Business alumna, and her husband James recently launched I-Drop water in 2015 with the mission to revolutionize the way drinking water is sold in Africa—through on-site purification rather than water bottles.

During one of their many trips to Africa, Kate and James saw how dependent people were on bottled water as a way to meet basic day-to-day drinking water needs—and noticed the enormous economic and environmental costs. Producers faced high costs from production and a cumbersome supply chain, and passed these costs onto consumers. Kate and James recognized these pain points, and created a solution to change how water is distributed within communities. I-Drop Water places purification units in local shops where consumers pay per liter to refill reusable water jugs. I-Drop Water drastically reduces the costs for consumers which expands the population that has access to clean water, while also reducing the environmental impact.

Lesson #3: Learn how the parts of the system interact—or don’t

After the break, Brian Heese, Investor Relations Manager at One Acre Fund, joined us to talk about how One Acre Fund is transforming farming in Africa. One Acre Fund is a nonprofit social enterprise that provides a complete set of services to smallholder farmers living in remote communities. One Acre Fund currently works with over 300,000 farmers, and set the ambitious goal to serve as least 1 million farm families by 2020, producing enough surplus food to feed another 5 million of their neighbors.

Brian shared that One Acre Fund began when two MBA students were traveling in Africa and noticed that many smallholder farmers endured an annual “hunger season” when they were unable to feed their families from their one acre of land. Although there were various supports in their community, these individual pieces did not work together to form a comprehensive solution. One Acre Fund supports farmers holistically from start to finish, from procuring and selling seeds to providing training on new techniques to facilitating markets. While some of these pieces existed individually, the lack of interaction between the parts of the system limited their impact.

Lesson #4: Know how to reach your consumers

Our final—and most local—guest was Shelby Zitelman, Co-Founder and CEO of Soom Foods. Passionate about high quality, delicious and nutritious foods, Shelby co-founded Soom Foods with her sisters to introduce America to the wonderful world of sesame. Soom Foods’ tahini is currently being used by America’s top restaurants and chefs, and sold by retailers like Whole Foods and Mom’s Organic Market.

Shelby, another Wharton graduate, shared that one of the most challenging aspects of expanding Soom Foods has been reaching consumers, many of whom have never heard of tahini. While other new products have a large marketing budget to educate customers, Soom Foods’ approach is to target influencers: chefs. Soom Foods works with chefs, kitchens, and caterers to incorporate tahini into their menus to encourage customers to try adding tahini to their own cooking. Through partnerships, Soom Foods is able to reach consumers they would not be able to reach on their own.

Mary GamberMary Gamber is a full-time Wharton MBA student currently in her first year. She has worked previously in consulting and education, and is passionate about increasing access to high-quality education for all students.