What are You Grateful For?

Thanksgiving - time to spend with family, eat, watch and play football, the Macy's Day Parade, traditions - old and new. New studies scientifically show how an 'attitude of gratitude' actually makes us healthier and happier ~ focusing on how being grateful is better for 'me' instead of for 'you'.  This season, forget that stuff.  Start being grateful because it's the right thing to do - for others, not for ourselves.  So what are you grateful for this year? how long can you make that list? Give it a try - from little things like always knowing when you flip the switch the light goes on to the unconditional love of a parent, spouse or child. Perhaps just try for a list of things you're grateful for this month! Here's my abbreviated list!  

Have a very blessed and wonderful Thanksgiving... as you are a blessing to others. 



Control is for Beginners.....

My latest HBR post. Yes, control really is for beginners.  You don't get 'jazz' with control...only with freedom. After seeing Carl Størmer's story at BIF9 and an intense & casual chat with my friend, and daughter's jazz voice teacher, Kim Nazarian of the New York Voices, I have a very different view of management, leadership, creativity, innovation and the music of life.  Please read and comment....

Trust Inc. to be Released November 1st!

Very humbled and honored to contribute to the new book Trust Inc., edited by Barbara Brooks Kimmel.  This book is a collection of essays by internationally known thought leaders on leadership and trust...and then me! I share the story of one of my incredible clients, Menasha Packaging, who epitomizes integrity, character and trust in all they do.  Please order it - read it, share it, but most importantly, live it!!!

America's Future is #RCUS

After every BIF, we always wonder if it can get any better and each year is as unique and powerful as the one before. This is a testimony to the human spirit. The media tells us everything that's wrong in the world but it's Random Collisions of Unusual Suspects (#RCUS) that show us otherwise.  This year, I had the honor of being a story-teller and can attest to the optimism and realistic hope.

Our hope for the future is based in #RCUS.  The more #RCUS, the more we meet people with whom we create powerful positive solutions to our world's wicked problems. #RCUS inspires and transforms our world in ways we may know now, later or may not ever realize.  Here are a few BIF9 Storytellers who inspired me.











Summer Hits to Start the Fall..

The Fall is upon us - routines, school, 'hectivity' of life returns...so enjoy some remnants of summer by some Endangered Puffin off Eastern Egg Rock, Maine fabulous people! These were the top posts of August (mine was this...just kidding...kind of)

I'm off to my 'retreat' at home in Maine on Friday September 6th and heading down to BIF9 on the 17th. If you haven't yet signed up - do so now! And don't forget to sign up for #Innospirits on the 17th

Changing One Thing Changes Everything

Many of you are now familiar with the wisdom of my friend Jessica Esch.  Her posts on this blog always get a ton of hits.  I thought it was time you learned more about her, and how that could impact your organization...read, learn, and answer her question.

In 2011, I pitched a new job at my old job and became a full-time illustrator and storyteller for a non-profit. I founded United Way of Greater Portland’s LUbrary—the LIVE UNITED storytelling library—and forever fused my personal and professional lives.

My job was to distill complexity and draw people into the organization by explaining the issues, describing the work, and highlighting the great things happening in our community.

It was all good in theory.

But telling stories was the easy part. Having them seen and heard was more challenging. Content strategy became my job too. And then it started to take over as I became responsible for crafting engagement strategies to show others internally and externally how our stories could support their work.

Seeing the world differently is not the same as changing it. It can be lonely, frustrating and a little like climbing Everest without a Sherpa.

So I wrote about it.

I wrote it all down because I knew I was onto something. I knew that how you engage online could impact behavior offline in the physical world.

I needed allies.

I needed to find my tribe.

I uploaded Online Affects Offline: Learnings From the Field to Flickr using sets as chapters on July 4 as a declaration of my independence. I've chosen to let people read it for free because I need their attention more than their money. It covers my love of social media and obsession with photo management to the lifecycle of events and what it is like to try to change an organization from the inside. It’s a work in progress as well as a beacon for my tribe.

Are you my tribe?

Read Jessica's book here: http://bit.ly/onlineaffectsoffline

Find Jessica here: Twitter (@jesch30), Facebook, Website



Dancing Your Way Through A Revolution

Again I'm privileged to host the insights of an 21yr-old - Emily Goldman (Brown '14) gives us life-time learnings on discernment, judgement, critical thinking and getting the facts for yourself.  She has been studying Arabic and the impact of local rap movements on the revolution in Alexandria, Egypt for the past year - just your average American Female Jew in Egypt!  Read and re-read this - it has profound implications on how we view the rest of the world, and our place in it - especially in light of the recent NSA revelations.

I have always been a little weird. When I was younger, I used to obsess over one topic and learn everything about it—anything from Lucille Ball to the Brain Trust— and then get bored and move on. My mom called these cycles “phases.” One of the longest “phases” was my revolution phase at the beginning of high school. I had just learned about Che Guevara and the Latin American revolutions in history class, and was immediately enthralled. I read everything from biographies of Che to theoretical texts about Latin America’s liberation movements. I was captivated by this idea of a “revolution”ion in Development Studies"t STude to dig deeper as i  about revs in a general sense. I expected you to be like " and decided to feed my curiosity as I began my academic career at Brown University. I am a Development Studies concentrator who began with a focus on Latin America, then Social Entrepreneurship, and now Egyptian Hip Hop. Looking back, I think I might have been revolution hopping. During my first three years of college, I reveled in the way that phrases like “postrevolutionary state” and “direct foreign investment” rolled off my tongue. Armed with a hefty political science vocabulary and my slightly obsessive self-study, I felt that I truly understood what it means for a state to have a revolution. Wrong.

Inspirational graffiti in the city of Luxor about resisting tear gas and trying to build the country anewWhen I moved to Egypt in January, there were some things that I noticed: traffic is insane and has no rules, there are no taxes in daily life, the electricity sometimes goes out, there are checkpoints on the roads in Cairo run by civilians, the police often decide to go off duty (especially when they are threatened with actually performing any duties), and Fridays are protest days. After about a week, I got used to all of these things. One thing that I absolutely could not get used to, though, was the media.

I had been living in Alexandria, Egypt for about one month when I was watching TV this one Friday afternoon. When I turned on the TV, the correspondent was announcing widespread violence in Alexandria and a march down the street next to the seaside. My host family was traveling at the time, and my host mom called me: “How is Alexandria?” she asked, panicked. I peered out my window, looking onto the road where all of the violence was supposed to be, and saw absolutely nothing besides some stray cats playing in the garbage can below my window. Convinced I must be wrong, I called a friend in a different part of the city. “Are there violent demonstrations today?” I asked him.

“No,” he told me, “There was a peaceful march near the train station this morning, but that is seriously all that’s happened in Alexandria today.”

That night, my mom called me from the US. “Are you ok?” she asked, “I heard there’s been a lot of brutality towards women in demonstrations and that there were a lot of demonstrations today.”

I reassured her and, upon talking to a friend who works for a women’s rights group in Cairo, found out thatEmily dancing outside a temple the brutality article was published in the New York Times. According to my friend, the real story was not protestors harassing women but instead policemen harassing female protestors. While all of this conflicting information is confusing and annoying, it still leaves one essential question to be answered: who should I believe? Should I believe the news that tells me that people are attacking each other outside my house even when I can look out my window and see a totally different reality? Should I believe the New York Times correspondent when my friend who was actually at the event tells me that the correspondent got the story wrong? I choose to believe what I see with my own eyes and ears. But what about people like my family who can’t get this information first hand? What about the ENTIRE AMERICAN PUBLIC that, thanks to the media, thinks Egypt is a lawless and—to borrow a word from my Development Studies classes—“postrevolutionary state?”

“The media won the revolution” is a refrain echoed throughout Egyptian society these days. As anger at President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood boils, I am discovering that it is an amazing time to be a researcher of Hip Hop, an art form that has given the finger to the media time and time again. My research in Ticket from Emily's first Egyptian rap concertEgypt focuses on Egyptian rap and its role in politics during and after the revolution. Both the rappers that I work with and the music that they make refuse to fall into the media categories of “smart/dumb,” “religious/not religious,” “revolutionary/not revolutionary,” etc. The Egyptian rappers refuse to deal in these binaries. These rappers are incredible, multidimensional people who refuse to let the revolution, society, or anyone else silence them.

This morning I met with one of the earliest Egyptian rappers, a guy in his thirties who I will refer to as S. I hopped on the back of his motorbike and we took off through the Alexandria rush hour traffic as he shouted over his shoulder to me about everything that got worse in Alexandria after the revolution.

“What do you think of the traffic?” he bellowed over wind as we weaved dangerously between stopped cars along the seaside road.

“Um, well….” I stuttered, trying to formulate a response that was not offensive but also truthful.

“HA,” he responded, “Not like America, huh? Honestly, Egypt was not like this even three years ago.”

Over the course of the next three hours, our conversation meandered seamlessly from the politics of Egyptian rap to the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood on artistic expression to the intricacies of the Egyptian stock market interest rate fluctuations. S, like many other rappers and Hip Hop artists I have gotten to know here in Egypt, is brilliant. He speaks four languages fluently, is getting his Master’s degree in Development Economics, writes and produces his own music, and cannot find a job. He does not rap because he has nothing better to do or because he thinks it makes him look cool, but rather because he has something to say.

“The Egyptian people have a problem with being afraid of expressing themselves, “ he told me as we strolled along the sea, “Maybe it is left over from Mubarak or something, but we rappers, we don’t think about these things. We just say what we think.”

That is exactly why I choose to work in Hip Hop both here in Egypt and in the United States. In the US, I work with Hip Hop 4, an organization that I co-founded in my sophomore year with another Brown student named Pierre Arreola. Hip Hop 4 uses Hip Hop as a tool to provide character building in after school activities for underprivileged youth. The idea came from our observation that kids in underprivileged neighborhoods have infinitely fewer opportunities to express themselves artistically or otherwise. I would say that the same goes for Egyptian youth who suffer because of high levels of education, low levels of employment, an increasingly oppressive Muslim Brotherhood influence, and a crashing economy. So, in a way, Egyptian rappers are doing the same work as Hip Hop 4. They are modeling frank and public self-expression by refusing to let the political, societal, and media obstacles get in the way.

On our way back home from our seaside conversation, the police stopped S and me. The policeman was tryingView from a friend of Emily's countryside home to give a taxi driver in front of us a ticket for blocking the road. The policeman took down the taxi driver’s license plate number at which point the minibus driver next to us hopped out of his van and told the policeman, “You can write whatever you want, but he is a taxi driver. This car does not belong to him. If you want him to move, you have to MAKE him move.” He then leaned down into the cab and screamed in the taxi driver’s face until he moved his cab out of the way.

That is Egypt right now. If you want to get something done, do it yourself, make it happen. As harsh as that might sound, it actually makes me feel safe in my daily life because there is an incredible sense of unity, of Egyptians helping Egyptians to make it through this hard and confusing time. I have met unparalleled kindness and selflessness here every day. I have been embraced as an American, a Jew, a female, and every other part of my identity that I was afraid of revealing based on stereotypes I had heard about Egyptians before I came. When I walk outside every day, I don’t see a country plagued by senseless violence like the media wants me to, but rather a country still yearning for change. I am not afraid to be here and I refuse to let the news sources bully me into fearing a country and culture I have come to know and love. However, I would like to ask one thing of my fellow Americans: Do not assume that what you hear about Egypt from the media is true. Please use your judgment and think critically about what you hear about this country and the Middle East in the upcoming years. Most importantly, let’s take a cue from the Egyptian rap community and remember that people are not one-dimensional characters, but instead complicated beings with the natural urge for self-expression. Egyptians may be demonstrating against President Morsi each week, but they are also finding ways to prop each other up and protect each other from the difficulties in this postrevolutionary period.

Planting SEEEDs of Innovation

Last week, my daughter Chana and I attended the SEEED Conference on Social Entrepreneurship at BrownChana Scofield ('22) & Gladys Ndagire ('14) ~ Sayles Hall, Brown University University.  It was an amazing gathering of those doing, funding, supporting, working in and for social businesses.  These are Chana's thoughts on the first day of the conference.  Chana is 13 years old and in 7th grade.  Yes, I am a proud mom and find her insights cut to the chase.


While the entire SEEED Conference (Social Enterprise Ecosystem Economic Development) was interesting and enlightening, by far I found the panel “Core Elements for Building a Social Enterprise Ecosystem” the most intriguing. The varying beliefs and experiences of the panelists were highly educational and made the experience all together enjoyable. Dan MacCombie, co-founder of Runa, in particular, cut down to the basic fundamentals of social entrepreneurship by stating the devotion his company had for their cause. There was also discussion over funding for these enterprises, and finding the balance over providing funding for a company based on their cause or the structure of the company. Overall the points were fairly addressed, even with the occasional run-on answer. The metrics of social enterprises were discussed, the overall topic discussion ending when Dan pointed out that the best way to communicate a social enterprise's success and outcomes are (for now) a good story.

Interestingly enough, I pulled more information from that hour and a half panel then I would have from any given day at school. I now have a good enough idea of social enterprises that I feel comfortable weighing in on a conversation or offering up my thoughts. I do believe that funding social enterprises can be extremely difficult. On one hand, an investor doesn't want to invest in a company whose cause they don't believe in. On the other hand, it can be risky to invest in a social enterprise whose company is doomed to fail or doesn't have a stable enough business plan to succeed. It can be very difficult to find that silver lining, especially when the companies are interested in convincing you to invest, and not providing a complete image of how their enterprise actually runs. There is also the fact that in a social enterprise the focus is on the cause, not on pleasing investors. Those who have invested may not receive dividends since this money will most likely be redistributed into the company. For this reason many investors choose to distribute their money into a regularly functioning enterprise versus a social one.

These reasons are why I believe that Allen Kramer and Gladys Ndagire, plus their team, have created something special. What they have created is a $50 Million investment fund whose focus is solely on social enterprises, the New England Impact Capital. They are set to create a list of criteria to help to help them decide which companies to invest in. Seeing the amount of trouble investors have when it comes to social enterprises, this venture capital will benefit both the investor and the company by choosing social businesses whose causes are just and promises a return on investments similar to the average venture capital firm.

The SEEED Conference had given me an understanding of the importance of social enterprises, as well as the difficulties that come when choosing to invest in them. I think it is important for the investor to have full faith in the company and it's cause, as well as the enterprise's stability and business plan. This is why an investment fund based solely on social enterprises like the one Allen and Gladys are creating is not only an exceptional idea, but would provide support for budding social enterprises as well as a safer way to invest. 

Lessons in Cambodian Silk Supply Chains

Marcelia Muehlke one of the great young entrepreneurs I get to hang out with.  She's just your 'average' 20-something creating an international supply chain in the fashion industry, and succeeding.  In the spirit of 'and/both' instead of 'either/or', Marcie doesn't accept the 20th C cut throat culture of the Garment District.  This is a wonderful story, with lessons for all of us! 

Marcie Muehlke

My boyfriend Brian and I were backpacking in Washington State when he proposed.  The engagement caught me off guard, but I didn’t know then just how many more surprises that proposal would lead to--in my professional life. 

Based on my experience as a bride, I've started a fair trade wedding dress company that cares about the workers, working conditions and the environment. Making eco-socially-responsible wedding dresses requires a very special international supply chain and lets me combine my background in international development and my MBA. I thought I was keeping it simple (just a handful of designs and one color) but in the past year I’ve learned just how complex even a seemingly simple supply chain can be.

Weddings are a $50 billion industry in the US and green weddings are growing rapidly (about half of all brides choose at least one “eco” product or service at their wedding) but there are few options for eco or socially-responsible wedding dresses. That lack of options means little competition which is tempting but also gave me pause – was it possible to build the kind of supply chain I was imagining? To find out, IFigure 1 bought a plane ticket to Thailand and started setting up meetings with silk makers and sewing groups there and in Cambodia and Nepal.  To get started, I just needed one reliable silk making group and one talented clothing producer that followed fair trade practices and would agree to my low minimum orders.  This was my initial view of the supply chain (figure 1).

It has been a year since that first trip and I am still learning just how challenging, complex and rewarding it is to develop an ethical supply chain Figure 2 (Figure 2).

The Celia Grace supply chain starts with our fabric, heirloom Cambodian silk.  Our silk is hand woven in rural villages on wooden non-electric looms using traditional craft techniques passed down through families for generations. I visited the village where our silk is woven and walked under houses on stilts to visit with the women as they wove, chatted with neighbors, and dried rice on tarps in the sun.

Silk: Making silk “thread” is a difficult process.  It requires growing mulberry trees, raising silk worms, unwinding cocoons, spinning thread, and crossing the border from Vietnam to Cambodia. Customers ask if Celia Grace silk is organic or pesticide free and whether silk worms are killed in the process.  These are excellent questions but ones I can’t yet answer – I’ll be visiting the Vietnamese silk farm on my next trip.

Cut & Sew: This is when we make the actual wedding dresses.  I am incredibly fortunate to work with an amazing women’s sewing cooperative in Cambodia where several dozen women work in safe and fair working conditions. They pay a living wage and treat members like the smart, talented, professionals they are by offering benefits, professional development and upward mobility unheard of in the rest of the country’s garment industry.  We had to figure out how we’d handle a surge of orders and ensure a steady supply of work, and therefore wages, despite the cyclical demand of the wedding industry. We are regularly in touch about work conditions, pay rates, work policies, and adding an additional layer of (extremely important and rewarding!) of communication, documentation, and thought, helping us earn fair trade recognition (currently in review).

Wedding dress need the right trim and supplies like liner fabric, zippers, buttons and embellishments.  This is a challenge since the high quality zippers and beautiful glass beads we use can’t reliably be found in Cambodia.  I don’t know who was more shocked in this process:  me when I discovered how little was available, and with regularity, in Cambodian markets (“what do you mean you can’t get the same buttons this month?”) or the Cambodian women when we sent a few pre-fab sections of beading from the garment district in New York (“You can buy all these in a store?”).  Quality control poses additional issues: even thread coloring and thickness, every dress element done completely and correctly and arriving perfectly white and pristine after traveling around the globe. 

Another important element of the supply chain is building and managing relationships and business-to-business issues.  This involves all the logistics of a business relationship – invoicing, payments, product changes, placing orders, inventory, and more, but with the added layer of language barriers, cultural differences, and the learning curve of a small business.  And we haven’t left Asia yet!

Import & B2B: Sending dresses from Cambodia to the US is the last step in the Celia Grace supply chain.  How will they be shipped, what is the port of entry, what classification does each dress style fall under and what is the rate of duty?  I went to a daylong course on this topic only to learn that people do only this professionally for decades--and still get it wrong!

The amazing thing is that what I have described is an incredibly simple supply chain: one source of silk, a cut and sew producer, export/import from one country.  We are looking ahead to next year and have plans to expand to more regions.

What have I learned through these past two years? I can summarize them in three lessons that apply not just to my supply chain, but I believe to many supply chains:

  1. Partners matter! Given the kind of product and impact I am trying to make, building a mutual relationship with trust is essential.  This starts with face-to-face meetings and spending time to get to know one another’s needs, strengths, and weaknesses.  It continues through regular, clear communication, flexibility, and transparency.  While it is a partnership, both parties are also businesses that want to grow and earn money, so negotiation will take place but should look for win-wins rather than distributive solutions.
  2. Supply chain and product development go hand in hand. With a socially responsible supply chain, chances are you can’t take your product and tell a producer “I want exactly this, reproduce it without any changes.” Instead, developing a product takes place alongside developing the supply chain, which will take extra time, more communication, and probably more money.  Be flexible and open to changes and new solutions that you might not have considered but work in context.  For Celia Grace, one example of this was adapting our designs so that they worked with the local silk.
  3. This will take longer than you think.  This advice is nothing new but it is important – physical distance, communication challenges, natural disasters, delays from times when I am particularly busy, even abundant national holidays seem to conspire to slow things down.  So plan for this, give yourself a buffer, and create systems as you learn to move things along and make them run smoothly.

It is no surprise that building a supply chain, even a simple one and especially a socially responsible one, is a complex process that takes time, flexibility, and the understanding that you are building a partnership.  What is surprising is just how exciting and rewarding it is – in my case the highlight has been meeting the most incredible women who live and work in really tough situations.  These women are smart, honest, savvy business people who care deeply about their work and the impact it is making.  I am so honored to work with them, share their story, and support the work they are doing, all while adding meaning and beauty to weddings here in the US.

Lessons from Amazonian Culture and Ecology for Talent Management

Tyler Gage and Dan MacCombie are the founders of one of my favorite startups ever, Runa. We drink the tea in our home all the time.  Runa is a wonderful example of a B-Corp, doing well and doing good.  Their business model is unique and there are so many lessons for our businesses and organizations from their story.  Tyler shares their story about talent with us.  Go buy some Runa Tea, enjoy, and learn.  Thank you, Tyler.


I studied indigenous Amazonian languages and Ethnobotany in college and managed to avoid taking any math, science or business courses (yes, I went to Brown University).  Starting a business, let alone a beverage company, as an undergraduate was not something I had planned on doing.   As ill prepared as I was, my passion for creative communication and intercultural exchange gave me a unique basis for becoming a manager and running what is now a 70 person organization in only 3 years.

Runa is a now vertically integrated beverage company that creates livelihoods for indigenous Amazonian farmers. We produce beverages made with guayusa ("gwhy-you-sa"), a “Super Leaf” from Ecuador that has as much caffeine as coffee and double the antioxidants of green tea. We’ve built our entire supply chain from the ground up and are the first to introduce guayusa to international markets.  We sell our bottled beverages and tea boxes in over 3,500 of the top retail accounts in the US from Whole Foods to Vitamin Shoppe and are generating over $100,000 / year of direct income for 2,000 indigenous farming families in Ecuador.

My business partner, Dan MacCombie, studied Marine Biology, so he was equally inexperienced in the art of management (unless we decided to employ invertebrates).  We knew early on that building a strong team and bringing in key leaders would be essential for our growth.

More specifically, we decided to model our staffing approach from two examples: one cultural and one environmental.  Traditionally, indigenous communities wake up together before dawn to drink guayusa. They sit around the communal fire drinking gourds full of guayusa until sunrise. During this time, the community members recount dreams, tell myths, and discuss hunting techniques, politics, and weather patterns. Every time I used to get up and drink guayusa with the Kichwa communities in this way, I was struck by a seemingly simple realization: the foundation of this entire culture that has thrived for thousands of years stands on this simple cornerstone: waking up, drinking tea, and sharing with each other. My theory may sound reductionist, but witnessing the strength it builds in these families and communities is what convinced me of this tradition’s power. 

As we began envisioning our business, we thought that if we could get a community of different partners from managers to farmers to government officials to consumers to collaborate, we could build a thriving organization. This spirit or exchange, respect, and transparency became essential to our strategy for building partnerships and learning from industry “elders” who had walked the path before us.

The second example that reinforced this strategy for us was our understanding of Amazonian ecology. The average sugar, corn, or tea farm is very weak ecologically – in being dominated by one specifies, the flow of nutrients is stifled, natural water flows are hindered, and soil structure becomes degraded, requiring heavy inputs of fertilizers and pesticides.  In a forest ecosystem, no intervention is needed. The diversity of species naturally cycles nutrients, protects the soil, and manages insect populations.  Thinking about how this might relate to our organization, we saw that a team of Tylers and Dans would be tremendously weak.  This analogy for me is the most concrete rationale for the true value of diversity I’ve encountered.

Our first hire in Ecuador was a great man named Fausto. We met Fausto through a friend of a friend of a friend. He was an experienced forestry engineer who had managed a number of different cacao and coffee projects in the region. A driven man who had a natural ability to lead, Fausto gained our confidence. We decided to empower him as our Regional Manager, and give him the freedom to be entrepreneurial in building his team. We let him pick the communities we were going to work with, hire his staff, partner with other local organizations, and develop his own research programs.  Fausto helped us grow from nothing into a team of 15 people and about 500 farmers, at which point Fausto’s leadership started to falter. What I learned in working with Fausto was that Entrepreneurship, Management, and Leadership are three very different things that often get lumped together. Fausto was an inspiring leader, a creative entrepreneur, but a poor manager.  His contribution early in our growth allowed us to take the first step, but as our focus shifted and we began thinking about how to scale, tight management became more of a priority.

After he built his team and was more responsible for reporting, planning, and overseeing a team, he outgrew his job and we had to replace him with some one who was less creative but much more diligent, personable, and attentive to details. When thinking about new job descriptions and interviewing candidates for positions, we use this lens of “Entrepreneur, Leader, Manger” to assess our real needs and where an applicant’s skills truly are. 

One level below Fausto, we hired a team of “técnicos,” field staff who directly recruit, train, and coordinate farmers. These técnicos are a key lifeline of our organization, because they are the direct point of contact between Runa and the farmers that grow the guayusa.  Early on we found 3 técnicos who were charismatic and natural leaders in their communities. They leveraged their relationships and reputations to recruit farmers to commit their time and productive resources to grow a crop they had never commercially sold to some young gringos who had no local credibility. Their ability to inspire farmers and know what they cared most about is what made them successful.

Over time, the intimacy of their relationships with farmers came to be a weakness, in a way, for the institutional capacity of Runa.  Once we caught a técnico driving his company motorcycle while drunk and fired him immediately. This meant that we lost our direct connection to 100 farmers whose homes in the jungle we could barely locate.  We recognized the need to value, but not overly depend on, the técnicos’s relationships. As our reputation as a legitimate organization grew, farmers knew us as “Runa” and less as “that organization that Fernando works for that we sell guayusa to.”  We’ve instituted a system where técnicos rotate into different areas and take detailed GIS coordinates of all the farms.

Recruiting new técnicos has been a further bottleneck to scaling. We adopted a tactic I learned from Andrew Youn, Founder of One Acre Fund, to counteract this pinch.  One Acre puts dozens of farmers through a multi-week training course to become field staff, even though they only have a few job openings at a time. The genius of the model is not that they get to pick from a large pool of candidates and analyze their capability over an extended period. The real value is in the aspiring applicants that don’t get the job, and return to their communities with a substantial amount of knowledge (that they then share with the rest of the community) and an even deeper connection to the organization. This training program has worked well for Runa and helped us scale more rapidly.

We’ve now copy-pasted this strategy in the US with our internship programs. This summer we’ll have over 20 interns. We have a great track record of hiring interns for new job opening (which is part of the reason we receive so many applications), but most don’t get jobs. The ones we hire will have been vetted for 3 months and already trained by our staff, while the ones we don’t hire will continue to be our biggest advocates and promoters at their universities and in their local communities. 

Transitioning from being a scrappy start-up to a more stable organization, while not losing our personality, is a major challenge.  In Ecuador, we’ve developed very strict rules and very high standards for our team and our suppliers, working against the tendency of people to see us as just another NGO that is “here to help” (aka doesn’t take our work seriously).  If anything, being “mission-driven” weakened our ability to be respected and listened to early on.

Keeping the inspiration alive becomes the next challenge, especially when most of our staff in the US spends their time negotiating promotions in supermarkets. To keep everyone engaged, we frequently have Skype calls between farmers and our sales reps in the US, field staff and our Board of Directors, and consumers and our regional managers.  Every other month we send detailed updates between each one of our entities (non-profits and for-profits), keeping every staff member aware of the progress we’re making and the challenges we face.  We’ve also committed to sending all of our team members in the US who have been with us for more than 1 year to Ecuador to visit the farmers and experience our work on the ground.

In retrospect, studying anthropology and linguistics might not have been the worst way to enter business (though the language of Balance Sheets and Cash Flow Statements is still fairly lost on me).

Learning from the communities that we aim to support as mission-driven businesses can not only inspire us to do good work, but even influence our business models and talent management strategies.