A social impact business is one that strives to do good while making a profit, and in our case, to invest our profits in further social good. It is a newer concept and often resembles the work of non-profit organizations, as our primary focus is to make social impact, not make money. However, in order to keep making more social impact, we aim to grow our business so we can expand to do more social good.
Mary and Rachael with our original prototypes
Mary (from Guatemala) and I (Rachael, from Iowa, USA) launched EarthEmpower 2 years ago searching for a way to create jobs, safe spaces, and empowerment opportunities for women in Guatemala. We did this by starting a company that makes tea and natural food products with crops grown by women farmers in Guatemala, paying fair prices to farmers and creating jobs for women from farming communities. We started this adventure a little of two years ago, with the goal to find a way to self-sustain the work we feel driven to do, empowering women economically and empowering women to grow into leaders in our homes, jobs, and communities.
Worldwide gender inequality is manifested in many different ways. In the United States we talk a lot about the wage gap, women making about 20% then men for doing the same work with the same qualifications. Globally, “gender gaps” go much beyond wage differences. Around the world, far more men have cell phones than women, which leaves a gap of 3.9 billion women without access to internet. Due to unsafe transport, women lose around 16% of job opportunities. On average women spend around 2.5 times more on unpaid domestic work and caregiving than men and in households that do not have water, women are responsible for 80% of water collection worldwide. (See references here)
There are many more gaps in education, health services, and social protections, but there is also great hope in what we can transform when we close these gaps.
If all girls worldwide had access to primary education, the positive impacts would translate to reducing global malnutrition by 1.7 million children.
If all girls worldwide had access to secondary education, the impact would translate to 12.2 million more children that did not suffer from malnutrition.
If women had the same access to credit and financial services as men, the impact would translate into reducing malnutrition by 17%, or 150 million people without malnutrition. (see references here)
If women were allowed to fully participate in the global economy, barriers to our participation were removed, and gaps were closed, the impact on the global economy would be an additional 6 trillion USD of GDP annually.
In Guatemala, a country where 50% of people live in poverty and 47% of children are malnourished, closing the gender gap would mean increasing incomes by $2400 per person, which would significantly reduce poverty and malnutrition.
What is empowerment?
We focus our empowerment work in two areas with two groups of people, (1) economic empowerment and (2) social empowerment, with (a) our employees and (b) farmers who supply crops to our food production business.
Economic empowerment can be contrasted to a simpler concept of improving incomes. While we hope our work will improve the incomes of our employees and the farmers who work with us, we know that this alone cannot create the change needed in our society so we take it a step further. We work with farmers and farmer groups to setup business models of their own so they learn how to negotiate fair prices for their work and ensure they are empowered to create more economic opportunities far beyond the work they do with us. We offer in-kind credit services to farmers who work with us so they can go past subsistence production and grow crops adapted to market demand.
Women-led farmer groups join together for marketing and harvesting workshop
with our team.
This year, with new programs we will fundraise for, we will implement financial empowerment and education programs for our employees and farmer groups, and if successful in fundraising, we will setup savings and loan programs designed for our teammates who wish to pursue further education and professional development beyond our internal programs, and for farmers, to be able to expand production and on-farm value-added activities.
Our work in social empowerment is rooted in our shared need as women to confront the long list of gender gaps we face in society and prepare us to be leaders despite the barriers and our personal histories. We do this work in our own team with an in-house professional development program called “Empower Hour” which is an ongoing series of workshops and seminars that cover topics like:
IT skills: email, computer use, phone apps for business, photography
Public speaking, posture for confidence, self-confidence, self-esteem
Global issues and women’s issues
Job-specific courses (sales, taste testing, business management, food safety, soil conservation)
For these workshops we use internal and external professionals to lead and share.
Last year, when we surveyed our team members about how we could expand and improve our benefits package to employees, every single employee in Guatemala and Mexico requested individual and group professional develop, selecting this benefit over annual bonuses, savings accounts, and more. We are hungry to grow and learn to be leaders, and we are looking for ways to invest further in this area.
Our Impact thus far:
We measure our impact quantitatively but much of the changes we have made cannot be captured with numbers. A few of the numerical impacts are as follows:
We have created full-time jobs for 6 women and part-time jobs for 3 women, paying above local wage standards to stimulate further social change.
Our business has generated $14,955 dollars in additional revenue for farmers working with socially and environmentally sound practices since launching.
Since our launch, we have trained over 45 farmers on economically empowering production systems and business models.
We have installed rainfall harvest and micro-irrigation systems with three female farmers to pilot climate-resilient, low-cost production systems for medicinal team plants to confront the ongoing droughts in Guatemala.
Co-organized and invested in two farmer-led groups for selling high-value crops to our business and other markets, insuring improved farmer incomes.
Some of the impacts we have documented that cannot be captured with numbers are:
Our employees’ diets have diversified – when they start working with us they eat a diet of almost strictly tortillas, the staple food of Guatemala, and after some months with us, because of their increased income and exposure to information about nutrition while working in our food factory, they include vegetables, eggs, and other protein and nutrient sources. When women have good incomes, they prioritize healthy food for their families.
One of our teammates is paying for her accelerated middle-school weekend classes with the flexible work environment and good wages we pay her. Every single other teammate has a plan to go back to school, either to finish high school, college, or go for a graduate degree. We will support them in this with flexible work environments, education incentives, and fair wages that allow them to pay for their education.
When our teammates started working with us, they were very timid, as women from rural communities, with little education and little exposure. They were raised to respect authority and to be quiet and obey. Through our mentoring and leadership, and with an internal professional development program “Empower Hour” which works with self-confidence, public speaking, technology use, gender inequality, and more, we have seen transformations among our teammates who arrived to work with us as timid women and now are leaders in the company, their families, and their communities. We have witnessed the transformation of women who, two years ago, would never disagree with a person “in charge” and never speak unless spoken to, emerge into the leaders of our company, who will speak up when they disagree, even when questioning authority, and lead with compassion and confidence.
Manuela is one of our original employees and when I asked her how working with us changed her life, she told me that before working with us, when she looked into the future, she saw darkness, nothing. She did not know how to dream or what to think of for a better future. Now, she has plans, she is learning to drive, going to school, and has big plans and dreams, detailed out to share with us. She told me that now she is like a butterfly, with wings to fly, to accomplish all her dreams and more.
Manuela, the head of our production team, shows off our delicious ingredients.
Business, Impact, or Both?
Though we are not yet profitable as a food manufacturing company, we have a thriving consulting business, that supports other organizations build more socially inclusive and impactful projects and research, in agriculture, environment, and business. We invest our profits into growing our impact, but it is never quite enough, because we have a big vision for a big impact.
Every day we make difficult decisions to pay better prices to farmers even if it means lower margins for our products. Many criticize us for being bad business people, but we are playing a long-game of building a model for socially just business, building a more equitable society, and creating empowered leaders who will impact the nutrition, health, and economic wellbeing of their families and communities. Our economic ROI may be non-existent (it’s a long term goal), but our social impact ROI is very high.
Starting any business is a big challenge, and we are eternally grateful for the people who took a risk on investing in our vision and are patient enough to know that the return on investment would take time. We have realized, however, that we have so much impact to do great work, not only for our employees and the farmers that work with us, but for many other women, which is why we have decided to launch a non-profit organization, so we can qualify for grants and expand our impact. There are many sources of funding we would be eligible to expand are work for as a non-profit, and we are ready to take the big next step into going after those opportunities.
The business will continue and as it grows to be profitable, it will contribute to the non-profit organization. It will continue to be a place where we create jobs for women and fair price markets for farmers and set example of how we can do business while doing good. We do not however want business growth to limit our opportunities to support more women to be trained for well-paying jobs, to be economically and socially empowered to be leaders in their communities and families, and give access to more sustainable and profitable agricultural systems.
This is a big step and it will require some legal changes and a lot of new creativity and innovation, and a lot of time to put into grant writing and fundraising with private foundations. Many of you have supported us to get as far as we have now and we hope you can see the impact of your investment has been multiplied by our passion and hard work. We hope you will consider continuing to support us in this next venture so we can multiply our impacts even further.