Ice cream, earthquakes and genocide typically don't correlate. But for social entrepreneur Alexis Gallivan, co-founder of Blue Marble Ice Cream, it is the very foundation for turning humanitarian nightmares into sweet dreams.
Having recently opened a parlor in Port Au Prince, Haiti, Gallivan shares with us the work behind training women via an ice cream parlor franchise as a route to economic mobility, in the aftermath of tragedy.
TriplePundit: What was the impetus behind launching your ice cream brand and subsequent social venture in Rwanda and Haiti?
Alexis Gallivan: After working in international development for nearly a decade, I grew frustrated by what I saw as a needless divide between the private and public realms. There was very little meaningful collaboration and integration of cross-sector best practices at the time—even though we ultimately shared the same general aims, albeit for different reasons. This division seemed like a terrible waste of opportunity to me, as it really limited our individual and collective impact.
In the midst of this frustration, I moved from Manhattan to Brooklyn. My move predated the borough’s artisanal food renaissance, and the ice cream fanatic in me was disappointed to discover that there were no good scoops to be had in my new neighborhood. After complaining about this for months, I was hit with my "a-ha" moment. I realized that filling this gap in the ice cream market was my chance to both satisfy my sweet tooth and push for more good in the world in an entirely new and innovative way.
So I enlisted the partnership of a dear friend, Jennie Dundas, and we launched Blue Marble Ice Cream — New York City’s only certified organic ice cream brand — in 2007. We began with a scoop shop in Brooklyn and have since expanded to two retail locations, several seasonal outposts around NYC, and a wholesale division that serves numerous retailers and restaurants across the NYC metro area and beyond. Our ice cream is also offered on JetBlue flights through their Mint Experience service, and we’re the exclusive ice cream supplier at Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
Just one year after opening our first shop in Brooklyn, Jennie and I launched our social venture, Blue Marble Dreams, with a mission to use ice cream as a means of catalyzing joy and prosperity in communities in need. We began by partnering with a group of women in Butare, Rwanda to build Inzozi Nziza (Sweet Dreams), their town’s first-ever ice cream shop. This unique social enterprise has generated stable jobs for dozens of women, built demand for area farmers, and stimulated commerce throughout the community.
In partnership with Haiti 155, another Brooklyn-based nonprofit, we have replicated the Sweet Dreams model in Port au Prince, Haiti with Bèl Rèv, which just opened in mid-September.
3p: How many women does this program intend to help? Why the focus on women?
AG: Our shop in Rwanda has trained and employed roughly thirty women since opening in 2010. In Haiti, we offered a year-long training program in business finance, operations, and culinary production to a group of approximately 25 women. A starting staff of seven women was ultimately selected, but we aim to expand the team as the business grows.
We decided to focus primarily on women for the same reasons many other organizations do: women often have less access to opportunities in the formal sectors of the economy than men and yet are more likely to use those opportunities to advance the welfare of their families and communities. So it was as much a moral decision as it was just plain business sense. Also, as women business owners ourselves who have benefitted greatly from the guidance and friendship of other women entrepreneurs over the years, we felt compelled to pass this “sisterly” support along to others.
In Rwanda, our timing coincided with a very sad but promising societal development: after the genocide, roughly 70 percent of the remaining population was female. This meant that whether the country was ready for it or not, women there had an unprecedented chance to step into roles that were previously off-limits to them. This included roles in culture, government, and the economy. Our partners were the members of Ingoma Nshya, Rwanda’s first-ever all-women drumming group. Before the genocide, women were forbidden from even touching a drum, but as the country began the process of rebuilding itself, the old rules were rewritten. We appreciated their pioneering spirit and felt that it would translate well to entrepreneurship
"Haiti does not have the same cultural impediments to women in the workforce, but there are very few formal sector jobs period - for both men and women. So our goal is to create a small business that first, provides quality training and sustainable employment initially for women, but ultimately inspires further investment in our community that in turn creates more opportunity for everyone."3p: How does this training and development work to address underlying issues such as poverty and economic development?
AG: In general, I find that training is often a neglected component of development. Training is not easy, quick or cheap, so I can understand why a lot of organizations opt to simply run things themselves. But (there) must be a clear and comprehensive transfer of knowledge and capacity if we have any hope for a real shift in our social equilibrium. Otherwise, we are just maintaining the status quo and cutting our collective potential dangerously short.
Throughout our training sessions in Rwanda and Haiti, we repeatedly emphasized that we were not preparing the participants to work in an ice cream shop. Instead, we were equipping them to run an ice cream business. For a full year before our Haitian staff even touched the ice cream equipment, for example, they studied the concepts and processes of business finance and operations. We wanted them to understand the intricate connections between the performance of the staff and the performance of the business, instilling in them a sense of responsibility and purpose and, hopefully, ensuring Bèl Rev’s long-term lasting success.
In Rwanda, we set the business up as a partnership between our nonprofit and our partners’ cooperative. We established milestones that, when reached, prompted the transfer of a portion of our shares to the cooperative. Over time, they assumed full control of the shop and have been running it independently ever since. This is how all training in development should work. It should set the local partners up to succeed autonomously, sustainably, and successfully, and allow the development organization to move on to a new community elsewhere.
3p: Who are your biggest supporters and why have you chosen these organizations as partners?
AG: The Clinton Foundation was among the first to sign on, as Bèl Rèv complemented their efforts in Haiti to spur economic growth, empower girls and women, and support small businesses. The Foundation supported us both through a generous grant and ongoing technical assistance. Through a grant from NRG Energy, the shop was built out of upcycled shipping containers and equipped with a custom solar panel system and microgrid, allowing Bèl Rèv to be energy independent.
JetBlue — which serves Blue Marble Ice Cream onboard through its Mint Experience program — has also contributed in the form of travel vouchers and cargo concessions.
The Retail Design Institute — an international association of retail design professionals — facilitated the donation of furniture (Knoll), flooring (Bolon), signage (Media Nation), and an assortment of decorative items (varied). Finally, recognizing that no ice cream shop would be complete without some happy music, Logitech stepped forward with the donation of sound system equipment.
At the local level, we have worked very hard to integrate multiple layers of local value in our operations to push our impact as deep and wide as we possibly can so that everyone can benefit in some way. As part of this effort, we have engaged numerous local partners, including a neighboring social enterprise in Haiti, Seed Apparel, to print our t-shirts (which are also manufactured in-country). Additionally, the staff aprons were designed and sewn by an artisan cooperative, Haiti Design Coop, and a custom tile mosaic was installed on the shop’s courtyard floor and front steps by a team of young Haitian artists, trained by the Art Creation Foundation for Children.
3p: What are your long-term goals for this project?
AG: Broadly speaking, our primary long-term goal in both Rwanda and Haiti is to generate as much economic opportunity for as many people as we can. This includes our staff, our suppliers, our farmers, and our fellow business community members (both current and prospective).
In Haiti, we just launched, but we have big plans for the future. Our ideas include developing micro-franchises in the form of ice cream carts “owned" by community salespeople and a wholesale division through which we would sell our ice cream base mix and potentially other products.
We’re also considering developing a licensing model that other NGOs could use to open ice cream social enterprises in their own communities and with their own constituents. In return for a one-time start-up fee and an ongoing licensing fee (based on a modest percentage of sales), we would provide our NGO clients with numerous assets, including architectural plans for a containerized shop unit, financials, equipment guides, recipes, training materials and other intellectual property. This income would enable us to further invest in our operations and ideally expand to other locations.
Regardless of how far we extend our model from the shops themselves, sustainability is vital. We have relied on grant funding to cover our start-up expenses and occasional capital expenditures that cannot be covered by regular income alone. The Rwanda business was fully self-sustaining within two years and we aim to reach this point in Haiti within 18 months. It’s critical that we’re successful with this, not only for our own purposes but also to help prove the model for other aspiring social entrepreneurs and investors.
Images courtesy of Blue Marble Dreams
Sherrell Dorsey is a social impact storyteller, social entrepreneur and advocate for environmental, social and economic equity in underserved communities. Sherrell speaks and writes frequently on the topics of sustainability, technology, and digital inclusion.