Before Brian McCollum became a partner in Madécasse, a company that makes its chocolate entirely in Madagascar, he wasn’t too familiar with the African island. “I knew that my brother had been there in the Peace Corps,” the 38-year-old says. “I knew that there were lemurs there. And that was pretty much it at the time.”
To be fair, that’s more than most Americans can say. And McCollum hadn’t planned on starting a social enterprise when he enrolled in New York University’s MBA program in 2005. The company is largely the brainchild of McCollum’s brother, Tim McCollum, and another former Peace Corps volunteer, Brett Beach. Though McCollum focused on entrepreneurship at NYU, his main job isn’t at Madécasse–it’s at a pharmaceutical company. “My daughter was born in July of 2008, right before we started the company, so I became a lot more risk-averse right around that time,” he explains.
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But that doesn’t mean McCollum isn’t dedicated. His description of Madécasse’s mission is honest and succinct: “Our overall goal is to make that link between quality and Madagascar in people’s minds.” (His brand management class was one of his favorites.)
McCollum, who graduated in 2007, says the company got a huge boost from participating in Stern’s 2008 Business Plan Competition. “That was where we got the majority of the resources specific to the company,” he says. “We got to speak with a whole bunch of different people very quickly and got a lot of feedback that ordinarily would’ve taken months or years to get.”
Not all of it was positive. Some critics felt that the business plan didn’t adequately demonstrate Madécasse’s social returns. In fact, the company was asked to switch to the non-social competition. “We really fought against that, but we really took that advice seriously, and basically came through and said, ‘Okay, we understand what you’re saying,’” McCollum recalls. “We hadn’t really quantified the social aspect of our business significantly enough, and we redoubled our efforts to do that–to put some numbers behind it–and it gave us more of an appreciation for how to use numbers to manage the business and communicate about the business more specifically.” In the end, Madécasse tied another startup for first prize in the social entrepreneurship track.
McCollum advises entrepreneurs to power through challenges like these and to try new things. When asked what Madécasse will look like in five years, McCollum unabashedly says he doesn’t have a clue. “My personal feeling is that people who say [they know] aren’t very realistic about many things,” he explains. “We’d love to be broader, we’d love to have much better name recognition, but that’s getting much better over the past couple of years.” Just ask any Whole Foods frequenter. Currently, Madécasse is available in more than 1500 locations, including Whole Foods, across 15 countries.