Growing up in Harare, Zimbabwe, during the height of a recession, Veneka Chagwedera was acutely aware of unfairness in the world. As she approached her high school graduation in 2006, Chagwedera watched as thousands of children dropped out of school due to economic and social pressures. “Basic commodities like bread, sugar, and fuel were largely unavailable. Families all around the country were thrown into the depths of poverty, and daily life became a struggle for survival,” she says.
The fight for daily sustenance forced many children to drop out of school and find jobs to supplement their families’ incomes. Chagwedera observed a link between food security and education. “I had seen firsthand how poverty could rob one of an education,” she says. “But I also knew that education was one of the most powerful tools to escape the cycle of poverty.”
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Chagwedera made a promise to herself–she would pursue higher education and find a way to improve the lives of the people in her community. So in the fall of 2006, Chagwedera enrolled at Princeton University, where she studied international development. This experience led to a successful career in philanthropy and the nonprofit sector. After two years, Chagwedera knew she was ready to start her own social enterprise and begin fulfilling the personal vow to help her community.
To learn how to start and run her own business, she decided to pursue an MBA at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. Little did Chagwedera know that the idea for her company would come before she ever set foot inside a B-school classroom.
Chagwedera worked for Save the Children in Asia the summer before her first year. During trips to remote locations she relied on homemade energy bars for sustenance. When she started business school in the fall of 2011, Chagwedera continued making energy bars and experimenting with recipes. She sensed a market opportunity for wholesome bars that tasted good.
As Chagwedera perfected her recipes and conducted market research during school, she never lost sight of the social mission. “As I realized that my kitchen hobby had business potential, the social goal became an imperative,” she says. “I knew that ultimately I would incorporate a social mission into the product, but I wanted the bar to be good enough to stand on its own, without the cause.”
Calling upon her memories from Zimbabwe, Chagwedera and her co-founder, Jared Crooks, decided that for every Nouri bar sold, a free, hot meal would be given to a hungry child in school. “With free meals in school, parents have the incentive to send their children to school regularly,” she says. Plus, education would open up opportunities for young students to escape the cycle of poverty and hunger.
Working more than 10 hours per day under the guidance of Darden professors Saras Sarasvathy, Jeanne Leidtka, and Ed Hess, the duo launched Nouri at Whole Foods in 2012. Chadwick says working with these mentors was “truly transformative.” “I think professors are the intellectual capital within a business school and can be one of the best-kept secrets to help you launch your business,” she says. Chagwedera credits them for much of Nouri’s success.
So far, Nouri has partnered with Stepping Stones International to provide 20,000 meals to some of southern Africa’s most impoverished children. By the end of 2014, they hope to expand the school feeding program to children in Guatemala, Haiti, and India. Chagwedera has big dreams for Nouri. “Looking back after five years, we hope to have provided meals in school, and by extension an education, to over 10 million of the poorest children worldwide,” she says. “There is no telling how far these millions of kids will go through the power of overcoming hunger and gaining an education.”