For most people, the first day on the job is a mix of excitement and stress. But when you’re launching a company in southern Africa and starting your orientation at one of the big four corporate banks on the same day, it’s a whole new level of exhilaration – and anxiety.
But Renata Aráuz-DeStefano didn’t dwell on the seeming impossibility of combining two demanding professions. The Philadelphia native woke on the morning of Monday, July 10, to the soft launch of her startup Mwayi (pronounced mwah-ee), a social enterprise that sells made-to-measure African print apparel sewn by tailors in Malawi. She checked out the website, fired off some emails, and rushed to catch the train to the bank’s New York offices, where she’d be pulling notoriously long hours as an investment banking associate at a bulge-bracket firm.
“It was pretty crazy,” she recalls. “In the back of my mind, I was thinking, This is how the next year or two are going to be. “I’m on the train writing Instagram posts to announce our launch, and I’m trying to sort out a glitch with our email service that won’t let me send more than 25 emails at a time.”
ROOM FOR GROWTH & DEVELOPMENT
Aráuz-DeStefano, who graduated from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School in May, is used to juggling competing priorities. She began working on the concept for Mwayi while interning at the bank (her current employer) after her first year of business school. She continued to plug away on it even after receiving – and accepting – an offer from the bank in August 2016 following her internship.
Despite a coveted job offer and financial security, Aráuz-DeStefano wasn’t ready to go cold turkey on social enterprise or Malawi. As an undergraduate at Tufts University studying international relations and French, she knew she wanted to pursue a career in international development, particularly in Latin America. Her family is from Ecuador, so she had a personal connection to the region. After graduating from Tufts in 2011 she began working with FINCA International, a microfinance organization, as an operations analyst for Latin American and the Caribbean.
Her work took her to Ecuador, Guatemala, Haiti, and finally Blantyre, Malawi, where she was the project manager for the redesign of a group lending product. The experience resonated with her, particularly Malawi. “It reminded me a lot of Haiti … I see a lot of hardworking people but few opportunities for them. I was struck by the potential and the lack of foreign investment,” she recalls. “There’s a lot of room for growth and economic development.”
ADMITTED TO FOUR OF HER TOP FIVE BUSINESS SCHOOLS
While Aráuz-DeStefano may have had career ambitions in international development, she was equally committed to earning an MBA. She took the GMAT as a senior in college, but after consulting other Tufts alumni, she opted to postpone applying until she had a few more years of experience. That decision solidified over her four years at FINCA, where many senior positions were held by MBAs. I knew that would be the next step,” she says.
Aráuz-DeStefano applied to five business schools, including Wharton and Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, while in Malawi. She was accepted by four. She only had time to visit Wharton during a trip home, but her mind was already made up. “It was an easy decision to attend Wharton,” she explains. “It was a combination of brand name, ranking, and the financial aid package.”
She opted to major in finance and management, a surprising departure from her academic and work background. “People who knew me in undergrad would say, ‘What?! You’re going to business school. What is wrong with you? How could you? I’d try to reassure them that there’s a method to the madness, there’s a path, and not to worry,” she laughingly recalls.
FILLING THE FOR-PROFIT ENTREPRENEURSHIP GAP
Her path ties into a worldwide trend that has nonprofits courting investors and for-profit businesses figuring social impact into their bottom lines. This shift includes Aráuz-DeStefano’s previous employer, FINCA, which was founded by a Peace Corps volunteer as a nonprofit. While the model worked, it proved hard to scale, and the leadership adopted a social enterprise approach to serve more customers and reach other countries.
“While I was with FINCA, I realized the value of an MBA and the for-profit mindset in the nonprofit sector. They are really complementary. To be a good social entrepreneur, you need to be a good entrepreneur,” Aráuz-DeStefano points out.
On a more personal level, Aráuz-DeStefano was also keenly aware of gaps in her own knowledge. “If you were to divide social entrepreneurship into two buckets, I have the social impact part. The part that I needed and the gap I needed to fill was the for-profit entrepreneurship bucket. I don’t think anyone in the social impact sector could deny the value of private-sector knowledge.”
Aráuz-DeStefano may have been aiming to gain for-profit business acumen at Wharton, but the school also proved to be the launch pad for Mwayi, which adheres to a social enterprise model via its apprenticeship program and salaries that are double the average for tailors in the region. She pins the inspiration for Mwayi on two pivotal B-school experiences. During her Field Application Project, which pairs teams of four to six students with a Wharton startup, Aráuz-DeStefano was matched with Zesa, a nonprofit that teaches vocational skills to survivors of sex trafficking in India. “I was really interested in their model,” she recalls. “I was also interested in making it more economically viable as a for-profit.”
Then she went to Malawi and Ghana as part of the Wharton Global Impact Consultants program, which sends students to developing countries to provide pro bono business advice. In Ghana she worked with Moringa Connect, a for-profit social enterprise that supports farmers growing moringa trees; the tree’s seeds are nutrient-rich and used in tea and beauty products around the world. Aráuz-DeStefano was impressed with the sustainability of their model.
During her time in Malawi, she managed to collect a suitcase full of clothing sewn from chitenge, vividly colored wax-print fabric. The clothes were, quite literally, made for her. Her MBA classmates were impressed, not only by the quality and fit but also the price. They encouraged her to do something more. “Those ingredients combined into the concept for Mwayi: my interest in social enterprise, my interest in chitenge, and the startup energy that you see at Wharton,” she recalls.