What do women in impoverished communities in East Africa need to better their family and community lives? That’s the question Oxford Saïd Business School MBA candidate Julie Greene asked as she worked with poor communities across the region.
Greene first traveled to East Africa during her undergraduate studies at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. Inspired and troubled by her travels, she joined the Peace Corps, the organization launched by President John Kennedy in the early 1960s that enables “motivated changemakers” to work in many of the world’s developing communities. It was while undergoing training for her deployment in Rwanda that Greene met her co-founder, another motivated changemaker, Markey Culver.
“We both began working on community projects specific to women, especially regarding creating greater economic inclusion,” Greene says. “We began to ask ourselves: what do women really need in order to upskill and take care of their families?”
A CONCEPT WITH GREAT POTENTIAL
The answer: The Women’s Bakery, a social enterprise that empowers women in Africa to earn money, learn business skills, and improve nutrition in their communities by baking and selling quality bread. In some bakeries, the income of the women the enterprise has worked with has increased by more than 400% as a result. It has delivered over 600 hours of training in Rwanda alone.
“We were both living in rural communities in Rwanda. Neither of us were trained bakers, but if we wanted bread, making it ourselves was necessary,” Greene recalls. “Our neighbors were interested in what we were doing, and so we started teaching people in the local community.”
Culver established a women’s cooperative to bake bread, with the idea that the women could use it to supplement their families’ diet. The local trainees, however, showed an interest in selling their bread. At the same time, Greene began selling bread with neighbors in the local marketplace.
The partners realized the concept had far greater potential.
‘BUSINESS SHOULD HAVE A PURPOSE BEYOND SIMPLY MAKING PROFIT’
After a short hiatus in Colorado, Greene returned to East Africa with one main goal: turn The Women’s Bakery into a scalable social enterprise. The mission quickly proved successful and grew to include seven Women’s Bakery locations across East Africa.
Here’s how it works: The organization partners with local women, identifies local resources, and conducts extensive training. Once a bakery is launched, a Bakery Operations Manager is kept onsite “to help the bakery reach full sustainability,” according to the group’s website. “This staff member knows the women and understands their needs and goals, and supports them along the path to sustainable, gainful employment. We maintain ownership of the bakery during this time, so that women can continue developing their skills without taking on the financial risks of full ownership.
“Our ultimate goal is to transfer bakery equity to women working at these bakeries. Then, the women will have access to both sustainable, gainful employment, but also their bakery’s profits.”
Greene serves as a co-founder with responsibilities for day-to-day leadership, management, and operations of the Women’s Bakery headquarters in Kigali, Rwanda. She says she came to Oxford Saïd to earn an MBA in a year and improve her business acumen. “I don’t come from a business background, and while we were thinking about how to scale, I realized I needed to broaden my skill set,” she says. “When I came to visit the school, I really got a sense of its values: collaborative, with a cohort that genuinely believes business should have a purpose beyond simply making profit. Almost every lesson I have been taught so far, I have thought of some way in which it could apply to the Bakery.”
MEMORIES TO LAST A LIFETIME
Greene says she expects to remain as an adviser and board member to the Bakery after she finishes her MBA, but her larger goal is to further her career in the social impact sector. In other words, bigger things await.
Still, she’ll carry some memories forever.
“We track all kinds of social impact indicators, such as personal income, household income, and so on,” she says. “But for me, the most exciting indicators are more qualitative. I recall one woman who was completely against being on the sales team because she felt she was too shy. But over time, her confidence just kept growing, until one day, while we were discussing sales targets, she said: ‘You know what? I’m going to sell four times as much as that target,’ and she went out and did it.
“It’s those kinds of transformations that make all the work worthwhile.”