Thinking Big, Starting Small
George Roche used sabbatical to sharpen his thinking about how free enterprise can have social impact in developing world.
George Roche was curious. He already had a fair amount of knowledge and understanding of the food and agriculture industry in the developing world, but he wanted to know how to introduce more private enterprise into that world and gain a broader understanding of just how to make that happen. So he took a four-month sabbatical in the winter of 2012 to attend the Founder Institute—a high-profile program designed to help entrepreneurs launch businesses— to help him find some answers.
Throughout high school, and as a biology major at Georgetown University, Roche had always been fascinated with the interrelatedness of global issues. As he looked into the connections that intertwine poverty, agricultural development, and the foods we select and consume, he began to better understand the ways in which the food and agriculture sector was linked to global health epidemics.
When it came time to join the workforce, Roche decided to make these interests part of his career. In 2010, he joined the Federal practice of Deloitte Consulting’s Strategy & Operations group based in Washington, D.C., specifically focused on Emerging Markets. Through the Emerging Markets Practice, Deloitte is devoted to promoting economic development and poverty reduction in emerging markets.
“I’ve had the great fortune of working with colleagues in our emerging markets group where I’ve been involved in some international development work,” said Roche. “I’m gaining a deeper understanding of the food and agriculture industry and how it operates, especially with regard to its corporate social responsibilities in the developing world.”
His work experiences have further fueled his interests and provided him with the knowledge needed to make his sabbatical with the Founder Institute a success.
Doing well by doing good
The Founder Institute is a global network of entrepreneurs and innovators that offers a rigorous four-month curriculum aimed at helping its students form an idea, turn it into something practical, and then launch a product. The lessons, according to Roche, are equally applicable to entrepreneurs or intrapreneuers—people who demonstrate entrepreneurial practices while working for a company. Participants gain practical knowledge about how to approach a problem and then develop a solution that has a measurable impact.
“I was excited to be accepted into the program, because I believed it would expose me to new methodologies, ideas, and experiences that I could apply to my client work and on internal projects as well,” says Roche. “The sabbatical offered me a way to bring an idea to life through FI but also share new thought leadership with Deloitte.”
When he began the program, Roche had no preconceived notions for where he would focus, but knew it would lie somewhere at the intersection of food, agriculture, and international development. “There’s a paradigm shift happening today in the way private companies take on roles traditionally held by government agencies or nongovernmental organizations in the developing world,” he says. “This shift encourages socially responsible private enterprise, so I knew I wanted to do that rather than just develop another NGO.”
While the Founder Institute focuses primarily on software and technology start-ups, Roche says the training at the institute was actually quite transferable—especially the way in which it helps shape how participants think about and approach problems—and perfectly suited for his project.
For Roche, the process of coming up with his idea was gradual, methodical, deliberate—and successful. He ultimately decided to create a benefit corporation, a new tax structure that for-profit companies use to weigh social impact considerations in addition to profit as part of their operating model. Patagonia, Better World Books, and King Arthur Flour are some well-known examples of this kind of organization.
The name of Roche’s new entity is Small Small. “I was the first benefit corporation to graduate from the Founder Institute program,” he says proudly. “Having a social impact strategy as part of an idea was also a first and I hope to have left my mark on the institute in that way.”
The core concept for Small Small is to create and sell specialized food products originating in the developing world. Roche started with Ethiopian spices and sauces, such as berbere and awaze. He chose Ethiopia because the large Ethiopian population where he lives in Washington, D.C. offered him a way of interacting with the community domestically and abroad.
His time on sabbatical was everything Roche hoped it would be. “I gained more tactical knowledge in the food industry, international development, and working with a variety of people in the implementation of my idea,” he says. “I’m now better able to understand how to approach a problem and then take it from an idea to a market offering. It was a great experience and I learned a lot that I can use in my work at Deloitte.”
Note: Roche still operates Small Small in his spare time. To learn more about the benefit corporation or purchase its products, check out www.buysmallsmall.com.