Some of the Origin co-founders in the slums of Dharavi, after conducting a focus group with locals
On the face of it, Cesar Del Valle, Greg Perowne, James Doherty, Jon Myer and Monica Noda don’t have much in common professionally – other than the fact that they are part-time MBA students.
Before business school, Cesar came from real estate; Greg is a former Deloitte consultant; Jon was a communications specialist; Monica co-founded a design company; and James worked for the Swedish Trade Council.
The group’s mix-match of skills and personality is an embodiment of the modern MBA cohort. And it is a trait that ESADE Business School, their current place of business, has in abundance.
The current full-time MBA class of about 160 students represents 48 different countries – and a large chunk of them come from non-traditional backgrounds such as humanities and social sciences.
They are a school typified by diversity. And while all MBA programs like to brandish international representation, how many of them successfully pair four different nationalities together for the long-haul?
James and Cesar are from the States, Greg hails from Canada, Jon is from Australia and Monica comes from Brazil.
As different as their careers and backgrounds might be, though, they share a passion for social impact – a passion that has put them on a path to entrepreneurship.
The ESADE five are all the co-founders of Origin, a social-impact start-up that helps improve nutrition and financial inclusion in some of the poorest parts of India.
They speak to me from their campus in Barcelona, Spain, but last summer they were immersed in the slums of India – a country in which over 20 per cent of the population live in extreme poverty.
When they first met at ESADE in 2012, they had no idea they would be working on Origin in two years’ time, shunning corporate MBA jobs in favour of entrepreneurship.
“We hadn’t pin-pointed social start-ups, but we all had the idea of getting into the social enterprise sector somehow. We were gravitating towards that purpose,” Cesar says. It was why they chose ESADE in the first place, says Monica.
“We chose ESADE partly because of its focus on social impact and sustainability,” she explains. “We met each other very quickly and found we had similar aspirations.”
Indeed, ESADE has its own Instituto de Innovación Social – Institute for Social Innovation – which is dedicated to social enterprises, leadership and NGO management, and corporate social responsibility. In December last year, they launched their first Social Impact Investment Forum for social entrepreneurs and investors to find eachother.
So when the opportunity to enter the Hult Prize 2013 – a global competition which presented the challenge of addressing the food shortage in urban slums – they jumped at it.
“That’s how it all started,” says Greg. “We were all very interested in social enterprise but hadn’t focused on a specific issue. The Hult Prize got us to rally round this one cause and this was the formation point.”
The competition, which many MBA teams enter each year, has a grand prize of $1 million in seed funding. Enough incentive for any social entrepreneur. Although the ESADE team didn’t take home the cash last year, they left with something much more valuable.
“As we looked deeper into the issue, we starting defining who our customers would be and which geography we would target, and things progressed from there,” says Greg. Flash forward to February 2014 and the five founders are committed to making this a full-time project.
That competition was the catalyst they needed to get started. While most MBAs are immersed in their studies, the Origin team have one eye fixed firmly on graduation.
As admirable as their cause is, they will only achieve impact if their business is successful – and that requires hours of hard graft in-between lectures and case studies.
“But now suddenly it’s behind us, the criteria is gone. We’re in that sole-searching phase, trying to see how we can have the most impact.”
There is no doubting that the Hult Prize was a fantastic enabler, rather than a burden – “the reward is worth it,” adds Greg – but they have a clear vision of their goal now.
Origin works with small retailers in India, improving nutrition and social inclusion. They link small grocery shops to the private and public sectors with “low-cost” technology and help them sell healthier, more affordable food in the slums.
Their focus is not just on nutrition, however. The business also works with local retailers to streamline their banking processes, helping them remain free from corruption.
Origin is a for-profit enterprise, but profits will be invested back into the business, Cesar insists.
They are not just targeting India either. Origin’s founders hopes to maximize social impact on an international scale – although they are a few strategy meetings off that level. What is the ultimate aim? “That’s what we ask ourselves all the time,” says Greg.
“We want to be somewhere where we can bring a business practice that’s beneficial to society. Sure, we’ve looked at different markets, such as East Africa and Latin America, so ideally we could replicate this model and easily translate it to other markets.
“But like most start-ups, we’re more focused on the next five to ten months, rather than the next five to ten years.”
It’s a big task. And the ESADE MBAs are under no illusions as to its difficulty; who knows where the business will be in a few years’ time. But one thing they are certain of is that an MBA was the right path to take.
It hasn’t just made them business partners and given them the inspiration behind their idea, but funding and the skill-set to make their start-up a success.
“But the most important way an MBA helps is that It gives us a more customer-centric look at problems, so we don’t get the idea that we have a product or solution that will change the world; instead, we develop and fine-tune our business based on customer feedback,” says Greg.
“We received some funding from the school, nothing too large, but it has helped. There are a good amount of resources we can utilize.
“ESADE being a small school, we have close connections to students and professors – and they are always more than happy to let us bounce ideas off them.”
They may not have won the Hult Prize competition, but that is not slowing Origin down. When the event finished and they had begun to make an impact, they did not rest on their laurels.
For these five ESADE MBAs, Origin is much more than a project. Social entrepreneurship is a way of life.