How Marc Blumenthal identifies, promotes, and develops sustainable businesses that lift the livelihoods of the poor.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact," I had the pleasure of interviewing Marc Blumenthal. Marc Blumenthal is the Executive Director of the Social Ventures Foundation (SVF) — a Portsmouth, NH based nonprofit that identifies, promotes, and develops sustainable businesses that have created products and services that lift the livelihoods of the poor and utilize the poor to distribute them.
Marc’s entrepreneurial journey started at age 19 when he created his first startup, the American Book Club, at the University of Pennsylvania. As the start-up’s first hire, Marc negotiated all of the publisher book deal, which earned him enough money to travel throughout Europe and Asia during his Junior year abroad. Following college, Marc was involved in a variety of startups in the fields of Education, Medical Devices, Plasma Fusion, and Aerospace. He founded SVF in 2017 and has been involved in the enterprise on a full-time basis.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Marc! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
During my travels to many developing nations over the last 20 years, I have witnessed a tremendous amount of poverty. I could never fathom what the benefits were for a society to exclude people from the free enterprise system. If they were included in the free enterprise system, all ships would rise. Given that most of my life has been spent on education and technology-focused startups, I decided to apply my grey matter to focus on identifying, promoting and/or demonstrating startups focused on employing the poor to deliver sustainable social impact for the poor at the “Bottom of the Pyramid” or BoP as it’s referred to. Two years ago, I started a nonprofit called the Social Ventures Foundation to facilitate this mission.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
I demonstrated the business model in Haiti since it is the poorest nation in the Americas. Perhaps the most interesting story that happened was [when] I heard from Haitians about International Development. Haitians (both rich and poor) all had the same opinion about “International Development” and it was not good. When I ask them “what has changed” after the earthquake and the hurricane, after hundreds of millions of dollars had been spent on international development activities, the universal answer was “nothing." In fact, I learned that in some cases, things got worse. For example, the dumping of rice on the Haitian marketplace destroyed rural Haitian rice farming. The other story was watching some of the International Development personnel being driven by drivers in brand new Land Rover type vehicles, parked at the best restaurants for food and at the five-star Marriott hotel for lodging. It was clear to me that they were not “eating from their own cooking."
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
The funniest mistake that I made when I was first starting our efforts in Haiti was assuming that I knew how to drive, given that I cut my teeth driving in Boston. The Haitian method of driving is remarkable. There are no driving laws, cars will often go on the opposite side of the road against traffic, and trucks will sideswipe other vehicles when they are passing. I assumed that having grown up in Boston, I would know how to navigate almost anything. But Haiti has given Boston driving a real challenge.
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
The Social Ventures Foundation is making a significant social impact on providing nutritional supplementation to the general population in Haiti through our innovation of a shaved ice cone with a vitaminized topping that we call V’ice. Since Haitians only eat a little over one meal a day, most Haitians are vitamin and protein deficient. The challenge we had was coming up with a product that the poor could sell at an affordable price for the poor. We have met this challenge.
Can you tell me a story about a particular individual who was impacted by your cause?
There is no question that the individuals working for us in Haiti are impacted by our cause. We hired the unemployed who needed jobs. One person, in particular, comes to mind, Fernel is a young man from a very poor family. He waited at the front of our office for one month for a position to open. Once he started working with us, he was not only thrilled to earn an income, but he was also thrilled that he was helping to improve the health of his fellow Haitians.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
Given the dysfunction of Haiti’s government and politicians because of political corruption, we have tried to “steer clear” other than obtaining legal paperwork for incorporation and notifying the Head of Nutrition at the Haitian Health Ministry that we are authentically supplementing the vitamin deficiency needs of Haitians as defined by the Health Ministry. We have enrolled and continue to enroll the business community in our mission by getting their support through their “wheelhouse” as opposed to their charitable back door.
For example, we received financial support from Griffith Foods, an international food company, which provided us with both seed funding and in-house staff support to enhance our vitaminized formulation. Several other companies based in Haiti also gave us support including Caribbean Foods International which provided us with vitaminized corn flakes made in Haiti, which we use for our protein V’bars. Another Haitian business, D’lo Haiti, a clean water company, provides us with our clean water source. Several other Haitian companies have extended us discounts on purchased supplies given their affinity for our mission. We are also building our V’ice “last mile” transport vehicle — a three-wheel recumbent tricycle -the V’ike- in Haiti to help create jobs. We continue to look to engage individuals and companies from the private sector to help us develop sustainable and scalable solutions to lift the livelihoods of the poor.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
I define “Leadership” as a process of inspiring others with a worthy mission and guiding their unique skills to make it happen.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
The “5 things” I wish someone had told me when I first started, reflect the funding reality for any venture trying to sustainably lift the livelihoods of the poor at the Bottom of the Pyramid:
US AID and the Millennial Challenge Corporation (MCC) give a lot of their money to DC International Development Beltway organizations which are often staffed with ex-US AID employees. Unless you are educated, learn the “lingo” or are at some point employed by International Development organizations, it’s a hard road to get international development funds. We spent a lot of time filling out lots of forms and more forms and before we got another form saying they denied us the requested funds. The word “exclusive club” comes to mind — you get the idea.
Foundations only give 5% of their holdings and most have closed their doors to unsolicited proposals and unless you are well connected it’s also a difficult road to travel. Religious foundations typically fund religious organizations on a mission. Haiti’s economy, for example, gets a boost from the travel expenses contributed by visiting Missionaries so as an industry, missions give the tourism industry a boost given that it’s at an all-time low.
Businesses deal with poverty through their back “donation” door, not their front “wheelhouse” door. But if a social venture is a strategic fit, one stands a better chance of finding funding from an aligned business than the “closed ecosystems” of Foundations or Government agencies.
Social Investment capital is all about ESG (environment, social and governance). And although they show pictures of the poor in brochures, there are very few Capital investments being made at the Bottom of the Pyramid. Don’t get fooled, the ESG community is not delivering SDG’s which are the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. The number one goal on that list is “No Poverty”. I am looking forward to the “ESG” community adding a “P” to “ESG”.
I wish that someone had told me that “poverty reduction” is not what it appears to be. It’s an industry that is all too often self-serving and full of smoke and mirrors. Obtaining funding for a sustainable and scalable startup requires perseverance and authenticity to stay the course. Without these traits, one should look for other types of work.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
The movement would be “The BoP Business Corps” a legion of businesses and exceptional business people (retirees are good) who use their grey matter to develop and/or underwrite sustainable and scalable products and services that lift the livelihoods of the poor and more importantly employ the poor to deliver the products and services. I will be glad to help contribute “leadership” if you like my definition above.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Great works are performed not by strength but by perseverance” — Samuel Jackson Each of the startups I’ve been a part of, and each of the challenging travel adventures I undertook in my life whether by thumb, VW camper bus or blue water sailboat required one word to accomplish them “perseverance.” And if you had one other word “passion” I think we have a “life lesson quote” recipe for success.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)
Yeah, Jeff Bezos. V’ice is focused on an “Amazon-like” home delivery of goods and services that lift the livelihoods of the poor at the Bottom of the Pyramid. Jeff has a fleet of planes, vans, and UAVs. We have our green-powered “V’ikes”. As a freshman in college, I participated in my first startup, the American Book Club, which offered all books in print for a discount was in fact Amazon’s first play. The only thing missing for us was the Internet. We were too early–or maybe the pioneers? Timing is everything. So, Jeff, if you read this, let’s break bread.