Meet the entrepreneur who is promoting recovery (and happiness) through ice cream

The pre-opening celebration for Bél Rév, Haiti’s newest ice cream shop. Photo from Blue Marble Dream Facebook

On Saturday, a new ice cream shop will open its doors in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. While some may ask whether this sweet treat is what Fontamara, the northwest corner of a city still recovering from the 2010 earthquake, really needs, Bèl Rèv, which means “sweet dreams” in Haitian Creole, is not your average ice cream shop. Members of KOFAVIV, a local organization that supports survivors of sexual violence, will serve the ice cream, from repurposed shipping containers that run on solar power, on land where two brothers want to construct a symbol of hope in a country that needs it.

Devex spoke with Alexis Gallivan, the social entrepreneur behind the ice cream shop, about the belief that motivated her to launch Blue Marble Dreams, which aims to promote not only joy but also recovery through the unlikely medium of ice cream. Here are the highlights of our conversation, edited for style and clarity:

You call Blue Marble Dreams the “sweet social spinoff” of Blue Marble Ice Cream, which you launched along with CEO Jennie Dundas in New York. What were your reasons for launching your second shop, Bèl Rèv, in Haiti, after launching your first shop, Inzonzi Nziza, in Rwanda in 2010?

Rwanda picked us and so did Haiti. That is a key detail to our story and approach. We certainly saw the impact that our ice cream business had in the U.S. — on our community and suppliers and within the organic agriculture movement as a whole — but we would never be so naive and brazen to assume that ice cream would be a suitable solution to anything in cultures and contexts outside our own.  

Through a fortuitous meeting in Utah — of all places — my business partner happened to meet a Rwandan woman, who, when she learned of Blue Marble, asked if we would consider helping a group of women there open an ice cream business of their own. Ultimately, we did — Inzozi Nziza opened in June 2010.

A beautiful documentary film called “Sweet Dreams” chronicled our process and outcomes. At one of the screenings of this film, I was approached by a group of women originally from Haiti. They explained that Port-au-Prince desperately needed something like an Inzozi Nziza. They recognized many parallels Rwanda’s genocide and Haiti’s earthquake. Both were hugely traumatic events that left survivors to grapple with the daunting process of rebuilding not only the infrastructure of their countries but also the lives and spirits of their people. They also pointed out that, like in Rwanda, there are very few jobs and training opportunities in Haiti's formal sector, leaving many to eke out their livelihoods through subsistence farming and other hand-to-mouth occupations.

We also were deeply compelled by the idea of replicating the Sweet Dreams model in Haiti. The heartbreaking images from the 2010 earthquake were still fresh in our minds, and we had come to understand that the recovery process had been slow and uneven, to put it mildly. We were excited by the prospect of using an ice cream shop as a way to help nurture this process along in a modest but still meaningful way.

From there, one of our board members introduced us to brothers Lionel and Constant Bernard.  Lionel and Constant were born and raised in Haiti. They immigrated to New York in their late teenage years, but maintained an active connection to their neighborhood in Port-au-Prince.

Shortly after the earthquake, which they both experienced and narrowly survived, they founded HAITI 155, an organization dedicated to reviving the socio-economic well-being of their community. Within minutes of meeting, we felt a powerful synergy between our respective missions. We decided to join forces on the spot and have been working tirelessly together over the past three years to bring Bèl Rèv to life. The shop has been built on the land where their childhood home once stood and is an embodiment of their defiantly hopeful view of Haiti’s future.

Why did you set Blue Marble Dreams up as a nonprofit organization versus a social enterprise?

We founded Blue Marble Dreams in 2008, less than a year after opening the doors to our business. We established the entity as a 501c3 for two reasons. The first was financial. Our business was still so young, we didn’t have the spare resources to be able to launch and sustain a fairly complex [operation] on the other side of the world without outside support. We also liked the idea of approaching this as a collective effort and worked hard to engage our customers, suppliers and business community members in the initiative. Of course, being able to offer these supporters the benefit of a tax deduction in addition to the general gratification of doing something meaningful was also helpful.

The second reason — which I can only recognize now — was that we simply didn’t know of any other option. “Social enterprise” was not a widely understood or practiced concept at the time. Today, “market-based solutions” models abound, but we didn’t have those examples to emulate when we got started, so we chose the only route forward we knew. That said, we recognized that we were really challenging the traditional 501c3 approach — and the Internal Revenue Service did, too.  We needed a team of pro bono lawyers to help clarify and defend our application, because what we were proposing was so unorthodox at the time.

Alexis Gallivan with brothers Lionel and Constant Bernard in Haiti. Photo from Blue Marble Dreams Facebook

Has that model been effective for you?  

In the shorter term, definitely yes. Having the 501c3 designation gave us the credibility and structure we needed to effectively secure and process flexible funding. Also, we had no way of knowing at the time whether the shop in Rwanda would actually work. All businesses involve a good amount of risk, certainly, but setting up a business selling a “luxury” product in a largely poor, rural community who had very little familiarity with ice cream (or even the sensation of consuming anything cold, for that matter) required a pretty sizable leap of faith. Our partners, too, were a risk.  We knew they were committed to the idea of the shop, but we didn’t yet know how committed they would be — and remain — to the shop itself. For these reasons, we did not feel comfortable offering any kind of financial return — no matter how little or slow or how compassionate the investor — and so relatively more “forgiving” donations seemed the better, more appropriate option for us. Further, at the time, profits were not our driving motive. We wanted to create jobs, support farmers and create a happy space for community members to connect. If we could achieve that, we were happy to break even.  

Longer term, and/or perhaps under different circumstances, I sometimes think that this might have limited the potential of the model. If you don’t build in an ambitious pursuit of profits from the get-go, it’s hard to stir up that motivation down the road. On an existential level, perhaps there’s something to be said for being happy with just having “enough,” but contentment can sometimes, in some ways, impede individual and societal growth. This is where the cultural differences entered the picture. In Rwanda, we were interested in creating a franchise model of sorts, whereby other community organizations could license the “Inzozi Nziza” name and intellectual property for a manageable fee. This would have created another income stream for the original entity and also enabled us to expand the model’s reach without shouldering the direct financial and logistical burden of doing so. Our partners in Rwanda, however, chose not to pursue this.

Their reasons were varied, but the bottom line was that they preferred to keep things as they were — regardless of the potential rewards of expansion. This was their prerogative, and since they technically owned the business, we had to abide by their wishes. On the one hand, I value self-determination and respected their right to choose how they wanted to conduct their business.  On the other, had we had investors to satisfy, we would have built a growth plan into the DNA of the business and likely been able to broaden our impact considerably.

We first met in Port-au-Prince on a trip last year with the Clinton Foundation, which has supported your efforts in Haiti. Still, while you have support from the Clinton Foundation along with NRG and JetBlue, I know it’s been a challenging year working to get this project off the ground. Can you expand on the process and what it has taught you?

Before getting started, I anticipated that working in Haiti would be easier in most ways than Rwanda, given its proximity to the U.S. and its exposure to American culture. These did turn out to be helpful aspects of the project, but that’s pretty much where the relative ease ended. Rwanda has a very organized government that has recognized private sector development as vital to its long-term well being and built an environment that is conducive to this growth. Haiti also recognizes the value of attracting and supporting business but has been slow to build the requisite infrastructure — physical, regulatory and procedural — to nurture a thriving private sector.  

To show the contrast in numbers: In the World Bank’s 2015 Ease of Doing Business rankings, Rwanda was ranked 62 and Haiti was in 185th place (out of 189). To make matters more complicated, Haiti was was flooded with NGOs — both legitimate and opportunistic — after the 2010 earthquake and, understandably, the government became quite disillusioned with their big promises, which were so rarely fulfilled. As a result, it overhauled its NGO recognition process and made it extraordinarily difficult for groups to achieve local nonprofit status (and thereby enjoy its benefits, like tax exemptions and import concessions). As an NGO/business hybrid, therefore, we had a very, very difficult time acquiring the paperwork and permissions we needed to operate. I’d estimate that these difficulties delayed us by at least a year, whereas in Rwanda we were fully registered and officially ready to roll in a single afternoon.

Over the past three years of development, we experienced several lengthy project delays, most stemming from issues within the government. In addition to the challenges of its generally serpentine and opaque bureaucracy, the country has experienced significant political instability over the last year. The resultant and frequent changes in government process and personnel forced us to repeatedly build new relationships and extend our timeline further and further.  

Now for a fun question: Why ice cream? I think part of what's so fun about your story is the way ice cream is  as you put it  this unlikely medium to create jobs, joy, and prosperity. It's probably easy to lose sight of that when you're heads down trying to set up a project like Bel Rev. But how do you try and maintain that focus?

On its surface, ice cream is a very simple, frivolous treat. But actually, it’s much, much more than that. For Blue Marble, ice cream has helped drive demand for farmers and producers in many corners of the world and paved the way for other conscientious food companies looking to make a difference with their products. By building successful businesses out of ice cream, we have also created jobs and and enlivened local business communities.

Beyond that practical benefit, ice cream has a special way of making people really happy.  The value and power of this effect cannot be discounted. Happiness is an incredibly motivating, unifying force, not to mention a human right and need that is far too often neglected in conventional “development” work. We believe that helping each other survive or endure is absolutely not enough — that we all owe and deserve more. Our collective goal should be to help each other live and live fully. We strive to achieve this through ice cream. Our hope is that the happiness our ice cream inspires in people will stay with them and in some way, brighten their days, outlooks and dreams for the future.

For all businesses and organizations, there are temptations and pressures at every turn to cut corners or otherwise compromise on your founding ideals. As committed as we are to the happiness of our communities near and far, we have not been immune to this struggle. But we have stood our ground and found ways to translate our values into an authentic and compelling market differentiator. They’ve also been useful as our identity’s “North Star,” so to speak, and helped us navigate the many difficult decisions and challenges we’ve encountered over the years.

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About the author

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    Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Outside of her own reporting, Catherine also supports other journalists to cover what is working, through her work with the Solutions Journalism Network.

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