I really thought I was going to be working in Investment Banking after finishing my MBA. Interviewing on Wall Street starting in December of 2007 was a really fun experience. Wake up at 5am, read the WSJ to prepare, try to sound intelligent, open the WSJ the next day to read that the bank you were at yesterday has exploded, and half of the people you were begging for a job from yesterday didn’t know if they themselves were going to have jobs. Repeat 50+ times until your have more bank visitor passes in your wallet than dollars, whichever comes first.
Seriously, someone could have made billions of dollars short selling the banks on my interview list. When a reporter from the UK Sunday Times picked up my story, put my picture on the cover with the headline “Bad Luck Chuck loses 4 Jobs on Wall Street,” I got the hint that I’d better look for something else.
What was I going to do with an MBA from Spain in NYC? I had to look outside the country and always wanted to return to South America. I was pretty much willing to do anything. I looked at all sorts of volunteer options, teach English? build a school? dig a ditch? something? anything? I began contacting them but most of them seemed like they were only profiting from volunteers paying to be part of the program. There are a lot of great volunteer programs down there, just be sure to always talk to someone who has gone through that specific one before making any decisions.
I discovered that a friend from my MBA program was down in Nicaragua working for a non-profit, called Agora Partnerships. I reached out to her just to get some advice and to hear about her experiences. I was so impressed with everything she had accomplished. Bamboo farms to help provide sustainable construction options? Clean water options for people in urban areas?
It seemed like there was so much going on down there, while everyone in NYC was floundering. She was working under a fellowship grant and for the past 7 months and was about to go back home. She put me in touch with her managers and I applied for the grant as fast as I could. I packed my bags, left my apartment in NYC, and was pretty much on the next flight down there.
I landed in the capitol of Nicaragua, Managua. What used to be the epicenter of an enormously prosperous and important center of Latin America, was now the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, only behind Haiti. Tremendous earthquakes have completely flattened the capitol to dust, not only once, but twice in recent history. It has struggled ever since to rebuild. The streets are extremely busy, and hundreds of cab drivers honk every second in hopes to pick up some customers. The nicest buildings on the outskirts of town are government owned casinos. I arrived at the office and was so excited about the 7 months I had ahead of me. I got the feeling that no matter what, it would be impossible to have an experience like this, without experiencing personal growth and change.
I spent the next seven months working with a wide range of enthusiastic entrepreneurs and getting to know Nicaragua as much as possible. The project that I ended up spending the most time on was supporting an entrepreneur who was exporting plant botanicals to Europe for use in cosmetics and nutraceuticals. It was worlds away from my previous career in technology sales with IBM, and playing the restaurant game in NYC prior to my MBA. This was my first ever experience with agriculture. The entrepreneur recently received some orders from Europe and needed help managing the process and fulfillment. My job was to expedite this, and figure out how to get it done. I traveled all over the country speaking with different farmers to understand their farms capacities, and tried to gauge the interest these farmers would have in converting their crops to something new and hopefully more lucrative.
Traveling to these farms was always an adventure, partly because of Nicaragua and mostly because of my mode of transportation. In order to travel from farm to farm, I decided it would be a good idea to rent a 1980 Toyota Jeep (brakes optional) that had been buried under hay in the back barn of a co-worker. I never truly understood what a love-hate relationship was until this car. Hate, because I never traveled more than 40 miles without myself having to get under the hood, pump some thing that was called a “bomba,” and end up covered in gasoline. Love because somehow it would always get me to my destination, and you were guaranteed to make some friends along the way. The first time I broke down on the highway in Nicaragua was a terrifying experience (for the first 20 minutes). I was alone, engine hissing, my diesel engine experience exhausted and totally stranded. Down the road there were 3 men who had been observing my dilemma, and started walking towards me.
What I was about to learn was that apparently every man in Nicaragua is born with a diesel engine mechanics degree, and there is always some sort of auto parts hut within walking distance in Nicaragua. These three guys were watching me the whole time, just to have a crack at fixing the engine. I really think it is like a sport to them. My fears subsided and we were all immediately best friends, and they showed me how to get the engine up and running. I tried to pay them, and they wouldn’t accept. However, they did enjoy the Tona’s. My jeep allowed me to meet so many people and my experience would not have been as diverse and fulfilling without it.
My time in Nicaragua changed me forever. For some reason I developed a strong connection with the country and know it is something that will never go away. I was extremely touched by the overall generosity of Nicaraguans, especially considering their daily hardships and poverty. I believe they truly understand what is important in life and to be content with what you have. (Thank God the UK Sunday Times was nice enough to write a more positive follow up story about my recent change of luck)
My scholarship ended and I came back home determined to figure out a way to stay connected to Nicaragua, and give back to a country that gave so much to me. What was I missing from Nicaragua? Then it hit me, sort of. I left Nicaragua in the best shape of my life. Aside from spending every weekend outside the city in the country, the amazing abundance of local fresh fruits and vegetables always made me feel great. My roommates and I were constantly going to the local fruit stand to load up for weekend trips and morning smoothies. We would frequently joke, “Imagine how much this would cost in New York City?” These fruit stands were stocked with all your basics from mangos, watermelons, bananas, to fruits I had never seen in my life like starfruit, cherimoya, lychee etc. I started researching all of them and then found one that stuck out among all the rest, literally.
Pitaya, a bright pinkish-purply fruit, born on a cactus under the stars of night, about the size of a softball is impossible to ignore from its looks alone. Cut it open and you will find a deep purple flesh with little edible seeds similar to what you would find in kiwi. Bite into it and experience a refreshing, but not too sweet taste that you have never had before. Ask anyone who has grown up around this fruit (Central America, Colombia, Mexico), and they will tell you their mothers gave it to, ahem, clean out their system. It is one of the best all natural digestive aids that mother nature can produce. The deep red coloring of the fruit means that it is loaded with antioxidants, and its seeds hold a lot of Omega-3s.
Ok, so now that I think I figured out what I wanted to bring to the US, I needed to figure out how, and why. Nobody else was doing this. I was also very excited about the possibility of opening the US market to these farmers. My experience working with entrepreneurs in Central America taught me that the only way to really have a large impact was to export their products to more developed economies. My belief is that many businesses in the area had limited growth because of lack of exposure to various markets. Their markets limited their growth. If I could successfully introduce Pitaya into the US market, I would have a greater impact on the livelihoods of the producers and farmers.
I found out there are a few reasons you don’t find a lot of Pitaya in the US today. One of the main reasons is the fruit is on the USDA’s list of banned produce because of a harmless ant that lives on its vines. After personally speaking with a lot of the farmers they told me the big fruit companies in the US would often talk of exporting a
concentrate, but all eventually backed out because they lack of interest in niche market fruits. Fresh Pitaya fruit can be found occasionally in grocery stores in the US. These fruits are coming from very small farms in Southern California and Florida and often carry a hefty price tag. The US lacks the tropical climate necessary for large-scale commercial production of Pitaya. There are other varieties of Pitaya fruit that have come from Asia. However most of these have a white flesh in the middle and lack the taste and nutrient qualities of Nicaraguan Pitaya.
I was now obsessed with the idea of bringing Pitaya fruit to the US. My only option was to bring it in as a juice. I began calling bottling companies down in Nicaragua, and found one that I thought would be ideal. I set up a meeting with the owner to see how I could get it done. Although the bottler in Nicaragua had a sophisticated production facility, their packaging design options were limited. I then realized my only option was to produce a frozen concentrate of fruit and bottle the juice in the US. My problem was to get someone to produce the concentrate for me.
I explained my project to an organization in Nicaragua called ProNicaragua. They assist people like me make contacts in order to help increase foreign investment in Nicaragua. In addition to introducing me to the main Pitaya farmers in Nicaragua, they also introduced me to an American named Will, who had been working in Nicaragua for 4 years. Will had invested an enormous amount of time and energy building one of the only solar-powered production facilities in Central America. Will used this facility to produce dried organic fruits such as, mangoes, etc. He works very closely with farmers to help get them organically certified. He markets this fruit in the US under the brand Sol-Simple.
In addition to creating an environmentally responsible facility, Will only hires single mothers from the community to achieve a positive impact in the community and help the local economy. It is very difficult for women to find work in Nicaragua and by supporting this demographic it has a direct impact on their children and the community.
My first meeting with Will was only supposed to be 30 minutes, but we ended up clearing off our afternoon schedules. I knew within the first 2 minutes of meeting Will that together we could do great things. The wheels were in motion to add a frozen concentrate production to the facility.
I returned from Nicaragua energized and excited about the project. I dedicated months to finishing my business plan, and talking about my idea to anyone who would listen. I knew I needed some help and opinions to complete my business plan. I pitched my idea to Columbia Business School in NYC, and they loved the socially responsible nature of my project and agreed to participate. I now had a team of 4 MBA students to help assist me with my research, and fine-tune the financials. I knew that my brand image and design would be key to the success of the project. I had met with a few top design and brand strategy firms, but was disappointed with their lack of interest and authenticity, not to mention their astronomical price tags. Based on the success I had with working with the MBA students, I started looking at design schools in New York City.
I didn’t have to look very far. The Fashion Institute of Technology has one of the best package and design schools in the country. I began writing e-mails about my project, hoping to meet the chairwoman of the department. I was so excited when they agreed to meet with me. Halfway through the meeting, the department chair said that it usually takes some time for their department to agree to work with someone like me, but they told me that they were definitely interested. I had no funding yet, but much to my astonishment, they accepted my project. They had refused proposals from Fortune 500 companies. I couldn’t believe my good luck.
A few weeks later I found myself in the front of the classroom explaining my project to the students, and what I wanted communicated from my brand. I really enjoyed working with all of the students, and was so impressed by their extraordinary talent and work ethic. I set up a contest for the best design, and the hardest part was choosing the winner. The winner was chosen after a few weeks and her design is what I will use going forward.
Everything seemed to be falling into place. I had my MBAs tightening up my business plan, and brand strategy from my design students. The one important thing that I was lacking was money. I had funded everything on my own up to this point, but really needed an investor to believe in me and help me make my project a reality. Although I was constantly making progress, I couldn’t help wondering where I would receive the funding? I am very fortunate to have received enough funding to help get me to the next level from one key investor, who had been aware of my plan from the very beginning. It is an amazing feeling when you realize you get to roll the dice on your dreams, and there is at least one person on earth who believes in you.
I know that was a long answer to a simple question, but I thought it was important to mention a few of the people who helped me get to this point. I couldn’t be more excited about what lies ahead. My only goal is to help bring Pitaya to the US, while helping everyone involved along the way.