Taste of Success: Cookie Company Builds Capacity

Ingenuity, determination and a little bit of luck has marked Alicia Polak's trajectory from a business student to founder and CEO of a for-profit, community-enriching enterprise in South Africa, Khaya Cookie Company. Simply put, the company was founded to "create opportunity one bite at a time," teaching the skill of baking gourmet cookies while providing gainful employment to the impoverished residents.

While pursuing a MPH/MBA at New York University, Alicia's dream of holding a leadership position at an international aid organization prompted her to pursue an internship at the UN. There she worked with Gay Rosenblum-Kumar, who specialized in conflict resolution and had helped prepare South Africa for its first democratic election. Her exposure to South Africa intrigued and excited Alicia to create and enroll in an exchange program with University of Cape Town, where she interned at Freeplay Foundation. Working on the issues while traveling within the country exposed and endeared her to the people, and to the dark history of South Africa, a country she began to call her own. After working for an investment bank in New York and a year as an employee of Freeplay Foundation, she was ready to start something new.

In 2004, inspired by the mission of Ben & Jerry's ice cream company to create and redistribute wealth, she founded Khaya Cookie Company in the town of Khayelitsha, with one Xhosa-speaking worker and a single recipe for chocolate chip cookies. In two years, the company grew to employ 10 workers and as a successful supplier of gourmet cookies to high-end establishments throughout South Africa. The cookies are made using unique South African ingredients such as rooibos extract with recipes for a variety of fruit flavors. In keeping with her community-building mission, the company was sold to the locals in 2005 and Alicia stayed on as the CEO. In 2006, working with the Wharton Societal Wealth Program, a University of Pennsylvania business school initiative, she founded the US-based Khaya Cookie Company, and has focused her efforts on setting up the US distribution center and expanding marketing efforts.

Today Khaya Cookie Company employs over 500 South Africans (95 percent of whom are women), is a major supplier within South Africa and is sold worldwide through its website and the gourmet retailer Zingerman's. In 2007, it was recognized by the Food Network as the Edible Entrepreneur of the Year. But the company does not measure its successes through commercial profits alone. One of its more tangible successes' is the positive changes it has brought to the lives of its employees. One way they have enpowered lives has been through the comprehensive life skills training that its production facility offers every employee.

Vanesca, a 25-year-old single mother solely responsible for her daughter and disabled mother, joined the team with little prior experience. In addition to baking cookies, she enrolled in the first-aid course offered by the Life Skills Training Program, where she discovered her love for nursing.

In addition to the first aid course, the program teaches health and safety (including AIDS education), business skills including management training, and personal finances management; and the younger staff members are strongly encouraged to pursue higher education. Andiswa, the youngest employee at the company, is now in her third year at university with Alicia's encouragement.

In the future, Alicia hopes to replicate a similar model- a for-profit business with a majority female workforce that offers education and life skills training in other developing countries and within impoverished regions of the US. But for now, she is focused on branding the Khaya Cookie Company.

Khaya Cookie Company

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