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Social Entrepreneur

290 EpisodesProduced by Tony Loyd: Business executive and mentor to social entrepreneursWebsite

Social Entrepreneur exists at the intersection of profit and purpose. We tell positive stories from underrepresented voices, focused on solutions.

26:12

Fueled by Prize Money, These Social Entrepreneurs Are Striking at the Root of Poverty, with Leeore Levinstein and Jesse Abelson, Vetiver Solutions

Vetiver Solutions is a for-profit social business that is alleviating poverty and malnutrition for subsistence farmers in Haiti.

Haiti is the poorest country in the northern hemisphere. 2.5 million Haitians live in extreme poverty. Two out of three live on less than $2 per day. 100,000 Haitian children are acutely malnourished.

Jesse Abelson first started traveling to Haiti in 2013 as an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) with Project Medishare. Between 2013 and 2016, he traveled there five times. “After seeing countless deaths due to poverty and malnutrition, I decided that I wanted to work to tackle the problem at the root,” Jesse explains. “There is only so much I can do in Haiti in a week, working as an EMT. I suspected that I would have to wait until after medical school to make an impact.”

Jesse met Leeore Levinstein when they were both freshmen at the University of Minnesota. In 2015, Leeore signed up for a series of courses called the Grand Challenge Course. After her initial class, she tried to convince Jesse to join her. “I was messaging him, for weeks, trying to convince him to take this course called ‘Seeking Solutions to Global Health Issues.’”

“I was a little hesitant at first,” Jesse confesses. “I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. It didn’t count towards my major, so I was hesitant to do that.” Jesse eventually agreed, and they enrolled in the course in the fall of 2016.

Because of Jesse’s experience in Haiti, Jesse and Leeore wanted to focus their efforts there. However, the course was focused on solutions for Kenya or Uganda. “We wanted to convince our instructors that we should do a project in Haiti,” Leeore explains. “So, the two of us sat in his parent’s dining room, bouncing ideas off one another. I didn’t have a super-strong background in Haiti,” Leeore admits. “So, I’m reading the Wikipedia page while we’re talking. I get to this line that set off a lightbulb for me. It said, ‘Haiti is the world’s largest exporter of vetiver.’ In my mind, I thought, how is Haiti the world’s largest exporter of anything? And, what is vetiver?”

She right-clicked the link to vetiver. “It turns out that vetiver is this magic grass,” Leeore says. “It has this incredible root system that prevents erosion. It can filter soil. It acts as a pesticide. It turns out that Haiti was exporting the roots of vetiver. From the roots, you can extract essential oil. Imagine pulling up 15 feet of roots. It just turns up the soil.”

After further research, Jesse and Leeore were able to convince their professors to let them work on a project for Haiti.

During the class, Jesse connected with his contacts in Haiti, asking questions and conducting research. He also traveled to Haiti during his winter break to once again volunteer with Project Medishare. While there, he was able to conduct research, focusing on the impact of vetiver.

Using Award Money to Prove Their Solution

By the spring of 2017, the team had conducted enough research to present their business plan that used vetiver. However, instead of using the roots of the plants, they found a use for the shoots of the plants, which is currently a waste product. They process the plant shoots into a fiber, which is spun into yarn. Their solution has both a short-term and long-term impact. They provide revenue to subsistence farmers in the short term and prevent soil erosion in the long term.

They presented their solution at the Acara Challenge, a pitch competition for students with ideas for financially sustainable social ventures that address social and environmental challenges. They took home the silver prize, which came with a small cash stipend.

Leeore remembers, “To me, until we got our funding from Acara, it felt to me very…on paper. I remember when we were awarded the prize. Jesse and I just looked at each other. All of a sudden, this moment of realization just fell over us. Oh! Goodness! This is a thing now. We’re actually doing this,” she laughs.

Suddenly the team went from testing concepts in a garage in Minnesota to sending team members to work on the ground in Haiti. Leeore describes the moment. “It was sitting down and saying; we have team members going to a foreign country, where we don’t know anything. There’s no running water or electricity. So, first of all, how do we ensure their safety? It became very concrete. Until we went, we didn’t even know if this whole process was going to work.”

The team used the Acara prize money to travel to Haiti. “We had enough money to get there. We didn’t have enough to do much work while we were there,” Jesse explains.

With this initial blush of success, the Vetiver Solutions team put together a GoFundMe fundraising page and sent funding requests to friends and family.

By the summer of 2017, they had their proof of concept. They began recruiting team members to work in product development and marketing. “It wasn’t until after the summer that we sat around the table with five people, with passion, and knowledge, and skills. We were finally creating a team that could do this,” Leeore says. But they still needed funding to continue their business.

In the spring of 2018, the Vetiver Solutions Team participated in the e-Fest pitch competition, sponsored by the University of St. Thomas, Schulze School of Entrepreneurship. The competition started with an online application. Vetiver Solutions was selected as one of 25 teams to come to the school and compete with a series of presentations. The first pitch was 90 seconds. The next round was 15 minutes, followed by 10 minutes of questions. The team won fourth place overall, and they won the social impact award. Altogether, Vetiver Solutions was awarded $25,000 in prize money.

Start from Scratch

“This has never been done before,” says Jesse. “We had to start from scratch and try to process vetiver down to fibers, which we successfully did. We hand-spun it into yarn, but we quickly realized, with my lack of spinning skills,” Jesse laughs, “that’s not something that can really be sold.”

Vetiver Solutions is harvesting and cleaning the vetiver fiber by hand in Haiti. According to Jesse, “We’re working closely with a village that does not have running water or electricity. Everything we do there is completely by hand. We process it all using fire, water, and an input chemical. Then we have the fibers that are ready to use.”

“The really cool thing about vetiver,” Jesse describes, “is that you can blend it with other fibers. We blended it with cotton, and it gave this nice soft material that you can make clothing out of. We were also able to blend it with banana fibers. It gave it a tougher feel. So, it’s pretty versatile.”

“We work closely with the Weavers Guild of Minnesota,” Jesse explains. “We were able to show them this product, and they gave us some feedback and tips.”

Vetiver Solutions is hoping to have their first commercially viable yarn this fall. Jesse explains what is next. “We have to get the fiber; we have to clean the fiber and send the fibers out to a spinning mill.”

Social Entrepreneur Quotes by Leeore Levinstein and Jesse Abelson

“Because it’s a product that’s never been in the market before, we’re expecting a little difficulty.” Jesse Abelson, @Vetiver_Inc

“Everything we kept researching, kept bringing us back to vetiver.” Leeore Levinstein, @Vetiver_Inc

“I decided that I wanted to work to tackle the problem at the root.” Jesse Abelson, @Vetiver_Inc

“I had been looking for years for a way to make a bigger impact.” Jesse Abelson, @Vetiver_Inc

“I have a background in genetics. Genetics isn’t going to help me make yarn.” Leeore Levinstein, @Vetiver_Inc

“If you decide the sky’s the limit, you’ll make it to the sky. If you decide the limit is further, you’ll make it there too.” Leeore Levinstein, @Vetiver_Inc

“It’s so cool that you can use entrepreneurship as a means to do good.” Leeore Levinstein, @Vetiver_Inc  

“Two years ago, I never would have thought that I would start a company in Haiti that is working to decrease poverty and malnutrition.” Jesse Abelson, @Vetiver_Inc

“Vetiver is this magic grass.” Leeore Levinstein, @Vetiver_Inc

“We have our proof of concept. We know that this is going to work.” Leeore Levinstein, @Vetiver_Inc

“We kept backtracking down to the ground.” Leeore Levinstein, @Vetiver_Inc

“We were a bunch of students who were interested in science.” Leeore Levinstein, @Vetiver_Inc

“We’re not going to get anything done if we just sit here and talk about it.” Jesse Abelson, @Vetiver_Inc

“We’re not just playing around anymore in our garage.” Leeore Levinstein, @Vetiver_Inc

“Whatever you do, whatever you’re passionate about, just start.” Jesse Abelson, @Vetiver_Inc

“You set your own limits.” Leeore Levinstein, @Vetiver_Inc

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