Mixing passion and purpose

Social entrepreneur Marta del Rio Villanueva MBA’91D is creating healthy food while helping Andean farmers rise out of poverty

Marta del Rio Villanueva (on the left) and a farmer

For 20 years, Marta del Rio Villanueva MBA’91D dedicated herself to building brands like Mars, Procter & Gamble, L’Oreal, Burger King and American Express. Then the urge to build her own business—one that made a difference in the world—grew too large to ignore.

“After many years of corporate life and taking sabbaticals to do pro bono work, I started to question what kind of impact I was making as a person,” del Rio says. “I was sure there had to be a way to build a business that could turn a profit and make a positive impact at the same time.”

She decided to take her marketing and management experience back to her home country of Peru and use it to start a social enterprise. The eldest daughter of a hard-working businessman and a dedicated charity worker, del Rio felt that mixing the two fields was in her genes. But finding the right business to start took time.

“I was sure there had to be a way to build a business that could turn a profit and make a positive impact at the same time.”

Why Peru
“The concept of social enterprise was new in Peru,” she remembers. “I started thinking about the things I love, and I love food. So, I thought, How can I make an impact in the food sector, anywhere in the world, but particularly in Peru?”

With that kernel of an idea, del Rio started thinking about the crops grown in Peru that produce “superfoods” high in antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and amino acids, such as Maca, quinoa, cacao, yacon, purple corn and limo chili. Creating healthy food options while helping struggling Andean rural farmers felt like the perfect fit.

But it wasn’t until del Rio met fellow alumna Gianina Gandullia MBA01D at an INSEAD alumni gathering that all the pieces fell into place. They quickly realised they shared the same concerns about food and life. When del Rio talked about her idea for a sustainable food business, Gandullia was happy to jump on board.

The Result of Partnership
Today, the two are co-founders of Wasi Organics, a producer of healthy organic snacks sourced directly from small Andean farmers’ associations. The “not-just-for-profit” company’s goal is to make it easy for people to have healthier lifestyles without compromising flavour and to help small Andean farmers have better lives—all while protecting the environment by promoting sustainable organic agriculture.

del Rio believes it is essential for companies to have a soul. She and Gandullia are committed to advancing business as a force for good in the world—by starting locally.

“We buy directly from small farmers’ associations and provide them with technical assistance to improve productivity and the quality of their crops,” she explains. “In Peru, most of the rural population lives in poverty, and the majority of them are small Andean farmers. When you see the conditions under which they live, you understand the importance of working with farmers and helping them to have a decent life.”

A Force for Good
Wasi works with 500 families and has set a goal to reach 10,000 by 2023. But finding the farmers’ associations they want to work with is often challenging. Hiking around the Peruvian mountains, del Rio sometimes feels like a mix of Robin Hood and Indiana Jones. “When we visit, they’re so happy because we help them with technical assistance, so they see improvements in their lives,” she says. “We have a commitment that when they make a little more money, they must invest in education and nutrition to be part of the programme.”

Marta del Rio recently won the We Empower UN SDG Challenge for Women Entrepreneurs, a global business competition for women entrepreneurs “advancing the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals and inspiring entire communities to create the world we want by 2030.” Marta is the Latin American and Caribbean Region winner, one of the five UN regions. She participated in sessions at the UN HQ in New York, and a series of SDG’s related events at the UN National Assembly week in New York this September.

“I’m passionate about sustainability and women’s empowerment, so it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to talk and listen to so many people in that space,” she says. “My work as a social entrepreneur is not complete unless I have a voice.”

She credits INSEAD with helping her see the world from different perspectives and discovering that her desire to create positive change is shared by many. “I realised that I was not an outlier. I always wanted to challenge the status quo, but at INSEAD there were many others like me,” she says. “I hope we will inspire others to do the same, so we get the world that we really want. But it starts with us.”

“I hope we will inspire others to do the same, so we get the world that we really want. But it starts with us.”

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