Rafael Goldberg and Interrupcion
Rafael Goldberg was a Politics and Philosophy major at New York University. When he heard about a new social movement in Argentina, “Interrupcion”, he decided he needed to go and learn about it in person. What he found was an interdisciplinary group of young people looking for creative new ways of living sustainably and doing business imbued with social change. Goldberg bought a Business for Dummies book and tapped into the energy and infrastructure of the movement to start importing a line of sustainable, fair-trade goods to the North American market.
Where did Interrupcion come from?
Interrupcion is an organization that started in Argentina in 2000. We were basically young people from all walks of life that started coming together for events and meetings and parties that were about a new way of doing old things. The idea of that initial group of people was that in the modern world we have a peculiar system, where we have two tracks: non-profit work and for-profit work. The for-profit world is really the world that has the power and that changes our world, but they don’t necessarily have any of the values that we hold dear. Their job is to make profit and they don’t have to be concerned with other things. On the other hand is the non-profit world, where we have all of the values that we hold dear, but we don’t seem to have a lot of the power that actually changes the world. Interrupcion was this idea of interrupting to start anew, to pause and and re-imagine the way that the world could work. The main idea is to integrate the value of the not-for-profits and the power of for-profits and to create business models that satisfy both priorities – economically viable and value-rich – maintaining the positive social and environmental impact that we all wanted to see.
What’s the road like from young think tank taking place at parties to an actual real business model?
It was an extremely broad vision at first. We were doing everything from working with small and medium sized farmers, to developing our first sets of fair trade and environmentally efficient food products; we were working in corporate social responsibility consulting, on school programs for youth education and participation, on media to educate people in society about how to make a better world by participating. Over the years, through a lot of experimentation and trial and error and successful development work, we have now focused more on the things that work and on the models that we have found create the most potential for social environmental impact, commercial viability, and consumer appeal. All of the tools and values that we began with are all still there but they have really been integrated into our main operation which is to work with small and medium sized producers of agricultural commodities and food products and to create socially responsible fair trade supply chains from the seeds all the way to the consumers.
Who was there to provide the business mentorship as you tried to create a feasible, sustainable plan of action?
A lot of us in the organization have business backgrounds. There are all sorts of ways that we were able to create this institution and the business angle – some by bringing people in that have the know-how, some by studying and learning ourselves. For myself, not having a business background, I got my MBA by importing products and trying to market and sell them and learning how to conduct business. Starting with zero know-how I developed a very good grasp of what it takes to succeed in business.
Sounds like a total practical crash course.
Total. Practical. Crash. Course.
In that crash course were there some serious crashes?
Sure. My first business plan idea – we had a micro-enterprise in Argentina that was working with disadvantaged women in a neighborhood that is very deprived and poor. We developed this micro-enterprise with them where we would buy the inputs for candles such as wax and molds and we would teach this group of women how to run and operate this business. Then they would sell to Interrupcion and we would bring those products up to the States and sell them in the market. The idea was to generate a sustainable business that could be supporting this new cooperative and generating a virtuous supply chain.
So I imported a load of candles and the plan was to sell them at street fairs throughout New York during the summertime and that idea turned out to be not really feasible. People don’t really buy candles in the summertime. And they wanted scented candles! We are very environmentally concerned, but the wax that we used was made of paraffin and it wasn’t soy wax, so that didn’t work for the environmental people. Needless to say it was very hard to sell those first candles, and I learned a lot in that first experience. Our main work now is in perishable commodities, fresh fruits. There can be some very serious crashes when you deal with those kinds of items. So those learnings were: you lose money, to some degree you lose time, but now I realize that any investment of your time, if it’s done properly and in the right way, is really a great opportunity for learning.
What kind of team have you tried to create and what’s the dynamic in the working environment?
Our team is quite diverse. We operate three companies that work in ten different countries. We have a not-for-profit that works for development and social environmental quality of producers in Latin America and globally. Another company that we have in Buenos Aires is a logistics company which manages our supplies from farm to the port where fruit is packed and shipped. And then our company based in Brooklyn – we have a small team, but one that is laser focused and proficient in marketing products and educating consumers about the benefits of fair trade purchases and the power of their purchases in the ethical supply chain. We’ve developed a culture of great inclusion and great excitement. The primary thing is our culture of re-evolution – the idea that there is a better world out there and that we’re a part of it and that every package that we all participate in creating is really making the world a better place from the seed to the consumers.
Are there tangible ways you’ve tried to create that culture in the work team? Certain mechanisms for creation and innovation?
I wouldn’t say that there are mechanisms. Perhaps because I don’t have a business degree, I don’t have terms for it. I think that from a leadership perspective, instilling the right kind of culture, finding the right kind of people, and making sure that we are always fluid and making sure that we understand that there are multiple barometers to our success: economic, social, environmental. That is the way that we have been able to keep ourselves fresh and keep ourselves true to our values and to keep our culture a really sacred part of what we do.
What advice would you give to aspiring social entrepreneurs?
Start doing something. Evaluate as best you can what you think will work and to do it. Create it. If you have a project that you’re dying to do that’s going to impact a certain group of people, go meet those people, learn about those people, make sure that you’re active. This world of social entrepreneurship is very fun in terms of its romanticism, but it doesn’t exist on paper, it really exists in reality. The rubber hits the road in a social enterprise when you really start creating something. I would say that the sooner that we can get our hands dirty as social entrepreneurs, the better. You will learn so much just by trying to do something new.
The number one reason that I think that we at Interrupcion have been successful over many years is persistence. This is a difficult road. Anything worth doing is not easy, otherwise it would have been done. So when we’re trying, as social entrepreneurs, to really solve social problems through productive business models, we have to realize right off the bat that these are difficult, tricky things, and we must be persistent in our values and determination to create real business success. Persistence, persistence, persistence. That’s why we’re here.