Babson ‘action tank’ connects students with food industry leaders – The Boston Globe

WELLESLEY — Imagine that you are a graduate student with a passion to work in the food industry. Summer is coming and you try everything you can to get someone connected to your field of interest to hire you as an intern. To no avail.

That happened 4½ years ago to a Babson MBA student. Frustrated by her inability to find an internship in the food industry, Rachel Greenberger pursued an independent research project. Her faculty adviser was Cheryl Kiser, executive director of The Lewis Institute and Babson Social Innovation Lab. Their happy pairing came about from a common interest in sustainable food, supply chain management, and humane treatment of animals. Greenberger’s project evolved into Food Sol, founded in 2011, an “action tank” for food entrepreneurs based at the business school here, of which she is now director.

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Since they founded Food Sol (Sol is short for solutions and a play on the Spanish word for sun; the full name riffs on “soul food”), they have hosted four Food Days, eight Quick Service Incubators, and 110 Community Tables, bringing together students, entrepreneurs, chefs, and food industry leaders from around the country. Media personalities Andrew Zimmern and Gail Simmons are entrepreneurs-in-residence, holding regular office hours with students (sometimes by video hookup) and visiting campus for events. Several food-related businesses with some connection to the group have launched and many more are in the works.

Quick Service Incubators are held every few months. At these sessions, four food entrepreneurs present challenges they are facing to a general audience and guest experts, who then propose potential solutions.

Community Tables are held more frequently, on campus, at various locations around town, in Providence, and in New York, connecting students and entrepreneurs. Conversation at these sessions is freewheeling, driven by the attendees. The only time one was unsuccessful, Kiser notes, was when politics was introduced. One person, she recounts, “decided to stand up and have a point of view about GMOs [genetically modified organisms], and the whole aura in the room shifted.”

“All the regulars,” Greenberger adds, “were like, ‘This is not right.’ . . . Someone has just hijacked the design.”

The forum, says Kiser, “has a place for your values but it has very little place for adversarialism. If we want to change things, we have to get out of the political conversations.”

But the programs do generate other conversations, says Greenberger. “In a very natural way, attendees and people who want to start businesses are starting to connect dots between different activities, not just in the supply chain but the whole food industry.”

Linh Le, an MBA student from Vietnam, who is trying to set up distribution networks to connect suppliers in her native country to home goods, information technology, and food businesses in the United States, recently attended one of Gail Simmons’s office hours. “I actually didn’t expect much because Gail is a chef on a TV show,” says Le, who was pleasantly surprised to learn that the “Top Chef” judge has traveled to Vietnam and is knowledgeable about the country’s cuisine. Simmons introduced Le to an acquaintance in New York who imports Vietnamese fish sauce. And that woman introduced Le to associates in Vietnam. “The contacts they made helped me bring this project so much further,” says Le, who will return home for the summer to work.

“We have two populations to serve,” Greenberger explains. Babson students (graduate and undergraduate) are looking for real-world experience such as internships, consulting projects, and jobs. Entrepreneurs and food students at other schools in the area can benefit from exposure to the entrepreneurial method that is taught at Babson. “They help each other,” Greenberger says. “We don’t draw the line.”

In early spring, the crowd at a Quick Service Incubator in Cambridge included Babson students and alumni, business owners, would-be entrepreneurs, and others in the food industry. Gisela Macedo, a Babson MBA student from Brazil, is starting a company based on her grandmother’s recipes for the Brazilian candy brigadeiros, and was looking for advice on how and where to sell her sweets. Suggestions ranged from opening her own shop to improving her packaging to highlighting her grandmother’s connection to the product.

After the event Macedo wrote in an e-mail that she discovered that her personal story is charismatic. “Mak[ing] the product more personal will add value to it and I’ll definitely work on that.”

“The thing I love,” says Kiser, “and what we’re committed to from day one, is we believe that everybody’s needs would be better met in this community than by themselves. And I think that’s proven to be true.”

Andrea Pyenson can be reached at [email protected]