FAYETTEVILLE -- The University of Arkansas Business Integrity Leadership Initiative encourages students at all levels to incorporate ethics and integrity into their work.
But for the fall 2021 semester, the Sam M. Walton College of Business MBA Class of 2022 received a new challenge: "Do something good."
Each team -- there were 10 teams total, each comprising four or five students -- used $1,000 in seed money to create a business project. They presented their projects to a panel of judges made up of Walton MBA alumni, faculty and corporate leaders.
One group picked coffee.
With Haitian coffee exports decreasing significantly over the past 30 years, Samuel Skeirik, Peyton Boxberger, Cornelia Swardh, Anna Snodgrass and consultant Bridgett Skeirik -- Samuel's wife, who previously worked as a missionary in Haiti and understands the Haitian language and culture -- worked with Avanti Coffee Co., a direct trade coffee company in Haiti, to source their beans. Montay Coffee partnered with Fayetteville's Basecamp Coffee Company, which uses Montay beans for its guest roast and sells the beans to customers. The beans are also available at roughly a dozen Walmart stores in Northwest Arkansas.
Since starting the company, Montay Coffee has had a return on investment of over 10% and about a $10,000 economic impact, with a potential future impact for Haiti's coffee industry in the millions, according to the university. Montay's operation is intentionally lean, in order to maximize profits for Haitian farmers and the Haitian economy.
The judges in the student competition declared Montay Coffee the winner, earning the group another $1,000.
At the mention of coffee, "I was in," Swardh said.
"I'm an avid coffee drinker," but the idea of aiding Haiti and Haitians was also attractive to Swardh, she said. "I really care about the impact businesses have -- what their values are -- and it's important to me a business has a [positive] effect on people."
Swardh, a native of Sweden who moved to the U.S. at age 2, especially enjoyed the taste-testing process. Being a featured guest roaster at Basecamp helped build the brand, particularly with the decorations -- including Haitian art provided by Bridgett -- that accompanied the coffee at Basecamp.
'A UNICORN' RIGHT AWAY
"We didn't expect a 'unicorn' in the first" year of this "do something good" initiative, which debuted last fall, but Montay Coffee's triumph is "truly sensational," said Cindy Moehring, founder and executive chair of the Business Integrity Leadership Initiative at UA-Fayetteville.
"They had the connection to the Haitian culture, which accelerated their idea, they were very quickly able to pivot from an idea to an executed model, and" they took advantage of "the sound advice" from business mentors provided to each team.
They also listened to tips from seasoned business professionals, who they were able to connect with due to the assistance of professors and administrators -- including Dean Matthew Waller -- in the Walton College of Business, she said. "Asking for help is the first step."
They've even benefited from mentors at Westrock Coffee Co. -- including co-founder and CEO Scott Ford -- who invited them to their headquarters in Little Rock for more strategy discussions.
"We look up to them and their business model," as Westrock Coffee has lifted the coffee business in Rwanda in much the same way the Montay Coffee team hopes to in Haiti, said Swardh, who has both her undergraduate degree and MBA from UA-Fayetteville. "It's great for our future" to develop a relationship with Ford and Westrock.
WALMART JUMPS IN
Walmart came to the team, rather than Montay Coffee pitching Walmart, said Adam Stoverink, director of MBA programs at Walton College. "It was picked up largely through our social media."
"The Walmart deal fell in our laps," as Walmart is trying to stock more local products in areas like coffee and beer, and "when Walmart knocks on your door, you don't say 'No' to that," Swardh said. Though accepting that deal meant plenty of work to scale the business up, "we all said, 'Let's just do it.'"
Walmart "realized a lot of people want to buy local," Bridgett said. It was "a short amount of time [for us] to go from startup project to a full-blown company," but passion pulled them though, and their coffee was soon on the shelves.
'A VIRTUOUS CYCLE'
Bridgett Skeirik first went to Haiti as a missionary and developed a love for Haitians by hearing their stories, she said. In fact, the long-term goal of Bridgett and Samuel is to move to Haiti and make Montay Coffee their full-time business.
"We want to help the young dreamers in Haiti make their dreams happen," she said. "Ultimately, we can't do it all as outsiders -- change has to come from the Haitian people -- but we can help."
Currently, Montay Coffee has had to "diversify" by importing coffee beans from the Dominican Republic due to the political and social unrest in Haiti, she said. However, the farm in the Dominican they partner with employs Haitians, and Haiti is "still our primary" supplier.
By establishing their coffee business in Haiti, more jobs are created, Haitians are able to provide for their families in a sustainable fashion, and "dignity returns," she said. "It's a virtuous cycle."
The Montay Coffee team hopes to encourage others to purchase Haiti's coffee beans, as well, like Westrock Coffee has done for Rwanda, she said. Haiti's coffee beans "are great quality."
'A VERY DRIVEN GROUP'
The Montay Coffee team succeeded in part simply because they were "a very driven group," Stoverink said. "You could see it in their eyes, that they just really wanted to do something to help people."
Montay Coffee remains available at Basecamp, the aforementioned Walmart locations, and -- soon -- can be ordered directly from montaycoffee.com, Swardh said. "We'd like to get into specialty grocery stores, like Whole Foods, next, to continue to scale up."
Though Montay Coffee is priced higher than some other coffee brands, "we think the quality -- and the difference it's making -- is worth it," Bridgett said. "We hope customers do, too."
While ethics has long been a cornerstone of instruction in the Walton College of Business, Stoverink was looking for a way to provide students with "hands-on, practical, experiential" learning in the ethics sphere, he said. Traditionally, business ethics has been taught through case studies, role-play and guest speakers, and "those are all fine, but they don't do what we're trying to teach [students] to do."
"You don't really learn anything until you do it yourself," Swardh seconded. Through this project, she's been able to "see the entire business, learn more about coffee, and create a brand" from scratch.
Moehring shared with Stoverink what Georgetown professor Jason Brennan has been doing -- to "great success" -- with his ethics project, and the two agreed it could be a felicitous fit at UA-Fayetteville, he said. While corporate social responsibility isn't a new concept, it's become a necessity, as "we need ethical leaders who understand business has the power to do good, and we want our graduates to know that."
"There's such a strong entrepreneurial [current] in Northwest Arkansas -- and at this college, in particular -- and we're very hands-on, practical, and experiential, because that's how students learn best," said Moehring. "We're approaching ethics in a whole different, proactive way: it's not only, 'Don't do bad stuff,' but 'go do good stuff.'"
The Montay Coffee team wasn't the only one to assist those in need through its business venture, Stoverink said. The group led by Farid Noori -- who is from Afghanistan -- sold a tea popular in his native country on-campus and off, with a portion of proceeds going to refugees from Afghanistan living in Northwest Arkansas, and Noori also educated customers about Afghanistan and the plight of its citizens.
Because the initial "do something good" initiative was so successful, Stoverink has brought it back again this fall with another group of MBA students, and Montay Coffee team members even visited his class to provide tips, he said. He budgeted 20 minutes for them, but they stayed an hour, "because students had so many questions and were so engaged."
The top advice from the Montay Coffee team to this year's cohort is "get out of the gates fast," as that was a critical reason for Montay Coffee's success, he said. "They really moved quickly, from the first day."
In addition to starting early, Swardh also advised this fall's cohort to choose a project they're genuinely passionate about, she said. "When you have that motivation, it really gets the ball rolling."
Not every team is as successful as Montay Coffee turned out to be, but that's not a problem, because "learning is the important outcome" in this project, Stoverink said. "Some of the best lessons in life are learning from failures."
Moehring and Stoverink would love to continue this project, and even expand it, but will need more funding, "which doesn't grow on trees," said the former. "If anyone is looking to contribute to a project like this, we'd love to talk to them."
'MAKING THE WORLD A BETTER PLACE'
In a recent Ipsos poll, 57% of American workers surveyed considered a workplace's values, purpose or contribution to society "very important," with another 29% saying it was "somewhat important." Only 3% said that wasn't "at all" important to them.
The best interests of shareholders remain paramount, but businesses can "do that by benefiting society, too," and consumers -- especially younger ones -- have demonstrated they will prioritize patronizing businesses that are socially responsible, Stoverink said. And more customers leads to more "value for shareholders in the long run."
It's easier than ever for an individual -- or individuals -- to hold businesses and business leaders accountable for unethical behavior due to social media and various other factors, so business "leadership is very different today than ever before," Moehring said. "We want [our students] to wrestle with those ethical questions, and then rise to the occasion."
In the "do something good" initiative, students are given "radical autonomy," Stoverink said. "They can do anything 'good,'" which may seem basic, but can actually lead to "making the world a better place."