News Deeply, in partnership with Sustainable Brands, has produced a series of profiles looking at how brands are tackling some of the world's biggest challenges. The goal is to examine trends and gather insights from a new wave of corporate citizenship – in an era when the private sector is increasingly expected to play a positive role in improving our lives and societies. This is the 3rd article in the series.
Whitney Mayer is manager for social innovation at the Hershey Company, the largest chocolate manufacturer in North America. She currently manages the Nourishing Minds platform, which uses Hershey's expertise in food processing and production to provide basic nutrition to children. We caught up with Mayer at SB'16 San Diego in June to learn more about the initiative and its impacts.
News Deeply: Can you start by telling us a bit about Hershey's new social purpose program, Nourishing Minds?
Whitney Mayer: Hershey's been supporting underserved children through education for over 100 years. Our founder created the Milton Hershey School, which provides education for over 2,000 at-risk kids in the United States. But we're not an education company, we are a food company – so about two years ago, our CEO challenged us to look at how we could better align our expertise as a business while building on this legacy of education.
There's a strong connection between education and nutrition – kids who are hungry can't focus in the classroom, and it impacts their cognitive development. So we came to this idea that we could do something about malnutrition for kids, and we launched Nourishing Minds in October of last year.
News Deeply: How does the program work, and how are you scaling it?
Mayer: It really is a new initiative, and we've set a big goal of nourishing 1 million minds by 2020. The programming looks different in all the countries where we work and do business. We began our work in Ghana, with a program called Energize Learning. For us, Nourishing Minds is about going beyond philanthropy, and thinking about how we can use the skills and assets of the business to make a difference – that could be anything from skills-based volunteering to commercial models. In this case, we have developed a nutritional supplement that we provide to 50,000 kids a day, in partnership with the Ghana School Feeding Program and Project Peanut Butter.
Our engineers built the manufacturing facility, our food scientists formulated the product and our suppliers are helping establish a distribution network to transport the product. That's one example of how we're nourishing minds in Ghana, and then we have other programs that we're just starting in different countries.
News Deeply: What have you learned so far from the implementation?
Mayer: A lot! In terms of the technical aspects – the challenge of building a manufacturing facility – we wanted it to be state-of-the-art, which is challenging because it's located in a resource-poor area. We had to troubleshoot when the power went out, for example, and we had to adapt the voltage for equipment that didn't match local standards.
I think there is also the trust and relationship building. For example, making sure that we had the Ghana School Feeding Program as a partner was really critical. We wanted this to be something that was needed, that the schools felt would be useful, that teachers and parents and children bought into. So we did a lot of training to help prepare for the launch of the program and make sure that we understood all of the questions and concerns before we began distributing the product.
News Deeply: What are some of the biggest challenges of launching a whole new initiative in that respect?
Mayer: I think there are a couple of challenges that are unique to Hershey. One, the legacy of the Milton Hershey School is so strong, and that's something that we're obviously very committed to. The school is a shareholder in our company, so we will continue to support that just by existing – but it also was an education for our employees to get this concept that we did need to do more, that we're a global company now, that we need to evolve this wonderful legacy in a way that's more relevant to how we could use our expertise as a business.
I think there's also an education around why Hershey is focusing on nutrition, and what specific expertise we have to bring to the table. Given that many people know us in the U.S. for our chocolate and confection products, they may not realize that we have other products that are better for you. We are a food company with world-class expertise in food production, processing and nutrition.
News Deeply: So the core business supports Nourishing Minds. How, then, does Nourishing Minds support the core business? What's the fusion of profit and purpose?
Mayer: Through a 30-year time horizon, one way that this supports our core business is the professional development of our employees. West Africa, for us, is a sourcing country – but it's also potentially a future commercial market for us. So this gives us the opportunity to be on the ground, understanding the local customs, culture, regulations, how to launch a product in that environment, and then also the tastes, palates and profiles. That's really great experience for us to have, both from a professional development and a market entry perspective.
News Deeply: Where will Nourishing Minds go next?
Mayer: We have a partnership in the United States with Feeding America, which is focused on their child hunger programs. They have more of a traditional philanthropic model, but one that we think allows our employees and sales organization to get involved.
Aside from that, our big focus right now is China. We have a large manufacturing base in Henan Province and we started Phase 1 of our program – rehabilitating kitchens and providing a nutritional curriculum for students in rural China, who often suffer from anemia. Now we're looking at a partnership with a university to understand the potential impact that we could have with our expertise in food to improve and create better opportunities for the school feeding program.
News Deeply: How do you choose where to go next?
Mayer: It's really about our business plan – we've been specific in the emerging markets that we're focused on from a growth perspective. Right now, China is top of mind for many companies, including Hershey. It's a logical place for us to be making sure that we're being a good citizen and also thinking about how purpose can drive our business.
News Deeply: Any other thoughts about the Nourishing Minds program or about sustainability and social impact at Hershey that you'd want to share?
Mayer: For us, Nourishing Minds is just the first step in this conversation that's grounded in what it means to go beyond traditional supply chain sustainability. Consumers expect transparency in your supply chain and responsibly sourced ingredients, and we maintain those commitments at Hershey. Now we're asking ourselves, through the window of Nourishing Minds: What does it mean to go beyond philanthropy? How does a company like ours intersect with conversations around social enterprise, social entrepreneurs, skill-based volunteering and current investing models?
As we think about building the middle class, and reducing poverty around the world, I think this is an important conversation for companies to be involved in.
News Deeply: Hershey is a major player in the global cocoa industry as a buyer of cocoa. How are you working to make your cocoa sourcing and production more sustainable?
Mayer: I think one of the more exciting new initiatives that we're involved in is an industry collaboration called Cocoa Action. This was started in 2014 by the World Cocoa Foundation, in partnership with leading chocolate manufacturers like Hershey, as well as suppliers and producing countries. All of us individually have our own sustainability programs – whether that be certification or investing directly in communities – but Cocoa Action brings the industry together in an unprecedented way
I think we all recognize that there's been a lot of great investments in the cocoa supply chain. We have shared metrics on both the productivity and community development side, and a robust framework for aligning our programming. Within the Cocoa Action framework, the goal is to reach 300,000 farmers so it gives us better scale. There's also this collective impact model of working more closely together to have greater impact.
News Deeply: What advice would you give other companies that are looking to create a virtuous cycle between profit and purpose?
Mayer: Find something you're passionate about. I think for us, one of the keys to Nourishing Minds is that employees are so engaged. We often need resources from our R&D group, we need food scientists, we need engineers, we need sales folks and marketers. When you're asking for time, it can be difficult for people to see the value in it. But this is an issue that people are so passionate about, and they feel that they, themselves, as individuals, can use their own experiences and skill sets to make a difference. That goes a really long way.