The Women’s Bakery

Peace Corps volunteer turned MBA builds East African bakeries

Markey Culver didn’t expect to make a walk of shame along the dirt road that cut through the rural Rwandan village of Bushog, especially for a salad. But that’s where she found herself nearly every school day around lunchtime. The village men lined the streets, sipping the local banana beer, urwagwa, and calling after her, “Muzungu!” meaning foreigner in Kinyarwanda. They wanted to know where she was going.

Markey Culver didn’t expect to make a walk of shame along the dirt road that cut through the rural Rwandan village of Bushog, especially for a salad. But that’s where she found herself nearly every school day around lunchtime. The village men lined the streets, sipping the local banana beer, urwagwa, and calling after her, “Muzungu!” meaning foreigner in Kinyarwanda. They wanted to know where she was going.

At first, she lied. She made up excuses for her midday excursion. But soon, she told the truth — she was making a meal. Lunch was taboo in a society where most people ate one meal a day. But by her second year as a Peace Corps volunteer, Culver was over it. She wanted a midday meal. So at noon, she made her way home from the school where she taught from 6:30 am to 5 pm every weekday and made a salad. “Avocados were literally falling off trees, and everyone has tomatoes, onions, and cabbage,” she pointed out. Fresh vegetables were plentiful, but cultural norms dictated that “real” food should be cooked, and fuel was expensive.

RAW FOOD AND A BRIGHT IDEA

The village men were intrigued by this lunch-eating foreigner and followed her home expecting a free meal. They watched as Culver made her salad. “They were disgusted,” she recalls. “They called it ‘raw.'” They couldn’t believe someone would eat uncooked greens. Days later, the village women dropped in too — they also dubbed the salad disgusting. Then, they asked her how to make it.

Culver started salad-making lessons for the women from her home. She was also working at a health center, so she figured she could use the cooking lessons to teach the village women about nutrition. At one of the sessions, the women spotted a loaf of freshly baked bread she’d left out to cool. They were intrigued that bread, a store-bought luxury from the city, could be made at home. They wanted to learn how to do it themselves. Culver added bi-weekly bread-making lessons to her regimen. Sometimes a handful of mothers and dozens of children would crowd into her home to observe the five-hour process of kneading the dough, watching it rise, kneading it again, and finally baking it. As soon as a loaf was cool enough to eat, mothers would break a piece off, test it, then pop some into their children’s mouths.

Watching the exchange, Culver had a light bulb moment: Why not build a bakery where she could teach the women to make their own bread and pack the recipe with nutrients to fortify children’s diets? “By building a bakery, you’re buying materials from this community and sparking this minor economy that’s self-generating,” she says. “It’s creating a product by that community for that community, so there were a lot of ancillary benefits by just building something simple, like a bakery, and employing a bunch of women.”

It was her first step toward starting a chain of women-owned bakeries in East Africa. The journey would take her from Rwanda to St. Louis in pursuit of an MBA at Washington University’s Olin Business School. “I realized, in a crude sense, that money was an answer — if there were a question about how to create access to opportunity, it would be by helping people earn an income,” she says. “And I discovered in the Peace Corps that it was done through business.”

Markey Culver pictured left at The Women's Bakery's most recent graduation ceremony in Kigali. Courtesy photo

Markey Culver pictured left at The Women’s Bakery’s most recent graduation ceremony in Kigali. Courtesy photo

A RELUCTANT FOUNDER

After finishing her Peace Corps stint in November 2012, Culver stuck around Rwanda to pilot her idea for the women-owned bakery. With her brother, David Culver, she wrote a business plan and opened the first iteration of The Women’s Bakery. Less than three months later, they had employed 12 Rwandan women and were churning out banana bread muffins packed with protein and vitamin A sourced from local ingredients.

But Culver still wasn’t sold on the idea of running her own business. “I built it, then thought I was done and going back to the U.S. to get a real job,” she laughs. An investor offered her capital to expand the bakery throughout East Africa at the time, and she turned them down.

“I was very afraid of what building a company would mean for me. There’s no road map — I don’t know what this is going to look like three years. I can’t predict the future. There’s a lot more safety and security with just a regular job with a boss, where you collect a paycheck,” she says.

But the business seemed to have a mind and momentum of its own. She spoke with Julie Greene, a former Peace Corps colleague, who’d served in a Rwandan village six hours away, and convinced her to come on board as a co-founder and East Africa program director. She also got funding — $275,000, to be exact. This time, she didn’t turn it down. Culver even convinced Natalie Hornsby, her investor, to be a co-founder and help shape the initial model.

“All of the things started to fall into place, so I could no longer sustain the pretense of coincidence. The last piece of the puzzle that needed to be in place for this to work was me. We might fail, but if that’s the only thing, that’s a terrible reason not to start. It sounds so courageous, but it’s something that I have to go back and continuously choose,” she says.

Culver finally started referring to herself as an entrepreneur four years after she set up the first bakery.

GOING FOR AN MBA

Now that she’d committed to the path, partnered with a co-founder, and secured investment, Culver realized she needed to build her business skills to really make this thing work.

She knew she had emotional intelligence and communication skills, but she lacked finance and accounting acumen and the theoretical building blocks of business. “I wanted the tool box to build something new and better,” she says. Her B-school shortlist boiled down to Stanford and Wash U. The former for its world-class social entrepreneurship program and renowned Design for Extreme Affordability course, run by Jim Patell. Culver readily identified with Patell’s work. “I’d created that model in Rwanda but without putting a name to it or knowing the principles behind it,” she says. Wash U. and St. Louis appealed for the exact opposite reason: The nascent social entrepreneurship community left room to make a mark. “It’s one thing to be immersed in a population that already exists, but it’s another thing to create that from scratch in a place that’s eager to harbor it,” Culver says.

She ultimately didn’t get into Stanford but shrugs it off. “There is this Renaissance happening in St. Louis; it’s centered on entrepreneurship and trying to cultivate an entrepreneurial ecosystem to attract and retain talent,” Culver believes. She found that Wash U. had made it a priority to position itself a thought leader for social enterprise in the Midwest and sensed an opportunity to make a real impact.

PRACTICAL BUSINESS ADVICE APPLIED IN REAL TIME

More from the most recent certificate ceremony. Courtesy photo

More from the most recent certificate ceremony. Courtesy photo

Culver enrolled at Olin in 2015. She may have come for the theory, but she’s been pleasantly surprised by the real-world applicability of her coursework. She hustled to get The Women’s Bakery accepted in the Center for Experiential Learning Practicum, a semester-long consulting project in which students work with real-world businesses. Fifty-four businesses applied for the practicum, and The Women’s Bakery was one of only 14 to be accepted. The bakery was also the program’s first social enterprise and organization owned by a current student. “The business school’s reception to that idea was phenomenal,” Culver says. She’s been working with five Olin students on issues facing The Women’s Bakery and took them all to Rwanda in March. The student consultants broke away from her during the course’s last quarter so they could provide impartial recommendations in their final report.

Beyond consulting advice, applying classroom concepts in real time has proved invaluable, Culver says. Business strategy with John Horn proved particularly instructive. “After building something from the ground up, I thought strategy would be an inherent strong suit,” Culver says. But she quickly found that there was much more to learn. “I have an inclination for it, but I can definitely hone it and make it applicable to what I’m doing it,” she says. As a member of Olin’s Net Impact Group, Culver also co-organized Washington University’s first ever Impact Investing Symposium, which brought in experts to speak on the benefits of mainstreaming impact financing; the event drew nearly 100 people, with the majority from the St. Louis area.

Still, running a business while in B-school isn’t exactly a cake walk. “It’s been good, but it’s been insane,” Culver says. “The program is quite rigorous.” She eschews the term balance, which “insinuates that you have to throw something off.” And instead refers to the juggling act as “harmonizing.” She goes to class in the morning and afternoon and runs her business at night.

BUILDING MORE THAN A BUSINESS

Culver quickly realized that women needed more than protein in their diets — they needed jobs and the skills to perform them well. She expanded on her original idea by creating a training program, where women could acquire the business skills necessary to start and run their own bakeries. Women who graduate the program receives a certificate of completion and preapproval for a loan to cover bakery startup costs from Atikus, a third-party microlender.

To date, The Women’s Bakery has trained 38 women and opened four bakeries — two in Rwanda and two in Tanzania — with another one in the works. Women can double their incomes through employment with the bakery. “Take a moment to imagine what you could do if you double your income,” Culver says. “It’s crazy.”

As for the nutritional impact? She’s still committed to that too. The bakeries collectively produce 2,100 protein-fortified muffins a week. Each muffin contains four grams of protein, roughly 10% of the dietary requirement for women.

But like any good business student, Culver has aspirations to take the business further. She hopes to expand to the rest of East Africa with a bakery-in-a-box model and earn enough from training fees to wean the business off donor funding. Currently, The Women’s Bakery operates as a business in Rwanda but still retains a 501(c)(3) status in the U.S. Culver prefers to think of it as business as usual. “We slapped social in front of the word [enterprise] because we have a charitable mission, and we’re doing it through business means, but I think that should just be the definition of business,” she says. Because in her experience, business can — and should — be a force for good.