In my early 30s, I was a successful executive at a global corporation and thought I had it all. But one night, during a business trip to Peru, I realized I had it all wrong.
I had spent a week visiting mines that my company owned, witnessing first-hand the terrible working conditions the miners faced. At the same time, I was representing my company as they made a cost-cutting deal that stripped those same miners of their jobs.
One night in my hotel, I woke to an epiphany. Was this how I would spend my life, making the rich richer and the poor poorer? I was part of an unjust system, and couldn’t bear it any longer.
I returned to Switzerland, quit my job and sold my belongings. I wanted a new life. I wanted to improve the world, but did not know how.
In need of distance, I bought a one-way ticket to Mexico and began traveling around Latin America, a region I had come to love. I had more existential doubts, this time about whether I had made the right decision. Yet, every time I reaffirmed my choice, a new opportunity arose.
While travelling, I got to know some small-scale farmers and came to understand the enormous challenges they faced. Many lack the agricultural know-how and investments necessary to optimize cultivation, and sell to middlemen as they cannot access markets that pay a fair price for their produce. I began to wonder how I could use my business skills to help them improve their lives.
My answer became my purpose.
I founded Fairtrasa in 2005 to help small-scale farmers improve their production and gain crucial exposure to global markets. We began in Mexico and now work with producers in six countries. Our key innovation is our three-tier approach to development. Partnering with subsistence, semi-skilled and experienced farmers, we provide different levels and types of support to each – helping all of them improve production and revenue, as well as economic and ecological sustainability.
The impact on our farmers and their communities has been substantial, with growers’ income rising by up to ten-fold. More importantly, we have helped them understand that they can change their own lives.
As for me, my daily work is hardly different from before: I negotiate contracts, hedge currencies, plan shipments. But while I used to have a job, now I have a mission.
I have discovered what it means to be a social entrepreneur, a concept that was foreign to me when I started, but which I now identify with to my core. There are many of us out there – it is truly a revolution – and I believe that there are many others who are social entrepreneurs at heart but don’t realize it.
Patrick Struebi is Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Fairtrasa.
This is part of a series for the launch of the Schwab Foundation Social Entrepreneur of the Year 2014 Awardees.
Image: A rainbow appears as coffee plants are irrigated in a farm in Santo Antonio do Jardim. REUTERS/Paulo Whitaker