e+i June 2013
If you take a look at the energy-bar aisle in your local grocery store, you might conclude that manufacturers have come up with enough variety to meet consumers’ every conceivable desire. Veneka Chagwedera (MBA ’13), the founder and CEO of Nouri, respectfully disagrees: “Yes, there are a lot of bars out there, but the market is growing rapidly,” she explains. “And we’ve found an unfilled niche. People are looking for bars that are really healthy but also taste good—and that let them help someone else.”
Nouri bars, made of natural and organic ingredients, provide good nutrition not only to customers but also to children in need: For every bar purchased, Nouri pays for a child in Botswana to be fed during the school day. So far, the company is fulfilling both missions: The bars are now sold in natural food stores and cafes in more than four states, including Virginia and Washington, DC. The company has provided 11,000 meals to children in need. “Our goal,” Chagwedera says, “is to provide 1 million meals by 2014.”
Chagwedera spent the summer of 2012 developing Nouri in the Darden Business Incubator, after placing second in a 2011 concept competition hosted by the UVA group SEED (Student Entrepreneurs for Economic Development). But the idea for Nouri has roots in her longstanding interest in the raw food movement, her search for healthy snacks, and her desire to help some of the world’s neediest children.
While working for Save the Children in Asia, Chagwedera, a native of Zimbabwe, started making energy bars for herself as a convenient snack. She continued experimenting with the recipe, determined to break the trade-off between wholesome ingredients and satisfying taste. As she realized that her kitchen hobby had business potential, this goal became an imperative. “I knew that ultimately I would incorporate a social mission into the product,” she explains, “but I wanted the bar to be good enough to stand on its own, without the cause.”
In researching the market opportunity, Chagwedera drew on what she had learned from Darden professors Saras Sarasvathy’s and Jeanne Liedtka’s work on entrepreneurship and concept development. She began by conducting ethnographic research, following college students, young professionals, and young parents through their day to observe their snacking behavior and learn what was important to them in their snacking and in their engagement with social issues.
These consumers, she found, were not generally buying snack foods impulsively in the checkout aisle but were researching products before heading to the store. They needed a bit of a push to consider new offerings.
They were also suffering from “charity fatigue.” Instead of simply writing checks to worthy causes, they were looking for personal involvement. They wanted to connect names and faces with their philanthropic activities—and to know that their contributions were making a tangible difference in those individuals’ lives.
This theme of personal connection has become deeply embedded in all aspects of Nouri. In addition to perfecting recipes and exploring manufacturing options, Chagwedera and her business partner, Jared Crooks, searched for an organization that would provide the right kind of social mission for them and their customers. They found a good fit with Stepping Stones International, a nonprofit organization in Botswana that takes a holistic approach to creating opportunities for orphaned and vulnerable adolescents. Nutrition is an important part of its mission. Chagwedera and Crooks were attracted to the multiple impacts they could achieve through SSI: In feeding children while they’re at school, SSI encourages them to attend school, fuels their brains and bodies for learning and engagement, and supports local farmers. SSI also sends video updates on the children’s progress. Chagwedera visited the region in December 2012 to meet some of the youth the company has helped feed.
Nouri raised bridge financing from family and friends and landed its first customer in August 2012, when C’ville Coffee started stocking the bars. Owner Toan Nguyen (MBA ’94) had been offering feedback and advice to the young company. Since then, Chagwedera and Crooks have been focusing on both internal and external growth, with a goal of building a sustainable and renowned business in the region. They are hoping to launch nationally within a year and are considering expanding the social mission to other developing countries in Asia and South America. Currently, the bars are produced in a manufacturing facility in California, but Nouri ultimately aspires to be a comprehensive snack food player with dedicated facilities.
Chagwedera is eager for the challenges of growth. “All of my Darden classes this past year helped me with the business,” she notes. And she points to an important test the company has already passed: becoming a provider to Whole Foods. “That was a really rigorous process,” she explains. “We had to work closely with the buyers to trace the origins of all our ingredients. That experience gave us a benchmark. If we got through that, we can do anything.”