When you are buying gifts for your loved ones this holiday season, will you pause to reflect on the difference your dollars could make to people you’ve never met? It doesn’t have to be either/or. Several companies founded by MIT students—and piloted with the support of the MIT Public Service Center—have found innovative ways to tempt shoppers with appealing food and fashion, while improving the quality of life in underserved communities around the world.
In addition to receiving PSC fellowships and/or prizes in the center’s annual IDEAS Global Challenge entrepreneurship competition, several of these companies gained support from other keystones of the MIT entrepreneurship ecosystem—such as the Global Founders’ Skill Accelerator at the Trust Center for Entrepreneurship, and the Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship.
There’s an additional benefit of shopping with these enterprises (listed below from smallest to largest splurge). These items don’t just make great gifts—they come with a great story.
Have you tasted teff? The ancient North African cereal grass, the smallest grain in the world, is a nutritional powerhouse. Some know it as the basis of the spongy bread, injera, served at Ethiopian restaurants, but the founders of Love Grain, Sloan School of Management graduate students Aleem Ahmed and Caroline Mauldin, want to bring it to your breakfast table as the foundation of a gluten-free pancake or waffle feast. The company is structured to assist Ethiopian farmers, creating an export market for a hardy crop that is experiencing a surplus. The mix can be purchased online and is carried by a growing number of New England stores as well. Listen to a recent interview with the founders.
Emerge sells bright beaded necklackes and bracelets hand-crafted by young women in Sri Lanka who have survived abuse. Founder Alia Whitney-Johnson ’08 has structured the foundation to provide a range of services to help girls aged 10–18 build job and life skills, so they can develop personally and become leaders in their communities. Half the selling price of each item, retailed via the online marketplace Artfire and in stores throughout Sri Lanka, goes back to the person who made it. Watch a quick video explaining how Emerge has already helped more than 400 girls, and meet some of them.
Founded by Bijal Shah MBA’13 and Joanna Zhou MBA’13, Lallitara transforms vintage sari fabric into apparel and accessories, from wristlets and cross-body bags to tank tops, bracelets, and neckties. While supporting US manufacturing, the company is also a source of livelihood for Indian ragpickers who face a declining demand for secondhand saris. Lallitara gives back 5–10% of its sales to organizations that support the communities with which it works. Colorful, one-of-a-kind pieces can be ordered through the company’s site and are also stocked in select shops in California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Texas. Hear Shah tell the story of how the company began.
These luxurious bags and clutches, handmade in Pakistan, combine sumptuous leather with vivid embroidery details. Founded by Saba Gul ’05, MEng ’09, the company employs 150 female artisans from the village of Kot Ishaq, about an hour from Punjab’s largest city, Lahore, providing them training and above-market wages. Many of the women profiled on the company’s site are working to support their own education or the education of their children. Read an interview with Gul about her journey from engineer to social entrepreneur.