The Globe and Mail and WE Charity are partners on a range of content and initiatives, including WE Day at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto on Sept. 20. This story is part of a special report on the organization and the event.
Walk through the confection area of any Mastermind Toys store and you’ll find a selection of sweets ranging from jelly beans and sour gummies to Japanese candies and M&Ms packaged in a mini Star Wars lightsaber dispenser.
But one product consistently stands out: ME to WE Chocolate That Gives Education, part of a line of chocolates whose profits go directly into WE programs for education.
“It’s our bestseller in chocolate, consistently outselling all other chocolates in our stores,” says Jon Levy, chief executive officer of Toronto-based Mastermind LP, which owns more than 60 Mastermind Toys in seven provinces. “I think this is because it offers two things parents and kids like: a high-quality product that tastes delicious, and it has goodness built into it because it helps provide greater access to education in Ecuador.”
The chocolates – which retail for $4.99 a bar – are among the growing collection of ME to WE products that are helping to drive growth in WE’s social enterprise arm. Founded in 2005, ME to WE is a for-profit business that supports WE Charity ‘s domestic and international programs for youth empowerment, education and community development.
The company donates at least 50 per cent of all revenue each year to WE Charity, then invests the balance to grow the enterprise through such projects as a beading centre in Kenya where artisans can improve their skills and earn more making more intricate trinkets.
ME to WE debunks the general misconception that doing good isn’t good for business. Last year, for example, it realized a net profit of $1.7-million and donated about $1.5-million to WE Charity.
“Our job is to generate revenue for WE Charity and to do that in a way that’s ethically and socially responsible,” explains Roxanne Joyal, CEO of ME to WE. “At the same time, we want to be able to give people choices in how they make an impact.”
In its early days, ME to WE generated revenue from volunteer trips and day camps. The business soon expanded with sales of rafiki bracelets handmade by Maasai mamas in Kenya.
Today, ME to WE’s line of revenue-generating products also includes coffee, bags, baseball caps, T-shirts and stationery.
“We take an asset-based approach to our business,” says Ms. Joyal. “If we identify in our communities that they have a skill or asset that we can connect to the global market, then we try to help them develop that.
“For example, in Kenya we noticed that the Maasai women were taught the art of beading at a very early age. So we thought that if we could leverage and translate this skill into items that would resonate with North American audiences, then we can help these women.”
Building on the success of its rafiki bracelets – close to five million have been sold to date – ME to WE went on to create another iconic bracelet called minga, this time made in Ecuador with woven natural fibres and seeds.
“Friendship bracelets are really in right now,” notes Meghan Kelly, director of marketing and e-commerce at ME to WE. “We’re seeing great traction with minga and continue to see strong sales with our rafiki bracelets.”
Last year, ME to WE launched another winner: chocolates from Ecuador.
“In designated human habitat areas in the Ecuadorian Amazon, we learned there were a number of cacao trees that were languishing because there were no financial incentives for farmers to continue cultivating these trees,” recalls Ms. Joyal. “So we asked ourselves: Is there a way to bring these trees back to life through a combination of modern and traditional farming practices, with a view to bringing more income to the community?”
With that goal in mind, ME to WE started working with farmers in the area to grow and harvest cacao beans. Through this collaboration, the farmers also learned how to ferment their beans before roasting – a process that added value to the beans and increased their market price dramatically.
ME to WE now works with about 150 farmers, producing cacao that has been given the fino de aroma – or fine flavour – denomination by the International Cocoa Organization.
“The chocolate bars are manufactured in Ecuador, then from there we bring them to North America,” says Ms. Joyal.
Since last year’s launch, ME to WE chocolates have won a number of awards, including a Golden Bean award from Britain’s Academy of Chocolate – proof that the chocolates can compete in their market not only because of their social impact but also because of their high quality.
It’s another example of how ME to WE has succeeded as a social enterprise, says Ms. Kelly.
“The business has grown and expanded by ensuring that what we offer is appealing to consumers,” she says. “People really like our products, and for many of them the fact that they're also making a positive impact is the cherry on top.”
ME to WE sells its products online and through more than 12,000 retail stores. These partners do more than move ME to WE merchandise; they also provide low-cost marketing by displaying the WE brand and programs.
Mr. Levy at Mastermind says being a ME to WE retail partner isn’t an act of charity but rather a strategic move that reflects his company’s brand and values, and contributes to the bottom line. The company also sells rafiki bracelets, which Mr. Levy says are among the top-selling items in Mastermind’s $10 price bracket.
“The core of WE is education, and the core of Mastermind is quality education products that inspire and create curiosity in children,” he says. “That’s fundamentally how WE and Mastermind align together so well. Selling WE merchandise just makes sense for our brand and our business.”