Teresa Law, Co-Founder & CFO, Mountain Hazelnuts in Bhutan
BY PAKSY PLACKIS-CHENG
Mountain Hazelnuts is committed to growing ten million hazelnut trees in Bhutan. The company is charged to be a significant commercial producer in the world and between 10,000 to 15,000 farm households and monasteries will be involved in the planting program. The triple bottom line enterprise employs over 800 people, of which 50 percent are women.
Teresa Law, co-founder and CFO of Mountain Hazelnuts in the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan, spoke during United Nations’s week at the Business Call to Action (BCtA) forum in New York. BCtA is focused on organizations that are committed to drive Sustainable Development Goals as part of their standard business practice.Mountain Hazelnuts is committed to growing ten million hazelnut trees in Bhutan. The company is charged to be a significant commercial producer in the world and between 10,000 to 15,000 farm households and monasteries will be involved in the planting program. The triple bottom line enterprise employs over 800 people, of which 50 percent are women.
Teresa spoke to impactmania about the importance of collaboration and community and dedication to environmental and social concerns while still making a profit.
Teresa, what has been an unexpected learning experience in the process of building Mountain Hazelnuts?
I learned that working with my husband is fun! Although we met while working at the same bank in Chicago more than 30 years ago, this is our first experience working together. There are certainly challenges in building a company and investing our energy into it on a 24/7 basis, but we try to support each other and derive a tremendous amount of joy from seeing the growth in Mountain Hazelnuts over the past 7 years. In some ways, we are raising our “third child” together!
At the Business Call to Action Forum, you spoke about the importance of partnerships. One of the most important relationships for Mountain Hazelnuts is the one with the Bhutanese government.
We have very regular interactions with the royal government. You have to manage those relationships. We have over 800 staff on the payroll and about half of them are women. While we try to have programs that benefit all of our staff, we do focus on women in terms of public health services including health screenings and cervical screenings because we know that women are the backbones of families.
What I’ve learned over the years, especially in Bhutan, where it is a male dominant culture, is that although women play an important role, there’s always going to be male egos.
It’s been interesting to see how all of that interplays because I never expected to be in Bhutan, where you can see the impact you create almost every single day. I’m excited about the fact that we’re training generations of managers. Many of our staff have a limited formal education. They would not have had an opportunity to manage and receive hours of training each year except from a private sector company like ours. Even if I don’t live to see ten million hazelnut trees, I will know that this group of young managers, who are in their late 20s or late 30s, will go out and have a tremendous impact on the next generation in Bhutan.
How have you recruited local people?
It’s interesting, everyone wants a government job. University graduates will gravitate towards government positions. We are getting better staff and more response because the [Bhutanese] press did a report us on television. People see the scenes of the trees, which are now bearing hazelnuts, so we’re attracting a lot more people.
Initially, I think that [we were that] intriguing company that had intriguing management with an intriguing business concept. We’re also in the east of Bhutan, where there aren’t many opportunities for employment, so I think we attracted people who want jobs in this part of the country.
What kind of advice can you give young female entrepreneurs?
I think you really have to learn the basics. I can see in some of our young male managers that they want to take a big leap forward in terms of responsibilities, but I think our women are successful in being detail oriented and paying attention to more than just their responsibilities and looking to other departments.
We’ve had a woman from nursery move up into the office, another who moved to IT, and one who moved to our procurement and stores department. We haven’t had that much success moving men because I think that they’re not as receptive to really learning the basics. To be successful as an entrepreneur, you also need to have that attention to detail and that broad perspective.
How does working with the Ministry of Agriculture and Forest differ from say working with the government in the United States?
I would suspect in that we’re really more intricately entwined. When we reach out to farmers, the Ministry of Agriculture and the forest people come out with us and interpret. Although we use our local staff, they are actually the first point of contact with the villagers and farmers.
They know which territories we’re covering and they review our rules and regulations as well as our service rules, so it’s a very, very close, and almost daily collaboration.
Because we now cover most of the country – we have 10,000 orchards and have distributed close to 5 million trees – you can’t turn a corner and not find someone who’s heard about Mountain Hazelnuts. In that respect, our impact can be at such a level of subsistence for farmers and villagers.
They have identified the land on which we’ve built the world’s largest hazelnut nursery. You can’t drive in our part of Bhutan without seeing our trees, so we’re a daily reminder [to the Ministry of Health and of Agriculture in Forest] of what we’re doing.
What’s next for the company?
We’ve had a harvest this year. We’re looking forward to a larger commercial harvest next year; that’s our number one priority. We have also been giving technical assistance grants, so we’re going to do more work in climate resilience.
I’ve always said that Mountain Hazelnuts is a triple bottom line venture; we pay attention to our economic, environmental, and social impact. These grants will allow us to do more work and will Mountain Hazelnut’s impact.
An exciting outcome of our venture is meaningful interaction with other social enterprises. To manage our widely dispersed orchards under challenging Himalayan conditions, we invested heavily in developing a comprehensive Android phone-based tools and reporting practices system. It enables us to collect data on everything from operational matters such as tree health and logistics to social and environmental indicators, such as household health and watershed conditions. Mountain Hazelnuts would not be nearly so effective without these innovations. Several of our partners recognized the value in this and encouraged us to share them with like-minded organizations. We are currently building a technology “tool kit” that would enable other social ventures to focus on their respective mission, instead of reinventing the wheel and trying to build their own system when they can modify and build on the work we’ve already done.
It’s difficult enough for companies to focus on one objective. How does triple bottom line work from day to day?
Our focus has always been the main business, which is growing the hazelnuts. We have focused a lot of attention on building a state-of-the-art nursery. We also paid a lot of attention to our systems in order to optimize our logistics so that we can time and distribute trees from the shipment of tiny tissue culture plants from our lab in China to multiple countries.
This logistics model also gives us traceability of the plants from inception through every step of the lifecycle. Everything we do, even when it’s an innovation, we’ve adapted Android technology so that we can record data on our smartphones from our field modules of each orchard. While that sounds like we are doing something different, it obviously helps our business model. We are also implementing a survey which we record on our smartphones so that we can assess our individual impact on farmers.
Everything starts with what you need to do to build the business, what follows is what you can do to supplement it for impact.
Would some see the enormous dedicated attention to the environment and social pillars take away from maximizing their investments?
We have walked away from partners who we did not think would align with us. I think every single one of our partners wants us to move on each of our tracks. They know it’s difficult, which is why I think a lot of patience is required, but no one is strictly focused on the profit.
They all know that along with profit, we have to build a community. We have to support local entrepreneurs and we have to do all of these other things to protect the environment while being tied to an objective of profit.
What is one word that describes your journey so far?
Execution. You have to pay attention to the smallest details, from keeping the trees healthy so that you have crops, income, and revenue, to what we do in our social programs and environmental initiatives. We make sure that when we say that we’re going to do it…we really do it.
The interview with co-founder and CEO of Mountain Hazelnuts, Daniel Spitzer, can be found here.
A previous interview with the founders: Social Enterprise in the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan.