Five years ago, Markey Culver was stationed in Rwanda on a Peace Corps mission, tasked with improving the nutrition of a rural village. A lover of leafy greens and their health-loaded benefits, Markey first tried introducing a salad-based diet to the community…and it lasted about as long as your no-carb New Year’s Resolution. After all, as anyone who has ever made a salad for themselves knows, the second you catch a glimpse of someone gobbling a carb-loaded sandwich, your mouth waters so much, you could solve California’s drought problem. Carbs are AMAZING—and, contrary to the bad rap they get, are actually vital sources of nutrition and energy when made right—so Markey pivoted, using her love of baking to sneakily improve the village diet via her delicious and nutritious breads. Soon, the women of the village were clamoring for her recipes, their children were finally getting enough protein, and the idea for The Women’s Bakery was born.
Since then, The Women’s Bakery has trained and gainfully employed women at two bakeries in Tanzania, and their third location in Rwanda is poised to open within a few months. Markey originally shared her road with us a few months ago, but with the turn of the new year, we decided we needed to catch back up with the bread-loving businesswoman (slash pun-lover) to hear about what’s next for her and her nonprofit.
First up, how would you describe what you do? Give us your best “elevator pitch”:
The Women’s Bakery empowers women and builds women-owned businesses in East Africa. Through vocational business education, TWB trains women to make and sell highly nutritious breads in their community, meeting local demand with local supply.
A photo posted by The Women’s Bakery (@womensbakery) on
What does your average day look like?
Oh man. It’s scary, actually. I wake up between 5:30-6 a.m. and try to read (not even respond to) as many emails as I can. Then I go to class—I’m currently pursuing my MBA at Washington University’s Olin Business School. I’m at school for most of the day, do school-related work until about 6 p.m., then transition back to the Women’s Bakery work, or my “night job,” until midnight.
That’s a long day! So…coffee or tea?
Both, and often.
Tell us more about the road that led to where you are today (milestones, big decisions, a-ha moments!):
My a-ha moments have been relatively subtle and have built on each other. I’ve always felt compelled to serve others and have taken progressively bigger steps each year toward working for positive social change. I have always been intrigued and motivated by the “impossible.”
Poverty, for example, is usually cited as an inevitable reality, an obstacle too impossible to eradicate. I have always disagreed. My disagreement started meekly, lacking real conviction or exposure, offering itself more as young naiveté than potential power. Step by step, however, I began to act upon my private objection to poverty. I volunteered to teach immigrants and homeless to read and write; I volunteered to make sandwiches for the hungry; I volunteered to write grant applications for nonprofits; I volunteered to give up my lucrative job and comfortable life to live in poverty and serve the poor. I volunteered because my objection to poverty grew into a fierce rejection, and my quiet rebuttal transformed into a conspicuous commitment to work in Rwanda.
Emerging from the Peace Corps and from the creation of The Women’s Bakery, my commitment to the improved human condition is real, and this is just the beginning.
The Women’s Bakery has been in business in some form or another since 2013; what inspired you to go back to school and enroll in an MBA program last year?
After living and working in Rwanda for three years, I realized that business acumen was at the center of lasting development work. I believe business can and should be harnessed as a tool to tackle social problems. I have the “soft” skills, like communication, EI, and drive; now, I’m cultivating my “hard” quantitative skills.
Is there one piece of advice that you’d give to aspiring entrepreneurs who want to start their own businesses or nonprofits?
It’s not about you, and it shouldn’t be if you’re building a business worth building. It’s about the people helping to drive your business forward – both participants and recipients. I may be the founder of The Women’s Bakery and a visionary for our growth, but neither means a thing without a solid team of hard-working, ass-kicking, rockstar humans helping to run the show. The Women’s Bakery’s success is a team effort.
A photo posted by The Women’s Bakery (@womensbakery) on
And how do you define “success”?
I define success along three spectrums: personal, professional and monetary. Personal success I define as what makes you come alive—personal triumph, achievement, fulfillment, etc. Professional success I define as what you’re contributing to society—what you’ve worked for and/or given to society that makes the world better. And monetary success I define as being able to make enough money to live well, access education and give back to a community (or communities) that matter to you.
How do you push through moments of insecurity or self-doubt?
Chocolate! No, I push through in multiple ways. First, through internal validation: I’ll write myself uplifting blurbs, or document moments of unexpected/unprovoked praise and refer to said blurbs/moments in times of struggle. And then, external validation. My family and closest friends know this well: I ask for help. Everyone needs words of affirmation, and while it’s not particularly dignified, it’s rejuvenating and necessary. Lastly – get up and get out. Just move. Just start. Just go and do it, because you can.
What are three things you wish you’d known when you graduated from high school?
a.) Calculus. Somehow, I weaseled my way out of that class.
b.) Internships are a time of exploration—seek them out, get a short-term trial of any field that interests you, and try something new. No experience is a wasted experience.
c.) Explore! Go as far as you can. Push your personal boundaries and comfort zones. Experience new views, cultures and foods. Your life will be richer.
What’s your favorite food?
Pizza. Dough + herby tomato sauce + cheese + basil + olive oil = success. You can’t argue with math.
What’s your favorite book?
The Harry Potter series—all of it.
What was your first job?
My very, very first “job” was as a nine-year-old “teacher” for my youngest brother who craved homework so he could be more like his older, school-aged siblings … I guess I’ve been in education for a long time!
Of all of the breads that The Women’s Bakery makes, what’s your personal fave?
I love the new recipes my team is concocting! Still, the beet bread is probably my favorite. Sounds gross, but it’s totally not.
If we handed you the keys to the big green RV right now, where would you drive?
Newfoundland. Why not?