Wednesday, June 19, 2013

My Big, Fat, Albanian Kosovo

View from room at Hotel Residence

I cannot begin to wrap my heart around this trip.  It all began with a trip to Tunisia the MamaCarts team earned through the Global Business School Network. Never one to stare meekly into the face of a unique travel opportunity, I quickly pulled out my world maps, called some friends, and started google-ing plane ticket prices. 
Tunisian Beach


Tunisia recap
Attending the GBSN conference was the main catalyst for this trip and the latest victory for the MamaCarts ladies. We busted out a few videos about our social venture a few months ago and one received 1st place in the GBSN MBA+ video challenge. We demonstrated that we are putting our MBA’s to use for the greater good and thus won the trip to the annual conference to accept the award. Full MamaCarts blog to come on our website so I’ll stick to the fun stuff. Tunisian beaches are pretty amazing! This is also a French speaking country. Since I haven’t really used my passport or French since Peace Corps, I felt like Belle from Beauty and the Beast, practically yelling BONJOUR to every soul I walked by.  Ok, so maybe I didn’t look or sound exaaactly like a Disney princess…but the hotel was pretty sweet and it felt good to use the language again.  For more info on that leg of the journey, stay tuned to the MamaCarts blog.  For more on my fun-filled adventures in Eastern Europe, read on! 
I left the conference last Wednesday and hopped a flight to Tirana, Albania, via Istanbul.  My  flight landed in the evening,  just as the sun was starting to make the surrounding mountains glow. I’ve never been to this part of the world and am still reeling from the landscape. Will be planning a return trip with camping gear…..

Flying into Albania

My cab rolled up to his apartment around 9pm and we hit the town until 2am! We had months to catch up on and the beer tasted better than ever. 

Leo and Dafina are friends from the MBA program I just finished last December.  
By chance, Leo and I were put on nearly every project together and spent a great deal of time locked in my apartment, drinking far too much coffee, and staring at excel sheets.   A diplomat by nature, this guy tempered my (at times) unruly American tendencies and plays the devil’s advocate better than most, an asset to any team. We talked for two years about Kosovo, its history, his family, and I always promised I would make the trip.  So when the chance came up, there really wasn't the option NOT to go. 

Leo and Dafina are citizens of Kosovo and both work for Yunus Social Business, an incubator that just launched in Albania.  It's a dream place for anyone to work who has graduated from our program as these folks work to promote social businesses in countries like Haiti, Tunisia, Albania, and others. We played "take your friend to work day" and fell right back into the routine of coffee, computer, and brainstorming.   His director took us out for coffee and we discussed the state of agribusiness in Albania, the true cost of subsidies, and what the future holds for social businesses in that part of the world. My MBA-for-a-greater-good-brain was just about exploding when it was time hop a bus over the border to Kosovo and pick up the lovely Dafina from the airport as she'd been working in Frankfurt all week.

Both their families are in Prishtina, the capital so we stayed with them the whole time. I picked up a little Albanian language and perhaps more important, got to eat home cooked meals!  I have no hurdles with food (well, maybe mangos) and enjoy learning about the cooking style of every country I visit, and when your friend's mother is making the dish...well, Anthony Boudain, eat your f#$%^%$ heart out! 

Evenings in Kosovo generally end with many rounds of tea or "chai", served in tiny glasses with tiny spoons and tiny wedges of lemon.  5 or 6 rounds will usually take up the better portion of after dinner conversation and allows time to digest and "visit" as my grandmother would say. 

This was truly my favorite part of the trip. "Visiting" is something we don't do enough of as we are constantly plugged in to something and rarely invest in a conversation whole-heartedly. While we only shared a few common words, Leo and Dafina translated the entire time so I could better understand their families and history.   His mother is also quite the gardener and had some questions about my flower tattoos :)

In Leo's mother's beautiful patio garden, olive & orange trees, lilies,  and more!

Now for some heavier stuff....

Kosovo is a "Muslim-light" country, as their brother calls it. A country united by language, politics but not necessarily religion.  There are mosques everywhere and the call to prayer is clear as ever, 5-times a day, but the mashup of east-meets-west cultures and attitudes makes for an increasingly progressive atmosphere unique to Kosovo and its growing middle class of young families.

The country was occupied in the early 90's then went through a brutal revolution after about 10 years. I don't remember hearing many stories of a place called Kosovo, but I was pretty young.  Tea-time conversation provided the opportunity to share stories of that time, when people stayed in their apartments for months on end, walked through the forest all night without shoes to cross the border, and left their friends and family in the heart-wrenching pursuit of self-preservation and a better way of life.  Stories are a gift, when people tell them they share a piece of what makes them who they are.  It was an incredible privilege to join this conversation and really, these are not my stories to tell so we will leave it at that. 
View from castle in Prizren

We took the last day in Kosovo to visit Prizren, a historical town right on the river. It's been quite warm here so a short hike up the mountain to the old castle definitely burned off all the macchiatos we'd been drinking :)  This was the trip of a lifetime and I know I will be back.  It was my first time to this part of the world and the people, food, and landscapes are not to be missed.  A million thanks to my dear friends who welcomed me with such hospitality - until the next time!

Leaving on a shuttle to Bulgaria, last shot with the family :)

Monday, March 4, 2013

Hult Prize recap...or MamaCarts, Onward!

One Million Dollars.  Food Insecurity. Urban Slums. Go.

MamaCarts Co-Founders

This is essentially what my brain has been wrapped around since early January.  Last October, some fellow GSSE-MBA-ers and myself headed to Baltimore for the Net Impact conference.  I posted pictures of trashcans overflowing with disposable coffee cups and sat through panels of food industry professionals dropping the company line on GMOs and the profit constraints of offering healthful foods.  I walked away from that weekend knowing that I wasn’t satisfied with any of the information I’d heard on public/private entity progress in reducing food insecurity. 

A few friends and I sat through a breakfast session on the Hult Prize, a competition put on by Hult business school.  All we saw being presented, through our early morning, caffeine-deprived haze, was development-as-usual BIG NUMBERS (solve hunger for 200 million people), and a million dollar grand prize.  The teams that won in previous years certainly had ambitious goals and sexy technology; and provided the necessary “big impact” numbers to wow the judges; as well as boasted collective resumes akin to a mini United Nations.  However, a few of us sat there and thought, “Maybe flair isn’t the answer?”  Maybe it’s simply leveraging the things that already exist and helping to make the connection.

Brainstorming our hearts out!
This was a direct challenge from President Clinton and a problem we had all seen first hand:  Food insecurity, which we directly correlated with malnutrition.  For 8-weeks, we had re-hashed the case, contacted potential partners, sought out 1st person research from Kibera Slum, and landed on a model we believe to have scale, profitability, AND strengthens communities.  Shout out to Paul Hudnut, “Do Something. That Matters. With Soul.”  Because why would you do anything else?
Skyping Lindsay in from Peru
Fast-forward 4-months and a team of 3 very dynamic women and myself were in San Francisco presenting our model, with our own flavor of flair.  We’d been chewing on the idea of broken supply chains for a while and knew we needed to integrate as many local resources as possible.  We have each worked in food systems in different parts of the world, and despite the fact that we are 4 white girls from Colorado, we know our stuff and have seen what doesn’t work, and more importantly, what does.

With our amazing Hult Ambassador.  She found us band-aids, staplers, and hugged us after it was over. We called her our fairy godmother.
Getting briefed.

Like most things in life that make you a better person, this is about the journey, not the destination.  Diving deeper into food systems reminded each of us why we went abroad to work in the first place.  We are now the proud co-founders of MamaCarts, a microfranchise, for-profit model that makes healthful food aspirational AND affordable.  

Palm Trees and ALIVE things!  Welcome sights and smells  during a Colorado winter.
43 teams competed in San Francisco, from almost every continent.  It was incredibly validating to know our sustainable MBA program put us in a position to compete with the best of them.  Off-the-record feedback from a judge afterwards was really encouraging, if bittersweet when we found out we almost made it to the final four.  Almost.  This was a very big deal, our judges were from Wal-Mart, Gap, IDEO design firm, and Saatchi & Saatchi.  Final take-away: We had a blast preparing for this and are moving forward with MamaCarts!

Finally, a very heartfelt thanks to everyone who supported us and helped the team get to San Fran.  We were incredibly humbled and overwhelmed at the number of people who showed up when it mattered.

Fairly certain I could get used to this

This is my post and not meant to represent the opinion of my other co-founders.  But don't worry, there will be an official blog post up soon on :)

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Amazing Race Casting Call: Bring Out the Wacky!

Wednesday night, partner in crime, Tara, and I headed south in Adorable Truck to Aurora, CO to sit in a cold parking lot and change our futures.

Our mission: In 60-seconds, convince the producers of Amazing Race to at least call us back for a second interview in L.A., all via video tape.  We never actually saw a producer, that we knew of.

Tara is a dear friend from Peace Corps, and the lady who convinced me to come out to Fort Collins in the first place.  She is also a complete badass who runs marathons off the couch, recently ran the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim-to-rim, and lived in one of the hottest spots in Benin during our PC service.  Sure, she's got a competitive a few years ago when it took her 20-something miles to drop out of an ultra-marathon because of hypothermia...and then kicked its ass the next year.  In summary, we'd at least be in shape if we were to get a call back for the show because I can't think of many worse fates than answering to her if we lost a challenge because I couldn't hack it.  And so we planned our attack.

Showed up at midnight, auditions at 10am.
I have no idea what I can say about our 1-minute spiel because the waiver explicitly says that we are not to breathe a WORD to anyone about what we said on camera.  I do feel comfortable saying that in spite of the fact that we were running on 30-minutes of sleep, we don't think it could have gone any better.  We were the second team in a line of over 200 people.  And thank god for that because once the ball got rolling, everyone was crowding the door to get a glimpse of the competition.  The filming was at the Aurora Sports Authority (I have never been to a weirder strip mall town) and they ran two cameras at once to really circulate teams through.  We fully utilized our props and gave them our story.

Before 200 more people showed up
Though we'd read rumors of numbered tickets being issued...and had high hopes of spending hours in the nearby coffeeshop, the news crews showed up to film around 5am and the organizer explained that  we should fully expect to be in line until 10am.  The store did open at 8 for bathrooms.  If traveling has instilled anything in me, it's a deep appreciation for a private place to potty.  Bless you Sports Authority.

Waiting in line for 6-hours in Colorado in January = sleeping bags and lots o coffee!
When we left my truck to actually line up at 4:30am, we were equipped with coffee, sleeping bags, a cooler of snacks, and lots of hope.  In front of us in the #1 slot, was a team of ladies trying to raise money for Alzheimer's.  Certainly a noble cause, however the ringleader of that duo spent the entire 6-hours conversati-ng and in the end just plain invading my personal space because she was so damned jazzed she couldn't control it!  Yes, a 50+ woman was two-stepping around (to someone's blaring iphone) and punctuating her moves by waving jazz hands in my face and commanding me to perk up.  Some of you may know how awesomely perky I am at 5am.

This, after a very sweet fellow applicant bought about 60 breakfast burritos and handed them out down the line. Jazz-Hands watched me eat and exclaimed "Whoa girl!  You're a scarf-er, you'll do great on the show!"  Of course, it didn't help that during the 5:48am CBS Live interview, Tara couldn't control her verbal vomit and in the middle of a sentence, blurted out "SHE"LL EAT ANYTHING!"  The link to said clip is below.  

On our other side in spot #3, was a married couple so deeply in love, they were just whispering their script to each other in a manner reminiscent of a forbidden romance on Downton Abbey.  Despite this, these folks were actually pretty amazing. They'd offered to do a taco run at 1am for the early birds in the parking lot and provided dry humor throughout the morning.  They also had a very comical dachshund, who's little legs couldn't follow them around the parking lot fast enough.  

But perhaps most entertaining were the two early 20-something ladies who had driven through the night from Salt Lake City.  They were skinny as rails, slept under a mountain of blankets on a bouldering crash pad and did not have a mean bone in their bodies.  Simply adorable.  When they overheard that our names were Rachael and Tara, they perked up and erupted with "Our names are Rachel and LARA!  They knowingly provided an immense amount of entertainment and we are grateful for them.

Ready for the L.A. interview!!!

If we don't get a call back like the thousands of other applicants, I will rest easy (after we drown our sorrows at the breweries).  We had a blast putting our application script together and took the opportunity to sift through a zillion pictures of us from Peace Corps and since.  I can't believe it's been almost 6 years since we served!  All in all, it was a really interesting and hilarious experience.  There should definitely be a reality show about the first round of reality-tv applicants because sweet lord, the spectrum of personalities that showed up provided better people watching than the Greyhound bus station.  If anything does come of this, I probably won't even need to blog about it because you will hear us shrieking around the globe!  And even if this isn't our window of glory, I have a feeling you haven't heard the last of this formidable team.....

Check out THIS LINK to see us on CBS Denver from a 5:48am live clip....pretty ladies!

Saturday, January 12, 2013

MBA? Check. Job? Check. And Some Meaty Horizons...

I am a graduate, again.  A Master in Business, specifically in Global Social and Sustainable Enterprise. On December 15, 2012, 19 of my Cohort members and myself walked ourselves across the stage with new ambitions, lessons learned, pages turned, and even a new 8-month old adorable addition to the GSSE family.  It was a haul my friends, like running a marathon at breakneck speed (not that I have any idea what running a marathon entails).  I have a feeling this experience will take a while to fully develop and reveal its impact; there is no possible way to download the last 18-months in a few thoughts or paragraphs.  I still feel this was exactly the right program for me.  Having followed my own drumbeat for a very long time, it was such a privilege to work with faculty, staff, and teammates who truly celebrated differences and helped me evolve as a professional and a person.  A hearty thanks to the village who helped make this happen!  You are some damn fine people.

Global Social and Sustainable Enterprise MBA graduates - Cohort 5
 Fort Collins Brewery donated some space so we could celebrate in style after the big walk.  Yet another perk of getting a Colorado MBA, the microbrewery scene.  The night carried on and professors, parents, and students celebrated our accomplishments...some until 3:30 in the morning (nice one Dad).

Thanks for the support friends!
Fitting gifts for a business graduate, a pen to sign an offer letter (thanks mom and dad), a business card holder that reminds me to get out and fish, and some sound advice from a fellow Peace Corps friend.

Really doin' it!
The best part of the entire graduation experience was that my Dad was able to come out and share the glory.  College is a big deal in our family and it wasn't just me that walked across the stage when they called my name.  Cheers to the Miller Clan :)  Dad showed up at 8am for coffee and some last minute ironing and dropped me off at the door of the auditorium since it was maybe the second time I'd worn heels in years.  Ouch.
Thanks for making the trip Dad!
I'm fairly certain I sold Dad on Fort Collins, not that he needed it.  Between the breweries, Old Town, and hiking, we did the Front Range right.  Looking forward to more family and friend visits out here; talking to you Emily Turza and Kim Ranly!

Just another day in on the front range
After the dust settled and Dad flew out, I took myself up to Leadville and Ski Cooper for some much needed reconnecting with friends and mountains.  Had a lovely beer pairing at the Tennessee Pass Cookhouse and got to snowboard opening day on some fresh flakes.  Even though it's at 10,000 feet, I always breathe a little easier up there :)
Celebrating opening day at Ski Cooper with all natural snow :)
Which is why I'm excited to say that I've decided to stick around Colorado for awhile!  My last semester of school was spent working with FishChoice, a nonprofit that helps businesses source and sell sustainable seafood.  They offered me a position and after evaluating other opportunities, it really wasn't even a question that I wanted to stay right here and make this project a reality.  Much, much more to come on that but most important right now is that I'm working with fantastic people on something I truly care about, food!
Working on what I love: food!
Holidays spent back in Ohio were fantastic.  Don't know when I'm headed east again so it was nice to relax, eat mom's food, and pet my dog.  On a final note about new beginnings, our faithful beast, Zeus checked out the day after I returned to Colorado.  He'd rallied hard for the holidays but after well over a decade on Miller's Happy Acres, he was ready to go meet the other 4-legged family members who have touched our lives.  Mom wrote a great blog about him and we continue to reminisce about the years of stories he amassed. 

Animals teach us a lot; forgiveness, compassion, unrelenting focus on the things you truly care about (tennis balls), and never to settle for kibble when you can train your humans to feed you from the table.  These are much more important lessons than anything we will ever learn in a classroom and I'll be carrying them forward into my 2013.  

Happy New Year everyone, let's go do some great things!

Zeus, the wonder dog