Following a five-year stint in South Africa where she created a gourmet cookie company from the ground up — hiring residents of an impoverished township near Cape Town as employees — Alicia D. Polak is back to market her products and promote her venture.
Polak, a one-time investment banker who traveled the world, argues that a socially responsible, for-profit business can often do more than a large, nonprofit charitable organization to help the poor in Third World nations. Her Khaya Cookie Company's slogan is "creating opportunity, one bite at a time."
"If I want to reduce tin-cup dependency, the for-profit model is effective," said Polak, who holds a master's degree in public administration from New York University.
Originally of Cinnaminson, N.J., Polak became a Bat Mitzvah at Temple Sinai there. She explained that she always wanted to work for a major international aid agency — and her family history might help explain why. Her paternal grandfather had survived Buchenwald, only to die awaiting penicillin in a displaced persons camp. Her Austrian-born grandmother and father, who was then still a child, were resettled here by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.
"I imagine that there is some genetic thing in here for why I always wanted to do something good," said Polak.
She tried to get a job with several organizations that work in the Third World, but was told that as a banker, she didn't have the right skill set.
"If you want the damn Giza pyramids moved right here, I'll bring them to you — that's my skill set," said Polak, who sounded equally determined dodging issues of age, eventually saying that she's in her 30s.
In the late 1990s, Polak spent a semester of graduate school studying in South Africa, a place she knew little about; in 2001, she moved to Cape Town.
"There is something about South Africa that kind of just gets under your skin — the smell of it, the buzz of it. I love it. I'm not saying it's a perfect utopia," said Polak, noting that the country has among the world's highest violent crime rates.
Initially, she consulted for a group that distributes wind-up radios to people in several countries in southern Africa. But she tired of the idea of giving things away; she wanted to create jobs.
Polak thought of the Vermont-based Ben & Jerry's ice-cream company and its focus on using business to advance "economic justice." Cookies sounded more doable, though she admittedly lacked experience in baking.
A pastry-chef friend helped her come up with a recipe — using all-natural ingredients — and soon Polak rented a room and three ovens in a building without hot water situated in the township of Khayelitsha, a massive system of shantytowns that are home to nearly 1 million black South Africans.
At first, she employed a single woman, but after a few years she had seven employees and a product that was sold to hotel chains and coffee shops across the country.
"The job … allows them to be able to put shoes on their kids. If they need to go to a clinic, they can go to a clinic. Even if it's the basic necessities, it's more than they had before," said Polak.
Now she's created a spin-off of her original company — the Khaya Cookie Company — which has more than 60 employees, and is trying to sell the cookies here and recreate the business model in U.S. urban centers. She chose Philadelphia, in part, because of its proximity to Wharton, the University of Pennsylvania's business school, which funds projects in Africa.
American customers can only order the cookies via the Internet. Polak hopes to get boutique and health-food stores to carry her baked goods: "Right now, we have a long way to go."