–by Jonathan Eisenthal
No, it’s not made of banana bread. Or even gingerbread. But a very special home for children now exists in Thailand thanks to the efforts of six classmates from Breck School in Golden Valley, Minnesota, who each contributed countless volunteer hours to raise $11,000 for a permanent roof over the heads of 23 children at the Children of the Forest orphanage in a remote, mountainous region of Thailand.
The ingenuity of one member of this group, Madi Lommen, who started a business selling banana bread, is an example of yoking together entrepreneurial spirit with the desire to change the world for the better.
Brainstorming to meet a need
Through connections at Breck School, these six students learned that there were countless orphans spilling over into Thailand from Myanmar (Burma) and Laos. The children remain at the margin of Thai society because they don’t speak the language and therefore have trouble getting even the most basic assistance.
When Lommen’s class learned about this situation, they decided to use their spring break to travel to the orphanage to see how they could help. The experience created an instant bond between the Minnesota high schoolers and the young children of Sangkhlaburi, Thailand. The school group returned home vowing to help with the orphanage’s most immediate need—a permanent structure to house some of the oldest children at the encampment.
To finance that first trip, Lommen baked and sold her own special banana bread at bake sales and other events. She had developed the recipe through many joyful hours of kitchen experimentation five years earlier, when she was 10. At that time, the delectable creation was dubbed by her family as “Madibanani.”
When the group returned from that first trip in March 2012, they began casting around for ideas about how to raise the money to build the house. Lommen kicked her business into high gear and researched how to be a vendor in Minnesota.
“I researched non-profit status and found that with all the regulations, I could actually get more money to the kids by creating Madibanani as a for-profit,” said Lommen. “I put about half of the revenues back into the business to keep it going and then the rest went to Children of the Forest.”
Lommen elected herself “CBO, chief baking officer,” and she found a commercial kitchen near her home where she could more easily crank out the 30 to 60 loaves of banana bread she was selling every week. But one of the most important discoveries during her research was AURI’s nutritional labeling services.
AURI’s Senior Scientist for Food and Nutrition Charan Wadhawan, Ph.D., provided nutritional facts and ingredient listings for Lommen’s three products: Madibanani Chocolotta (banana bread with chocolate chips), Madibanani Classic (banana bread in its unadulterated glory) and Madibanani Naturally (for the more health-conscious consumer, with raisins, dried cranberries and walnuts).
“In general when I conduct nutritional analysis, clients send me their formulation and processing information, and I input that into a nutritional program,” explains Wadhawan, who handles many analysis on variety of products. “I make adjustments for moisture loss and vitamin loss that occurs during baking, and I ensure that the serving size is in compliance with FDA rules. If something is out of range, say there’s too much sugar or too much salt, then I discuss with the client if they want to reformulate their product.”
By the end of the Breck students’ freshman year, Lommen’s class had raised enough money for the project, but Lommen decided to keep at her business to help provide the orphanage with food, clothing and supplies. Along the way, Lommen developed a relationship with Kowalski’s Markets, which carried her products, and helped to boost sales. She also takes orders via her website at www.madibanani.com.
In addition to AURI, Minnesota has other resources for startups. Lommen got a much-needed boost last fall when she was approved for a $1,000 grant through Women Venture in St. Paul.
“We want more small businesses in Minnesota,” said Wadhawan, “Small businesses are major job creators. To help get those businesses off the ground, we provide certain technical assistance.”
Business opens future doors
With all the excitement generated by the fundraising project, word spread throughout Breck and during spring break 2013, 12 students made the trek to help build the new home at the orphanage.
Now about to enter her junior year, Lommen is planning to continue Madibanani at a smaller scale. “The business was a platform to serve social justice,” says Lommen. “I want to do something service related. That could be a number of things. Working directly with people, or working in politics, changing laws to help people.”
Though Lommen no longer markets through the grocery store, she continues Internet-based sales so that she can continue to support Children of the Forest.
“I knew going into this venture that creating a business would benefit me more than any such class could teach me in school,” Lommen says. “Madibanani has landed me an opportunity to spend six weeks in Indonesia this summer and an acceptance letter to a leadership school in Washington, D.C., next year. These are chances of a lifetime that perhaps I wouldn’t have been considered for if I didn’t have something as eye-catching as my own business on my résumé.”
Naturally, Lommen enthusiastically recommends starting a business with a socially conscious motive in mind.
“The children in Thailand keep me going every day,” Lommen concludes. “I would recommend to others that they find a passion of their own. I believe passion is the key to success. If someone cares deeply enough about something, then the possibilities are unlimited.”
Idea to reality: AURI and Madibanani Bread
Idea: Madi Lommen wanted to sell her special banana bread to raise money for an orphanage in Thailand, but she needed help launching her business.
AURI’s role: AURI’s Charan Wadhawan assisted with nutritional analysis and labeling as well as ingredient listings to ensure Lommen met FDA standards.
Outcome: Lommen’s bread helped raise more than $11,000 for a new building at the orphanage, and starting her own business has opened doors for further leadership opportunities for the high school student.