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Selim Bassoul ’81, and the portable cookstove his company’s engineers designed for use in refugee camps.

Selim Bassoul ’81, and the portable cookstove his company’s engineers designed for use in refugee camps.

Leveraging core competencies for social good

Global foodservice equipment leader cooks up idea to help Syrian refugees

By Cheryl SooHoo

4/7/2017 - Sometimes a passion for making a social impact can be so powerful it literally ignites.

Driving to the Evanston campus for a student presentation in 2015, Selim Bassoul ’81, founder of the Bassoul Dignity Foundation, nearly started a fire in his car. In the backseat was a portable cookstove his company’s engineers had designed specifically for use in refugee camps. A sunny day in Chicagoland had kicked the innovation’s solar component into high gear.

“He and his assistant needed to pull over because they smelled the carpet burning,” said Eric Anderson, Hartmarx Professor of Marketing and Director of the Center for Global Marketing Practice at the Kellogg School of Management. “This was my first introduction to Selim. His eagerness to share his invention and goal to make life easier for Syrian refugees in his native Lebanon was truly inspiring.”

Since the 2011 outbreak of civil war in Syria, more than one million displaced persons have sought safe haven in neighboring Lebanon. Many live in makeshift refugee camps, which offer little in the way of even the most rudimentary of kitchens. Preparing meals over open fire can take hours for women and children who must search for wood and other fuel sources. This daily burden prevents the adults from finding gainful employment, while their kids are unable attend school. Struck by this hardship, Bassoul hit upon a simple idea to help the refugees: do what you do best. Drawing from his expertise in commercial and residential cookstoves, he embarked upon a collaboration with Entrepreneurs Without Borders on a multi-national project addressing the global refugee crisis.

Strength in serendipity

By the time Bassoul crossed paths with Anderson, he was already deep into the development of the cookstove. However, he saw an opportunity to heighten the project’s impact by partnering with Kellogg and faculty affiliated with the Kellogg Public-Private Interface (KPPI) to address the viability and sustainability of his philanthropic effort. “At Kellogg, we talk a lot about integrating private and public goals to solve serious social issues,” says Anderson. “Collaborating with Selim offered a unique opportunity for the Kellogg community to engage in meaningful dialogue and truly be a part of the [social impact] conversation.”

For his part, Bassoul was seeking a long-term impact that empowers people by providing a fishing rod – not just a fish – and “working with Kellogg helped me to consider the project from the mindset of an economist, enabling me to use evidence-based decision-making to create effective altruism by having a measurable impact,” said Bassoul.

At Kellogg, Anderson put out a call for participants to help advance this worthy project. Full-Time MBA student Michael Gonzalez ’17 happened to be sitting in Anderson’s retail analytics class, when he looked at his email. “There was a message about working on an initiative to deliver low-cost cooking equipment to Syrian refugees,” said Gonzalez. “While the details were vague, I definitely wanted in.” Prior to entering Kellogg’s Full-Time MBA Program, Gonzalez spent 10 years in the U.S. Marine Corps, most recently as a humanitarian assistance planner for Syria. His task? To help those fleeing the violence. “Given the suffering I had seen there, I was passionate about reengaging in the region,” he said. “Then this project serendipitously fell into my lap.”

At the same time, Kellogg faculty member Kara Palamountain came onboard to recruit and assemble the student team. Her global initiatives experience in developing countries made her the perfect project advisor. “We thought a competitive assessment and a measurement of impact report would be helpful first steps,” said Professor Palamountain.

To that end, last spring a team of a half dozen students got to work to better understand the cookstove market. They looked at potential issues with Bassoul’s product such as high fuel costs or health and environmental concerns arising from the smoke of open fire cooking. Interestingly, one of the key student architects of the competitive assessment was a cookstove expert. Duda Cardoso ’16 had spent a summer working for Acumen as a portfolio associate where she focused on, coincidentally, the off-grid energy space.

“The cookstove market is a huge sector,” said Cardoso, now manager for Cacao de Colombia as an Acumen global fellow. “However, most cookstoves are meant to be permanent fixtures. We found that only a few focused on the refugee camp market.”

Inspiring positive disruption

In June 2016, the market research efforts of the Kellogg team appeared on a global stage. Gonzalez accompanied Bassoul to an Ernst & Young-sponsored entrepreneurship conference in Monaco. Serving as the Kellogg consultant on impact measurement, he provided the data to support Bassoul’s call to action: for all companies to look for ways to leverage their core competencies for social impact.

Gonzalez also led a workshop for college students attending the event. He engaged them to think broadly about how they, like Bassoul, might use their skills and resources someday to make the world a better place. For Gonzalez, inspiring these budding entrepreneurs only reaffirmed his passion for using the power of business to do good. “A better world through business is an unwritten core value of the Kellogg community” said Gonzalez, “but I didn’t expect that theme to resonate as well as it did in Monte Carlo.” The group of young entrepreneurs was inspired by the work that Bassoul was doing with his experience with commercial and residential cookstoves. From Germany to Nigeria, students have stayed in touch with Gonzalez, sharing their own new ideas for positive change in business.

This idea is baked into the school’s overarching perspective on social impact. “Selim has successfully leveraged his own skills, network and company competencies to address a pressing human need from a market-based approach. This fits precisely into our Kellogg view that marketplace leaders at every level hold the potential to forge real change for people and communities,” said Professor Megan Kashner, Director of Social Impact.

“I’m proud of the work that we do through Bassoul Dignity Foundation, which extends beyond the cookstove project to provide resources and skills to young adults, services to displaced people worldwide, safe houses for women in need, and scholarships to students all over the world,” said Bassoul.

And the foundation’s work has not gone unnoticed – in 2016, Bassoul was honored by Ernst & Young for his ongoing philanthropic endeavors, and in 2017, he was named a Kellogg Youn Impact Scholar. “I’ve never tackled a problem of this scale. This issue affects millions of people. Working with Kellogg has helped me work towards making my efforts sustainable and impactful,” said Bassoul.

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