Rachel Lichte’s vision for transforming diamond mining practices came from, of all things, bananas. On a backpacking trip through Costa Rica at 18 years old, Rachel says she “saw people working so hard on banana plantations but staying so poor.” Later on, after connecting how diamond miners, like banana farmers, remain poor despite their valuable natural resources – Lichte, with the help of two friends, decided to co-found a business that could help address this inequity in the supply chain – the Clarity Project.
- BA, Cultural Anthropology, Film and Digital Media, University of California – Santa Cruz, 2005
- Master of Environmental Management, Duke University – Nicholas School of Environment, 2014
- Master of Business Administration, Duke University – The Fuqua School of Business, 2014
The Clarity Project was, in Rachel’s vision, a company that “sourced fair diamonds, gems, and metals, sold fine jewelry, and invested profits to improve the lives of diamond miners and their surrounding communities”. Rachel says the Clarity Project tackled “upstream supply chain issues in the diamond industry” and was able to support diamond mining communities by “donating profits to organizations like schools and adult literacy programs to communities move beyond diamond mining.” However, seeing demand for Clarity Project’s products that she and her team was unable to fulfill, Rachel soon felt the need to acquire and formalize a more comprehensive business and environment skillset in order to effectively scale the social venture.
At Duke, Rachel enrolled in the joint MBA-MEM program between The Fuqua School of Business and Nicholas School of the Environment. “In my application and classes, I was clear about my goal of leveraging the resources and the expertise of the institution to help build my business,” Rachel said. “The joint degree program enabled me to access experts across the subject-matter, systems, and skillsets of sustainability and social enterprise.”
At Fuqua and in the greater Duke community, Rachel realized how many opportunities were available for her as both a student and an entrepreneur. “Fuqua is a wonderfully open and safe place to explore entrepreneurial ambitions. Financial resources and thought partners are uniquely available in a setting like Fuqua.”
Even beyond funding that proved beneficial to Rachel’s mission, she noted how important the people surrounding her were in broadening her perspective and sharing their expertise on issues from soil science to sustainable businesses. “The students and professors were eager to help progress the business. I was able to focus my coursework around immediate questions I was facing. For example, in a pricing strategy class, my team dove into a project to understand the potential price premium of a responsibly sourced diamond engagement ring. This was a great learning experience for everyone, and directly applicable,” Rachel said.
Unfortunately, Rachel and her co-founders were forced to reimagine the Clarity Project in late 2014 due to the outbreak of the Ebola virus in West Africa. “Given we were pursuing a risky undertaking, our investor deck covered even those risks that seemed quite far fetched. Unfortunately, we did not have a mitigation strategy for how to manage through the largest communicable disease crisis in the region.” Rachel noted that the decision to move on felt challenging, but ultimately came down to the inability to maintain a supply chain they could trust.
Since leaving Clarity Project, Rachel has remained engaged in social entrepreneurship. For two years, she worked within Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE)’s sustainability team to lead their commitment to the UN Sustainable Development goals, and she managed a global innovation program helping NGOs create technology for social impact. Currently, in addition to independent consulting, she serves as the Marketing and Strategy Lead for BIOMILQ – a Raleigh-Durham area startup committed to offering families a new option for feeding babies using one-of-a-kind technology – a social enterprise led by a Fuqua 2020 MBA.
When asked about what makes being an MBA a valuable experience, Rachel said: “There is this acknowledgment that you are in a learning and absorbing moment. Business school provides a wonderful balance where you can be trusted as a professional and you can be vulnerable as a beginner. ”
In Rachel’s eyes, social impact entrepreneurship represents a unique opportunity that future entrepreneurs should be looking towards to build sustainably for the future. “Where there is waste or inefficiency, there is value lost. Running a business is about creating and capturing value so I see extraordinary opportunities in sustainable business and social enterprise.”