Paul Rice: Fair Trade U.S.A. Founder Shares Passion for Social Innovation

Inside USD -- What’s your inspiration, USD students? Don’t know? No problem. Paul Rice didn’t know either. He just knew he wanted to do something, do his part, to fight rural poverty. Upon graduating from Yale University, he bought a one-way plane ticket to Nicaragua and to, he said, “put myself out there.”

On the surface, Rice’s plan could have easily gone awry, he admitted: “Maybe I’d go there for a year, come back and do something ‘sensible.’”

Eleven years later — Ronald Reagan was president when he left the U.S. and Bill Clinton was in the White House when he returned — Rice enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley and got an MBA. His purpose was clear. He had served as a rural development specialist in Nicaragua, but during the last four of those 11 years, he learned about the fair trade business industry, its practices and how the poorest farmers, whose crops were worth far more than what the market had been paying them, could prosper.

Once Rice learned about this method, he was inspired. He then led a coffee export cooperative, PRODECOOP, that provided amazing, life-altering results for farmers and their families: the cooperative initially helped 24 local families — each one very skeptical, he noted — through its fair trade practices. Three years later, the number of families onboard swelled to 3,000. It was a social change movement at its finest.

Rice said farmers who had been getting a dime per pound for their coffee beans, were getting $1.40 per pound. Money that came in not only helped farmers earn fair value for their hard work and quality product, but money went back into these small communities and provided essentials such as clean water and medical aid. A scholarship program was developed so that children had an educational pathway beyond the elementary school level of their parents.

Today, nearly 14 years since setting up Fair Trade USA, now the leading third-party certifier of products such as coffee, tea, rice, bananas and chocolate (cocoa) in the U.S., Rice, its president and CEO, remains committed to what he first discovered in Nicaragua. As the words appear on Fair Trade USA’s logo indicate “Every Purchase Matters.”

Rice Inspires at USD Social Innovation Challenge Idea Lab

Rice, an Ashoka Fellow, was on USD’s campus Sept. 18. He was the featured speaker for the kickoff Idea Lab Series event connected to the 2013 Social Innovation Challenge (SIC). He wanted to inspire USD students with his story and to let them know that thinking big — and having an idea bigger than yourself — is encouraged.

“It starts with passion,” Rice said. “If you find something you feel strongly about and you’re willing to do it, do it! Do it even if you don’t know exactly how you’ll do it. I wasn’t a social entrepreneur when I went to Nicaragua. But, in those four years, we just weren’t running a coffee cooperative, we were helping change people’s lives.”

The SIC, run by USD’s Center for Peace and Commerce, offers $40,000 in total prize money to help fund USD student entrepreneurial ideas. The competition is open to all USD undergraduate and graduate students.

SOLES Nonprofit Leadership and Management graduate student Teresa Smith (2012 winner, pictured) and undergraduate alumna Tiffany Owen ’12 (2011 winner), combined their passion with an idea that, like Rice, seeks to create tangible, positive change.

Two USD junior mechanical engineering students, Connor Lind and Sean Schrag-Toso, attended Tuesday’s event and are interested in applying for the SIC.

“It was definitely inspiring to hear him talk,” said Lind about Rice.

When asked about any potential ideas, especially ones utilizing their engineering skill set, Schrag-Toso said it was too early to pinpoint one thing.

“Nothing concrete yet, we’re still planting the seeds,” he said.

The Idea Lab Series, the next event is Oct. 2, serves as a guide for students as they hone their ideas, allowing them to ask questions and get honest advice from professional social entrepreneurs.

What is known is that the SIC is a worthwhile pursuit for students whose curiosity and passion matches that of the younger Paul Rice and the man who continues to pursue fair trade practices for food, apparel, and has interest in expansion of the concept in the fishing and mining industries. Fair Trade USA also works with colleges. USD was designated as its 10th Fair Trade University in May.

It’s another chance for students to be educated about the possibilities to do something big, something innovative.

“I don’t think there’s ever been a better time to be a social entrepreneur,” Rice said. “If you follow your passion, it’ll put you on the right path.”

— Ryan T. Blystone