Harlem Business Gains From LaGuardia and Goldman Program

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[Business News]

For Rhys W. Powell, the Founder and President of Red Rabbit, a Harlem-based company that provides healthy meals for children at more than 70 schools in the New York area, 2010 was a breakout year for his young company.

While small businesses were still feeling the effects of the bruising recession, his seven-year-old company’s revenues were going through
the roof, new employees were hired to meet the demands of the company’s expanding client base and larger office space was leased
to satisfy his growing operation.

What happened that year that accounted for this rapid surge in growth? Powell, a financial-analyst-turned-entrepreneur, explained that
some of the growth was attributed to the fact that an increasing number of parents and schools were looking to healthy food choices as a way to combat childhood obesity.  “But, what really helped me was Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses,” he said.

The initiative, which was launched in 2009, is a collaboration between the Goldman Sachs Foundation and LaGuardia Community College that gives small business owners the vital tools—accounting, human resources, negotiating and marketing--they need to grow their businesses.  Goldman Sachs selected LaGuardia as its first community college partner because it has long been recognized as a leader in the local business community.

“There is no other program that is as comprehensive in its scope and so in tune with the needs of the small business owner,” added Powell, who graduated from the program in 2011.  “The skills that they give you in a matter of weeks would take another program two years to cover.  The level of education is the highest, nothing is spared when it comes to the quality of educators, and it’s a practical program, which means that you see the effects even before the end of the program.”

He went on the say that what also sets it apart from other programs is the one-on-one mentoring. During the program, he was assigned to a business adviser who met with him on a regular basis, and upon graduating he was matched with another mentor who is always available to answer questions and address concerns.  

Powell was also able to establish a network with the other 27 business owners in his cohort. “I don’t have to go through the Yellow Pages to find a company; this is the strongest type of referral I can get,” he said.  “I know I am going to get the best quality.”

He has used the services of a classmate who owns a printing company and has established close relationships with other foodservice and catering companies.  “We compare prices, talk about vendors and share best practices,” he said. “And I visit and observe their operations and bring back ideas to my organization.”

Powell said that he always believed that one day he would leave his corporate job to satisfy his entrepreneurial “bug” and start a small
business, but he never thought it would be foodservice.  The opportunity came when a friend asked him to help him find healthy food options for his four-year-old daughter.  “When parents and teachers, and even Google, could not provide a solution,” he said, “Red Rabbit was born.”

Without a background in child foodservice, he struggled for the first few years. His initial approach to creating health food for the young,
finicky eater was to take healthy food enjoyed by adults and serve it to children.  Discovering that didn’t work, he became a “listening”
company, getting feedback from parents, kids and teachers on kids’ favorite foods and then began preparing the dishes in a healthy way.

For example, the company’s crowd-pleasing mac and cheese replaces traditionally used heavy cream with pureed cauliflower.  And its chicken fingers are made from whole white chicken breasts, supplied by an Amish farm in Ohio that feeds their free range chickens an all-natural vegetarian diet; they are breaded with whole wheat breadcrumbs and baked instead of fried.

Each of the meals, from the whole wheat French toast with fruit compote and fresh fruit served for breakfast to the jerk pulled turkey with mild jerk sauce or its vegetarian option, roasted tofu with mild jerk sauce, for lunch, is made from scratch enabling the company to control the ingredients as well as the amount of salt and sugar that goes into the dishes.

By 2007, he said the company began to stabilize and see some growth, and after completing Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses, he was fully prepared to manage that growth.  “I learned how to manage staff, make decisions and feel comfortable making those decisions as well as how to negotiate with vendors, market the company and make sales,” he said.

Powell immediately applied those tools and saw fast results. The thirty K-12 charter and private schools in the New York area he served jumped to seventy plus schools in addition to Head-Start and After-School programs that could all choose from meal plans that offered breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks.  Thirty-one new hires joined his existing 13 employees.  To accommodate the growth, the company moved from an 800-square-foot space to a new 10,000 square-foot space.  And from 2010-2011, revenues doubled surpassing the $2 million mark.

In 2010, the young entrepreneur added an extensive educational program that includes cooking and gardening classes. Once a month staff members, inclusive of a certified dietitian, visit classrooms and cover a particular “healthy food and nutrition topic."  At the end of the sessions, the children are given a recipe card to take home to their parents.  There are Saturday sessions where parents and children come to the kitchen and learn how to prepare healthy meals together.

“The courses were developed when we realized that serving healthy meals during school hours was not enough—there needed to be education around “why” we served food the way we did, and how this healthy food preparation and knowledge could be imparted to parents so they could make their own healthy choices while the kids were out of school as well,” said Powell.  “From how and where fruits and vegetables are grown to how to understand the difference between whole grain and whole wheat and everything in between. We felt without the education we really weren’t achieving our overall health awareness mission.”

Also introduced were gardening classes that give teachers the tools to integrate cooking and gardening education into their curriculum.
Currently, four schools have gardens. Powell is confident that the growth will continue. He is extending his reach to parts of Westchester and Long Island and is planning this summer to open a facility in northern New Jersey.  “10,000 Small Businesses prepared me to lead the company where we are now and where we will be in the future,” he said.

To learn more about the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses initiative at LaGuardia Community College, please:

●       Visit www.laguardia.edu/10ksb

●       Call our team at 718-730-7400 or

●       Email 10KSB@lagcc.cuny.edu

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