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Giselle Aris – Lasting impact through a passion for partnerships, private sector development and women’s empowerment
Our Director of Strategic Partnerships and New Ventures' commitment to advancing global economic development started at a very early age
When Giselle Aris was seven years old, her final assignment as a second-grade student was to write down what she would do if she was in charge of the world. She wrote:

If I were in charge of the world, wishes would come true and no one would ever get sick. Everything you wanted to buy would cost 3 cents, houses would cost 5 dollars and some things would even be free. It would be easy to get jobs and there would never be famine. I would have my own room and we would always have fun.

This inclination toward social justice has never left Giselle, and she continues to pursue the goals of food security, employment, health and shelter for all as Land O’Lakes Venture37’s Director of Strategic Partnerships and New Ventures.

Giselle doesn’t know when or where, precisely, she became aware of the impact that social justice issues have on communities. It may be that growing up in the Bronx, New York, where hunger and poverty are facts of life for many people, a seed was planted. International experiences further cultivated her awareness. As an undergraduate student, Giselle recalls: “I spent half a year studying at the University of Ghana. It was a world so different from the one I had grown up in, yet there were so many similarities. There still are. In both places, for many people the line between a) being able to keep one’s family fed, clothed, sheltered, healthy and educated and b) not being able to do so, is troublingly thin. For women in both places, the glass ceiling keeps getting higher, but remains so challenging to break through.”

Economic development through partnerships

Giselle’s undergraduate studies and experiences led her to pursue a master’s degree in International Development at the University of Oxford, where she was accepted and supported by a Thouron Scholarship. Giselle’s fieldwork during her years at Oxford focused on agriculture cooperatives engaged in international trade.

Recounting her fieldwork in the Philippines, Giselle explains, “The farmers were the true leaders and decision-makers in these cooperatives. They were reviving heirloom rice varieties that were more nutritious and environmentally sustainable than mainstream varieties, and from the most remote rice terraces, they were engaged in numerous fair-trade relationships and exporting to Europe and the US. Subsistence communities were being transformed into hubs of economic growth responding to market demand – and the foundation of this ongoing transformation was a number of effective, long-term partnerships.”

Since completing her degree at Oxford, Giselle has engaged in economic development work across the globe. She first worked with the Deshpande Foundation in India, where she designed, raised investment for, managed and profitably scaled a smallholder farmer-owned dairy enterprise.

“The success of the business was based on people and partnerships,” says Giselle. “We partnered with a microfinance organization that was willing to learn about the particular needs of smallholder dairy farmers, and then design a new loan product that met those needs and incorporated women-friendly characteristics like movable collateral. We partnered with investors who saw value in blending patient capital with more mainstream investments. We partnered with women community leaders, who were key to engaging over 3,000 farmers in the enterprise and facilitating massive growth in production.”

After her years in India, Giselle joined Land O’Lakes Venture37 as a Congressional Hunger Center Fellow. She began by working as a Senior Technical Advisor on a USDA Tanzania Dairy Development Project, where she optimized sales and operations models for dozens of local agribusinesses and spearheaded the first female cohort of Tanzanian dairy breeding technicians.

"At the time, there was a lot of emphasis on women farmers attending farm management trainings, and much less attention given to getting women engaged in key economic growth areas in the private sector, both as employees and as business owners. Our work helped shift the focus to women gaining relevant vocational skills and becoming successful entrepreneurs. One of the main reasons we were able to achieve strong results quickly was because we secured support from male family and community members as women transitioned to new types of employment,” says Giselle.

Giselle has been involved in numerous Venture37 projects that facilitate growth of women-owned enterprises. Pictured here is Giselle with Mwanaharusi, one of the many women Venture37 partnered with during the USAID Innovations in Gender Equality to Promote Household Food Security program in Tanzania. A combination of technology design and business skills training supported Mwanaharusi in developing a time- and labor-efficient oil extractor and becoming a first-time entrepreneur. She now employs 45 people. This photo was taken just after Mwanaharusi told Giselle she was using some her profits to pay not only for her daughter to attend school, but also for her own adult education classes.  

The importance of shared value for competitiveness and growth

Giselle brings over a decade of experience in facilitating inclusive partnerships and accelerated business growth to her work at Land O’Lakes Venture37. This experience is complemented by the tools and skills Giselle acquired while completing her MBA at Wharton, where she served as Director of Investments at Wharton Impact Investing Partners.

“I love dreaming up new types of shared value partnerships,” says Giselle. “The kind of partnerships where the financial value created by a business also generates real social value. Leading this type of work while at Wharton strongly influenced the way I pursue effective partnerships at Land O’Lakes Venture37.”

At Land O’Lakes Venture37, examples of successful shared value partnerships abound. Two of Giselle’s favorites are from projects in Sri Lanka and Kenya:

In Sri Lanka, the eight-year BIZ+ project engaged the private sector to create economic recovery in a post-conflict country by creating jobs and income-earning opportunities. By the end of the project, BIZ+ leveraged $22 million in private sector investment, created over 8,000 full-time jobs, and 81% of partner businesses improved their capacity score through the effective use of business development services. “I am so proud of the thousands of meaningful employment opportunities BIZ+ facilitated, and the long-lasting impact of this project. I’ve been telling everyone I know to read through the BIZ+ Enterprise Development Report, so that folks can learn more about all the ways private sector development can create positive change in Sri Lanka.”

In Kenya, the five-year Feed the Future Kenya Innovation Engine (KIE) program identified and brought to scale innovative private sector solutions to food insecurity, malnutrition and poverty. In total, 1,400 enterprises (including producer organizations and women’s groups) benefitted from KIE-supported services and products, over 70 business development services relationships were facilitated, and the value of incremental sales attributed to KIE surpassed $25 million.  

“Enterprises we worked with, across both of these projects, reached a level of growth, innovation and profitability that enabled them to attract millions of dollars in private sector investment,” says Giselle. “That’s how competitive these businesses were able to become – and they accomplished this while simultaneously advancing women’s careers and employing people from marginalized, economically disadvantaged communities.”

The path to global prosperity is partnership

“At Land O’Lakes Venture37, I have the privilege of working with people and partners locally and internationally who share the same core beliefs I do: Through inclusion, innovation and entrepreneurship, there is a path to global food security and economic opportunity for all. To rapidly advance along this path, we need to work together to share knowledge, create breakthrough solutions, and change the world for the better. This work is urgent and deserves our full attention,” says Giselle.

Her second-grade vision hasn’t been granted yet – lasting solutions to hunger and poverty are monumental wishes – but every day, Giselle’s work with Venture37 and partners pushes us in the right direction.
By Laura Schmidt 03/09/2020 #Blog