Impact Case Study: Defeating Poverty is More Than a Ritual

Laurien Meuter was a banker who had an idea. Nearly two decades later, she's in the middle of one of the most impactful partnerships Europe has seen

Lukas Strobl 17 October, 2023 | 3:28PM
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Lukas Strobl: I'm at Morningstar's Sustainable Investing Summit 2023 in Amsterdam, and I'm here with Laurien Meuter, a banker turned social entrepreneur who now employs 600 women in Mumbai.

Laurien, how did this come to be?

Laurien Meuter: Yes. So, I was a banker with ABN AMRO here on the Zuidoost in Amsterdam, and I was sent to India for a year. And this was in 2005 and I was so struck by the inequality there that a seed got planted in that year that later became Tiny Miracles. So, five years forward, like 2010, I went back to India with a mission to give more meaning to my life and I ended up in the red-light area where 40 girls were sitting on the streets and the only thing I could think was they need to go to school.

So, I managed to get them all in school. But after a year the parents started taking the kids out of school again to work and then I thought, no, donations are not going to make the difference. The difference is going to be if the parents have work so the kids can be in school. And so, I called Raymond Cloosterman, the founder of [premium skincare brand] Rituals, who had been sponsoring the foundation since the beginning just silently, and I said, forget about your money, give me work because he had 500 stores at the time. So, that's when we actually started developing products with them.

Today, Tiny Miracles exports more than three million products and gives work to 600 women, and we engage all their families as well in our program. So, we have about 3,000 to 4,000 people who are part of our programs. I think what is really great about this is that you can actually see that the products solve a problem. It really solves a problem. So, people who used to live on the streets in 2010 now can buy an apartment. I mean, not an apartment as we know it here in Amsterdam, in the West probably, but it's a room and it's a roof over their heads. It's a structure. And that's something that is, I mean, that I think is – and it's so possible in the world that we can solve a problem with a product.

Now what does Rituals do what other companies might be, sort of, scared of? And that is – so, they prepay us 12 months ahead, which is a huge advantage for us obviously because we don't have the track record and the bandwidth and the time to go around for funding. They give long-term commitments, so they commit for five years. They give very regular orders. So, stuff like that.

LS: So, your organisation pivoted completely from a donation-based model to a social procurement model and yet you don't really see it as commonly. What do you think is holding other companies back from doing that?

LM: Yeah. So, I think there's not enough opportunities for companies to do it on a large scale like Rituals. I mean, you have to make millions of products, you need auditable facilities. Many social enterprises, they work on a very small scale. So, I think that's something – the distance is too big between big commercial companies here and smaller initiatives, say, on the streets, in, for example, countries like India. So, I think that's difficult. So, there is no large-scale option for people to go to. I think that's what's hold them back. I mean, your employees need to think in a different way because you need to develop products together with these communities. You can't just have – so, make this table. If people are unskilled, they're sleeping on the street, they're not going to be able to make this table, for example. So, I think there's still a lot of – how do you say that?

LS: Room to grow.

LM: Yeah, room to grow.

LS: So, there are corporates who would engage in these partnerships, but there need to be more organizations like yours to actually offer them up?

LM: Yeah, exactly. And so, what we've decided now to do together with Rituals is to create more of a platform where we can verify these social enterprises and they can offer their products on our platform because we can bring them closer to the demand here and we can be in between, at least making sure that we have timed delivery, quality control and that everything is according to compliance standards.

LS: We'll link to this platform in our transcript below. Thank you for joining me today, Laurien. For Morningstar, I'm Lukas Strobl.

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Lukas Strobl  is the editorial manager for EMEA at Morningstar.

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