Just like there’s no “right” way to give back to your community, there’s no one way to build a business with a social impact. You might want to start a nonprofit, collaborate with underrepresented populations, or perhaps build a product that caters to an underserved community. 

But all of these routes are made easier with a solid business foundation. Globally, investments in socially motivated companies are on the rise, but they still represent only 2 percent of total venture capital investments. That means founders need every advantage — from best-in-class advisors, to access to investors, to exclusive grant funding — to build a business that can make a difference. 

Three scholars from Columbia Business School — current student Maria Paula Vargas and recent graduates Kevin Moses ’23 and Lacie Pierre ’23 — have all built businesses that are already having an impact in their communities. These three innovators share how they made their ideas a reality, leveraging their time at CBS to help make it happen. 

Pájara Pinta: Investing in Communities Through Design

Pájara Pinta started with one backpack. Maria Paula Vargas was in her first year studying design at Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá, Colombia, when she and classmate Isabella Domínguez were given a class assignment: Analyze a company, and create a product that can help solve one of their key challenges. They chose a French clothing designer that was struggling to break into the Colombian teen clothing market because the students largely wear uniforms. So the pair designed a backpack with leather details and beautiful, bright fabrics and worked with a local artisan who produced it by hand. “By the end of the semester, even the teacher wanted the backpack,” Vargas says. 

Today, the former classmates run a lifestyle brand that partners with Latin American artisans to ethically produce handmade designs. The name Pájara Pinta means colorful bird, a reference to a famous Spanish children’s song, and it embodies the company’s ethos: to use fashion and design as an invitation to nature, and to bring color, joy, and inspiration into people’s lives.

At the heart of the company are its relationships with rural and indigenous communities in Colombia and beyond. One of the company’s most popular products is a Colombian mochila, a handwoven shoulder bag that’s traditionally made in the region where Vargas grew up. “When I visited my parents, I took a roadtrip to the outskirts of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in search of the Kankuamo indigenous communities,” Vargas says. With a tip from her aunt, she started knocking on doors. “Eventually, I found a woman that had informally started gathering other women to make mochilas.”

Pájara Pinta brought its designs to that collective, and they’ve been cocreating ever since. The company has also partnered with the female leader of the Kamentsá tribe that makes hand-beaded totems, as well as with an artisan community in Nariño, Colombia, to make a new line of hats. 

Pájara Pinta partners with local artisans, indigenous communities, and single mothers in Latin America who help keep traditional art forms alive while fitting the work into their daily lives. “They also have kids running around, or they have a cow to milk,” says Vargas. “[They’re] just living their natural pace of life.” 

When Vargas decided to get her MBA at Columbia Business School, she and her business partner promised each other that no matter where their lives took them — to new roles or new opportunities — they’d find a way to give anything they learned back to Pájara Pinta. And that’s exactly what Vargas has done. 

She just completed her first year at CBS, and already, Professor Len Sherman’s class, Strategies for Long-Term Growth, helped her see past the everyday fires of running a startup. In addition, her Global Economic Environment core class helped her understand the impact of US economic policies on Colombia and how that should inform her company’s import and export strategy. And Vargas has had the opportunity to get feedback from other students with venture capital, private equity, and finance backgrounds and received advice on how outside investment might affect the company.

But perhaps the most invaluable aspect of her program has been the CBS community. A few months before she enrolled, Pájara Pinta started working on a deal with Anthropologie. “I was in class when I got a text from my business partner and my team saying, ‘We're officially live on Anthropologie!’ and I just jumped up,” she says. Her classmates asked how they could support her, and 40 of them shared her products on social media, tagging Pájara Pinta and Anthropologie. In just two days, 97 percent of her company’s products were sold.

“It didn’t happen through a formal channel — just by being surrounded by that community,” Vargas says. “And then Anthropologie was emailing, asking when we’re doing our next collaboration, which is now in production.”

Hippo: A New Space for Food Trucks

In 2021, Kevin Moses knew he wanted to be in the technology sector, but with a bachelor’s degree in business and a background in investment banking, “I really didn’t have the technical talent,” he says. 

Then he learned about the Columbia Build Lab, a Lang Entrepreneurship Center program that connects MBA students working on a startup with Columbia engineers that can build prototypes. “Getting access to those resources and development talent is what drove me to Columbia Business School — to help me get something off the ground and see if whatever I am building has legs.”

“Whatever he’s building” became hippo, an online marketplace for New York City’s food trucks. By providing a whole business management tool belt including payment processing, checkout optimization, and online menus, hippo helps food truck vendors increase sales and broaden their customer base. 

Nationwide, at least 30 percent of food truck vendors are immigrants, often dealing with exploitative garages and limitations on their supply chain. “This demographic has been taken advantage of at various points throughout the value chain,” Moses says. 

That meant building trust, which started one truck at a time. Many of the truck owners don’t speak English fluently, so they’d ask their kids to interpret for them or have full conversations through Google Translate. As those relationships grew, though, Moses found it easier to establish connections with new food truck owners. “The network effects of this space are very dramatic,” he says. “Everyone knows each other.” Hippo now has 50 trucks in its system, and it’s still growing. 

While the Columbia Build Lab was essential to building the company’s product, CBS’s contributions didn’t end there. Because Moses already had an undergraduate business degree, he was able to test out of many core classes and dive into electives that could help him develop his business. Launch Your Startup with Professor Jack McGourty was foundational to his work on hippo, as was Professor Ross Goldenberg’s class, Growth Hacking. Moses was able to use his company as an independent study, and throughout his two years at CBS, access to professors felt “like free consulting,” he says. 

Moses also found his first customers in the Columbia community — by getting to know the food trucks around campus. Fauzia Abdur-Rahman, whose family owns a Jamaican fusion truck called Fauzia’s Heavenly Delights, found that hippo’s online ordering helped her serve students who didn’t have time to wait in line between classes. “I’m just really excited that Kevin and his team thought of this,” she says, “because that doesn’t happen often. We’re often overlooked. So the fact that we have something that’s literally catered to us, to make things a little easier, has been amazing.”

The Wash House: Turning Laundry into Opportunity

If you’re in Columbia’s neighborhood and your Internet goes down or you need a washing machine, you probably only need to walk a block or two to find a laundromat or a business with Wi-Fi. 

But the convenience New Yorkers take for granted is often a luxury in rural Mississippi, where Lacie Pierre’s nonprofit, The Wash House, is based. “These towns often have nothing more than a liquor store and a gas station,” Pierre says. In many towns, even if you have your own washing machine, the water from the tap runs brown. “Typically, we see people having to drive 30 miles or so to be able to access laundry.” 

Lacie’s mom grew up just outside of Jackson, and she and Lacie’s dad bought and revived The Wash House’s first launderette in her hometown of Edwards. When her mom passed away in 2022, Lacie and her family continued the project in her honor, reviving distressed launderettes and turning them into community resource centers. “We use the laundrette as a platform to be a resource oasis in an opportunity desert,” Pierre says. Those resources include Internet access — more than 40 percent of households in rural Mississippi can’t afford broadband — as well as spaces to do homework and prepare for interviews.

“Within our first year, families have been able to come into our space, where their family does laundry, and students have been able to do homework or apply for colleges,” Pierre says. “We have some people who are the first in their family to go to four-year institutions.”

In their newest launderette, they also offer a coworking space for barbers, hairdressers, and nail technicians — an incubator for professionals who can’t yet afford to rent their own space. Pierre notes that it has a compounding benefit for the community. “Now, we’re able to do promotions for the community, like back-to-school barbering and hair services.”

Pierre’s time at CBS has had a quantifiable impact on The Wash House: Pierre received a $25,000 grant from the School’s Tamer Fund for Social Ventures and then competed in Columbia’s School of Professional Studies’ Greater Good Challenge, winning both first-place and audience-pick awards totaling $11,000.

CBS also helped Pierre build the company’s resilience. Many nonprofits depend largely on grants to stay afloat. But at CBS, Pierre strategized ways to make The Wash House self-sustaining. “I think what's important — particularly coming out of business school — is to make sure that if one grant disappears, we suddenly aren't able to operate,” Pierre says.

That foundation ensures the company will be able to continue growing with the needs of the communities, Pierre says. “When I think about where my family has come from, I think, ‘I want to be able to bring the best-in-class knowledge to this town of a thousand people.’”