Amelia Pape did not have dreams of being an entrepreneur. But that spirit came alive within Portland State University’s Impact Entrepreneurs program, and it led to the creation of My Street Grocery.
The concept was simple; create a way to get fresh and health food to underserved communities.
But the journey from an idea to actually creating a business, and just as importantly an impact, wended its way through the startup gauntlet. We asked Amelia to share a bit about that experience for our Built Oregon readers, and also the future of My Street Grocery.
What was the genesis for My Street Grocery?
I began working on the concept during graduate school, where I could do in-depth research, write a detailed business plan, and build industry contacts. It began as an exploratory project about food access, and when I realized that it was a convergence of passions—food, innovation, community, and connection—and that there was a very real need in Portland, I decided to pursue it as a business.
Once the concept was hatched, how did you get it launched?
I’ve always been inspired by food and its incredible power to create connection. After joining Impact Entrepreneurs, a program through Portland State University’s School of Business Administration, I was deeply moved to pursue a career in social enterprise. To me, My Street Grocery represented an entry into the field social impact through a unique and personally meaningful platform. I founded the business in 2011 and funded the start-up with business competition prize money and a Kickstarter campaign.
What were some of the early challenges in launching My Street Grocery?
As an entrepreneur, there are moments of reckoning. Moments when you are required to act without enough information to make what feels like a sound decision. One of those moments, for me, was when I parted ways with my business partners at the beginning of 2013 and had to decide whether to run the business alone, or to close. I knew deeply that my work wasn’t yet done, but I also knew that I couldn’t serve my business, my customers, and my mission effectively without a big change.
How did the collaboration with Whole Foods Market come about?
I knew that I didn’t want an investor—I wanted a network of resources and support. I was 29 and running the business alone at the beginning of the summer of 2013, when I told myself that by my 30th birthday—September—I would have made a clear decision about the future of my company. A member of Whole Foods Market’s leadership was on My Street Grocery’s Advisory Board and had served as a mentor to me throughout my start-up process. Through that relationship, I knew the values of WFM were aligned with my own. I discussed with him my desire to partner with an organization that would both protect and extend the mission of My Street Grocery. With his guidance, I created a proposal that would eventually lead to My Street Grocery becoming Whole Foods Market’s first mobile grocery program, and myself becoming the company’s first Food Access Coordinator. It was an emotionally consuming process for me, and a decision that I would continue to make over and over again.
How has the engagement been with the current communities you engage?
The response has been overwhelmingly positive. Customers tell us all the time how much the market means to them. Still, adoption is a slow, long-term process, and we know that building relationships and partnering with others to create access to a comprehensive set of resources takes time. Our most successful markets are those that include organizational partnerships that allow us to offer support programs. A great example of this is our longest running market at a local clinic. Our partnership with the clinic showcases the effectiveness of cross-sector collaboration; customers not only have direct access to fresh foods at the market, but they also have a support network present in the form of their doctor, nurse, dietician, or social worker, as well as financial support through our Food Prescription Program. Our Food Prescription Program will be in its 4th year there this spring, and has since more than tripled in funding, and served as a model for similar programs we’ve started with 9 other clinics. Many of our customers there have been coming to the market every week for the last 3 years, and an internal study conducted last year showed strong positive physical and mental health outcomes in the majority of program participants.
How do you see My Street grocery evolving?
Our goal is to expand our partnerships at clinics and schools and to eventually offer support programs at every market. Though we operate year-round, our schedule is truncated during the dark winter months, and re-expands in the spring. As a rule, the decision to expand into a new location is a collaborative one based on relationship building. This is not a process that can or should be rushed, so our growth will be organic and reflect the rhythm of those partnerships. We’re excited about some new partnerships and market locations to be announced in 2016.