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Living Roots helps communities preserve unique cultures

August 8, 2011

Helping endangered cultures adapt and thrive in the modern world is the noble goal of Living Roots, a venture formed by three alumnae from CSU's College of Business Global Social and Sustainable Enterprise MBA program. The enterprise recently completed its second successful market trial in the village of San Javier, Baja California Sur, Mexico.

olive oil made from the oldest olive trees in the AmericasUnique Sudcalifornio Ranchero culture of Baja California Sur

Since its incorporation last November, Living Roots has focused on proving that the unique Sudcalifornio Ranchero culture of Baja California Sur has economic value that can be captured and invested in the community to enable a sustainable lifestyle that will preserve the culture of the community.  Working hand-in-hand with ranching families, Living Roots identified several products that could be the basis of cultural rejuvenation. These included: olive oil made from the oldest olive trees in the Americas; wine from heirloom grapevines originally brought to the new world by Jesuit missionaries; historically significant saddles and cowboy wear that continue to be handmade and tanned in the traditional style; and, intricate embroidery, an activity enjoyed by women throughout the sierra.

Inaugural cultural festival organized by Living Roots

These products, among others, were on sale during the market trial, part of an inaugural cultural festival organized by Living Roots that showcased regional foods, handmade artisan crafts and demonstrations of traditional skills by master artisans. Living Roots generated a gross margin on sales of approximately 25 percent and a net margin of about 10 percent during this trial, exceeding expectations for a start-up venture in a developing economy. The company is funded through grants, donations and the revenue generated by taking a percentage of product sales in exchange for its services. Consistent with the intent of sustainable enterprise, Living Roots measures its success based on a combination of social impact, environmental sustainability, and financial returns—a triple bottom line.  

The venture is also working with the San Javier community to develop a cultural center that will be a central hub for communications, a venue for special cultural events and a marketplace for the sale of artisanal products of the region.

Inaugural cultural festival organized by Living Roots Stemming the tide of global poverty

“By sticking to a disciplined enterprise approach, and through the remarkable tenacity of their founders, Living Roots has achieved solid early business results in a very challenging sector” said Carl Hammerdorfer, director of CSU’s Global Social and Sustainable Enterprise (GSSE) MBA Program.  “Their work and commitment validates the fundamental value proposition of the GSSE:  That business can improve people’s lives and stem the tide of global poverty.”

McKenzie Campbell, Colleen Lyon and Mila Birnbaum 

Alumna McKenzie Campbell first presented the idea for Living Roots to her GSSE team, Colleen Lyon and Mila Birnbaum, during Professor Paul Hudnut’s Global Social Sustainable Entrepreneurship class. As an instructor for the National Outdoor Leadership School, Campbell had encountered the Ranchero culture in the remote ranching communities of the mountains of Baja California Sur. She had been amazed by the hospitality, skills and ability of these unique people to sustain themselves in such a rugged and arid environment. Community members were afraid that their culture was at risk of disappearing amidst development and the rising costs of living in Baja.

“From the moment McKenzie first presented her idea to form a business designed to help this culture survive, we knew it was more than just a project," said Lyon. "Her passion and commitment was contagious and infused the entire management team. Everyone who became involved with Living Roots could sense it would continue beyond the GSSE program – in some way, shape or form – and felt confident that their efforts were contributing to the success of a going concern.”

Intricate embroidery, an activity enjoyed by women throughout the sierra.Winners of the Opportunities Without Borders Idea-to-Business competition

Winners of the Opportunities Without Borders Idea-to-Business competition, Living Roots works with the community to develop branding, marketing, supply chain and management infrastructure.  In addition, Living Roots assists with agritourism to offer a hands-on cultural experience to interested travelers. Programs to rejuvenate rare and disappearing skills, including a unique program known as “Youth as Stewards” were created to keep these communities alive and vibrant while the world changes.  Over the past year, the team has spent many weeks and months in the village of San Javier and the surrounding mountains, talking to individual ranchers and painstakingly putting together the infrastructure required for the venture.

“What makes Living Roots different is our focus on a community-driven, co-created development strategy in the context of a market-based approach,” said Birnbaum. “This means the community decides what aspects of its culture are important to protect as well as which skills are critical, and Living Roots helps figure out how best to preserve them – all the while building local capacity and empowering the next generation.”

Launching Living Roots

Campbell, executive director, moved to Baja California Sur early this year to launch Living Roots and handles all operational aspects of the venture. Lyon serves as the marketing director and handles the website and blog as well as tags and brochures for products, outreach, promotional videos and public relations. Birnbaum is the community development and legal director and is responsible for planning and implementing capacity-building workshops and educational programs, in addition to overseeing legal matters like corporate governance and compliance issues. The venture was joined by Diana Espinoza Meza, an intern funded by Opportunities Without Borders, who later became its regional program manager. Meza brought critical local perspective to the management team.

More information

To learn more about how Living Roots is working to preserve the Ranchero culture, visit their website or read their blog. To learn more about the GSSE MBA Program, visit the website