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Pie in the Sky

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Pie in the Sky: Launching a business and feeding the hungry. These female entrepreneurs put helping others near the heart of their enterprises.

Written By Chuck Carrol

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Business schools have traditionally taught would-be small-business entrepreneurs that literally every penny counts. When starting out, owners must mercilessly control costs, the experts caution. Spend on essentials — and only on essentials.

After all, launching a business is hard enough without adding any unnecessary burden to the effort, especially when the enterprise is a specialty food service trying to survive in high-cost Silicon Valley, one of the world’s great foodie capital.

Gourmet pie maker Mari-Lyn Harris, a sole proprietor with precisely zero employees and a typically precarious balance sheet, is well aware of that.

Nevertheless, Harris — whose current iteration of Sedona Pies has been around only since April — donates 5 percent of the profit from every pie to charity. Isn’t that foolish? No, she says, not when that’s one of the things that make all the hard work worth the trouble.
Harris isn’t alone on that viewpoint, either.

According to Jenny Kassan, a Bay Area attorney who helps mission-driven entrepreneurs find funding without having to grovel before “shark tank investors,” having an altruistic vision at the heart of small businesses is a growing phenomenon — especially among women.

I find a lot of times, they just wouldn’t enjoy business if it didn’t do something for the world,” said Kassan, who gives 1 percent of her revenue to environmental causes.

Many women believe giving back to the community is actually good for their businesses from a marketing standpoint, saying it makes them stand out from the intense competition and generates loyal customers or clients.

Harris, like many of her counterparts, baked her community-focused attitude right into her brand and her business plan. “We feeding the hungry, one pie at a time” is her motto. It’s displayed prominently on her website and other marketing material.

Making a living, of course, remains the primary goal, but Harris’s modest donations to charity are consistent with her core principles as an activist and a member of the Unitarian Universalist community. It’s also just a reflection of how she was raised by her parents.

As a micro-business, of course, there’s only so much Harris can do in terms of her community focus. For example, she sources her ingredients locally and buys organic whenever she can, but sometimes she just has to go with the lower-priced traditional ingredients to make it pencil out.


Harris doesn’t actually give her pies straight to the hungry — that’s not exactly the optimum diet. Rather, she donates money to Pinole-based New Hope Farms, run a sustainable community garden and other garden projects.

New Hope, a worker-owned co-op, raises livestock, grows fresh veggies and fruits that are sold in struggling neighborhoods that lack a decent supermarket.

OK, but why did Harris choose to target hunger as the focus of her business largesse? Part of the answer is simply that people have always loved her pies, which she learned to make at the apron strings of her grandmother. So, it’s something she figures she can be successful at.

But the real inspiration came from her experience volunteering in her community and hearing the news about hunger.

If all this injustice is happening in the world,” she found herself wondering, “What injustices am I doing to myself?” So she went out and scrounged up a little financing for a business she could run for the benefit of others, as well as herself. Giving away a sliver of her profit? She wouldn’t have it any other way.

And that’s the bottom line. Growing a movement

Kassan, the attorney who helps entrepreneurs raise funds from people who’d be happy to pitch in for the cause — if only they’re asked — said many women “Kind of count themselves out before they even try.”

But more and more business are successfully raising money for values-driven enterprises, she said, even to the point where some business schools are beginning to cater to the demand, and organizations are forming to help them thrive.

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