As the granddaughter of one U.S. president (George H.W. Bush) and the niece of another (George W. Bush), Lauren Bush Lauren has seen things that many other CEOs haven’t. But it was her experience as a college student traveling with the United Nation’s World Food Program that helped her find her own path outside of politics.
“I did grow up in a household where the narrative was about public service, and how are you going to effect change and help people,” Bush Lauren said on stage Tuesday at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Next Gen Summit in Laguna Niguel, Calif. “I’m so glad I grew up around that narrative, but I never had the calling to go out and shake hands and try to get elected.”
Instead, as the founder and CEO of FEED Projects, a social business that sells goods produced under fair labor conditions, Bush has found an enterprising way to provide sustainable livelihoods to underserved people as well as serve up school meals that fight child malnutrition in developing countries.
And, according to Bush, Feed accomplishes this best because it’s a for-profit company, not a charity. “First and foremost, we want people to think about us as this do-good brand, not as a charity,” said Bush Lauren. “If you want to give to a charity, I encourage you to give directly to our giving partners, as we’re doing.”
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Bush Lauren’s “aha moment” came while traveling as a college student in Australia, a country that eschews disposable plastic bags. “I thought, why not create a reusable bag that can also be worn as a badge of honor?” She merged that idea with a social issue she had long struggled to get her arms around: world hunger. The result was Feed’s stylish reusable bags that come stamped with the company’s logos, as well as the number of meals the purchase price helped provide to school-age kids.
Feed was born out of the frustration that Bush Lauren had while traveling with the World Food Program, but feeling that she wasn’t doing enough to spread awareness and activate people. “One in nine in the world are hungry—hundreds of millions of people don’t know where their next meal is coming from,” said Bush Lauren. “I knew I wanted to do something about it, and I really didn’t know what that was.”
And hunger is solvable, Bush Lauren says. “We’ve made progress on it in the past few decades, so we know that there are programs and there are solutions,” she says. “There are definite solutions. We don’t need to cure hunger—we know how to solve hunger—it’s food, it’s nutrition, and it’s really a question of access.”
As for access to Feed’s products, that’s increased in recent years, though it almost didn’t get off the ground. Bush Lauren started Feed right before the recession. “The recession hit and I thought, maybe this is a bad time to start a company selling bags,” she says.
But instead, she noticed people becoming more thoughtful consumers. “If they weren’t going to spend all this money, they wanted the things that they were spending on to be more meaningful,” she says.
Over the past 10 years, as the trend of conscious consumerism has taken off, Bush Lauren has seen firsthand how people have lost faith in institutions and politics, and began looking to companies to effect change instead. “It’s this call to action and responsibility in a way that’s being put on businesses even 20 years ago, 30 years ago, that was not there,” she says.
So, when she says companies can be more effective than non-profits at solving problems she believes it. She needs to, because not only her company, but the lives of starving people are at stake.
“Our main mode is to be a business,” says Bush Lauren. “The more we can grow our business, the more we can do, the more we can donate.”