Alumni in Action

Public Service Spotlight

Alicia Polak

MPA-PNP - 2001

President Khaya Cookie Company, South Africa

Alicia Polak, who had been an investment banker before Wagner, is now a successful social entrepreneur, having launched a company from the ground up in Cape Town, South Africa. Her venture, the Khaya Cookie Company, works to “Create Opportunity One Bite at a Time.” Take it from her website:

The Khaya Cookie Company is committed to the creation and building of a company that is sustainable and to create Societal Wealth by reducing the "tin-cup dependency". The Khaya Cookie Company helps people earn an income so they are no longer reliant upon hand outs.

Polak ended up making cookies in South Africa somewhat by chance. Her original goal was to work for the International Rescue Committee. Sitting in their offices waiting for an interview, she found a pamphlet on the Freeplay Foundation, an organization that distributes self-powered radios to vulnerable populations, tucked into the materials IRC had given her. Polak had already become interested in South Africa from a previous internship supervisor, and reading about Freeplay’s work in countries across Africa further fed her interest. When she didn’t get the IRC internship, she wrote to the Director of the Freeplay Foundation offering to work as a consultant during winter break. The director responded saying that if Polak was serious she would intern, unpaid, at the foundation for the full next semester. So that’s what she did -- Polak created an exchange program with the University of Cape Town’s business school, and by that summer she was on a flight to South Africa, beginning a journey that would change her life forever.

Polak ended up spending almost her whole second year of Wagner in Cape Town and other parts of Africa. She created a Capstone project around the Freeplay Foundation and traveled with a few other Wagner students to Mozambique for their report, “The Evaluation and Dissemination of Freeplay Radios.” Polak credits her Capstone as one of the top ten experiences in her life. She says she doesn’t think any other school would have allowed such a project. She says Capstone gave her an opportunity for “experiential learning, which is really how [her] mind works.”

After returning to New York for graduation, Polak briefly wound up back in the banking world. Eventually Freeplay received enough funding to hire her full-time in South Africa, to do radio distribution logistics and supply chain work. It wasn’t long before she felt like she wasn’t making enough of an impact giving radios away. She felt as if she were handing out fish as opposed to fishing rods.

“Wagner taught me a lot of things” she said. “I had exemplary professors such as Professor Sparrow, who taught me to think outside the box.” Every time one flies into Cape Town, the plane arrives over the shantytowns of Khayelitsha, where almost one million people live in shacks. Polak wondered what she could do to create opportunity in this location. Thinking hard, she had always admired Ben & Jerry’s and their economic justice work. While she knew she couldn’t start an ice cream factory, she decided to start a cookie company instead.

Using her own funds, Polak started the Khayelitsha Cookie Company with one employee, a tiny kitchen, and three hand held electric mixers. Working at The Khayelitsha Cookie Company allowed employees to pay for basic necessities they couldn’t otherwise afford, such as shoes for their kids or a trip to the clinic. Polak, with her employees relying on the company’s progress, quickly figured out the South African market, and soon got a hotel chain to buy the tasty cookies they were producing. The Khayelitsha Cookie Company became profitable and has since been sold to local South Africans. Polak subsequently started the Khaya Cookie Company to produce cookies for the U. S. market. It has a much bigger, FDA-compliant facility which produces a range of cookies: shortbreads baked with indigenous South African ingredients such as Rooibos tea, Krunchies “Greater than Granola bars,” and brownies which contain Madagascar vanilla. These have been designed to appeal to American consumers. While Khaya cookies are currently only available online, Polak is working to get her products into gourmet food stores and coffee shops across the US. Recognized for her good work and great product, in 2007 she won the Food Network’s award for Edible Entrepreneur of the Year.

Polak knows that the skills she gained from Wagner have been invaluable in starting and running her companies that “create opportunity one bite at a time.” She recalls Mary McBride’s Organizational Development class, Adjunct Professor Stella Strasdis’ Strategic Management class and, of course, Professor Sparrow. Classes with these professors, along with Capstone, prepared Polak for her social entrepreneurship work. Determined for the Khaya company to be successful -- and knowing that a lot of people’s welfare depends on that success -- Polak forges onward. You can learn more her work (and her amazing cookies) on the Khaya Cookie Company website.