Blue Marble Founder Alexis Gallivan: When Social Work Met Ice Cream

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Nestled between containers of Italian sorbet and frozen yogurt bars, I saw a cheerful pint of ice cream staring back at me through the Whole Foods freezer case. “Blue Marble…Organic?!” I read to myself excitedly. Organic food enthusiasts like me know that there are not many organic options when it comes to ice cream, so I was intrigued by my new discovery. The sunny yellow label begged me to take it home… and the rich, creamy treat quickly became a favorite in my household.

Only a few weeks later while glancing at my alumni page on Columbia University’s website, I saw a feature on a graduate named Alexis Gallivan. She was a member of my graduating class, she had a unique career story, and she was the founder and owner of…(what?)…Blue Marble Ice Cream!

The compelling feature left me craving more information about my inspiring classmate’s experience. I reached out to Alexis as a fellow alum and organic enthusiast, and she graciously agreed to share her fascinating journey with me for What Lara Wrote. I quickly learned that there was much more to the story than a tasty dessert. 

After receiving her Master’s in Social Work from Columbia, Gallivan worked with African Services Committee in Harlem. The organization, which addresses the needs of NYC’s African immigrant and refugee community, provided Alexis with valuable experience and rewarding work, but she soon felt frustrated by what she experienced as a deep and needless divide between the doers and the donors. “I felt that the traditional funding mechanisms were antiquated and that the absence of innovation in our partnerships and methodologies really limited our collective impact,” Gallivan said.

Around that time, Alexis moved from Manhattan to Brooklyn and, being an ice cream fanatic, was dismayed to discover that there were virtually no good scoops to be found in her new neighborhood. After complaining for weeks about this, she had her “eureka moment.”

“Maybe I can continue to push for social change, but through business…an ice cream business!” She cites the impact-driven approach of companies such as Newman’s Own and Patagonia but recalls that there were very few prominent examples of socially-conscious, progressive businesses at the time to use as inspiration or templates to follow. Still, she felt there was a lot of potential to explore in this new model and, despite her complete lack of business training or experience, she set out to give it a try.

So, in 2007, Alexis and good friend Jennie Dundas partnered up to open a new ice cream company in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn. In line with their environmentally-conscious vision for the product, they chose to name the company “Blue Marble” after the Earth’s nickname. And they aimed to fill a void in the quality dessert market while contributing to the greater good. “We wanted to demonstrate our intent to affect positive change in some way,” she recalled.

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Alexis Gallivan, left, with Blue Marble co-founder and co-owner Jennie Dundas in their first ice cream shop in Brooklyn. Photo by Piper Watson.

One of the first goals Alexis and Jennie had for their ice cream company was to support organic farming. “We are big advocates of organic agriculture,” she told me. So they went through the rigorous process involved in certifying a product as organic. Blue Marble sources its milk from Organic Valley, a cooperative known for supporting its farmers and producing high-quality organic dairy.

Alexis and I discussed the popular debate over the safety of organic versus conventional food, as well as the higher price of organic options. And after doing what clearly has been extensive research of the benefits of organics, she has a simple, sensible take on this.

“It really boils down to one’s definition of value,” she says. “If you value the environment you’ll buy organic products, since their production decreases agrochemical needs and mitigates global warming. If you are concerned about GMOs, you’ll buy organic because organic companies are forbidden from using any GMO-derived ingredients in their products. If you value the farmers and workers who grow and raise your food, you’ll buy organic because they were not exposed to toxic chemicals in the process.” And last but certainly not least, Alexis cites the value of organic products as they relate to personal health. “You don’t need to be a scientist or doctor to understand that the less chemicals we use in our food the healthier we will be. So if we value our physical well-being, we will consume organic products.”

As its name suggests, Blue Marble Ice Cream has incorporated a respect for the Earth into its delicious product. “When you taste Blue Marble, you’re tasting nature,” Gallivan says. “Nothing artificial…it’s as wholesome, honest, and real as it gets.”

In addition to their goals of organic standards and exceptional taste, Alexis and Jennie also wanted to create an ice cream that was pure and uncomplicated. With so many flavors on the market today that mix in multiple sugary toppings, the smooth, straightforward texture of Blue Marble’s flavors sets it apart. And according to Gallivan, that is quite intentional. “When companies add in all those things, they take up valuable real estate that would otherwise be filled with cream, which is the most important (and expensive) part of the ice cream,” she explained. “Do you want two scoops of candy bars or something rich and velvety and real? We value simplicity, and that’s what we deliver in our product.”

The small business, which began as a social worker’s simple idea, enjoyed quick success and is now sold in major retailers like Fresh Direct and Whole Foods and can be shipped nationwide via FoodyDirect.com. It also started receiving high-profile attention as the organic ice cream brand that is, well, cool. It’s been featured on The Today Show, Good Morning America and Fox & Friends and has been served to the cast and crew of popular shows such as The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver and Saturday Night Live. JetBlue serves travelers Blue Marble as part of its Mint Experience. And for the coolest, ice cream-loving brides and grooms, Blue Marble ice cream carts are available to rent for wedding receptions.

Just as she envisioned, Blue Marble had become a successful business based on socially-conscious ideals. But if an organic commitment and community-level philanthropy were not enough, in 2008 Gallivan used her ice cream and her social work background to make change on a global scale.

“From the beginning, we knew we wanted to develop some kind of community outreach project that would create positive opportunities and experiences for people, but we didn’t want to force it – we felt the right opportunity would emerge organically” Gallivan recalled. And this opportunity knocked when Jennie Dundas met Kiki, a woman from Rwanda.

Kiki told Jennie that her town in Rwanda needed an ice cream business. Puzzled at the impractical choice of ice cream, Jennie and Alexis questioned how this was a priority for Kiki’s community, where most people had never even seen or tasted ice cream. But Kiki explained that the store would create jobs for women and help stimulate the local economy. “She also wanted to create a space dedicated to joy for friends and family to gather and continue the healing process that was still ongoing more than a decade after the genocide,” Alexis explained.

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Alexis Gallivan with the women of Inzozi Nziza in Rwanda.

Alexis and Jennie accepted the challenge and began the process of setting up an ice cream shop in Rwanda. Gallivan traveled to the community, oversaw the creation of the shop, and trained the women in Kiki’s town to be business owners. “It was relatively easy to teach the mechanics of the business,” she recalled, “but helping the women prepare for the uncertainty and stress involved in business ownership was a bigger challenge.” It was also quickly apparent that there were some deep cultural differences around leadership and communication that she needed to navigate. “We had to learn how to slow down and allow some things to unfold on their own, which was a a good but tough lesson for an aggressive, type-A business woman from New York City like me,” she joked.

imageSetting up the ice cream business in Rwanda was a highly challenging task, but two years after the process began the store was opened. It is named Inzozi Nziza, which means “Sweet Dreams.” The story of Alexis and Jennie’s incredible endeavor was made into an award-winning documentary of the same name.

And so was born Blue Marble Dreams, the non-profit branch of Blue Marble Ice Cream dedicated to philanthropy. Today, Alexis serves as Executive Director of Blue Marble Dreams, a perfect position for a trained social worker. She has been busy for the last two and a half years working on a similar store opening in Port au Prince, Haiti. The complicated logistics of this process are hard to believe (she is currently working with customs to get the shop, which was built in pieces in Texas, cleared for shipment.) But as Gallivan confidently stated, “I never shy away from a challenge.” And despite the many obstacles that await with this new venture, “Failure is not an option.” The shop, which will be called Bèl Rèv (“Sweet Dreams”) is scheduled to open this summer.

While traveling the world for global good, Alexis and Jennie still remain focused on growing their business back home. And Blue Marble’s Brooklyn home base is a key ingredient to its character and story. Much of their ice cream is produced in the company’s production facility in Sunset Park, which has the distinction of being the only certified organic ice cream plant in New York City. Gallivan expresses her pride in Blue Marble being one of the brands which started the “artisanal food craze in Brooklyn that has since rippled across the U.S. and profoundly changed the way we eat.” The ice cream has a special relationship with the colorful borough, and has even earned a spot as the exclusive ice cream supplier at the Barclays Center. “Brooklyn is known for being tough but loyal,” Gallivan said. “We’ve been inspired by those qualities and learned to fold them into the leadership of our business by being tough enough to withstand the competition while loyal to our founding principles and identity.”

In less than ten years since starting Blue Marble, Alexis and Jennie have created an amazing product, a growing company, an awesome marketing strategy, and a philanthropic mission that is being met globally in incredible ways. So I had to ask Alexis where she hopes to see Blue Marble go from here.

“We want to take our place on the national stage and become the next Ben & Jerry’s (Lex and Jennie’s, I guess you could say!) We feel that it’s only a matter of time before an organic brand takes the throne, and no one has a better product or story than Blue Marble.”

 

More information about Gallivan’s ice cream company can be found at BlueMarbleIceCream.com 

 

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