By: Emily Haggstrom Issue: Big Ideas, Smart People Section: Business
The better part of America is composed of entrepreneurs who seek a challenge, innovation, risk and investment. In fact, entrepreneurs are the lifeblood of the American economy. From small to large businesses, capitalism is at the core of our society and is the fundamental defining characteristic of a free market that is propagated by this breed of individuals. And while having the next big idea can bring about prosperity for small businesses to cultivate communities, it is the ideas of large businesses that cultivate nations.
In his book Blueprint to a Billion, David Thomson explains that highly successful businesses cannot be realized "from soft subjects such as organization or leadership theory," but through "innovation and growth." Having an idea is merely an essential starting point for business owners. However, seeing the bigger picture of a great idea, "far beyond mere improvements to existing products," but through the, "delivery of breakthrough products," is the core of a highly successful company.
Establishing himself among these highly successful businesses and living the quintessential American dream is David Merage. With absolutely no experience in the food industry and equipped only with ambition, drive and the support of his brother and father, the trio founded Chef America, Inc., a frozen food manufacturer that distributed Hot Pockets and its subsequent brands. Initially, David and his brother Paul tested recipes and designed specialized proprietary equipment to mass produce Belgian waffles, which in 1977 had not yet reached America. Once the waffles gained market share, the group sought to design a product that took their consumer straight from breakfast to lunch.
What started as a Belgium waffles business turned into a frozen food empire overnight with the introduction of their world famous Hot Pockets to schools and vending machines across the country. By 1983, Hot Pockets began distribution to grocery stores and supermarkets around the United States, and eventually their distribution reached 99 percent of the nation. Over 200 products emerged; Hot Pocket eventually went croissant and then turned lean. With $750 million in sales, the brothers looked into taking this business international while diversifying their business. It was after going international that Nestlé, who purchased Chef America, Inc. for $2.6 billion in 2002, approached them to take over distribution and marketing.
With his new fortune, David Merage wanted to take his knowledge of business and management and give back to communities that directly affected his life. Along with his wife, Laura Merage, he formed the David and Laura Merage Foundation, whose mission is to promote self-sufficiency through education and community involvement. By incorporating real business experience combined with an entrepreneurial spirit, the two set off to develop projects intensely focused on benefiting society. The foundation works in two parts—first through private funding and secondly, through grants and public funding. This model allows the Merage’s to be truly diverse in the types of programs and endeavors in which they become involved.
In addition, David continued to seek new ventures and business propositions as a principal for Consolidated Investment Group. Collectively, these partners created not only current project opportunities, but hedged a sustainable future for future projects.
Reviewing the project initiatives, education is a common theme that resonates throughout. "Education empowers people, and gives people the tools that they need to succeed," said Mr. Merage. Their U.S. flagship project, Early Learning Ventures, is focused on early childcare and quality education.
The desire to become involved in education started when the Merage’s had their own children and the challenge to find good schools became a big issue. "We wanted them to have a good experience," said Mrs. Merage. "We are born with creative thinking, but it’s beaten out of us. Unfortunately, by second grade, kids have been taught that it doesn’t pay to think creatively. But we know that if you want to be successful in business, and later in life, you need to have a creative mind." The Foundation uses a results-oriented business approach to develop the Early Learning Ventures Alliance model, a community-based partnership comprised of small childcare affiliates working together to share costs and deliver services in a more streamlined way. The ELV Alliances provide back office support and training to develop high quality early care and education. There are currently eight ELV Alliances in development throughout Colorado.
As an artist and photographer, Laura does not believe education stops with traditional schooling. For her, art fosters local community relationships. Through her pet project, an artist colony aptly named Redline Gallery she invites resident artists, collectors, curators and the public to seek creativity outside the lines by exciting the senses and daring patrons to push the envelope of what is considered art. The massive space supports not only 15-20 emerging artists, but hosts local community events, fosters creative relationships between the art community and local schools, as well as hosts a one-on-one summer program that helps children develop their own artistic expression.
And while the Merages continue to stay focused on children and the community, they are still entrepreneurs at heart. "We provide the best services and quality no matter what we do; we go where not many people are willing to go," said Mr. Merage. The Merages, who hail from Iran, are active supporters of Jewish life and are the only existing foundation in the state of Israel devoted strictly to the development of the southern Negev region. They are targeting the area with over 40 simultaneous projects and 200 partners aligned to promote the Negev as the future of Israel—a place that will embrace all cultures within the region, from Israelis, to Bedouins, and even new immigrants—with the objective of educating the world through business outreach and marketing.
Along with the development of the Negev, through housing and healthcare, the duo has teamed up with two army veterans to establish permanent student villages within the Negev and into the area of Galilee. The Merage Foundation provides support through grants to the Ayalim Association (pronounced Aya-leem) for operating and building expenses associated with the build-out of these small-fee student communities. The catch is that these students live in the houses they have built for themselves. And the payback for the housing is through the 250,000 hours of collective community work the students performed within their own village in 2010. With the establishment of these communities, healthcare and other much needed services will continue to open and be available for the first time to residents in these regions.
The two continue to stay busy and are intimately involved in the day-to-day activities of their various programs with a hands-on management approach. Through the help of an amazing 50 person staff, David and Laura Merage continue to educate, inform, invest, and develop aspects of their lives that they are passionate about—proving that mixing business with pleasure isn’t always a bad thing.