Global Village Foods: “The way we’d make it for you, if you came to dinner”

Written By:

Nancy Demuth ‘22
Creative Director
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Tahagod Mohamed ‘22
Contributing Writer
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Global Village Foods’ range of frozen meals. Credit: Global Village Foods

As busy SI-MBA students, frozen food has become a staple of our diets this year. Luckily for us, few frozen food options are tastier, or healthier, than those made by Global Village Foods – a Vermont-based family business whose delicious meals are readily available in Burlington.

Global Village Foods’ founders Damaris and Mel Hall – from Kenya and Memphis, respectively – are on a mission to make delicious, nutritious, allergen-free African food accessible to everyone. Currently a first-generation family business, the second generation is already getting involved, with the couple’s daughter, Wangene, making an impact as Director of Marketing.

To hear the story behind the delicious meals we’ve been enjoying throughout the year, we spoke with Damaris and Mel to hear more about their business’ unique story and philosophy.

What’s the story of Global Village Foods so far?

Damaris: When I moved to Vermont 30 years ago, I found it very difficult to adjust to the food. I missed African and Kenyan food, but ethnic foods were difficult to find back then. In my moments of desperation, I would ask my mother to ship 50-pound bags of millet to me from Kenya! Eventually, we were able to source US-grown millet and teff from a local co-op, and started cooking African food at home. Then we started catering at small events, because we wanted to introduce our delicious food to Americans, too.

Mel: We realized our food is best when we make it ourselves, the way we would make it for you, if you came for dinner – that’s the energy we bring to it. Fast forwarding to 2022, we’ve done everything imaginable in food service, including running a 68-seat full-service restaurant. That was too difficult to manage with our young family, so we switched to selling prepared meals to local co-ops. Our frozen meals and snacks have been stocked in Whole Foods since 2017 and we’re now in all 42 stores of the entire Northeast region, as well as about 180 other specialty food stores.

Damaris and Mel Hall holding their 2021 NEXTY Award. Credit: Global Village Foods

Why did you start focusing on allergen-free food?

Damaris: Along the journey, we had a son who developed food allergies. We found he did much better eating our food because it contained fewer allergens.

Mel: Most of our offering is dairy, egg, nut, soy, sesame, seafood, and gluten-free. This has made us attractive to college environments, where you have to be really aware of students with food allergies. We’ve actually just started servicing the dining halls at UVM, and will be rolling out to a number of other schools in the Boston area.

Why Vermont, and what is it like being part of the Vermont business ecosystem?

Damaris: We didn’t choose Vermont – Vermont chose us! The food we cook is mostly vegetarian, with a very limited amount of meat, and Vermonters were really receptive to that. One of the first events we served our food at was the Vermont Reggae Festival – most of that crowd was actually vegetarian and they really enjoyed it. There’s also the element of introducing people to my culture. I’m really passionate about food, and I believe that people should eat good food that is going to do them good. My grandmother lived to be 92 and my grandfather 104, and I think that has a lot to do with eating food in its natural state, the way it was meant to be.

What’s your sustainability philosophy at Global Village Foods?

Mel: Damaris and I actually met in an Environmental Studies program when I was in Kenya, so sustainability has always been a point of interest for us. Living in Vermont, there’s a whole sensibility around giving back, not just to the environment, but also to the community. One of the great things about doing frozen food, too, is that it eliminates waste. We also reduce food waste as much as possible in our kitchen, as well as our paper and cardboard output.

Damaris: I think we just like to use the common sense method. We ask ourselves: “What are we feeding our customers, and is it sustainable?” We work with local farmers to source locally-grown produce. We also use a lot of millet, not just because we eat a lot of it in Kenya, but because it’s a crop with a very small environmental impact. As a business, we follow the principle of “people first”, because if you care about the people and the environment, the results will always be beautiful.

The full range of Global Village Foods’ delicious meals. Credit: Global Village Foods

Are there any sustainability projects you’re working on currently?

Mel: One of the environmental pain points I would love to resolve is our packaging – we currently pack our meals in a black plastic tray. We attempted to switch to a compostable film tray, which unfortunately could not sustain various conditions in the marketplace. For example, if you thawed the meal out, the tray could completely fall apart. I would love for someone to invent a really solid, truly recyclable, bio-compostable tray.

What’s it like being a Black-owned business in Vermont?

Mel: Being in Vermont has been liberating of preconceived notions, in the sense that people are more interested in your product’s quality than it being made by a Black-owned business. What has driven our growth is people finding our food culturally different, nutritionally balanced, and tasty! Now, the flip side is that in America, minority-owned businesses do not all enjoy the same level of growth and success because of systematic barriers. Financial markets here do not account for the imbalanced starting point that minority businesses come with compared to their white counterparts. Having said that, if anyone is going to make a progressive move to recalibrate, it will be Vermont!

Damaris: What I experienced is that when we are dealing with individuals, they are more understanding about diversity. However, when you are talking about institutions, the inclusive language does not translate to purposeful funding for minority businesses. The criterion for judging is still set at fairly high standards compared to the reality experienced by these minority businesses. The institutional brick wall does exist and while there are programs intended to help small businesses, the message gets lost in translation once it reaches banks.

Global Village Foods’ samosa bowl. Credit: Global Village Foods

What is next for Global Village Foods?

Damaris: Our hope and dream is to make Global Village mainstream so that people know what African families eat, which is the same food you eat at home, but spiced differently. We want to make African food a staple cuisine that is just as well-known as Chinese, Korean, and American cuisines. In terms of engaging the next generation, we want to see our children carry on the business if they are interested. Our children have been fortunate to see our business through all its stages and most importantly, they see the wonderful work culture we built for our employees. That is something we value and hope to continue seeing in the future.

Mel: Our goal is to distribute African food from Vermont to the rest of the country.  We want to develop a solid system that operates at the efficiency of a corporation, but with Vermont’s ethos of social responsibility. Of course, we intend to do that while still incorporating sustainability into our supply chain. As a family business, we also hope to expose our children to the strategic business planning and logistics needed to get us there. Our eldest daughter has already brought a lot of growth as Director of Marketing. 

What is your advice to our SI-MBA class, or any aspiring business owners?

Damaris: Understand that business is a language, so seek help and surround yourself with people who know more than you to accelerate your growth. Find something you are passionate about, because that is what will give you meaning when you are faced with hard times. And as you make the profits, do something with them that will be beneficial to humanity.

Mel: Know your why, and don’t restrict your why. There will be times when the “what” and “how” put a lump in your throat and a pit in your stomach. The passion you develop for your work will get you through those hard times.

To learn more about Global Village Foods, check out their website or find a distributor near you. (UVM students can also find Global Village Foods products at the dining hall!)

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Introducing the Graduate Family Business Interest Group at the Grossman School of Business: Spotlight on Professor Dita Sharma, Ph.d

Written By:

Zoe Kurtz ‘22
Contributing Writer
Connect with Zoe on LinkedIn

Riley Nelson ‘22
Contributing Writer
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It is our pleasure to introduce the Graduate Family Business Interest Group at the Grossman School of Business (GSB). We are a group of Master of Accounting and Sustainable Innovation MBA students interested in learning and sharing how family businesses are leading innovative changes to embed sustainable development goals into their core operations.

Throughout the year, we will spotlight innovative families and incorporate student perspectives to explore and illustrate the impact of family businesses in society and the economy. To kick things off, we interviewed Professor Dita Sharma, the Schlesinger-Grossman Chair of Family Business at GSB to paint a picture of the importance of family business. Dr. Sharma has spent her whole life around family businesses, from her own family’s as a child to countless others as an advisor. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Calgary, and her research heavily focuses on succession, governance, and innovation. Her skills and expertise add value to family businesses all over the world, and she is now focused on family enterprise run by UVMs alumni in Vermont and beyond. Founder of GSB’s Family Business Awards and the Schlesinger Global Family Enterprise Case Competition, she maintains focus on integrating classroom learning with the lived experiences of business families.

Professor Dita Sharma, Ph.D

What defines a family business? How do they differ from normal businesses?

Family business (FB) is an enterprise whose vision and strategic direction is controlled by members of a family through ownership, management and/or governance. The controlling family often aspires for transgenerational continuity and a positive legacy in the community. 

In non-family businesses no single family has enough ownership to control the company’s vision or direction. While a large majority of the world’s businesses are family controlled, enterprises in which the operational roles are held by non-family members are sometimes perceived as non-family businesses.

Tell us about your personal experience in family business.

I grew up in a business family in an industrial town in India. Everyone I knew – my classmates, friends, relatives, neighbors – were entrepreneurs running small and medium enterprises in different industries. My family was highly regarded in our community for its integrity as we worked hard to provide for our family and those of our employees. New ventures were launched regularly to meet the product and service needs of the community; and existing ventures were transformed into new directions. So, for me, entrepreneurship and family business are a good way to make a living, support a community, and leave a legacy. As an educator, I enjoy developing innovative programs to support the learning of students and bring them closer to business families.

So, for me, entrepreneurship and family business are a good way to make a living, support a community, and leave a legacy.

What are challenges that family businesses face today and how are they better able to adapt to those challenges than other types of businesses?

Family business leaders must learn to run two separate and overlapping human systems of family and business successfully. Troubles in one can easily seep to the other and managing this challenging polarity day after day, year after year, decade after decade, takes significant effort and patience. The porous boundaries also turn into strengths during tough times as the family pulls its resources to support the business, or vice versa. 

In your experience, have family businesses embraced sustainability faster than other companies? If yes, what about family businesses make this possible?

Long-lived family firms have operated on the basis of stakeholder capitalism for centuries, so the concept of sustainability is not new to them, though the terminology as used today might be. However, multi-pronged efforts are underway by family business associations like the Family Business Network and Family Firm Institute, consulting companies like KPMG and PwC, and university programs like Grossman School’s Graduate Certificate in Sustainable Family Enterprise to help expedite the comfort level with related terminology and insights. As each nation sets its ambitious sustainability targets, there is increased interest in engaging family business leaders help to accomplish them. And, business leaders are responding with interest.

How has COVID affected family businesses in the past year?

An external crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic exposes the underlying strengths and weaknesses of an organization. Family businesses like State Garden, Rhino Foods, and our other UVM FB Award winners, that continue to reinvest and reinvent themselves, remain frugal in their expenditures and earnest in supporting their employees and communities, and take time to build strong family relationships and networks, have found many opportunities to transform themselves and accelerate their sustainable development journey amidst this pandemic. Others, marred by fundamental family or business issues have faced swift bankruptcies and closures, or are slowly limping towards that end.

How does UVM support family businesses, and what are specific goals for the university within the family business arena going forward?

With its focus on sustainability, entrepreneurship, and family business, University of Vermont’s Grossman School of Business is already positioned strategically in global conversations related to sustainability. Several faculty members focus their research on family business interface. Generated knowledge is shared not only in our undergraduate and graduate classrooms but also through experiential programs like the Family Enterprise Case Competition, FB-Sustainability Forums, and FB Awards. We believe in providing students opportunities to build their own professional networks and find ways to bring students in close interaction with business leaders working to embed sustainable development principles into their core operations. We aspire to continue on this pathway. 

Do you have advice for students looking to work with/for family businesses?

Four possibilities: launch a family business – buy an existing family business – join a family business – build a consulting practice. In all cases, start small dream big. 

First pathway to career launch could be to start a new venture by pooling talent and resources with family members. Over time, such ventures grow and provide opportunities to contribute to the community while building a positive legacy.

Second possibility is to join an existing business with an aim to buy into it over time. This could be a business within your networks or in an industry or location of interest. As the boomer generation retires over the next twenty years, several enterprises will change hands and those with experience will find an opportunity to become owner-entrepreneurs.

Third, students eager to join large family businesses will benefit from studying the shareholder reports and company history to understand the values and aspirations of the controlling family. Where possible, conducting informational interviews with family members and/or long-term employees will shed light on their views on sustainability. Working in a company with values aligned to your own helps to accelerate careers. 

A fourth possibility is to join a consulting company focused on functional areas in which you have an expertise – accounting, finance, business analytics, marketing etc., and focus on family (or private) businesses and serving their sustainable development needs.

Alignment of values and interests is key in any career success. Taking time to clarify your own values and how you are projecting them – your brand can be useful. In three words or less, what does your name stand for today?

Alignment of values and interests is key in any career success. Taking time to clarify your own values and how you are projecting them – your brand can be useful

Lastly, what is your favorite place in Burlington?

I enjoy walking and hiking typically at Shelburne Farms or Mount Philo. Sunrise over Camel’s Hump and sunsets across the lake often serve as great reminders of the blessing of living in Vermont. 

Professor Dita Sharma was kind enough to provide a highlight of family businesses and their unique intricacies in this interview, but there is a lot more to learn. Family businesses are all around us. They comprise 90% of firms in North America and, according to The Economist, comprise over 90% of firms world-wide. GSB is working towards becoming a focal point of knowledge and connection for family business, and there are lots of ways for interested students to become involved. Professor Sharma’s research and her courses dive into the specifics of creating and governing innovative family businesses. Additionally, the undergraduate and graduate family business clubs provide deeper peer-to-peer conversation and learning/networking opportunities for students interested in family business. If you are interested in joining either of these clubs, please reach out to Riley Nelson ( if you are a graduate student and Dani Schmidt ( if you’re an undergraduate.