Jarrett Stein of student-run granola bar company Rebel Ventures asks “What do you think?” a lot. It’s baked into his role as the adult founder and leader of Rebel, run by Penn students and West Philly high schoolers to create affordable healthy snacks and provide job training to the younger members of the crew. It’s what he says when a member of the crew asks which honey from the kitchens at the Center for Culinary Enterprises to use in their recipe. And when the team wants to know when they should come in over the weekend to brainstorm new product ideas. And on a recent rainy Tuesday afternoon, at a computer in the Center’s lobby, when Stein asks Zaire, a 9th grader from Parkway West High School, what he thinks about an email that Rebel Ventures has received.
There are so many subtle skills that go into professional email correspondence, many, if not all, of which have gone underdeveloped in Zaire’s education. Slowly and meticulously, Stein coaches him on how to mine an email address for information—this one comes from a “upenn.edu” account, meaning it’s probably a student—how to format salutations and signatures, how to phrase questions politely, how to write out an address, and even some basic grammar skills. Repeatedly he asks the high schooler to read his email out loud, correcting overt mistakes but also asking Zaire what he thinks—what do they need to know about potential volunteers? Should they sign off “best” or “thanks”?
This is Zaire’s sixth and final trial day. He thinks he’s making a good impression. “I’ll be honest, I check my phone,” he admits, although they’re not supposed to do so while working, “but I still come in and work hard and try to get work done.”
It’s all in an effort to get in with Rebel Ventures, a company with a product designed to target childhood obesity in West Philly, and business practices that serve to empower the young people coming out of that community. After Zaire leaves, the other six high schoolers will vote on whether or not to admit him to the team. It’s a select group for now. But a pending development with the Philadelphia School District would allow Rebel to open up this unique opportunity to many more students—and bring its healthy snacks to every public school in the city.
“Entrepreneurship is the core of what we’re doing. Understanding what it means to run a business in the most holistic sense,” Stein says. “And then we really think about what power is. And how, if you’re able to create a product and create demand for that product, you have the power that nobody can take away from you.”
Rebel Ventures is rooted in a classroom project Stein led as a teacher at George W. Pepper Middle School in 2010, during which he asked his students if their school was healthy. “They said no,” Stein remembers. “I asked them why and they said because they didn’t have healthy snacks available at the school store. So we made a healthy snack option.”
Stein broke the class into two teams that then competed to develop the healthiest and best tasting granola bar recipe to sell to fellow students. The current recipe—primarily a mixture of oats, honey, pumpkin seeds and mix-ins like chocolate chips or raisins—has been perfected over the years, but remains relatively faithful to what was originally created by the seventh and eighth graders. In 2012, after Pepper Middle School closed, Stein used the classroom model as the foundation of an after school program that produces and sells granola bars to schools and cafes on Penn’s campus and around West Philly.
High school students, who typically find Rebel through word of mouth, rotate through six different departments: operations, sales, accounting, research and development, marketing, and design. As they gain experience with each department, the kids earn more money and mastery of technical skills like digital photography and Microsoft Excel.
Beyond these technical skills—which can’t be undervalued for a group of young people whose inability to express themselves professionally could limit their potential—Stein hopes that Rebel will instill a sense of agency in the crew members.
“Entrepreneurship is the core of what we’re doing. Understanding what it means to run a business in the most holistic sense…how many different skills and experiences you need to have exposure to, practice in, training [with], to take a concept to something that you can then market,” he says. “And then we really think about what power is. And how, if you’re able to create a product and create demand for that product, you have the power that nobody can take away from you.”
The high schoolers this year are led by Corey, a charismatic senior from William L. Sayre High School who has been working with Rebel for about a year and half. “You ever see anything like this before?” Corey asks. He earns extra money for his leadership role, and it was a strong component of his college applications essay. “I want to go to school for business management so I feel like this is just a baby step in my career,” he says.
The experience is paying off already. He’s been accepted to several schools, and has tentative plans to attend Shippensburg University in south central Pennsylvania. He wants to stay in-state, but is eager to get out of Philly “because I don’t want to get caught up in the chaos.”
Within each department, the high schoolers work alongside Penn students, who come to Rebel from a variety of organizations, including Wharton Social Impact Initiative and the Netter Center’s Academically Based Community Service (ABCS) classes. Brittany Bolden, a senior attending Harvard Law School next year, participates as part of her work-study regimen. She oversees the operations and research and development departments, and has been aiding Stein in the logistical legwork of detaching Rebel from the Penn umbrella. Until now, Rebel has been part of the Agaston Urban Nutrition Initiative, a program of Penn’s Netter Center, which has subsidized salaries.
As a teacher at George W. Pepper Middle School in 2010, Stein asked his students if their school was healthy. “They said no,” Stein remembers. “I asked them why and they said because they didn’t have healthy snacks available at the school store. So we made a healthy snack option.”
Now Stein has applied to turn Rebel into a stand-alone nonprofit. Currently, selling the bars for just a dollar or two each, Rebel operates at a loss, a non-issue while it’s Penn-funded. As a separate entity, the company will have to earn its own money. But doing so will give them more financial freedom, allowing them to grow the business. (Stein says he hopes Rebel will continue to benefit from Penn mentorships and work with Agaston on nutrition education.) Boden predicts that Rebel will be an independent nonprofit by the end of the spring semester—and it’s likely that their first solo act will be to scale up production, in a big way.
To succeed, Rebel will need to make, market, and sell many more units than they do right now. Stein estimates that they will need to increase output from a few hundred bars baked and packaged by students each week on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, to roughly 30,000 bars a week. To meet demand, they’ll have to outsource the physical production to a manufacturing company and increase their focus on research and development, marketing and sales.
Outsourcing will afford the team the time and resources to spend more time imparting basic business skills, like editing email, to even more high school students. “We spend a lot of time right now folding over plastic sleeves to package our bars,” Stein says. “We want to spend more of our time doing what we all would consider to be more advanced, higher-level creative output.”
The team is considering many options for selling so many bars—with dreams of getting them into more grocery stores and possibly setting up a Girl Scout Cookie model. First, though, the crew is negotiating with the Philadelphia School District to create the first new Rebel product since its launch—probably some sort of healthy muffin—that will be offered as part of the Universal Breakfast Program.
It’s a perfect collaboration for a program that’s been fighting childhood obesity and educational shortcomings in the city on a small scale for several years. If the expansion is successful, what started as a classroom project could become a West Philly staple from childhood breakfasts to college applications.
“We are a social enterprise,” Stein says. “And so, running a business not just to make money but what are needs, what are problems, that we can think creatively, use the access that we have, to solve these problems.”
Photo: Courtesy of Rebel Ventures