Student Profile: Case Study
Sumana Chatterjee '08
Authored a case study about slavery in the cocoa industry that will be used in SOM classes
“Sumana, watch the floor of the House.”
The phone call came from a congressional staffer just one day after Sumana Chatterjee ’08 and her colleague Sudarsan Raghavan at Knight Ridder’s Washington bureau had published an investigative series on child slavery on the cocoa farms of the Ivory Coast. The pair had spent months digging into the use of forced labor in the country that supplies more than 40% of the cocoa beans for the more than $13 billion American chocolate market. Their discoveries — including one child sold into slavery for $28 — received prominent play throughout Knight Ridder’s chain of newspapers and caught the eye of Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), who took to the floor of the House of Representatives to demand that American companies stop buying cocoa grown with slave labor.
“It was definitely surreal,” said Chatterjee. “In journalism, you put a story out there, people read it, and hopefully they think about things they haven’t thought about before. If they act on it, then, great. My job was to spark the thinking process. In this case, the story took on a life of its own. It was something I hadn’t imagined before.”
In working on the stories, Chatterjee had traveled to Philadelphia, Chicago, and London to dig into the cocoa industry, while Raghavan worked angles in Africa. The details in the report were chilling: “Most of them are between the ages of 12 and 16. Some are as young as 9. The lucky slaves live on corn paste and bananas. The unlucky ones are whipped, beaten, and broken like horses to harvest the almond-sized beans that are made into chocolate treats for more fortunate children in Europe and America.” Chatterjee said the nature of the exploitation affected her personally. “I really like good chocolate and it was horrifying to think about children being enslaved and forced to harvest these beans that were making it into my hands,” she said. “So some of the questions I asked the industry were from a perspective that any consumer would come from. ‘Here’s my chocolate. Can you guarantee that it’s not tainted by slavery?’ It’s a question I repeated over and over.”
The series went on to win a number of awards, including the George Polk Award for International Reporting, which is seen as second only to the Pulitzer Prize. For any young journalist — especially one like Chatterjee, who had reported from Kashmir, Myanmar, and Turkey — the stories could have been the platform to even bigger things in the industry. For Chatterjee, though, working on such an important issue actually helped push her away from journalism. Just putting a story out there wasn’t good enough anymore. Chatterjee didn’t want to be an observer; she wanted to have an impact.
After a stop at a nonprofit organization called Women for Women, International, Chatterjee decided to get an MBA. She came to SOM expecting to concentrate on ethical supply chains and corporate social responsibility, but found herself drawn to the innovation and building of early-stage companies. She spent her summer internship at the Chart Group, a corporate advisory firm specializing in M&A and strategy, and now is pursuing venture capital in media.
Even though seven years had passed since the cocoa series, Chatterjee still felt drawn to the subject matter. In 2001, the cocoa industry had pledged to change how it acquired beans, and Chatterjee wanted to see if they had followed through. She approached SOM’s case writing team about doing a case on child slavery on cocoa farms and how well companies — and African governments — were doing with their promise to eliminate the practice. Jaan Elias, director of SOM case writing, said the subject makes for a great business case, with the focus on the British confectionary Cadbury. “It addresses a compelling social issue that presents special management difficulties spanning nearly all business disciplines,” he said. “Management must contend with opposing political pressures from national governments and the NGO community. It must find a way to discipline its suppliers through complex certification procedures and operational controls, all while reassuring the public about the source of its chocolate. In Cadbury, students are able to see the company’s resolve to work through these issues and bear the costs of doing so.”
Elias saw the case as a perfect match for a course on corporate governance. The connection to Cadbury came via Ira Millstein, the senior associate dean for corporate governance at Yale SOM and a senior partner in the international law firm Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP, and Anne Simpson, executive director of the International Corporate Governance Network. Millstein and Simpson teach a new course titled Governing the Corporation, which debuted at SOM in the fall of 2007. It turned out that both know Sir Adrian Cadbury, whose family founded Cadbury. Charterjee flew to London during the fall semester to meet with Cadbury, who is not currently affiliated with the company, Cadbury-Schweppes. Cadbury showed her around Bournville, a town the company built beginning in the 1890s, and introduced her to a Cadbury executive in charge of ethical supply lines. Chatterjee hadn’t reported in the series on Cadbury, since it’s not an American company, but she immediately recognized the executive. “He had been in all the meetings I staked out in London as a reporter,” she said. “But he refused to speak to me at the time. When we finally sat down I got a chance to find out a lot more behind-the-scenes information about what was going on and what the discussions were. It was really fascinating, because I had been on one end of it, and now I got to hear the insider’s perspective and about the challenges companies face under duress.”
The executive provided Chatterjee with a blow-by-blow account of a crucial meeting she’d been barred from entering. It helped illuminate the differences between American and British interests in dealing with the problem. Mostly what she learned was how difficult it’s been to solve the problem since the series came out, as cocoa prices slid and the Ivory Coast fell into civil war. “The industry over-promised what it could accomplish,” she said. “There are a lot of stakeholders involved in a very complicated issue. There’s no way it could be solved with the snap of a finger.”
When she returned from London, Chatterjee worked with Elias to pull it all together. The final product will be taught first in Millstein’s course next fall. While Chatterjee’s role in the case stemmed from her experience as a journalist, she said it was facilitated by the entrepreneurial spirit of SOM. “The school is such a small community that if you want to do something out of the ordinary, it’s not difficult to do so,” she said. “I’m lucky that at SOM, it’s not difficult to kind of push the envelope and try something new.”
Interviewed on December 10, 2007.