Sarah Donahue Henderson ’03

Sarah Donahue Henderson ’03
Friends Select School
Sarah Donahue Henderson ’03

Full Select News
Sarah Donahue Henderson ’03

As we look forward to our annual Alumni Weekend, which will take place from April 26-28, we are excited to highlight Friends Select alumni making a difference in their communities and the world. 

Today, we highlight Sarah Donahue Henderson, a business leader in agriculture and international trade. Read our full Q&A with Sarah, in which she discusses her work and how her Friends Select experience influenced her career.

How do you believe the Quaker principles influenced your leadership and business approach?
Consensus and equality are big parts of my approach to leadership: in every leadership role, I seek ways to learn from the people involved in the process. Business leaders too often develop top-down processes without enough input from the employees who understand the work at a granular level. Building opportunities for input into developing new processes (whether in education or business) improves outcomes, and that’s something I started to learn after transferring to Friends Select.  

How did your experiences at Friends Select School shape your values and aspirations, eventually leading you to become a business leader?
Attending FSS enabled me to understand how academic topics intersected with the real world: from a science class on environmental policy to an independent study on the history of the development of mathematics, I learned how a strong educational foundation creates fertile ground, not only for further academic progress but also for effective and ethical stewardship of the practical world.  

How do you balance the business aspect with social and environmental impact goals? 
Paradise Vanilla was originally envisioned as a non-profit entity, but creating a viable business plan for a non-profit entity required a fundraising budget that was too heavy to sustain the project in the long term. Creating a for-profit entity that commits operational resources and profits to community development allowed us to create a financially sustainable business plan. One of the problems with agricultural impact projects is that they often subsidize farmers, leaving them with unsustainable business models if subsidies dry up. Our goal is to teach Dominican farmers how to have profitable, unsubsidized vanilla farms so that they are not vulnerable to changes in fundraising for charitable subsidies.  

Can you share the inspiration and vision behind Paradise Vanilla? 
My husband and I originally visited the Dominican Republic a decade ago while exploring the manufacturing landscape for our work with international manufacturing and supply chains. We found a connection with the people and the country, and began thinking about projects that could benefit the Dominican Republic. We have family connections in the vanilla industry, and after learning that the climate was perfect and a small amount of vanilla was successfully being grown there, we began developing a plan to teach Dominican farmers to grow vanilla by setting up a teaching farm and donating vines to get them started. Traditionally, vanilla is grown in developing countries where farmers receive pennies on each dollar of vanilla’s value. Our mission is to shorten the vanilla supply chain and provide a starting point and point of sale for Dominican farmers so that they can benefit more greatly from the products they create, and American consumers can buy high-quality vanilla that enriches the lives of the farmers who cultivate it.

In addition to leading Paradise Vanilla, you also serve as the director of operations at Fremont Lancaster. How do these dual roles complement each other, and how has your background prepared you for the complexities of international trade and manufacturing consulting?
The educational approach to problem-solving that I learned at FSS was multi-disciplinary and emphasized outside-the-box thinking. Like any industry, international trade includes a lot of conventional wisdom about how things should be done. I have found that questioning the conventional wisdom can lead to radically better outcomes: while working on process improvement with Chinese factories, it was being on the factory floor and hearing from workers where they were experiencing bottlenecks that allowed me to improve the manufacturing process to improve the percentage of qualified products or decrease manufacturing time. Similarly, I bring ideas to Paradise Vanilla’s farm about how to improve plant growth or use resources more effectively, but those objectives are often better met when we seek feedback from the farm workers, because they have experience with Dominican farming that we lack despite our education and wide experience in business. Farming and manufacturing differ in a lot of ways, but the way we improve the process by combining our education and experience with the experience of the workers involved looks a lot alike.  

In what ways do you hope Fremont Lancaster makes a positive impact on the global business landscape?
Fremont Lancaster’s slogan is, “We bring the world market to you,” because in essence, we shorten supply chains—that’s a good thing for consumers, makers, and the planet. We facilitate importers working more closely with manufacturers, which allows more income to flow to the people who make the products we use. We apply creative problem-solving to logistics, which often means more efficient transportation of products, which in turn often means a lower carbon footprint. We teach buyers how to vet factories for compliance with social goals, helping to reduce the incidence of coerced or other unethical labor practices. We start from the principle that doing the right thing and being successful in business are not mutually exclusive, and we teach companies with international supply chains how to make more money while improving the impact of international trade on stakeholders around the world.  

Your ventures involve collaboration with diverse stakeholders, including Dominican employees as well as investors. How has your commitment to diversity and inclusion been influenced by your upbringing and the values instilled at Friends Select?
I learned at Friends Select that diversity means a wider pool of opinions and experiences on which to draw, which enriches the possibilities for businesses to have a positive impact on the world while creating positive results for all stakeholders. We include our Dominican employees in our decision-making processes, both operationally and in terms of how we can better support them and the local farming community. Our investors and advisors come from a variety of backgrounds, including from the Dominican Republic, which allows us to think more locally and more globally. Attending Friends Select was my first experience of learning alongside students from different backgrounds, and understanding more about the different backgrounds of my fellow students helped me understand how valuable diversity is, both in business and in gaining a richer understanding of the world around us.  

For current students at Friends Select aspiring to make a positive impact in their careers, what advice would you give based on your own experiences and the lessons you've learned?
I would encourage students to focus more on what they enjoy and less on what they think will produce a high paycheck. As the rate at which world markets change increases, students are less able to consciously plan the steps to a high-paying career. This means that seeking work with opportunities to exercise and grow the skills they enjoy using will strengthen them professionally in areas that make them happy while maintaining the flexibility to find meaningful work in a changing world. I love problem-solving and expected when I was in school to pursue work in problem-solving through a career in the corporate world. By the end of college, the prerequisites I needed to enter that world had changed, and I embarked on an entrepreneurial path instead of a corporate one. This led to interdisciplinary opportunities that I never would have encountered on a more traditional career path, including the ability to have more control over how my work impacts the world. Opportunities to learn and move onto different paths will always exist, but prioritizing the search for work that we enjoy and find meaningful seems like the best way to find success, however you define it.  

We want to hear from our alumni! Tell what you're up to by submitting a class note