In June of 2004, Joe Andrasko was living a young man’s fantasy on Nantucket. The twenty-one-year-old had just graduated from Bowdoin College and was spending his summer working as a striker aboard Captain Tom’s Charters in Madaket. By day, Andrasko was fishing for stripers off the west end of the island; by night, he was out trolling Nantucket’s watering holes for a good time.
“The question every client would ask me on the boat was, ‘Joe, what do you do during the winter?’” he says with a likable twang in his voice. “I’d tell them I was a teacher back at my alma mater, Delbarton, and 80 percent of them would say, ‘I have a kid that could really use a tutor.’” However, after a long day on the water, the last thing Joe Andrasko wanted to do was sit down and teach Spanish or SAT prep. That was until Captain Tom’s wife, Bambi Mleczko, walked into the mates’ quarters one evening and insisted that he tutor their client’s son. “Bambi is affectionately known as ‘Top Dog’ among the Captain Tom’s team,” says Andrasko, “so when she asks for a favor, a good striker is smart enough to follow through.” Andrasko began tutoring the boy later that week. At the end of the summer, when he was too bashful to charge the family for his tutoring services, they handed him a check. “It was more money than I had ever made in my life,” Andrasko says. He brought the check directly to the bank and started a business called The Nantucket Learning Group.
What began as a one-man operation in 2004 is today a successful organization with fifteen teachers on Nantucket and Martha’s Vine- yard. The Nantucket Learning Group tutors children from kindergarten through twelfth grade, teaching them everything from ABCs to SATs. “Getting the business off the ground was a challenge to me,” Andrasko says, “it was uncharted territory for a young guy, particularly a Spanish teacher from a private school in New Jersey. But that process of figuring out how to chart that course really sparked my interest in all things business.” So while continuing to grow the Learning Group, Andrasko gradually shifted gears from educator to entrepreneur, eventually going back to school for an MBA at the University of Virginia.
In 2008, Andrasko was presented with a unique business proposition by his friends, Chris Ryan and Bryan McCoy. The two consultants had just returned from volunteer work in Africa, and told Andrasko that there were investment opportunities there that could also bring about some social good to that part of the world. Their idea was to invest in agribusinesses in sub-Saharan Africa, and although they could raise the necessary capital, they had never started a business before and wanted Andrasko’s help. “I clearly remember telling them it was a great idea, but that it would never work. Luckily they were convincing,” he says.
In the fall of 2008, Andrasko boarded a plane and moved his life to Swaziland as a partner of Sustainable Development Capital, which he founded with McCoy and Ryan. “If you drive from Johannesburg and through southern Africa, you’ll drive through miles and miles of wonderful, fertile, unused fields,” Andrasko says. “The challenge in that part of the world has always been a lack of capital and a lack of management expertise for agribusinesses. And we’ve always said if we can find the appropriate entrepreneurs and bring the capital and lend some of that management expertise, there’s a great opportunity to create jobs in an economical, for-profit capacity.” In 2009, Andrasko and his partners proved this strategy when purchasing a farm out of bankruptcy in Swaziland. Within eight months, the Sdemane Farm rebounded, employing one hundred local workers and exporting over three tons of high-quality vegetables per week.
Bringing an American business strategy to sub-Saharan Africa was not without some unique obstacles. Andrasko recalls an uneasy moment when he and his partners were seeking to rent additional land from a tribal chief in Swaziland. When his associates went off to assess the land, Andrasko was left alone with the chief to make small talk. “He turned to me and said, ‘So Joe, tell me, how many wives do you have?’ Here I am in Swaziland, it’s a rainy day, I’m standing in the middle of an overgrown field with a chief who expects me to impress him with the number of wives I have. And I thought I was going to upset the chief by telling him I wasn’t married.” The chief went on to extol the virtues of having multiple wives. “When I did get married,” he says, “I sent the chief some wedding pictures, and he’s been supportive of my wife and my marriage ever since.”
Today, Sdemane Farm continues to thrive, exporting upwards of five tons of vegetables per week to high-end retailers in South Africa and Western Europe. The company grosses around $600,000 in revenue, a significant sum for that region in the world, particularly a farm. On the social front, the farm employs hundreds of local workers, providing them cream-of-the-crop wages and benefits. Specifically, Andrasko and his partners provide pre-school and transportation for the farm workers’ families and are currently developing an HIV and AIDS awareness program there. “We were able to ply our business trade in a way that would hopefully be profitable in the long-term for our investors, but was also incredibly impactful on the ground in Africa,” Andrasko says.
At the age of thirty, with two businesses to his credit, Joe Andrasko continues to fish for the next opportunity. “My advice to entrepreneurs is don’t be afraid to fail,” he says. “I really believe entrepreneurship is all about taking the initial plunge. You don’t need to raise a million dollars or hire twenty employees to get started. You just need the courage to find that first client or make the first sale. From there, a good balance of hard work and humility is a great recipe for success.”