In Foodservice Consultant’s Review of 2017, alongside chefs Ana Ros and José Andrés, The Middleby Corporation's Selim Bassoul was awarded ‘Editor’s Choice: People of the Year'. He speaks to Michael Jones about why he wants to inspire people in this industry to do more
“I want, in a small way, to change the world,” says Selim Bassoul. The CEO and chairman of The Middleby Corporation established the Bassoul Dignity Foundation to do just that. And his foundation has already touched the lives of hundreds of thousands of refugees in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and more recently in the Hurricane Maria-ravaged Puerto Rico.
Despite being at the helm of a $3bn multinational company employing 10,000 people, Bassoul has an urge to help those in need – something he attributes to being displaced himself as a teenager Lebanon’s civil war.
This led Bassoul to work for three years with a team of volunteer engineers at Middleby perfecting a wood-burning stove containing a small solar panel capable of powering a light bulb and charging small devices.
In the wake of Maria, Bassoul chartered a plane and shipped 250 of the ‘Relief Ovens’ to Puerto Rico. 50 more ovens will follow.
“Being homeless is a terrible feeling. People feel hopeless and a sense of emptiness. There is no future. I met so many refugees who dream of someday having a home of their own or simply going back home,” says Bassoul.
“Flying into Puerto Rico, I saw floods everywhere and homes covered in water. We went straight into the neighbourhoods and saw they had no clean water and no cooked meals. 60% of the island were displaced. 80% of the island lost electric power. I immediately knew how the oven would help the situation.”
For Bassoul, while the seeds of his desire to help those displaced by war and natural disaster were sown in his youth, a more direct inspiration came to him in 2011.
“My uncle, who is a priest, asked me to help build a school for girls in a remote village in my home country Lebanon. I was thrilled. Education is the key to lifting families out of poverty. I saw building the school as an opportunity to provide continuous and free education to so many girls in the villages – bringing equality to them in our society,” he says.
Bassoul pledged money and the school was built. A couple of years later, he and his wife Andrea came back to visit the school. A reception was held in their honour by the local mayor and the people of the village.
“We were happy until one mother stood up and told us most parents were not sending their daughters to the school any more. Teachers were not showing up most of the time. They were part time professors sent from the coast to the village – a one-hour drive on backroads. And when the weather was bad, they never showed up.”
Bassoul and his wife were completely devastated. “We wanted to make a difference. We thought we had. That night I could not sleep. I asked myself what went wrong? How did I fail?”
He kept rethinking what he had could have done differently. One thing kept coming back to him: he had broken his own rules of business.
“In 25 years in this industry, I built a company from nothing to $3b in sales, and 10,000 employees, by being there on the ground and finding solutions. At work, I would never engage in a project or a new product without understanding the problem and by being on the ground. That’s what I should have done in the school house,” he says.
Learning from mistakes
Bassoul addressed the mistake he felt he made at the school by recruiting a new principal and committed teachers and listening to the concerns of the parents. The school is now thriving, but the lesson stayed with him. He visited the school and again in Christmas 2015 where the main topic of conversation in the country concerned the 2 million refugees living in camps, having crossed into Lebanon from Syria.
“I wanted to go up and see how can I help. I drove two hours up into the Beqaa Valley to understand their living conditions and how they were eating and preparing food. I went despite the unease of my wife and family, since we had a two-week-old daughter and we were concerned about disease and security in the camp,” he says.
When Bassoul arrived into the camp, children were walking barefoot through the mud. There were mosquitoes and insects everywhere. “30 people were living in each tent. They told me many things I didn’t know: they could only eat every three days, because they needed to fetch wood. They were eating mostly bread. They haven’t had a hot meal in a long time. They had to pay $35 a month in order to get just one lightbulb.”
As Bassoul was leaving the camp, he met Fatima and her husband. Fatima was seven months pregnant. “She had no sense of hope. She was afraid to bring her child into the world under these conditions. I was stunned. I immediately cut my trip short and came back to the US.”
On the plane home, Bassoul started sketching ideas and thinking about a solution for people like Fatima and the refugees of Beqaa Valley. “I began thinking, ‘how can I bring them a solution from our core competencies in cooking?’”
When Bassoul arrived in the US, he met with Middleby Corporation engineers who volunteered to help him design and build a wood-burning oven for the refugees, which included features such as a solar panel to power a light bulb and charge small electronic devices.
“We built the Relief Ovens and delivered them to the camp. Time after time, I went back to the camps to test the ovens and make sure they were working fine,” he says.
“We made a difference for the people in the camp. We provided them with a solution for their needs and the oven became their prized possession.”
The ovens Bassoul recently delivered to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria are the fifth iteration of the original design. Through talking constantly to the engineers, and crucially those on the ground who are using the ovens, he feels they have found the right solution.
For Bassoul, the school project taught him three valuable lessons. Firstly, it’s not just about handing out money. “In the school house project, I simply wrote a cheque and I did not get on the ground. I was not an expert on how to run a school. On the refugee project, I went on the ground and I used my core competencies. I am not advocating against donating money and helping charities financially. Money is important. And it is needed of course. But personal involvement creates the multiplier effect,” he says.
“We all have resources and skills that can be used for social innovation or to change the world. In order to make those dreams come true, the easiest way is to use your core competency.”
Finally: get on the ground and get close to the people you are trying to help. “By being on the ground, you connect with people. You will be able to see the positive impact of your resources, skills and time dedicated to your cause.
For Bassoul, being this close to the solution he helped create, and by personally visiting the refugee camps, has given him an “indescribable” feeling.
“You can see how you’re making a difference. We entrepreneurs have the time to change the world. We can impact the 10% or more who are disadvantaged or unlucky. The only way to do that is to change the way we think about giving. Writing a cheque is important, but it’s not enough,” he says. “Every person has the right to a dignified life. We need to inspire people in this industry to do more.”
Bassoul is certainly leading the charge, in no small way.
Visit the Bassoul Dignity Foundation website here: bassouldignityfoundation.org
Portrait: Paul Demczak; Pictures: Selim Bassoul