What is the first thing you did to turn your current business from an idea into a reality?
After returning home from the Peace Corps, I spent a year making moringa nutrition bars by hand and testing them out at farmers markets. Moringa is one of the most nutritious plants in the world: It’s more nutritious than kale. I’d hoped to sell it in the U.S. as a way to support West African moringa farmers. But before I made any promises to the farmers, I wanted to make sure that Americans would actually buy the bars. Together with a few friends, we surveyed everyone who came by our farmers market booth and got a ton of market data on what type of bars the public wanted. That data helped us create our Moringa Superfood Bars, which are now sold in over 300 stores.
What is the scariest part of being a young entrepreneur and how can others overcome this fear?
The hardest thing about being a young entrepreneur is overcoming the perception that you don’t know what you’re doing. I can’t count the number of times that potential investors or clients have asked how old I am. I’ve started replying that I’m old enough to run a high-growth food company. Even if you don’t feel confident on the inside, part of entrepreneurship is faking it until you make it.
Were you ever told not to pursue your entrepreneurial dreams? Who told you that, what did they say and why did you ignore them?
When I told my parents that I was quitting my well-paid job at a solar finance company to start a food business, they tried to persuade me to wait. I knew nothing about the food industry and my company was nowhere near able to pay me a salary. But I knew that if I was going to make Kuli Kuli happen, I had to make the leap. Now my parents are Kuli Kuli’s No. 1 fans and supporters — they’re so proud of how far we’ve come.
What is the No. 1 thing you wish you’d known starting out and how did you learn it?
I wish I’d known how important it is to separate yourself from your work. I thought that in order to make Kuli Kuli successful I had to throw my entire self into it and work 24/7. Last year I was forced to unplug for three weeks after winning a Wild Gift grant that involved a wilderness trek. That experience taught me that it’s important to let go. I came up with lots of creative ideas during that time and, despite my fears, my business got along just fine without me. I now make a point to unplug for a weekend at least once a month.
What do you recommend all new founders do for their business — or their personal lives — that will help them the most?
I highly recommend that all new founders take up mindfulness meditation. It sounds a little hippy-dippy, but it has helped me and many other founders I know tremendously in terms of improving focus and clarity.
How do you end each day and why?
I end each day by taking a few minutes to write down my favorite part of the day on a wall calendar that I keep next to my bed. This simple act helps remind me that no matter how stressful the day was, there’s always something to be grateful for.
What is your best PR/marketing tip for businesses just starting up?
Reporters are your friends. I spend about 20 percent of my time reaching out to reporters and writing thought pieces for various publications. Earned media is so helpful for reaching customers and investors — it gives your business credibility even when you don’t have many resources.
What is your ultimate goal? What will you do if/when you get there?
My ultimate goal is for Kuli Kuli to sell sustainable superfood products sourced from women’s cooperatives all over the world and, through our supply chain, help to eliminate malnutrition and poverty. I’m not sure if we’ll get there in my lifetime but I hope to create a company that endures long after I’m gone.