We talked to Lisa Curtis of Kuli Kuli Foods on how to unlock one’s superpowers with the most nutrient-rich, revitalizing, good-for-you green on the planet, and she had the following to say about it:-
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Lisa Curtis: It’s been a crazy couple of months! I gave birth to my daughter, Orion, on September 19th, so I have been pregnant or a new mom for the pandemic duration. My mom quit her job to help us take care of Orion so that we wouldn’t need to hire anyone outside of our “bubble.” My heart goes out to all of the parents, particularly the many women who have been forced to drop out of the labor force to care for their young children. I feel very grateful for my family’s support and the incredible flexibility of the entire Kuli Kuli team as I juggle running a startup with a newborn screaming in the background.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Kuli Kuli Foods?
Lisa Curtis: After feeling weak as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Niger, I turned to moringa to regain my strength. Moringa is a local superfood that helps with malnutrition, but few people benefit from it. I found that the women in my village saw no reason to grow moringa when there was no market demand. I started Kuli Kuli to tackle the twin challenges of malnutrition and obesity that plague our global community. In the U.S., millions of people are looking for all-natural ways to nourish their busy lifestyles, just as there are a billion people around the world just looking for nourishment to survive. Investing in agriculture is, hands down, the most effective method of reducing poverty, but investment in agriculture has been declining for the past two decades. I saw the rise of greens – from green juices to kale smoothies – and the popularity of superfoods such as quinoa, chia, and acai. As a green superfood with healthy medicinal benefits, moringa is a superfood that resonates with the U.S. population while supporting women’s moringa farmers worldwide. Upon returning to the U.S. from the Peace Corps, I founded Kuli Kuli, a mission-driven business, to drive economic growth, women’s empowerment, and sustainable agricultural development by selling sustainably sourced moringa products.
Kuli Kuli is now the leading brand pioneering the superfood moringa. Moringa is a protein-rich leafy green, more nutritious than kale, with anti-inflammatory benefits rivaling turmeric. Kuli Kuli’s moringa powders, smoothie mixes, bars, and wellness shots are sustainably sourced from African women and other small farmers worldwide and sold in 11,000 U.S. stores. Before Kuli Kuli, I served as the Communications Director at Mosaic. I managed a team of six to grow the company from zero to over $5M invested in solar through Mosaic’s online marketplace. Previously, I wrote political briefings for President Obama in the White House, served as a United Nations Environment Programme Youth Advisor, and worked at an impact investment firm in India. I’ve been recognized on Forbes 30 Under 30, Inc Magazine’s Top 100 Female Founders list and featured in numerous outlets, including the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Learn more at www.kulikulifoods.com and www.lisamariecurtis.com.
How does Kuli Kuli Foods innovate?
Lisa Curtis: Kuli Kuli is creating the foods of the future. Currently, almost half of the world’s plant-derived calories come from just three foods: wheat, corn, and rice. This diet has contributed to more than a billion overweight individuals globally and nearly a billion undernourished people. Nutrient-dense, climate-smart crops like moringa are critical to improving the health of humanity and our planet. Simultaneously, of the 30,000 edible plants that exist, humans only eat 150 of them. As our climate changes, our diet must change with it. Creating supply chains based on nutrient-dense, climate-smart, edible plants is imperative to human health and the health of our planet. These changes represent an unprecedented opportunity to create supply chains that benefit small farmers in developing economies. Kuli Kuli is creating a market for these climate-smart plants, starting with moringa. Changing the way we eat requires building brands and new foods that get people excited, so they want to eat in ways that are better for them and better for the planet. There are so many nutrient-rich, climate-smart crops representing incredible opportunities for natural food brands to be pioneers. From moringa to maca to breadfruit and camu camu, there are so many unique ingredients to love. Better yet, by building these supply chains from scratch, brands can ensure that they benefit the communities who grow them and the environment. Many non-traditional crops are farmed by women, with the “heavy” crops of corn and soy often cultivated by men. Paul Hawken’s Project Drawdown estimates that if women smallholder farmers were to receive equal access to productive resources, their farm yields would rise by 20 to 30 percent, and 100 to 150 million people will no longer be hungry. When small agricultural plots produce well, there is less pressure to deforest for additional ground, avoiding emissions. This would avoid an estimated 2.06 gigatons in carbon emissions.
Kuli Kuli believes that by making climate-smart, community-grown superfoods into staple foods, we can improve millions of farmers’ lives while fighting climate change.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Lisa Curtis: The pandemic affected our business in fascinating ways. As more Americans sought natural immunity and energizing products, many of them turned to moringa, leading our in-store sales to hit all-time highs in March. However, as retailers coped with unprecedented demand, we faced multiple months of out-of-stocks as distributor trucks filled with toilet paper and pasta. We also had numerous retailer launches that were pushed back, such as the 800 new Walmart stores that we were supposed to launch in April being pushed until September. In aggregate, since most of our business is in grocery stores, our March sales spike and online sales growth weren’t enough to make up for the retail challenges, and we did not hit our revenue goals for 2020.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Lisa Curtis: As soon as we realized what was happening in March, we took a hard look at our budget and realized that we needed to get to a cash-flow breakeven as soon as possible, whereas previously we were spending heavily drive growth. We cut our budgets substantially, and our entire team took a pay cut. This was incredibly challenging, but we pulled through and are proud that we ended Q3 at cash-flow breakeven and with over two years of runway. We learned two key lessons. The first was that transparency is critical to ensuring that our team understood our exact financial situation and how we were making cuts to ensure that Kuli Kuli could weather this storm. The second is that startups need “jack & jills of all trades” to rise to the occasion and pivot quickly. If people can’t pivot, they need to find employment elsewhere. That sounds harsh, but we found that ultimately the people who left found jobs better-suited to their needs while the new people we’ve hired have been amazingly beneficial. It was a hard time for our entire team, but it’s been amazing to see how well we’re working together now.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety, how do you project yourself and Kuli Kuli Foods in the future?
Lisa Curtis: I’m a big believer in self-care. The more stressed I am, the more I sleep, exercise, and eat healthy foods. I’ve been running a startup for long enough to understand the ups and downs of the rollercoaster. When your startup inevitably faces challenges, it’s easy to solve those challenges by working all the time, losing sleep, and stopping exercise. This puts you in a mental space where you’re least prepared to solve challenges. No matter how busy I feel, I take care of myself so that I can take care of anything the world throws at me.
I hope that Kuli Kuli can be an example for other mission-driven businesses, showing that you indeed can do well by doing good. I also hope that I can be an example for other founders, female founders, in particular, showing that no matter your background, you too can build a multi-million dollar business. I started this company at age 23 without any industry experience. Together with my fantastic team, I have grown Kuli Kuli into a multi-million dollar business with investments from incredible partners such as Kellogg, Griffith Foods, and leading venture capital firms.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Lisa Curtis: As we’ve grown in the moringa market, there have been many competitors entering the space, particularly online, where there are no quality standards. However, Kuli Kuli is proud that many consumers have recognized the high quality of our moringa, giving us over 60% market share in the U.S. We’re continually innovating, creating incredible new products and gift packs at our website to surprise and delight our customers. We plan to stay in the long-haul game as we know a mission as vital as ours can’t be accomplished overnight.
Your final thoughts?
Lisa Curtis: I had so much self-doubt when I first started Kuli Kuli. I thought I was too young, too inexperienced, too nice, too feminine to scale a startup. Everyone told me I was crazy to start a company selling a superfood no one had ever heard of and sourcing it from small African farmers. I’ve found that with enough passion, grit, and hard work, anything is possible. The key is finding the crazy enough people to believe in your vision and who have strengths that complement yours. Believe in yourself, find others who believe, and build something great.
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