Gino Borges:

Thank you all for joining us today on the Journey to Impact: A Virtual Fireside Chat Series. The Journey to Impact Series is here to tell a different story of impact. While we naturally address some of the landmarks of the journey, this series is designed to create space for uncovering the emotional, mental, and spiritual challenges and successes along the path of impact. It is less about the outcomes or results of our actions, but rather the human components of what it feels like to operate in the world of impact illuminating one’s inner journey. Today I’d like to welcome Lisa Curtis. Lisa is a social entrepreneur, founder, and CEO of Kuli Kuli Foods. Kuli Kuli is a B-corp and includes a team of entrepreneurs, product developers, and change makers who are improving lives through sustainable nutrition and livelihood for women and farmers using the moringa plant. Kuli Kuli was launched using a crowdfunding campaign and now has several initiatives including Whole Foods, The Clinton Foundation, the Haiti program, and Small Farmers Alliance. Welcome Lisa. How does one start a business through a crowdfunding campaign? Where did the inspiration come from?

Lisa Curtis:

The inspiration comes out of necessity in some ways. I started Kuli Kuli after working with moringa and the Peace Corps. The Peace Corps is great at many, many things. But, it’s not great at giving you a ton of cash to start a business with. When I got back from the Peace Corps and started looking into how to get moringa onto the market, I wasn’t sure how to do a first full-scale manufacturing run. I realized that I simply didn’t have the capital to do it. I started talking to investors and everybody said my idea was crazy. “You’re going to source this plant that nobody’s ever heard of from Africa, a continent that’s not known for producing high quality food products, and you’re going to sell it here in the US??” That just isn’t going to work. At the same time, a lot of my friends and family thought it sounded like a great idea. I started the crowdfunding campaign thinking that if they believe in it, maybe I can get enough people to put in small amounts of money to do a first manufacturing run.

Gino Borges:

It’s one thing to go to Africa as a helper and then there’s a whole other level about turning your help into an entrepreneurial endeavor. Is it your family’s background that provided you with a sense of confidence around being an entrepreneur, or is it something that you had to come to yourself? Curious about how you went from being part of the Peace Corps to a social entrepreneur.

Lisa Curtis:

My parents are both dentists. They do run a small dental practice, but this is a little different from what they do in their day to day life. That being said, they always encouraged us. I am one of three girls. We grew up in the Bay Area in America in a middle-class family and we had a lot of privilege. Our responsibility was to use that to do something good for the world. My mom was the church deacon for a while and we’d make a lot of food for the homeless shelters, meeting and chatting with people there, walking dogs at the animal shelter, and giving and doing gift drives, donation drives during the holidays. Giving back and supporting your community has always been a big part of my life.

Gino Borges:

How does being a social entrepreneur feel like giving back versus just being a business owner? How do you negotiate your giving initiative, led by the heart while being inundated with numerous operational details on a day to day basis?

Lisa Curtis:

It’s an interesting thing. I like to say “no market, no mission.” If we don’t do a good job of creating a market for moringa here in the US, then all of these small farmers who are have become quite dependent on Kuli Kuli for their livelihoods aren’t going to have an income. It feels like it’s even more of a responsibility than it would be if it was just the responsibility to our investors. We all have investors. I feel a responsibility to them, but for all of them, this isn’t their entire livelihood at stake. I would say it pushes me harder to build a successful business.

Gino Borges:

What does being pushed hard look like? How are you any different than somebody who’s running a conventional dry cleaning shop? What is unique about going beyond just providing a service?

Lisa Curtis:

All entrepreneurs work hard, right? I’m not going to try to make that a competition. But, for me, this is not just my job, it’s my life’s purpose. I am always thinking about Kuli Kuli. I’m always talking to people about moringa. I’m going to a wedding this weekend and my whole suitcase is full of product because I’m going to meet a bunch of new people. They’re going to ask me about it and I’d like for them to try it. There’s a lot of ways that being passionate and committed to your enterprise shows up.

Gino Borges:

Where for you might be the limitations of passion? Where do you bump up against the limitations of being all in with a company as your life purpose as opposed to a lot of people who do work in the world just to leave it behind?

Lisa Curtis:

My husband’s really good at that, and I’m always quite jealous. The limit for me is health. I am militant about my health, the health of my team, and everyone we work with. I work, but I also go running most mornings. I have created a pretty nice lifestyle. I ride my bike 15 minutes to work. I run around the Lake next to our office. I shower at the gym downstairs. I meditate for 10 minutes every morning. I eat a really healthy breakfast of oatmeal and superfoods that we keep here in our office. When I travel, I make sure that I bring a lot of food with me, both Kuli Kuli products and some other products. Making sure that I make time to go running is a big thing for me and doing a quick meditation keeps myself in a good place and that allows me to do much more. Sleep is another big component. I’m pretty militant about getting in hours consistently.

Gino Borges:

A lot of things you mentioned are about physical health: the food, the running, the biking. You mentioned a little bit about the meditation. How does your militancy for health, not only for yourself but also for your team, transpire at emotional and social levels? How do you keep that alive?

Lisa Curtis:

I am constantly thinking about balance and culture. We’re a startup; we’re not a traditional nine to five. Everybody here works a lot and works very hard. We try to make sure that we recognize when people maybe crossed over a limit. I encourage them to take some time off, go get a massage or something to relax. We do have what we call “responsible time-off” where it’s essentially an unlimited vacation policy where we tell people to just be cognizant of what’s going on at the company and don’t overburden other people on your team or drop balls. As long as you can say everything that needs to get done is going to get done, take time when and where you need it.

Gino Borges:

Is that a common thing within startups, food companies or, is this a Lisa Curtis thing?

Lisa Curtis:

It’s interesting because there are a lot of tech companies in the Bay Area, and a lot of them have unlimited vacation policies. I would say at 90% of those companies, people don’t take vacation. You actually decrease in the amount of vacation taken. At Kuli Kuli, we average three to four weeks of vacation a year and plus 11 days of company holidays. We take a good chunk of vacation and that’s really just leading by example and saying I’m taking a day off to go camping.

Gino Borges:

What do you think the social or systemic reasons are for people not taking the vacation, even though they have it available to them?

Lisa Curtis:

It all comes back to culture and what are the cultural norms. I have friends who work at companies like that where, sure, they have unlimited vacation but nobody else on my team ever takes vacation. If they take vacation, it seems as though their the one who was always out or away from the office. So, it is key to lead by example and to show what that balance looks like. My team and I also recognize that there might be times where I’m traveling. For example, tomorrow I’m going to a wedding. I’m going to be online for part of the day and then offline for part of the day. Is that a vacation day? No, not quite. But there’s a lot of in between that the accessibility of webcams and having our whole life on our phone makes it possible for us to work in a lot of different ways. Still, we want to make those accessible.

Gino Borges:

How much is shame and honor driving a lot of people in the seemingly enlightened workspace of the tech community in the Bay Area? No one’s taking the white space necessary to restore, to heal. You started touching on that when you said no one wants to be the one person who accepts it because nobody else is. , Why are we intrinsically or internally feeling obliged to be here? Yet internally, I also know I need a break from you guys in order to restore, feel renewed and bring fresh ideas, fresh energy to the group.

Lisa Curtis:

I haven’t actually worked at a tech startup. Cleantech is as close as I’ve gotten. Broadly in entrepreneurship, we fetishize this idea of working all of the time and pouring all of yourself in there. It’s honorable to be working every weekend and it’s painful to be taking vacation. One of the things that somebody said to me pretty early on is that if you pour your entire self into your company and you, Lisa, are Kuli Kuli, then you’re not going to be able to weather the ups and downs of the startup journey because you’re going to feel everything personally.

For me, I am 100% in it. This is my life’s purpose, but I also make time to be with friends and family, make time to take care of myself, make time to go hiking and do activities I love. It helps me approach things in a better way so I’m not riding the roller coaster. Instead, I’m maybe one level off the track and can see things with a little bit of distance.

Gino Borges:

Moringa — is it a means to an end or is it the end? It sounds like it can be a lot of different things that could provide this particular goal of giving back. Can you explore how moringa is a vehicle for a larger vision of giving back?

Lisa Curtis:

I certainly didn’t come into the world saying I want to start a moringa business. I went into the Peace Corps and was in a rural village, no running water, no electricity, and not a lot of healthy food. As a vegetarian, I was feeling pretty weak off of millet and rice every day. A couple of women in my village pulled these leaves off a tree and handed them to me mixed into this popular West African snack called Kuli Kuli. “Eat this, that’ll make you feel better.” And, it did; it made me feel a lot better. I did some research and realized this plant is amazing.

It’s packed with protein and iron. It has many vitamins, a lot of nutrition. Why isn’t everyone here eating it? Long story short, after lots of conversations, I discovered that people weren’t eating it because they weren’t growing it; they weren’t growing it because there wasn’t a market for it. They basically asked me, can you help us create a market for this plant? At age 22, I said, sure, I’ll do that. I’m now over 30 and still going strong. I came back to the US really determined to help to create a market for moringa in the states in a way that supported specifically women farmers, like the women I had been working with. It has been quite the journey of figuring out what types of products to put moringa into, how to make it taste really good and how to get people excited about it.

Moringa is just the beginning. There are many amazing nutrient-rich crops all over the world. Many of our farmers ask, have you heard of tigernut? And have you heard of…? Have you heard this or how about this? We’re really interested in this idea of how do we start to incorporate other plants, other really nutritious plants into our supply chain and grow them alongside moringa through this really beautiful agroforestry method and then sell those products here in the US. It’s an ad platform that’ll allow us to do a lot more in terms of bringing new crops into the American consciousness and developing really sustainable supply chains around them.

Gino Borges:

How does it stack up against other nutrient dense foods that are available locally to us as opposed to using carbon to transport food around the world? How do you navigate that awkward reality of being environmentally conscious, aware of climate change, aware that increased carbon to move food products around the world increases the whole? How do you navigate that when I can grow beets, pumpkin seeds, hemp, and all kinds of rich protein sources very close to me?

Lisa Curtis:

It’s something we should ask about with moringa, and we should ask about with coffee, too. It’s something that we should ask about with chocolate and cacao. There’s a lot of amazing plants that we just can’t grow in America. We get them from the tropics. For moringa specifically, we have done some research in partnership with a team at Yale to do a full carbon life cycle assessment. I was actually super surprised by the results because I thought that the majority of the carbon would be in transporting product from West Africa to California. But, we actually found that the majority of the carbon is in the packaging. It was number one. So we recently joined a group of other sustainable food companies in the Bay Area who are all trying to figure out how do we better develop the packaging. Clif Bars are a part of it along with many others. We’re very focused on that. The second one was actually just crazy to me that people actually emit more carbon just driving to the grocery store and picking stuff up than from it coming over from Africa. It has to do with the fact that we have a highly efficient process in the sense that we’re sending full shipping containers full of 10 metric tons of moringa. You divide that down by much smaller amounts, it’s definitely something. We ideally would like to be carbon neutral. We’re looking at that this year to figure out what it would take for us to do that completely. We know that planting the moringa trees and helping them continue to grow does offset some of our carbon. But, there’s more we could do to offset more.

Gino Borges:

How does moringa stack up against the other forms of protein, such as pea, hemp, pumpkin? It seems like there’s some new protein powder out on a weekly basis.

Lisa Curtis:

There are a lot of proteins on the market. Moringa is the only green that I know of that provides a complete protein. You’re getting about a third of protein by weight. It doesn’t just matter the amount of protein; it also matters the quality of the protein. The quality of moringa’s protein is really, really high. You’re getting all nine of your essential amino acids and actually even more, about 18 different amino acids. It’s great for folks who are plant-based or don’t eat a ton of meat.

Gino Borges:

Take us through the journey of having to raise money, capitalize your business, and having to ask for money. How did you explain why Kuli Kuli is deserving?

Lisa Curtis:

That’s been a journey. I tell people I’ve raised every type of capital that you could possibly raise. We started out with a crowdfunding campaign on IndieGoGo. We then got a crowdfunding loan from Kiva. We then did a crowdfunding equity campaign on AgFunder. Then we did a seed round of investment from quite a few different investors, mostly angel or impact investors. That was our first seed round in investment — a million dollar round. Then, we raised a three and a quarter million dollars Series A. We just closed a $6 million Series B. We’ve raised a bit over $10 million to date. It’s been interesting. The early days are the hardest. Angel investors are so important because they are the first people who can actually yield the power to get businesses off the ground.

Lisa Curtis:

Our first Series A was actually led by Kellogg. That wasn’t something I anticipated. If you’d told me three years ago that the maker Frosted Flakes was going to be excited to invest in moringa, it just didn’t feel like a natural fit. But, the more I got to know the Kellogg team and the more I learned about their incredible work through their foundation, which owns about 30% of the Kellogg company, to improve nutrition around the world and just how deeply they care about that and how much they really, really resonated with our mission and how deeply they wanted to add value. At that point, it felt like the right partnership. Then our Series B round was actually led by Griffith Foods, which is another large food company. They are actually helping us to commercialize moringa as an ingredient which is really exciting.

Gino Borges:

How did you approach these larger food legacies companies with a particular vision without being overridden by the problems of “big food”?

Lisa Curtis:

A lot of them are very much motivated by the idea that taste preferences have changed tremendously over the past 10 years. A lot of these natural, organic, good brands really hold the key of what consumers are looking for. From Kellogg’s venture capital arm, they’re really looking to learn and they’re really looking to see how they can bring what they call this soul of a startup and infuse that into the Kellogg company. For us, we’re looking to understand how do we scale this? How do we take something that is high impact and high quality and scale it to get it out there in a bigger way? There is a real win-win that is happening with a lot of these deals.

I’m curious about how you scale. You’re very hard driven and very conscious of culture. Is your interest in scaling to get the vision out, or is there a certain financial reality that in order to stabilize that it has to reach a certain point? Secondly, is the startup way of financing the right way of financing food in particular? There’s a difference between financing products and services that transcend space and time versus financing products that are tied to space time and the inertia of the earth. It’s one thing to create an app that’s not tied to anything particularly physical. With food, you can only spread a physical product that’s grown in the Earth fast in order to ensure quality supply chain, treat workers fairly and forth. Have you needed to push back in any way to say that’s too fast and that’s just not real with these kinds of products that we’re trying to provide and the vision of what we’re trying to do?

Whether or not to take on VC money is a really personal question for different businesses and different entrepreneurs. I’ve always wanted to scale. I’ve always wanted this to be a massive company because for me, if we’re a massive company than we are supporting a huge number of farmers. We are getting a highly nutritious, climate-smart crop into the hands of many more consumers. There is an inherent good in us being bigger. Everyone understands that when you take on investor money, those investors are going to want to get their money back at some point. There are three ways to do that. You either become super profitable and buy them all out, I know Ikea did this recently. Another way is to go public. You go the Annie’s or Beyond Meat route and go public. You sell at some point. And, lastly, for us, we became a full-fledged benefit corporation. We’re a B Corp and changed our legal structure to be a benefit corporation with the idea that we want to do what is best for not just profit but also purpose. If we can create a bigger impact by being a part of Kellogg or General Mills or whoever, then we’re going to do that. But, if we think that actually it’s better for us to remain private and really focus on profitability, then we’re going to do it that way. To me, the main difference between tech and food, is that food isn’t going to scale in the same way that that tech scales. You’re not going to go from one to a billion overnight. There’s not a lot of “Instagrams” of food. But by the same token, you generally aren’t going from zero to zero overnight either because you are selling a product. You can get indicators pretty early on. Is this product selling in stores? Does it work? I tell folks that they’re betting on these high growth tech stocks. They should also invest in some food bonds.

Gino Borges:

Tell us about the moringa market. Or is it the protein market? How are you viewing the market?

Lisa Curtis:

It seems most of the people who use our moringa use it because they want more greens in their diet. They specifically want a really healthy, amazing green like moringa. For a lot of folks, they know they should eat more kale and more spinach but don’t always have time. It’s more “let me grab this bar, let me grab this shot, let me add this powder to my smoothie.” It’s an amazing way to get the greens on the go.

Gino Borges:

How did you shape your team, and where’s the team at now? How does one cultivate culture and grow a team at the same time?

Lisa Curtis:

The team is the hardest part. Nobody tells you when you start a company that you’re not running a company of robots, you’re running a company of humans and you need to make sure all those humans are the right humans: that they’re in the right jobs, that they’re motivated in the right way and that they continue to feel happy and productive. I have spent a lot of my time thinking about culture even though we’re only a team of 12. We’re a relatively small team. When I came back from the Peace Corps, the first thing I did was talk to friends about this because I knew it was something that I really wanted to do, but I didn’t want to do it alone. I recruited some friends who had experience in food, some friends who had experience in tech, some food friends who had experience in design. It ended up being four of us that all came together to get this company off the ground. They’ve all been incredible. Two of us who originally started are still here. Two other folks who have gone on their separate ways. There’s an interesting moment where you realize the company has changed and the people have changed, but they haven’t changed in the same direction. They changed in different directions. I had a really hard time letting go at first. I want a hundred percent retention. I want everyone to be here forever. It actually took me a little while to realize that that’s not the goal. The goal is for people to show up 100% and to be 100% happy and fulfilled. It’s not actually a hundred percent retention. As a fast growing company, the company needs to change. We have a lot of folks who Kuli Kuli is their first job after college or after Peace Corps. Their life changes, too. What they want and where they want to take their career changes, and that’s okay. We’ve had relatively quite low turnover, but we did recently have a few folks move on. At first, I was upset and then I realized that we were actually able to bring in folks who were a much better fit for where the company was at. I am learning as I go.

Gino Borges:

How do you typically hire? Is it word of mouth? How do you find the right fit for Kuli Kuli at this point?

Lisa Curtis:

We advertise on a bunch of different job platforms, everything from the traditional Indeed.com to more impact, B-Corp, Peace Corps job boards to target more people of color. I will also contact people on LinkedIn and spread it to friends, trying to get the referral network going as well. But, one of the things that I realized relatively recently is that people often join the company because they see themselves in it. It’s often very reflective of the founder. A lot of companies have trouble hiring women. I have trouble hiring men. All we get are white women to apply. I’ve been making an active effort to make sure that the people we hire are of this amazing diversity that we’d see in Oakland and the diversity of cultures that we work with through our moringa supply chain. We’ve been spending a lot of focus on broader recruitment efforts.

Gino Borges:

What are your insights into why it’s difficult to get men to apply to Kuli Kuli?

Lisa Curtis:

Food is often traditionally more of a female space. But, I do think it has to do with the founders and the pictures of who they see on the website. Before this, I worked in cleantech, I did all of our hiring there. It was founded by two white men, and all the applicants we got were white men.

Gino Borges:

What’s being lost as a result of this pattern?

Lisa Curtis:

What’s being lost is that you don’t get a diversity of perspective. We know that a lot of folks within the Latin community resonate with moringa. We hear this over and over again at events. In certain parts of the country like Florida and Southern California, people say, “Oh, moringa! I’ve grown up eating moringa. It’s a natural treatment for diabetes. It’s great for weight loss.” These are things that a lot of folks from different parts of South America and the Caribbean know. For a long time, we didn’t have anyone on our team who spoke Spanish, and it was a real loss. We’ve made an active effort to find folks who are part of that community.

Gino Borges:

But, is there something else going on? Regardless of whether we try to be diverse, certain people naturally are gravitating to people that look like them and feel like them. We’re constantly having to push back on that lack of, sort of a natural attraction, primal attraction.

Lisa Curtis:

It’s like the school lunch hall, right? I distinctly remember. I went to public middle school. There was all the black kids in one corner, all the Latino kids in another corner, all the preppy white kids in one area, and all the poor white kids in one area. We self-segregate over and over again. We have to be really conscious of it and make a real effort to not just perpetuate that.

Gino Borges:

Let’s talk about your suppliers. There’s always the tendency for companies to go to suppliers, but how many of the suppliers actually come to visit Kuli Kuli in the States?

Lisa Curtis:

As much as we can get there, we do. It’s obviously a pretty long trip, but we do find a fair amount of our suppliers will come to San Francisco for meetings and other things. We always invite them in and want them to meet our whole team. Just yesterday we had a supplier come in from Zimbabwe and do a little presentation for our team about their work. The supplier talked about how we gave them some ideas of different processing techniques they could use to continue to improve the quality of their moringa.

Gino Borges:

You mentioned to me when starting Kuli Kuli that you had to ask yourself “is this it?” Can you talk about what happened at that point in time where you thought “Oh wow, is this how it ends?”

Lisa Curtis:

There’s actually been a lot of those moments. One was when we had gotten confirmation from Whole Foods that they wanted to launch our moringa powder and our moringa green tea shots nationwide. That was our first nationwide launch. We were two years into the market. A couple months after we got that news, we heard from our only moringa supplier at the time, a women’s cooperative in Northern Ghana, that there had been a huge wildfire and the entire operation had burned down. They basically said “sorry, we have no moringa to sell to you. I didn’t know if we were going to come out of it. It felt really hard. But, we ended up finding this amazing family farm in Nicaragua that was growing moringa and miraculously had moringa available that we could source. We’ve diversified into 11 different countries from there. We learned that lesson the hard way.

Gino Borges:

What geographical regions does moringa grow?

Lisa Curtis:

Moringa grows in the subtropics. It’s everywhere in a broad swath of South and Central America, a good part of Africa and then a good chunk of Southeast Asia. Moringa grows everywhere from Mexico to Brazil to Ghana to Uganda to South Africa and into India and Cambodia. It grows in a lot of different countries, and interestingly, it’s consumed differently in different places. In the Philippines, moringa is the national vegetable, and it’s used a lot in soups and a lot in pesto. It’s more and more like a savory ingredient. In Senegal, moringa is called mother’s milk, and it’s often used by new moms to enhance lactation. Where I was living, moringa is often called the tree of life. It’s called tree of life through a lot of Africa, the idea being that, if you don’t have anything else to eat, you can eat moringa. It gives you most of what you need to survive.

Gino Borges:

How’s it being used in the States?

Lisa Curtis:

We often find people will start purchasing it for their smoothies. We try to encourage them on the back that there are different ways to use it. From smoothies to lattes to a matcha substitute that’s even healthier. We encourage people to mix moringa into pesto, guacamole or even hummus to show people that you can use it in a diverse set of ways.

Gino Borges:

Is there anything that was touched upon that you’d like to share a little bit more on or something that wasn’t a brought up that feels like a part of your journey?

Lisa Curtis:

The last thing I’ll share is that a lot of people think “wow, you’ve started this amazing business.” But, it really wouldn’t be possible without the amazing moringa entrepreneurs we partner with who are doing such incredible work. In my mind even harder than selling moringa in the US is growing super high quality moringa in rural parts of Africa or Nicaragua. They have done much to produce a really high quality product and really benefit the community where the product is sold. We’re just honored to be partnering with them.

Gino Borges:

Well said. Thank you Lisa. We really appreciate you joining us and sharing the good work and good fortune of such a beautiful story.