Lisa Curtis is the Founder & CEO of Kuli Kuli, the leading brand pioneering a new sustainably sourced superfood called moringa. Moringa is a protein-rich leafy green, more nutritious than kale, with anti-inflammatory benefits rivaling turmeric. Kuli Kuli’s moringa powders, bars and wellness shots are sustainably sourced from African women and other small farmers around the world and sold in 11,000 U.S. stores. Lisa began working on Kuli Kuli while serving in the Peace Corps and, alongside her amazing team, has grown it into a multi-million dollar social enterprise. Lisa was recognized on the Forbes 30 Under 30 2018 list and she has appeared in numerous outlets including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and on MSNBC’s Morning Joe.
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John: Welcome to another edition of the Impact podcast. I am John Shegarian and I am so excited and honored to have back again, Lisa Curtis. Welcome back to impact, Lisa.
Lisa Curtis: Thank you so much for having me, John.
John: You know, Lisa, last time you were here, it was green as good and you were cooking up and dreaming of creating a business you had… I think at that point written a business plan for a company that you would envision called Kuli Kuli and you are the founder and the CEO. And just truth in advertising for our listeners, I was so enamored and inspired by your great story, which you are going to tell. I am going to ask you to share again with our listeners today because there is a whole new generation of young and new entrepreneurs that want to be inspired by you. I became an early investor and I will tell you what, your journey has been inspiring, fascinating, and just wonderful to watch from afar all the success you have had. So Lisa, let us start from the beginning. Talk a little bit about` your background leading up to Kuli Kuli? And what did you do when you got out of college and how you even came up with this great idea?
Lisa: Yeah, absolutely. So I first came to Kuli Kuli actually through the Peace Corps. So I joined the Peace Corps after college and went to Niger in West Africa and was placed in a very small rural village with no electricity, no running water, you know. A very simple life and I actually loved it. And the only thing I did not loved about it was that as a vegetarian, I had a really hard time getting enough nutrients in my diet. I was basically eating rice for every meal. And so at the time I was volunteering in my village’s Health Center and I turn to a couple of the women there and I said, “What can I eat that will make me feel better? I am just so exhausted all the time and clearly just not getting the right nutrients.” They literally pulled these leaves off a tree and mix them into this peanut snack that they call Kuli Kuli and said, “Eat this. It will make you feel better.”
And I had never thought to eat tree leaves before. I have never heard of Moringa. It seems a little strange but I trusted these women. At that point, I would do anything to feel more energized. I started eating it and it just really had a profound impact on me. Within the span of a week or two I was like, “Wow, I just feel so much more energized and better able to do all the things I want to do. What is this plant?” So I did a little research the next time I got into a capital city and I had some internet and I was just blown away by Moringa being this tree that grows all over the tropics. It actually thrives in the hot dry places like Niger. It is arguably one of the most nutrient-dense plants in the world. It is packed with protein, calcium, iron, vitamins, and it is great for vegetarians or just anyone who is looking to get more natural energy from a really nutritious plant. I got hooked. Originally, the idea was actually to just see how could I encourage more women in my village to be growing it and eating it locally and cooking it locally since women were the ones doing pretty much all the cooking in my village.
So I started talking to them about Moringa and the the big kind of response that I got back was, “Well hey, we are not gonna grow a crop that we cannot sell. We are really busy here, we are farmers, we are raising ten kids, we are doing all these things. So we are not going to grow this just because you think it is good for us. We will grow it if there is a market for it. Can you help us create a market for it?” At the time, I was twenty-two years old. I had no idea what I was signing up for. I had never worked in the food before and had no experience in business and I was like, “Sure. I will help you sell Moringa in the US.” And so long story short, that is really what the past ten years has been for me. It is fulfilling that promise and helping small farmers, predominantly African women, sell really high quality Moringa in the US. We are now in eleven thousand stores.
John: Unbelievable. So wait a second. Let us talk about where we left off. You had just about written and finished the business plan and started raising money. What year was that? Approximately?
Lisa: Yeah. I know. I am like trying to remember. Where did we left off? I believe that was two thousand fifteen, right? Sort of quick timeline, I got back from Peace Corps in two thousand ten. You know, I did not have any money because Corps paid me seventy-five dollars a month. So, you know, literally living at the poverty line in Niger. Everyone I talked to was like, “You should go work at a start-up before you start your own.” And those exact words that really resonated with me was, “Learn how to fail on someone else’s dime.”
Lisa: Yeah. Yeah, so I actually returned in two thousand eleven when I officially returned. Two thousand fourteen, I worked at another startup. Then the end of two thousand thirteen I said, “This is an idea that will not go away.” Like you said, I put together a business plan. I had started to test the farmer’s markets and other places and I was just like, “I need to do this.” So I decided to take the leap and quit my day job and I have not looked back since.
John: So for our listeners out there who just joined, we have got Lisa Curtis who is a friend of mine and a young woman entrepreneur, the founder and CEO of Kuli Kuli. To find Lisa and her great products at Kuli Kuli, you could go to www.kulikulifoods.com. That simple, kulikulioods.com. So from business plan to eleven thousand stores, there is a story there, Lisa. Can you share a little bit about that journey? Because that is not an easy journey for the most seasoned entrepreneurs. For someone like you in five short years to raise money, probably more than once, and to then go earn that many doors, please share a little bit about that part of the journey.
Lisa: Yeah. I am glad you double-clicked because I think sometimes people are like, “Well, I had this idea and then it turned into this business,” and as we both know, there is a lot of blood and sweat and tears that go into turning an idea into a reality. So, you know, the first thing was really figuring out whether people buy it. And so that was one of the things we validated at the farmers markets since that we were making these Moringa Bars by hand at a commercial kitchen. When I say we, I came back from Peace Corps and recruited some of my childhood best friends who had experience in food and tech and design. I brought them together to come come do this crazy idea with me. There were four of us and initially, everybody had day jobs and this was kind of a side hustle and then when I quit my day job, that was the point where I really had the very glamorous CEO job of driving around store to store begging the buyer at the store to put our product on the shelf and promising that if they put the product on the shelf, that I would stand there and pass out samples and sell through at least half the product. That was exactly how we got probably our first almost fifty stores. I did that for close to a year and it was not glamorous work. I can tell you that.
John: So are you here to tell me, Lisa, that being the founder and an entrepreneur and CEO is not always just bright lights, big city, and great cocktail parties and first class travel?
Lisa: If that is what it is like for you, I need your job.
John: No, it is not for sure. But it is so important to talk about that. You know, the great Michael Jordan, they are focusing on his final years of his career with the bulls. It is on HBO now and so many people who live through that period, and also who did not live through that period, are getting to revisit or for the first time get exposed to his greatness. In the last episode, the eighth episode of this series, it was the end of the eighth episode and he was being interviewed and he broke down and he said, “Winning has a price and Leadership has a price.” I would love to hear your thoughts around that as a woman leader, winner, CEO, and entrepreneur.
Lisa: Yeah, and I like that quote a lot. You know, a phrase that stuck with me from my village in Niger, it was in the local language, it means you drink pain. This is something that people in my village would literally yell at me at like seven in the morning when it was already 110F in Niger. I was running around the village, and they are like, “Why would you run in this heat? And why would you run at all?” They spend all their energy in the farms. In my mind, being an entrepreneur sort of goes to figuring out what you are willing to drink pain for and understanding what are the things that you are just so passionate about that you will sign up for what is often a decade or multiple decades of a lot of struggle. A lot of joy but also a lot of struggle.
John: There is a lot of struggle and you are right. That is a fascinating quote. I love that. You drink pain.
Lisa: It is very visceral, right?
John: It is very visceral. I mean, there is no misunderstanding that one. They want the communication to be very direct there. They do not want you to misunderstand their words. That is for sure, right?
Lisa: Yeah. Well, I got that one.
John: Wow. Okay. So let us step back a little bit. Moringa helped you recover when you were over there. It helped you feel stronger and better and you had an “Aha!” moment. You wrote the business plan, you raise some capital. For our listeners that have not yet been exposed to it, let us start with square one. Sell a listener that has not had the opportunity and the joy of enjoying some of your Moringa. What are the main benefits of Moringa? Anyway, just the main benefits for anyone who is going to want to buy it after the show from all the great outlets that you sell it from.
Lisa: Yeah. So in many ways, Moringa is the perfect food. It contains protein, it has a complete protein for all of your essential amino acids, which is great for vegetarians. Anyone trying to eat more plant-based. It has a lot of calcium, a lot of iron, a lot of vitamins, a lot of antioxidants, and a lot of really powerful phytochemicals that have been used in ancient medicine for a really long time. In western medicine, we are just starting to see some of the abilities of Moringa to help regulate blood sugar levels for diabetic patients. Also for a lot of new mothers to use it to help enhance lactation or milk production. So it is a really cool plant that is not new to a lot of the world. It is all over Africa, South America, Southeast Asia, and I feel just lucky to be the one who can help bring it to the US and get more Americans to experience the magic of this plant.
John: Before you had this vision of your business Kuli Kuli… and again for our listeners who want to find you or find your great products, they could go to kulikulifoods.com. The Moringa really did not exist in an easy to access food yet before you envisioned this in the United States, is that correct?
Lisa: Yeah. So we are definitely the first brand to really bring it to the US. There are a couple other brands that sell Moringa powder or Moringa pills. But certainly, nobody is selling it in value-added products and nobody is selling the quality or quantity of Moringa that Kuli Kuli does. It is kind of cool. We are now at the point where we can confidently say that we are the largest Moringa company in the world.
John: That is amazing. And so you started with what product, and now how many Suite of products do you have? So how can our listeners and their family members and friends enjoy and access your great Moringa products?
Lisa: Yeah. So we started with our bar. It is actually the first product we launched, fruit and nut bars with Moringa. Then we launched the pure Moringa powder, which is great for smoothies. Even Savory dishes, like Pesto’s and curries. Then we launched the smoothie mixes. And more recently, we launched the wellness shots. So three different product lines, shots, bars, and powders, all available on Amazon. Also all available on our website, kulikulifoods.com.
John: Nice. There is a lot of wins here. When I talk about impact entrepreneurs, you are probably why I renamed green is good, which was focused more on sustainability and those that were just doing good and to those who are creating an impact. If there is ever an impact entrepreneur or business model, you are to me the aspirational person and brand. For our listeners out there, not only is Lisa a great woman entrepreneur and CEO and founder, but there is lots of benefits that come with her great brand. I want you to explain one of them. First, why is Moringa itself good for the planet?
Lisa: I am so glad you asked that because you know, I have been an environmental activist for a lot of my life and I still am. One of the things that I think is so cool is the fact that I am selling tree leaves because it does not hurt the tree. The tree keeps growing, you can harvest it through time through three to four times a year, and we have planted over twelve million trees through our supply chain. We plant them in ways that help reforest the soil where it is creating these living forests of Moringa trees plus other crops intercropping as much as we possibly can. We have found that there is just so many benefits of planting a tree and planting a crop that is naturally regenerative.
John: That is just wonderful. Let us talk about some of the other benefits. So when you started the business, how many women were harvesting this product in where it is from in Africa? And now, how many women do you have doing that? Why is it important to their lives? How does it emancipate them and make them more independent in their hometowns?
Lisa: Yeah. Absolutely. Well, I would say that there were already thousands of women who are harvesting Moringa just for like personal use like a tree growing in their backyard or that kind of thing. But I think the big difference and what so many of the farmers we work with tell us is that having the ability to earn an income through selling this plant and harvesting this plant has been incredibly transformative. When we started, we were working with a co-op of twenty women in Northern Ghana. We are now working with over two thousand farmers. Primarily women, there is some men in there, too. We are not hating on the men, and all across eleven different countries. So largely in Africa and then some and South America and Southeast Asia as well.
John: That is amazing. I am not great at math, but that is like a hundred X. That is a hundred times up in in five short years.
Lisa: Yeah. Business went from one store to eleven thousand stores. That is a pretty big growth, too.
John: That is incredible. Let us just focus on the woman now back in Ghana. If they did not have a commercial business opportunity like this instead of just in their backyard type of harvesting, would their life be much different? Does it trend more negatively as opposed to them having the economic independence that this affords them?
Lisa: Yeah. I think one of the things that is really exciting for me to see is just the power of them having an income that is outside of the small things that they can sell on the in their local. Just other other smaller ways that they can earn income locally, which are just a lot of those opportunities are so limited for women in the places and communities that we source from. So for have them to have a year-round income that is so much greater than what they can get locally has been truly transformative. We have heard so many stories of women being able to send their kids to school and pay those school fees, being able to buy better food for their children. One woman who we have partnered with who has had five children and her husband passed away, she was basically kicked out on the street and she ended up starting this Moringa business. We have helped to support it. She now employs two hundred, mostly widowed or other disadvantaged, women in her community. It is stories like that and people like that that make me excited to drink the pain and get up and do this every day.
John: That is amazing. The impacts that your business enterprise have are not only the great example that we need more of in the United States and beyond of woman, founder, CEO, entrepreneur, but it is also planet. It is also people, other people, the woman that you employ, where Moringa is harvested, and their families and communities. It is also health. Everyone who comes in contact with this, their health improves. Their health improves. It is amazing. The impacts are just everlasting. Let us talk about one door to eleven thousand. I know that it is an incredible feat. This is just not numbers. You just do not make a few phone calls and take a few people to drinks. I mean, as you said, and I know you said it it somewhat tongue-in-cheek. But it really is not because even at my age, I am much older than you, and our business has even evolved for a longer period over eighteen years. Begging is never out of the question. So as you said, I mean, whatever it takes. Talk a little bit about how do you achieve that much success? Eleven thousand doors in five years is a ton of success in the retail business because there is thousands of new skews every year fighting for precious retail space, even precious online space now. Talk a little bit about how you got there from one to eleven thousand.
Lisa: Well, it did not happen overnight. It has been been a journey. I think a lot of it was finding people who would believe in us and who could get behind what we are doing. I give a lot of credit to Whole Foods Market. The Whole Foods buyer in Northern California, we came to her with these handmade Moringa bars and like very clearly knew very little about the food industry. And she said, “Yeah. I want to bring it in.” I think that first yes helped prompt a distributor we could sign to work with us, and then we started to getting more yeses. I have a sort of skill I have been cultivating for a while that I call Charassment, charming harrasment, which is not really harassment. But I am just not afraid to get no for an answer, not afraid to ask. So I spend a lot of time making crazy asks of, “Hey, Walmart. How about Moringa? This super foods is amazing. You should put it in your set which maybe seems crazy as a product that most of America does not know about.” But it worked. We are now in two thousand five hundred Walmart stores. And you know, I think having the audacity to ask the questions, for me, it really is rooted in the fact that I just think this is an amazing plant that has an amazing impact on the world. I want everyone to have access to it. And so making that happen is a big driving force for what I do.
John: Charassment. I have lived fifty-seven years. I never heard that word, but I am going to use it and I am going to give you credit in the future because that is a great, great word in the combination of two words, charming harassment. I mean, that is just a new form of oxymoron that I have never heard of. But I mean, it is great.
Lisa: I am glad you liked it.
John: So, obviously when we are taping this podcast today, we are still living through this tragedy period in the world history of the COVID-19 pandemic. A couple thoughts that I like to just ask you about is how have your sales held up in your stores like in Whole Foods during this pandemic? Are more people reaching out and being thoughtful about their health? Is that a trend that you are seeing in terms of more use of your great product?
Lisa: Yes. That has been one of the cool things that we have seen. It is that there are so many people looking for products that can boost their immunity and boost their energy levels. I am not saying Moringa is a cure-all here in any sense, but it is highly nutritious. What we know is that it is a really good nutrition and has really amazing phytochemicals, medicinal components that play a really strong role in boosting the overall immune system. We have seen incredible growth. Our sales were up seventy percent in Whole Foods and up at a lot of other retailers as well. It has been really exciting to just see how much our product has been helpful.
John: That is a testimony to your great sales and it is also a testimony to your wonderful product that is just both delicious and very nutritious. And as I have shared earlier, not only am I an investor, but I am a consumer of your product. I have been a vegetarian for forty years. I believe in what you are doing. It just packs a lot of punch for what it is. It is just delicious. We are going to get to the other side. We were talking about this a little bit off the air, Lisa. We know we are going to get to this another side. What is your goals in terms of doors and growth in the United States for Kuli Kuli after we get to the other side of this pandemic?
Lisa: Yeah. I have got big goals that have certainly not been been crushed by the pandemic which has been delayed a little bit. One of the things and one of the reasons that I named the company Kuli Kuli, and not the Moringa company, was really had to do with this idea that there are so many other incredible super food plants like Moringa in the communities we source from and other communities. Those would be so beneficial to Americans and so beneficial to those communities if we could find ways to unlock or have access to the US market and bring those incredible plants here and informing sustainable supply chains that work for everyone. So that is where we see us continuing to grow and expand. We still focus a lot of Maria because we think it is the most powerful plan out there, but I think there is other plants. We have started to pair some of these amazing botanicals alongside Moringa. If you have seen our new green tea wellness shots, they have Kamu Kamu and Ashwagandha and all these herbs that are just like so powerful and really complement Miranda and different ways. I am super excited as our brand continues to grow so we can help more Americans discover the power of food as medicine and medicinal plants. You know, Aspirin comes from a plant. So much of the medicine we consume is plants and I think sometimes we forget that.
John: Obviously, you have had massive success and I could not continue to succeed here in the US. But since the pandemic has hit the entire our world and exposed us all to our breakdowns and healthcare deficiencies in our own health and wellness, is it foolish for me to ask you that about expansion abroad, do you have your eyes on Kuli Kuli going to Canada, South America, Europe, and Asia, eventually as well?
Lisa: It is a good question. We actually have a very small presence in Canada and a very small presence in Mexico and to other countries that we are selling to right now. I think there is so much opportunity in the US that I still feel like there is a lot of work for us to do here. But we do think that there is, as we continue to grow, we certainly want to give give everyone access to this incredible plant and these great products. It is on the roadmap, but I do not think it is number one.
John: I got it. Well, one of the trademarks of a great entrepreneur is focus. So focusing on the US, which is still as you said, a massive opportunity in the years to come, there is no shame in that and that strategy. I think that is brilliant on your behalf. Is there anything you would like to share with our listeners? We have a huge listener base, Lisa. Not only existing founders and CEOs, but a lot of aspiring young people in high schools and in universities that want to be the next Lisa Curtis. Is there any words of wisdom you would like to leave before we have to say goodbye for today?
Lisa: Yeah. One of the things that I often hear from people who are interested in starting businesses is kind of a litany of reasons as of why they cannot do it of, “Oh, I do not have an MBA” or you know, “I have no background in business. I am not good at finance. I have not worked in business before. Who am I to think of starting a business?” If I have learned anything through my own journey, I think that if you have enough passion for what you want to build and if you have enough grit to really see your idea through, then you can truly accomplish anything.
John: Well you have accomplished a lot for our listeners out there that want to access Lisa’s great products at Kuli Kuli. Please go to www.kulikulioods.com. You could buy her suite of products online there or on at Whole Foods or Amazon. Lisa, you are literally the reason I rename the podcast Impact podcast. The impact that you are having on the planet, on people, on women and their families, and on the health of America, is beyond inspirational. I am so thankful for all that you do and thanks again for joining us today. I look forward to you coming back again to share the continued journey of Kuli Kuli.
Lisa: Thank you so much for having us, John. And thanks for being one of our earliest believers.