Founder Profile

Lisa Curtis

Kuli Kuli

Because superfoods are made, not born

Company Information
Year Founded
2011
Location
Oakland, California
Industry
Food & Beverages
Data as of Publication on Aug. 11, 2020
Company Description

As a PeaceCorp volunteer in Niger, Lisa Curtis often turned to moringa leaves when her diet left her with little energy. Locals wrapped the leaves around a peanut snack and called it kuli kuli. In 2014, energized both by the plant’s nutrients and by the idea of launching the next superfood in the U.S., Curtis created a company that sold moringa bars, sourcing the leaves from the village she had lived in. That proved too expensive, and the company now has moringa farms in 13 different countries and seeks to employ small women farmers. Still, Curtis got her big break when a buyer from Whole Foods saw her stand at a farmer’s market, and paved the way for Kuli Kuli to get into the chain’s Northern California stores. Now the company’s moringa-based bars, energy shots, teas, and powders are available in Albertson’s and Walmart as well. –Gabrielle Bienasz

Lisa Love

Tanoshi

For working to close the digital divide long before Covid sent 6-year-olds -- and almost everyone else -- home from school

Company Information
Year Founded
2015
Location
Oakland, California
Industry
Education
Data as of Publication on Aug. 11, 2020
Company Description

Less than one percent of venture capital funding goes to Black female founders. “Personally, I think it’s shameful,” says Lisa Love, who recently appeared on Shark Tank and received an offer for $500,000 for 20 percent of her company, Tanoshi. Back in 2017, a friend took Love to a pitch contest, where she heard Brad Johnston talk about an affordable 2-in-1 tablet and computer just for kids. He called it Tanoshi, which means fun in Japanese. She knew she had to meet him. “I told him about myself and my mom, and we just hit it off.”

Love’s mom, Arlene Richards, was a teacher in South Central Los Angeles for 50 years. Using learning materials that often didn’t “resonate with six-year-old black and brown students,” she taught them how to type, which meant they would quickly learn the alphabet, and she hoped words would follow. When Love met Johnston, she had just left a stressful job working for “the good-ole white boys of the corporate world, where you don’t get promoted, and you’re left just sitting there” and was trying to figure out a way to keep her mother’s lesson plans alive for lower-income families, who she says are getting “a raw deal on their education.”

According to the Boston Consulting Group, 15 to 16 million school-aged children in the U.S. don’t have access to a computer or a Wi-Fi connection. With a $200 price tag, Tanoshi wants to close this digital divide. “With the pandemic and schools, who knows?” says Love. “They’re still trying to figure out how kids are going to learn this year.” In other words, those kids need a Tanoshi now more than ever. —Una Morera

Lori Coulter

Summersalt

For showing that direct-to-consumer companies still have crazy amounts of untapped potential

Company Information
Year Founded
2017
Location
Saint Louis, Missouri
Industry
Consumer Products & Services
Data as of Publication on Aug. 11, 2020

Maggie Winter

Ayr

For knowing it was possible for jeans to look good on almost everyone

Company Information
Year Founded
2014
Location
New York, New York
Industry
Consumer Products & Services
Data as of Publication on Aug. 11, 2020
Company Description

Like so many direct-to-consumer digital-first startup brands, the women’s clothing maker Ayr spent the past few years expanding its brick-and-mortar retail presence. Last year, says CEO Maggie Winter, who cofounded the company with Max Bonbrest and Jac Cameron back in 2014, a third of Ayr’s business came from its stores. But then came Covid, and this year 90 percent of sales have been digital.

Ayr, which spun out of Bonobos as its own company in 2016, has relied on one big strategic advantage in this unprecedented year: Rather than ride the cycles of the ever-changing fashion seasons, Ayr offers what Winter calls “seasonless apparel.” (The name Ayr stands for “all year round.”) “When the economy hit a standstill in March, retailers found themselves sitting on spring and summer products that they weren’t going to be able to sell later in the year; you can’t sell a sundress in November,” explains Winter, who got her start at J. Crew under retail legend Mickey Drexler. “But our business was built for year-round sales, so we were able to manage inventory very quickly.”

On top of that, Ayr’s clothes offer a casual, non-showy look that played well in the pandemic. (“It’s about the women who are wearing it, not about the label or the logo,” Winter says.) The result: Despite everything, the company has actually grown this year.

The company has built some of those same attributes into the way it works. After laying off some of its retail employees, Ayr has been hiring in a different way. “We’re a lot less confined to hiring to a title and a role and more open to getting flexible contributors and collaborators, so we can allow resources to flow where they need to go at any moment,” Winter says. She expects that to be a new normal. “We are probably going to experience more change in the next 12 months than in the past ten years. And we want a team and a culture that is built to be adaptable.” -- Tom Foster

Maria Jose Palacio

Progeny Coffee

For supporting the income -- and the dignity -- of coffee farmers

Company Information
Year Founded
2016
Location
Palo Alto, California
Industry
Food & Beverages
Data as of Publication on Aug. 11, 2020
Company Description

Growing up in the fifth generation of a Colombian coffee-growing family, Maria Jose Palacio knew just how unstable that life could be. Farmers' incomes swing wildly because of fluctuations in international coffee prices, and they often lose money on their crops. When Palacio moved to New York City, she says, "it just got really depressing drinking $5 cups of coffee knowing none of it was going back to our community." Her solution: She'd coach farmers to improve the quality of their beans to a grade known as specialty. Then she could pay them a stable and higher price for the beans, roast them in San Francisco, and sell premium coffee to tech companies.

Initially, she got a cool reception from farmers, who were hesitant to work with a new company. "We spoke to so many farmers, and at first they wouldn't even give us a sample," she says. That changed when she brought a group of farmers to San Francisco to meet with some of their would-be clients, garnering huge press in Colombia at a time when coffee prices were depressed.

Progeny supplies companies in the Bay Area such as Google, Stripe, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. With so many offices closed because of Covid-19, Palacio is shifting to e-commerce, adding a subscription service, and offering home-brewing classes.

"If you're going to go into something, make sure you're passionate enough to push through the highs and the lows," says Palacio. "For me, it's the coffee farmers. They don't allow me to give up." -Brit Morse