November 14, 2016

Combat Military Veterans Building A Food Business That Builds Hope (PODCAST)

rumi spiceIn honor of Veteran’s Day, in today’s podcast we’re talking with the Chief Marketing Officer of a veteran-owned and run small food business.

TRANSCRIPT:

Jennifer: I don’t typically share straight business stories on this Podcast series, but Rumi Spice’s story really caught my attention, for reasons that you’ll see in a minute. I knew this was a story you had to hear.

 

  By way of background, Rumi Spice is a food focused social enterprise, founded by a team of US Military combat veterans. They import saffron directly from rural Afghan farmers in an economic partnership. By connecting Afghan farmers directly to the international market they seek to catalyze market driven economic development one farmer at a time.

 

  The Rumi Spice processing facility in Herat, Afghanistan employees 75 Afghan woman who are paid direct wages. In addition, saffron is more and more becoming a viable alternative to growing opium, which is both a security and economic problem plaguing not just Afghanistan but the international economy. By cultivating for-profit business, Rumi Spice is helping to lay a foundation for long term peace in Afghanistan.

 

  Emily Miller, who we’re speaking with today, is co-founder and CMO of Rumi Spice. Emily thank you so much for joining us, really appreciate it.

 

Emily: Thank you for having me.

 

Jennifer: To begin with, I particularly wanted to feature today’s interview around Veteran’s Day because of both your and your co-founder, Kimberly Jung’s, military background.

 

  Would you mind sharing with our listeners a bit about your military background?

 

Emily: Yeah, absolutely. Kimberly and I first met at West Point, we were both classmates, class of 2008. We graduated and were engineer officers in the army as 2nd lieutenants. Both of us had very different experiences in Afghanistan. I was serving on a Special Operations Team; I was one of the first women to go out on night raids with Special Operations and work with women and children. Whereas Kim spent her deployment as a Route Clearance platoon leader, so she was actually looking for improvised explosive devices on the side of the road.

 

  Very, very different experiences in Afghanistan, but we both took away a very common thing which was kind of a love for the Afghan people and for the country itself.

 

Jennifer: Was there a moment when you or Kimberly, when you guys were in Afghanistan, when you started to develop an idea of that would later become Rumi Spice? Or was is it you took away with you kind of a love for the Afghan people and sort of kept that in the back of your mind, but didn’t necessarily think that you might wanna start up a business that would somehow integrate with Afghanistan?

 

Emily: When we were in Afghanistan we didn’t have the idea specifically for Rumi Spice or saffron particularly. We did have this frustration with … We just didn’t feel like we were making an impact, a long term impact in the Army. Kim always talks about how she would go out with her platoon, she would clear a roadside bomb and then within a few hours another one would be in it’s place kind of thing. That’s a little bit how it felt in the Army. We would go out on these night raids, get bad guys, but the very next day more bad guys would pop up.

 

  Kim and I kind of always had in the back of our mind that we really wanted to do something that could affect Afghanistan long term. When we were in business school a friend of ours, the other co-founder Keith, he was in Afghanistan working with the Afghan farmers and called us on Skype and said, “I think I have a really great idea for a business that could be really powerful for these farmers.” That’s kind of where the idea started.

 

Jennifer: Oh, wow that’s interesting. I want to mention this so that everybody is aware; you and Kimberly were both at Harvard Business School where you both earned your MBA.

 

  That’s interesting how that connection came together for you guys. Most of the folks listening are food professionals and so are probably familiar with saffron. Just in case someone who is listening isn’t familiar with it, can you tell us a little bit about saffron? I mean it’s kind of claimed a fame, so to speak, is that it’s the most expensive spice in the world, so why?

 

Emily: Yeah, that’s the first thing we tell people. It is the most expensive spice in the world. It’s one of the few things in the world that’s retained it’s value over thousands of years, which made saffron very interesting to us.

 

  Saffron itself is the stigma of a Crocus flower. It’s this beautiful, purple flower, each flower has three stigmas. The reason it’s so expensive is that they’re hand picked only once a year, the harvest is in November. Just to give you an idea of the amount of labor it takes; it takes about 150,000 flower blossoms to make just a kilogram of saffron. An enormous amount of labor goes into a very short period of time to get the saffron and process it.

 

Jennifer: Oh, wow. Yeah, that is a very labor intensive product.

 

Emily: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

 

Jennifer: It’s interesting, obviously, because as a social enterprise your mission isn’t just to purely profit from saffron, but that you want to help build the Afghan economy. You want to, as we said in your bio, combat the international opium problem, help sort of bring peace to the region ultimately. That’s a lot to put into one business plan.

 

  I’m curious; when you were at business school did you have business school colleagues or professors or have you talked to potential investors who tell you that what you guys are trying to do with the mission of Rumi Spice is actually too big? That you should just focus on the dollar and cents and the profits part of the equation?

 

Emily: Yeah, that’s a really question. You know, I’ll be honest; when Kim and Keith talked to me about this initially I was skeptical. I was just like, “Guys, doing business in Afghanistan is going to be so difficult. Are we sure that we can take this on?”

 

  Even I was questioning whether we could do this, but people have actually been really supportive. Kim and I both took a lot of classes at Harvard. One of my particular favorites is called “Re-Imagining Capitalism: Business and the Big Problems” and it’s really all about using business as a force for good, and that’s how we view Rumi Spice. Yes, that it’s for profit but it’s also about making an impact and we don’t think that making an impact and making a profit are mutually exclusive. We’re really trying to do both. We’ve had a lot of support from all of our professors and mentors and the social entrepreneurship folks at Harvard have been great for us.

 

  It’s definitely a daunting mission. There are a lot of different components that we’re taking on. But that’s kind of what makes it fun.

 

Jennifer: Yeah, so to that end … How do you and your team sort of evaluate all of the logistical components? Because we’re not just talking about a for-profit business with a social mission, but then we’re also adding in international and cultural boundaries as well.

 

  You have a whole bunch of logistical pieces to this business. How do you make sure that each box gets checked off correctly? Then I’ll kind of add to that, do you feel that your and Kimberly and the other folks on your team who come from a military background, that your military training as helped pay off in that regard to that very logistical approach to, okay what are the problems and now how are we going to surmount those potential hurdles?

 

Emily: Definitely. I think that is one of the reasons we don’t see many competitors coming in for our [inaudible 00:07:18]. A lot of people are just, “Wow, that’s a big challenge to take on in Afghanistan.” I think the only reason honestly we’re able to do it is because of our combined experience in Afghanistan.

 

  If you look at our co-founders we have done a cumulative total of over nine deployments to Afghanistan. Even our legal counsel, Carol, wasn’t in the military but she was a civilian in Afghanistan for two years, speaks fluent Dari. I do think our prior networks, our in-country expertise, all of these things … We built the critical relationships and partnerships.

 

  That is how business is done in Afghanistan. It’s built on trusted relationships. I don’t think without those things in place we could have ever solved all the logistical problems. It took us a full year to really get off the ground, to have all of these things built. It’s something we’re always working on, optimizing, even now.

 

  Yeah, definitely wouldn’t have been able to do it without the military experience and actually being in Afghanistan and building these relationships.

 

Jennifer: To that end, because you do have a really impressive roster of folks and backgrounds and areas of expertise within your company, were all of those people that you and Kimberly and Keith already had within your networks? Or did you identify that there were certain roles that needed to be filled, and then if you didn’t have that in your network how did you go out and find, you know, a legal counsel who speaks [Dari 00:08:49]?

 

Emily: I like to say, and many investors just at large tend to say, that really success of a company is less about the product or the idea and more about the team of people running the company. I definitely believe that to be true. I think fundamentally you need to have a CEO who is an amazing leader and who can attract top talent to follow them on their quest, and that’s exactly what Kim has done. She’s just a natural at identifying talent and recruiting them. She was the person who found Carol who’s our legal counsel; she went to Harvard Law School, was a friend of Kim’s sister, so talk about utilizing your network.

 

  We realized very early on, we needed legal counsel and when we met Carol it was like, “This is perfect.” Kim just is fantastic at recruiting people and getting them on board. She was friends with Keith who’s the other Co-Founder who was in Afghanistan actually working with the farmers.

 

  Kim’s really the one who kind of pulled the whole team together. She’s just amazing at seeing the gaps and finding the right type of mentors and team members to bring it, and that’s been crucial. I’d honestly say without the right people it would never have worked.

 

Jennifer: Then from your role as Chief Marketing Officer, you have to know that you have an incredible story behind your brand. How do you convey that story to buyers and consumers in a way that is succinct and that’s going to resonate with them? Because there are so many pieces to your business.

 

Emily: Yeah, there are so many. There’s so many angles to our story. I’m fairly new at this; I was in the military for five years, went to business school, learned a little bit about marketing, but really we all feel like we’re making it up as we go, a little bit?

 

Jennifer: I think that’s entrepreneurship in general, though.

 

Emily: Yeah, definitely. Kind of building the airplane while in flight, kind of thing?

 

  For instance, I think it really depends on who the audience is. We’re pretty thoughtful about the messaging we use depending on who we’re talking to. When we’re selling to the top chefs and restaurants in the world, which we sell to many of the top restaurants in New York for instance, they care first and foremost about quality, freshness, and the origin of the product. We really focus on that. We do tell them our story, they love knowing that we employ Afghan women and we’re making a difference in Afghanistan, but the first thing they do is they open the saffron and they want to know is it top quality? Is it fresh? That’s how we differentiate.

 

  Buyers and consumers though, they’re a little different. They’re a little less picky about the quality itself. We always put out there that we’re veteran owned and we’re dedicated to making an impact on Afghan women and empowering the Afghan economy. I think that really resonates.

 

  The thing we say … We have two major slogans, if you can call it that, that we say quite often. One is “cultivating peace,” that’s really what we believe we’re doing in Afghanistan for the long term. Then another is an Afghan proverb and it’s, “drop by drop a river is made.” That has definitely been our experience with Rumi Spice. Long term change just does not happen overnight and it is a day in, day out building business and making it happen. It’s slow, but we’ve seen already just in a year and a half we’ve made a huge impact.

 

  We’ve grown our farmer network from eleven farmers, we’re up to now over thirty-four farmers. The processing facility alone, as you mentioned, employs seventy-five Afghan women. We’re getting there. It’s slow, but we’re definitely making a lot of progress.

 

Jennifer: It’s a beautiful proverb. Again … That resonates for entrepreneurship in general. That’s really beautiful.

 

Emily: Yeah, I think it is too.

 

Jennifer: Another kind of marketing question for you; for the average consumer, and obviously average consumer for your consumer base is different than potentially average consumer in middle America. Saffron still isn’t necessarily a common spice in consumer’s pantries these days, in the US at least. How do you work towards demystifying it for consumers so that they feel comfortable paying the price point and then feel comfortable actually using it, as opposed to maybe buying it and then letting it sit in their pantry forever?

 

Emily: That’s a really great question, and it’s hard.

 

  We launched our saffron in Central Market, it’s a huge retailer in Texas. Kim and I personally went down there to do demos and that was the number one question we got; “Oh my gosh I love your story, great product, what do I do with it?”

 

  Saffron tends to get pigeonholed into this spice that you use in [inaudible 00:13:32] and that’s pretty much all people associate with it initially. We’re really trying to shift people away from this, to get them to understand that it’s a very versatile spice. So many cultures use it in vastly different ways. Italians use it in risotto, Afghans love it in tea. Indians put it in desserts and all sorts of sweet dishes. The French make an amazing saffron [inaudible 00:13:53]. Then obviously Spanish love it in [inaudible 00:13:57].

 

  We really try to use our social media a lot. We’re active on Instagram and Pinterest; always posting new recipes and new ways to try it and incorporate it in your regular diet.

 

  We’ve also been in … We call them “ingredient customers” but the Blue Apron and Hello Fresh. We’ve had our saffron in those and that’s been really great, since people get the saffron and if they’ve never used it before, they’re both getting our saffron, our story, and they’re also experimenting and getting to cook with it. We’re trying to do more of that as well.

 

Jennifer: That’s a very interesting marketing angle.

 

Emily: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

 

Jennifer: I’m going to kind of shift a little from marketing to military. Obviously as all of us who are in sort of the business world know, you hear a lot about military veterans returning to the US and not being able to find jobs. I kind of have a two part question here for you.

 

  The first one is, what would you say to someone listening who is thinking of hiring for a position in their company and might be considering hiring a veteran? I know that we’re painting with a really broad brush here, and kind of being very stereotypical, but would you mind sharing some of your thoughts on what you feel make military veterans exceptional employees?

 

Emily: There’s so many amazing things about hiring veterans. In my experience, I’ve seen a lot of employers … They just don’t know what veterans are capable of, or maybe they have a hard time understanding their experience. I would caution against, I think people tend to think of veterans maybe as victims a little bit. The media portrays us as PTSD riddled, or the women as victims of sexual assault. I would say those are very, very small numbers. I think most veterans are really amazing.

 

  I think we bring so much to the table. One of them is obviously leadership. I just think we are leading people in complex, ambiguous, very intense situations at a very young age. We’ve got the leadership experience. Strong communication skills, attention to detail. I’d say more than anything else, veterans are just very hungry and we’re very scrappy. We tell people this all the time that if you’re going to start a business, you want a veteran right? Because we have a bias for action. We thrive on having a higher mission and purpose, and working with a team of people towards a common goal.

 

  I don’t think you can say that for a lot of people. I think that’s what veterans really want out of a job when they get out of the military. They want something with a higher purpose. I think we really thrive in team environments.

 

Jennifer: Then so what about if you’re a military veteran listening and you want to start your own company? In interviews that you and your team members have done for other publications, there’s been a lot of mention of the strong network within the military community and how that can be an asset for military veterans looking to start companies.

 

  For you, do you have any words of advice for someone who may be where you were several years ago and is thinking about starting a business?

 

Emily: Yeah, I would say a lot of our success is due to our network. I hate to kind of fall back on that, but it’s really true. The first place that Kim and I turned was to our West Point network, and Veteran’s Affairs. We’ve had so much support. One of our investors is Hivers & Strivers, and so they’re an investment portfolio that only backs academy grad owned ventures, which is really great. Because I think there’s so much emphasis on placing veterans in jobs and not enough emphasis on veterans as entrepreneurs.

 

Jennifer: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

 

Emily: There are a lot of organizations out there like The Bunker, they have supported us immensely.

 

  I think it’s just really taking the time to map out your network, and get a feel for who could really help you be a mentor in this? Who could help you start? Especially when it comes to fundraising. I think that that was absolutely critical. We really surrounded ourselves with great mentors who gave us just spot on advice along the way.

 

  Also the Harvard network. I mean, being in school while starting a business was just great for us because we had professors who were guiding us along the way, and that was another fantastic network to access.

 

Jennifer: Great. I realized as we were talking there was one question I forgot to ask, which is is there a story behind the name of the company?

 

Emily: Yeah. Kim and I were actually traveling in India and we kept coming across quotes by Rumi. Rumi is a thirteenth century poet and philosopher. There’s a little contention over this, but he was basically born in the region that is now Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, somewhere in there. We were really inspired by all of his quotes, and he’s just an amazing poet. He was the namesake for the company.

 

Jennifer: Okay. I was wondering about that.

 

Emily: Yeah, absolutely.

 

Jennifer: Emily I really appreciate you taking the time to share your story and Rumi Spice’s story with us. I’m sure that everyone listening agrees that this is a really unique story. You guys have had some really interesting business challenges that are different than the average food entrepreneur might have. But obviously with the team of people you have around you and the network that you’ve built, you guys are well served to overcome all of those.

 

  Thank you so much for sharing your story. Obviously also for bringing just a really, great product to market that is more than just a great product, but also has this huge social enterprise piece of it. Thank you so much.

 

Emily: Yeah, thank you for having us.

 

Jennifer: Absolutely. I do want to say, because we are right around Veteran’s Day, also thank you to you and to Kim and to the others on your team for your service.

 

Emily: Thanks. We loved our time in the military. Wouldn’t change it for the world.

 

Jennifer: Wonderful. Well, thank you.

 

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