For Lisa Curtis, founder and CEO of Kuli Kuli, sustainability and international development has been front of mind from an early age. Speaking to Spurher, Curtis says, “I have always been passionate about social change.”
From shining a light on environmental initiatives in school to volunteering as a United Nations Environmental Programme Youth Coordinator, Curtis seized every opportunity to learn and spread awareness on a topic that is all too relevant today.
The seed for social enterprise Kuli Kuli was planted in a small village in Niger, West Africa. As a young Peace Corps Volunteer in 2010, Curtis felt the effects of a malnourished diet. Her colleagues recommended she try eating a local plant, moringa. She explains, “I tried it, and it made me feel better. I did some research and thought, “this plant is amazing!” How can I help people benefit from it? That is what inspired me to found Kuli Kuli, and I’ve been doing it ever since.”
This unexpected encounter with Moringa in Niger fueled the 31-year-old California native to spread awareness about this curiously nutrient-rich tree. Moringa is drought resistant with superfood qualities that leave kale looking paltry in comparison. Its roll call includes antioxidants, essential amino acids and iron, among others.
Fast forward to today. What was initially a goal to increase local awareness and market for Moringa within Niger, has flourished into a multi-million dollar social enterprise which drives sustainable economic growth in the communities that supply moringa products to Kuli Kuli’s North American market. Curtis’ organization empowers women and their families worldwide to improve their livelihoods through farming moringa. Kuli Kuli’s moringa products are sold in over 7,000 stores. The company has been featured in publications such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and Forbes. The company received significant funding from Kellogg’s venture arm, and is a Certified B Corporation.
As somebody still young, it is inspiring to see just how much Lisa Curtis has achieved. However, success didn’t come easy for Curtis. As a 22-year-old in Niger, she had no previous business background or knowledge to guide her at the beginning. Through self-belief, a drive to learn and persistence, Curtis created her own story of success and you can too. Read on to discover seven things CEO and Founder of Kuli Kuli Foods, Lisa Curtis can teach you about success.
The Best Way to Understand is to Listen
As a Peace Corps Volunteer, Curtis worked closely within the local village to understand more about their ambitions for the area.
“I think initially it was a matter of doing a lot of listening and try to seek to understand first, what were their needs and dreams and visions for their community. I actually spent the first three months in my village just in informal interviews with everyone I could find. What are the challenges the community faces? What solutions [do] they have? People would eat a full meal of rice, and they would think they were full but they weren’t nourished. That nutritional information really wasn’t there. [moringa] grown locally is so nutritious. [I asked,] “Why don’t you grow more of this?” “Why don’t you eat more of this?””
The local community told Curtis that moringa was not a profitable crop in their local area. They told her, “If you want us to grow it, then you need to help us sell it. We can’t sell it locally.” Curtis admits, “It came out of their request to help them. I really had no idea what I was getting into as 22 years old.” Listening to your market and to every stakeholder in your process will give you a holistic view and open your eyes to fresh perspectives on an idea.
It’s Never Too Late To Start
It can be daunting to pursue an idea when you don’t have the conventional background required. However, your experience in your past doesn’t need to dictate that of your future. You don’t know what you don’t know, but it’s never too late to seek out the experience and expertise you need to realize your dream.
Returning from Niger, Curtis was very enthusiastic about the potential she saw in moringa. One of her mentors in the Peace Corps program advised her to gain some experience at a startup to understand the challenges and input required to launch her own company.
“I got a day job at a really fast-growing startup where I was the 4th person there. By the time I left, there were 40 people there. I got to see what it takes to build a team, and I worked directly under the CEO, [doing] a little bit of everything. I got to learn a lot. That was a great experience that helped me get where I am today.”
Celebrate the Small Wins
As we pursue our professional ambitions, it can be easy to dwell on the negative over the positive. While some self-criticism can work in your favor, identifying and celebrating what you are grateful for, however small, is a reminder of the progress you’re making. Curtis keeps a daily gratitude calendar to pinpoint those moments of achievement.
“Before I go to bed I write in a calendar next to my bed one or two things that I am grateful for and what went well that day. For anybody running a startup, it’s a rollercoaster. There are days when you are on top of the world and days when it’s hard. So even on those days that feel hard, I take that time to think about […] one or two things that went really well, that I’m really grateful they happened. That helps me keep a positive outlook.”
Persistence is Key
Becoming the leading moringa superfood provider in North America wasn’t a walk in the park.
“The first challenge was financing. I was relatively young when I started Kuli Kuli and just came out of the Peace Corps. I had $2,000 to my name at the time. It wasn’t like I could self-fund this. You needed outside capital and I found it was really hard for people to believe that this could be a viable product. It felt like an exercise in rejection.”
In the first year, many investors were reluctant to come aboard. She explains, “I think persistence is the key. Also just having the confidence in yourself and in your idea that you can actually welcome those rejections and see them as a way to continue growing and get even stronger.”
Curtis kept in touch with those hesitant investors, providing updates every quarter, and demonstrating that Kuli Kuli was on its way up. Many of those investors are now partners of the business having followed Kuli Kuli’s journey and seen its growth and progression.
Your Team is Everything
The dynamics, the support, the collaboration – a strong team is key to success.
“Now that we’re a multi-million dollar social enterprise, the biggest challenge is the team and finding the right people and getting everybody going in the same direction, keeping them motivated. We have so many amazing people on our team that we want to make sure they grow and develop as we grow. That’s something that I’m always thinking about. How can I be the best possible manager and best possible leader and really create a place where my people are excited to come to work and do what they do?”
Her own goals as a leader are very much centered around supporting others.
“I want to be constantly improving. There’s so much I have to learn to be the best manager and a cheerleader for my team. I’m learning a lot as I go and I just want to keep continuing to get better and continuing to support other entrepreneurs.”
Don’t Forget to Sleep
You’re not going to function at your optimum if you don’t allow yourself enough time to rest and recover. Sleep, Curtis says, “is something that goes underrated. People sometimes think they’re too busy to sleep and actually maybe you’re too busy to not sleep”.
Whether you’re an entrepreneur or climbing the corporate ladder in a company, sleep will help equip you with the energy and focus you need to perform.
Get Informed and Inspired
A good book can not only impart raw knowledge and information but also inspire and empower you to develop and refine your own ideas. Curtis’ top picks for aspiring female leaders? Traction by Gino Wickman, Start with Why by Simon Sinek and The Blue Sweater by Jacqueline Novogratz.