Updated: Dec 23, 2020
For some entrepreneurs, entrepreneurship is something they stumble into, often out of a deep desire to solve problems. But, not a lot of entrepreneurs make it through the long-haul. Because of the unpredictable obstacles and sometimes small wins, you need to have the long-game mentality, the dedication, and the grit to see what you desire the most come to life. However, one entrepreneur who never had entrepreneurship as a goal post held on long enough to witness the incredible rewards.
Ehime Eigbe had a health scare that forced her to change her diet. However, there was one treat she had a difficult time eliminating. Ehi loves ice cream but knew if she continued to consume it, it would negatively impact her health. So she researched alternatives but noticed that the frozen yogurts weren't very healthy. That led her to create an ice cream that was genuinely healthy that everyone could indulge in. Ehi wanted to create something unforgettable that gave ice cream lovers an unforgettable experience. An ice cream treat that was good for you and had positive added benefits.
Ehi is originally from Nigeria, but she also spent time in London and moved to America for her job. It was then she began to create different recipes. Ehi would bring samples to work, and her coworkers loved them and were willing to pay for them. This is how Sweetkiwi was born. While living in Texas, Ehi considered opening a brick and mortar but decided to go on vacation in Nigeria instead. That's where she saw a significant gap in the Nigerian market for a dessert like hers, whereas America had a saturated market. She extended her stay In Nigeria and created three locations there. After her successes in Nigeria, she decided to return to America.
In the process of moving to the DC area, she experimented further with various ingredients. She discovered a food kitchen, and the people there loved her product, so they invited her to apply for their food accelerator program, in which she got in. The catalyst she needed to launch her products in the local grocery stores, which opened more doors. SweetKiwi is now in five Whole Food stores!
"I always wanted to work in the UN. Never, ever, ever thought I'd be a business owner, but when you're thrown in, all the talents inside of you start to come out," said Ehi.
What are you most proud of when it comes to Sweetkiwi?
Ehi is most proud of the partnerships that she's been able to create throughout her business journey. "Just seeing my products in the freezer, or seeing my picture on the freezer, I'm like, oh my God, this is happening to someone else," she said modestly. She's worked with Bozzuto. She has an alcohol-infused based line in which she has partnerships with Moet & Chandon LMVH. Other big names include Guinness with plans of having her product at concerts for Pepsi.
What's the biggest fear you had during your business journey?
Ehi shares that the fear of failure lingers in the back of her mind. "Especially now, the more I see that I'm successful, the more the fear is there. Now people are looking at you. Now there are so many more people counting on you. So many people are inspired by what you're doing. Now you can't actually fail," shared Ehi. Ehi encourages you to take more risks in life and not to fear chasing your goals.
Describe what it was like preparing for the pitch competition.
Ehi has never participated in a competition before. She isn't accustomed to putting herself out there. Moving into a new city while also starting a business, she found herself going home and then going to the production center. She didn't have much of a social life and didn't leave room for much of anything else. So for Ehi, this was completely outside of her comfort zone. She knew how to get her products into the stores, but she's never pitched for funding. "I really enjoyed the practice pitch because it helped me, kind of, organize my slides. It was a great learning session," said Ehi. The feedback she received from the practice pitch was invaluable. She recalled fixing her slides in real-time while watching the other pitch participants receive their feedback. This helped her to finetune her pitch deck further.
When it came time for the real pitch competition, Ehi felt comfortable and prepared to pitch in front of the judges. "The practice session made me so much bolder in applying for more pitch competitions. It made me better because now I knew how to structure the answers better, so I'm really grateful for that," Ehi shared. Since then, she applied with iFund Women and received $10k from Visa. "Before that, I didn't get approved for anything. But after that pitch, almost everything that I applied for, I was approved for," said Ehi. Red Backpack Grant, "What it really taught me, to be honest, is that there is so much information out there, you really have to put yourself out there, you can never stop learning, and you have to be willing to take in the feedback that's being presented to you," recommends Ehi.
Ehi used the funds to purchase more products. She bought more supplies for her packaging, which is quite expensive. She can now buy her products in bulk, which cuts the prices in half and helps with her profit margins.
If you're looking to perfect your pitch, Ehi suggests, "I think it's important to pay attention to the pitch training day. I think that even outside of winning, it's learning something from the whole process so you can take something back with you that's going to make you a better entrepreneur and a better business owner. But when it comes to winning, it's a voting competition, and you have to be aggressive."
At first, she shied away from reaching out to people because she didn't want to bother anyone. And when she didn't see the word winner next to her name, she couldn't sleep and felt restless. Ehi decided to get on the phone and call as many people as she could from 6 a.m. to midnight. She called and said, "I'm going to need you to vote. I said to myself that I had to push the competition. I put some effort into this. Why not push it all the way? I also realized it's one of the things that makes me successful in what I do is I don't give up that easily. I don't give up. It's that tenancy, no really, I had my husband sitting there with me on the phone, telling him to call all his friends," she laughed.
One of the things that make her successful is she doesn't give up. That's the tenacity. What she also realized is that people now knew what she does. They knew she owned a business, but people didn't know the details of her business. From there, she received more support, more feedback, and more people from her immediate community purchased her products. The key lesson here is not to forget to utilize your personal network.
Tell us about a significant setback you had in your business, and how did you recover?
Summer is SweetKiwi's biggest season, so when COVID-19 hit, they took a massive hit in sales and had significant financial setbacks. Usually, around this time, she is catering to huge brands and hospitals. But with the lockdown and no one doing events, she lost profits and had to let her part-time employees go or her employees left because they weren't receiving any hours.
During the early stages of COVID-19, she not only had a three-month-old to care for, but she also had to do the production process on her own. All the places they used to sell to were no longer accepting self-distribution. Therefore the number of doors that SweetKiwi had access to went from 30 to 10. Her product made it to WholeFoods in January, but because of COVID, it took seven months to get into the stores. That's seven months of lost revenue.
It was only when the lockdowns started to lift that her distributors were ready to go. And with WholeFood giving her five stores, she had to meet her goals for the year. A nervous Ehi took immediate action by calling 25 buyers. So, she went from five stores to 26 stores. She reached out to apartments for her catering business and started to do drop-offs and deliveries herself while also remaining COVID compliant. They were also able to hold social distancing events. She went from not having any orders to doing $5k per month through outreach alone. The buyers were happy to hear from her because they weren't doing any events either. The apartments she reached out to began to market her product for her, and within a few weeks, sales increased drastically.
How do you measure success?
"I think success for me. It's not really monetary. It's about being able to make an impact and using your business to impact people's lives and to make an impact on your community and the people around you. And so, every day and everything that I do with my business, I think about what impact we are going to have in our community and how we are going to support people," said Ehi.
Ehi focuses on sourcing local ingredients for her product because she's committed to supporting local businesses. She focuses on treating her employees well, despite being a small business owner. Still, she plans to grow her business to continue to impact the community significantly. To her core, she has a strong desire to support and uplift others.
Support isn't always given to women of color in business; when has this shown and hurt or disappointed you the most?
"That's a hard question just because I tend to place any expectations on people. I tend to fight for what I think I deserve. I definitely think that we would've raised more funding if we were of a different color. A company recently raised 2 billion dollars without even starting a business, and within six months, the idea didn't pan out, and the business had to shut down. Ehi believes that Black and Brown women don't receive opportunities like this.
When you're running a business, you'll find that maybe you'll gain momentum, and stores are willing to give you more space, but as you grow bigger, it becomes a tougher game. "You have to pay for shelf space. You have to pay for advertising. Retailers don't want to take a chance on a brand that's not well funded. A little support goes a long way, but we don't get the opportunity to get out there. I'm not gonna give up the fight. I'm going to keep working as hard as I can, and hopefully, the right person takes notice," said Ehi.
From Nigeria to America, Ehi finds that it's difficult to raise funding worldwide, and you find yourself competing with foreigners who have deep pockets. One company that she knows of raised 50 million dollars, but SweetKiwi continued to make more revenue than them. "But no one would give us the funding even though we were doing better than that company," said Ehi. She recommends not dwelling on the obstacles because you'll find yourself becoming bitter if you do. Ehi focuses only on herself, the expectations she's placed on herself, and her capabilities to keep pushing. All she can hope is that all her hard work will continue to pay off in the long run.
What's the most critical lesson you've learned about business, in general?
Expenses were a harsh lesson for Ehi. "It's the little expenses that can sink a whole ship. It's that whole where you're losing money, and you need to plug that," she said. The money leaks in your business are what can turn your whole ship upside down. Ehi always reviews the expenses and continues to be strategic and finding creative ways to increase her profit margins. She suggests that you negotiate and find more affordable suppliers every quarter you review your expenses, which will continue to keep your costs as low as possible. "Keep an eye on your numbers because you can do $3 million in revenue but have expenses of $2.5 million. You're wasting your time," she said.
Was there a time that you wanted to quit?
Ehi says there were plenty of times that she wanted to quit. What people don't talk enough about are entrepreneurs and their mental health. "You're always on a roller coaster, one minute you're on a high, you're in a great grocery store, so that's a high and then the next day you're out of money, and you can't make your purchase orders, and then there's a low. A lot of those highs and lows cause a lot of anxiety for entrepreneurs, and I feel that people don't talk about it," shared Ehi.
This doesn't include having a personal life and the unexpected life situations that happen. Ehi shared how she experienced two miscarriages but never stopped to grieve, never stopped to process because the business needs to continue. As an entrepreneur, there isn't much downtime. When you're experiencing difficulties in life and working for someone, you can take some time off, but sho do you call when you own your business?
"It was really tough for me mentally, but I had to just push through it. I don't think it's ever been comfortable for a woman of color to go through therapy. I had to normalize that and say, 'you need to go talk to someone' because what even messes with the mind most is going through something then having to put s*** aside like it never happened," shared Ehi. The day after she lost her baby, the food accelerator program started. "I got up, got dressed and smiled through the whole thing," said Ehi. This was difficult for her when she wanted to cry and process her emotions, but she couldn't. Now she makes room for herself, she reaches out for support, and she makes sure that there is a structure in place for her to take care of herself.
What's the most significant risk you've taken in your life thus far? And how did it turn out?
"My biggest risk was quitting my job from Citigroup and moving to a country that I had not lived in and starting a business," said Ehi. Moving to a country that didn't have the same amenities as America was a challenge for her. She believes that move helped to build her resolve and made her stronger. In Nigeria, you need to have thick skin if you want to survive. Ehi watched herself change. She became more vocal and more audacious. So when she transitioned to the States to extend her business, she felt better prepared to run her business.
What do you think is an important skill or asset you need to be successful in business?
Ehi believes that the most critical skill to have in business is tenacity. The ability to never give up. There will be obstacles from all angles, but you can't give up. Ehi pitched to Whole Foods last year, and they said no. She returned a year later, and now she's in five Whole Foods locations.
What's the most exciting part of your business?
Ehi enjoys creating the flavors. She loves experimenting with different ingredients, such as fruits and vegetables. She often wants to have all the flavors go on the market, but she understands that she has to pay attention to her customers' wants. Creating flavors feeds her creativity. Ehi is in the process of creating a granola line and adding protein and probiotics for gut health. "I love being able to do something that's different than what's already in the market," she said. Being able to create something that her customers enjoy is what excites her.
What do you think the future holds for Black women entrepreneurs?
Ehi believes the future is for Black women entrepreneurs and that regardless of the obstacles that Black women continue to face, we have to create the future that we want to see. If Black women remain united, then that means we can build our reality.
Owning a business while balancing a personal life can be demanding and taxing; how do you take care of yourself?
Ehi reads a lot and ensures that she has a proper schedule. She uses her calendar intentionally so that she can take care of herself. She reads, but she plays tennis, listens to her favorite podcasts, and recently joined her church choir. "Just because I'm an entrepreneur, it doesn't mean that my life has to stop," said Ehi.
What is your favorite quote or mantra?
"Be fearless in the pursuit of whatever sets your soul on fire."
What book or podcast would you recommend?
How I Built This podcast.
David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell.
What is your favorite app or business hack that you can't live without?
Adept is an extension on LinkedIn that finds anyone's email.
Name one food item you have a hard time saying no to.
Ice cream. Frozen yogurt.
What's next for SweetKiwi?
Accelerated growth is the next step. Ehi plans on getting SweetKiwi into more grocery stores and hopes to expand nationally further.