Updated: Dec 7, 2021
The 2020 pandemic left many business owners wondering what's next? They faced economic meltdown and supply chain disruptions. It altered the world in ways no one was expecting. But with change comes opportunity. With opportunity comes vulnerability. And with vulnerability comes a brand new phase of evolution for business. Jelece Morris and her co-founder Suzanne Delica saw an opportunity in the wings. Jelece released her startup during that time, and Suzanne's brick and mortar suffered a gas explosion.
Opening a storefront with the world shutting down didn't make sense for either of them. Being entrepreneurs at heart, they both wanted to get started on another project. While sheltered in place, they both were cooking more and noticed they shared a similar pain point. They realized there wasn't an all-in-one purpose seasoning that carried the essence of the flavors they grew up with. Jelece has Jamaican roots, and Suzanne has Haitian roots. Before solidifying their idea, they shared it with other people based on their feedback; they decided to create BoCa Flavor.
BoCa Flavor embodies bold Caribbean flavors that you can season anything with. Jelece said, "And seeing the opportunity when we look at the international aisle, just the lack of diversity, especially when we think of Caribbean flavors and just how it's been limited to jerk and curry, you know, flavors that we love. But we know when we think about the Caribbean and all of the islands that so much more can be shared. We really want to take it out of the international aisle and make it more of an everyday staple."
What are you most proud of when it comes to BoCa Flavor?
Jelece and Suzanne are most proud of the repeat orders. When they see their order list, they notice names they don't recognize, which means people are finding out about them. It was reassuring for them to know that their marketing efforts were working. They didn't want to be a stereotypical cartoonish brand that most see on the shelf with palm trees and outlines of flags. They aimed for BoCa Flavor to be a powerful brand that people wanted on their kitchen shelves.
What were some of your biggest fears along your journey?
When they both started, they didn't understand the supply chain well enough and didn't fully comprehend the demand and supply dance that a product business must be aware of. At the beginning of the pandemic, Jelece and Suzanne didn't see any delays in their supplies, but as things began to move forward, they questioned if they would have products for their customers.
Jelece said, "So that was definitely a big fear of us is, we would build all this buzz and not have the products to meet demand. So that's why pitch competitions like Black Girl Ventures were really important because when we're able to order in large quantities, we can have that back pile of inventory to be able to stay up with the demands that we have and also add more favorable pricing." The help of the pitch competitions and leveraging strategic negotiations has helped them decrease their costs.
Suzanne further shared that she calls fear a nervous energy of excitement. She said, "Just hoping and wishing that people will be receptive to what we have to offer and, and that they'll see the value. But also the reasons behind what we're doing. So there's always a fear that the message may get lost. But I think, if anything, that just empowers us to push even harder, you know, and communicate even better."
Describe what it was like preparing for the pitch competition.
Jelece pitched on behalf of their business. They both agreed that she was more than qualified to represent BoCa Flavor, and although Suzanne is comfortable with her presentation skills, both understood that pitching is quite different. Although Jelece is not brand new to pitching, she admitted this was a brand new business model and having to pitch virtually—everything was new territory for her. Jelece said, "My team was very supportive and made sure that, as Suzanne said, our story was clear. We wanted to make sure, given our limited time, that the message resonated, that people understood our value proposition. In addition, a lot of the feedback sessions that we had with Black Girl Ventures were really helpful in propelling how we told the story."
Suzanne's advice for those looking to enter pitch competitions is, "I would say you definitely got to know your audience. Who are you pitching to? Who are the judges? Know their background and use that intel to help you build an award-winning pitch. It's not always going to be the same delivery. Down to the slides and even how you relay your business because if you're talking to investors, of course, they're going to want to hear more about the numbers and the market and the ROI. But if you're talking to potential customers, it's all about your value proposition and, you know, relaying that excitement about the business."
Jelece's advice, "I think the slide templates are great starting points, but not getting bogged down into, like a pitch format to tell your story, if it doesn't fit the narrative. What people are really looking to hear from investors and consumers is authenticity. They want to understand why. Why are you talking to us of all the people? And so, really trying to connect that story so people can have an emotion to react to whatever the ask is at the end is going to be really important. And sometimes that doesn't fit the seven slide template or nine slide template."
Jelece and Susanna used their pitch funds for marketing and online ads. The remaining funds went towards product inventory. Suzanne said, "It's been a blessing, and we're so grateful that we were able to partake in Black Girl Ventures and be winners. And just to participate in general. because what you guys are doing is just awesome."
Tell us about any significant setbacks you had in your business and how you recovered.
BoCa Flavor sources its ingredients from grassroots farmers and local regions. Because of the multiple ingredients and the quality and the number of ingredients in the recipe, and using noncommercial ingredients, they encounter delays in their supply chain. Ingredients aren't always readily accessible. They focus on strengthening their relationships with their vendors and suppliers to ensure plenty of BoCa Flavor is available for their customers. Lastly, finances are top of mind for a startup in a different space and challenging the diversity aisles in supermarkets. They are committed to creating a socially conscious business that's also lucrative, so they constantly have to be mindful of how they spend their capital.
What is the biggest risk you've taken so far?
The signature flavor of BoCa Flavor is Taino Spice. The spice has 19 different ingredients. That was a risky decision for the co-founders because when you look at it from a supply chain standpoint, if one vendor doesn't have one of the 19 ingredients, that will delay and or halt the production process. However, Suzanne and Jelece believe wholeheartedly in the blend and its quality that it's a risk they are willing to take.
How do you measure success?
Suzanne measures success through the collaborations and partnerships that they create. Working with like-minded businesses in different industries and markets that compliment what they're doing while also being socially conscious and aware is success. She shared, "I think that if we can continue scaling in that regard and we start getting the attention of not necessarily big box brands, but really just like businesses who are out there, who are already established and they want to partner with us, whether if it's us soliciting them or them reaching out to us, that to me says a lot when your peers want to work with you. That means that you're doing something, and you're leaving an impression."
Jelece measures success through reach. It goes back to why they created BoCa Flavor in the first place. The goal is to make these Caribbean flavors more accessible. She shared, "We always tell the story about going back to Florida and going to that store somewhere, not you know, one of those big-name stores. But just to find what we're looking for to get the ingredients and how do we make these things more accessible and into the hands of people so that they can have similar experiences to what we have while also being health-conscious because that's also a big part for us.
Support isn't always given to Black and Brown women in business; when has this shown and hurt or disappointed you the most?
BoCa Flavor launched during the height of the pandemic when there was a surplus of support for Black-owned businesses. The abundance of shared resources helped propel their business earlier on.
Suzanne said, "I definitely feel like we are riding a wave right now of support for women in color in general. So not just Black women, but just women in color and Black businesses. And it's a blessing in that regard because as a startup, that's usually one of the toughest challenges in starting is kind of feeling like you're out in the cold alone, you know, but there's just so much support and positive energy towards these types of businesses. But of course, in our previous experiences and not too far from where we are now, Jelece and I both have individual stories where it was nothing like this."
Jelece and Suzanne didn't receive support like this in their previous business ventures. Still, they believe Black and Brown businesses are in a much different era where opportunities are available to create a turning point in their businesses. They also understand that they're at an advantage because of their background and education in business.
Jelece said, "But we definitely recognize the privilege that we have been as credentialed. And we know that you know, when we step in the room, even as a Black woman, we come with those tags of prestigious public universities, private universities, like it will be viewed a little differently.
So we're, we're not ignorant to the fact that there are some struggles that so many of our sisters are encountering starting businesses. So it's great to have platforms like Black Girl Ventures to give more spotlight and increase brand awareness for people to learn more about their products and services. And even just the support they give for helping to grow businesses."
Suzanne wrapped it up and said, "And that puts us in a position where we can pay it forward and support our brothers and sisters who are trying to do the same thing as us."
What do you think is an important skill or asset you need to succeed in business?
Jelece believes every entrepreneur needs to have grit and determination. You may understand business concepts; however, you can get off track and unmotivated when you get to the minutiae of running a business and understanding the operations. She said, "Let's go back to why we started with this and having those moments, and every now and then, I'll screenshot when people send me like, oh, I just reordered. Having those folders to go back to definitely keeps me inspired that this is something people want and that we're fulfilling a need."
Suzanne had a different take on what it means to succeed in business. She said, "I don't know whether you call it tenacity, perseverance, determination. I don't know. But basically, don't take no for an answer.
I've learned that the hard way, many times, not just as a business owner, but even, you know, as a minority in corporate America. No is never good enough for me. Sorry, not sorry. So just really pushing forward, no matter what—finding alternatives, talk to somebody else, ask the question in a different way. Get what you need and don't expect anybody to give it to you. You just gotta go for it."
What's the most exciting part of the business?
Jelece loves the creation part of the business and engaging with their consumers. She loves digging into how people find BoCa Flavor and finding creative ways to partner with others to deliver their message. In contrast, Suzanne loves seeing the brand come to life and being able to work with her best friend and her husband.
What's it like working as co-founders, and do you have any advice for those looking for co-founders themselves?
Both Jelece and Suzanne have similar personalities in which they are task-oriented and are determined to see things through to their full completion. Suzanne's husband keeps the relationship lighthearted and helps the two women to remain grounded as self-proclaimed Type A personalities.
Jelece said, "The dating, your co-founder part is so important, you know, luckily for Suzanne and I, we've been dating for like 13 years now. So I knew who I was working with and I think that's really important to know. Who you're going to be dealing with. And even from an ethics standpoint, do I trust this person to know all of my information to divulge something that I'm really interested in? And without a doubt, I trusted Suzanne and knew that, like she said, all the Type A, I was like, oh, if we said we're going to do it like it's going to actually get done. So really taking time to—I mean, it doesn't need to be 13 years, but to get to know and to understand who you're going to be dealing with.
When choosing a co-founder, the question to keep in mind is how do they ideate? How did they handle problems? How do they make growth a continuous part of their lives? Suzanne suggests doing personality tests together and team-building activities to understand why people do things a particular way. Regardless Suzanne said, "Have a contract. It's business, you know, so we still have an operating agreement in place. We got that set up from day one, and we use the tools available online to answer and think about every question and situation to make sure that it's representative of what we're doing in our business and how we want to conduct our relationship as founders and partners."
What do you think the future holds for Black and Brown women entrepreneurs and small business owners?
Suzanne shared her excitement, "Oh, my gosh. I think the future is limitless, honestly. Like we can do anything we want to do. And I'm not saying that because I am a Black woman, but look at the statistics.
Like the facts are right there. We are leading in entrepreneurship, and we have been for years, not just within the past year because of COVID. We are innovators. We're producers—we just have to really get into this mindset where we realize it's a Haitian saying that when you have more hands to support, the burden or the weight you're facing is less. I think that as women of color, as we realize there's enough sun for all of us to shine, that we can do amazing things together. We can collaborate. We can be in business together, and we can support each other. We can do so many things. I think that as we come together more and more, our impact will be that much greater in the cumulative sum versus in the parts."
If you and I were meeting three years from now, looking back, what would it take for you to feel over the moon about your progress?
Jelece would like to see BoCa Flavor replace McCormick shelf space. They want to disrupt the American food market not just in dry spices but also to become a lifestyle brand. So, when people think about cooking and being in the kitchen, they think of BoCa Flavor. They think of liveliness while prioritizing their health without sacrificing fun in the kitchen or flavor in their meals.
Running a business while balancing a personal life can be demanding and taxing. How do you take care of yourself?
Jelece creates boundaries while also being gentle with herself. Managing her health is a priority because the business will always need something. She has found ways to take the time to recharge and be okay with whatever may remain for the following day. They've both agreed not to overwork themselves. Birthed out of fun, if BoCa Flavor stops being fun, then it's time to pause to get a pulse check to see what's working and what isn't working.
What is your favorite quote or mantra?
Suzanne: "To begin, begin."
Jelece: "Don't worry about a thing because every little thing is going to be alright."
What is a book and podcast that you would recommend?
Podcasts: Oprah, Michelle Obama, The Read, Dead Ass with Khadeen and Devale Ellis
What's your favorite business hack or app that you can't live without?
Asana and Slack.
Name one food item that you have a hard time saying no to.
Shrimp and oxtail.
What is next for BoCa Flavor?
BoCa Flavor is creating its following product and getting more bottles on the shelf. They are deepening their social impact by allowing their customers to donate with the What If Foundation that focuses on food insecurities in Haiti. Next, they are focusing on prioritizing the environment by helping to reduce their carbon footprint through better packaging and delivery.