Nike Pitch Winner Kayla Castañeda: Breaking Cultural Barriers With Agua Bonita


"The reason why it was most important to create Agua Bonita was to see more of ourselves reflected on the shelves...Creating Agua Bonita was a way to like showcase a really delicious and beautiful part of our culture in a beautiful way," says one of the founders of Agua Bonita, Kayla Castañeda.


A celebration of Mexican culture, Agua Bonita is a traditional Mexican cultural drink. Agua fresca translates to fresh water in Mexico, and "bonita" means beautiful.


Made with natural fruit juices and organic ingredients, Agua Bonita uses fruits that grocers reject because of their poor appearances. Instead of discarding these fruits, Kayla and her co-founder Erin PonTell decided to give them a wonderful new life and provide an unmatched taste. But not only that, with every product they sell, Agua Bonita donates 1% of their sales to nonprofits that support immigrants, refugees, and their children.


What are you most proud of when it comes to Agua Bonita?


Kayla is most proud of Agua Bonita's ability to work through adversities. Consumer Packaged Goods (CPG) is a high capital game and takes a lot of effort to transition kitchen recipes into a commercial format. The conversations with retailers and distributors are nuanced, and often it sounds easy when people say they're going to make a CPG product and sell it. However, there are many hidden costs at high magnitudes. For Kayla and her co-founder, the process took an emotional toll. "We really created Agua Bonita in like a fighting spirit. And at every turn, where it kind of felt like, oh man, I don't know if we're going to get to live to fight another day, we have been able to," shared Kayla. They see themselves as the underdogs in the CPG industry.


What's the biggest fear you had during your business journey?


"Having fear in my heart, I didn't have," said Kayla. Not having fear along this journey helped Agua Bonita come to life. Kayla and Erin created this product in the middle of the pandemic. When they decided to go all-in, Kayla looked around and saw that many things in the world weren't working. Even if their business failed, it didn't matter because so much around them at the time was failing.


The pandemic showed her even some of the most successful companies in the world were failing, so even if they did fail, they would be on the same playing field again as other companies. As with most things, if you see the bottom, it can only go up from there—and the pandemic was the bottom for most. "The only thing that we would have missed out on is the opportunity to pursue something like this. I didn't have that fear in my heart of like failure. It was just more this is the time like inspiration strikes you and to move forward with what you feel called to do."


Tell us about a significant setback you had in your business and how did you recover?


Kayla had many setbacks on her business journey. The first production run they partnered with didn't go well. The company touted that they could handle anything and everything. Any company that claims to be a jack of all trades is a red flag. This was their first and hard lesson. But when you're a new company, you find yourself making decisions because it's the best financial decision based on what they thought they would receive. During that production run, thousands of cans spoiled, and they lost a lot of money.


When you're bootstrapping your business, any financial hit can destroy your business. They had a product that their customers could not consume, and they needed more money than they started to fix the problem. This became a significant learning opportunity. Kayla and Erin realized they needed a co-packer that's more adept at something specific, or you need expertise from someone who specializes in one department.


Even more recently, during a big production run, a freight company left half of their ingredients in Texas when it was supposed to be in San Diego. That's not fixable in a day. "Yeah, I mean, lots of setbacks like that, but it's just the name of the game," said Kayla. Setbacks can derail you, but as entrepreneurs and innovators, you must find a way to pivot to continue your mission.


Describe what it was like preparing for the pitch competition?


This wasn't Kayla's first pitch competition. She loves to pitch and has always been comfortable with public speaking. As a child, she was the child who did the plays and enjoyed being on stage.


What was unique for her was how Black Girl Ventures prepared her for the competition. "I've never been a part of a competition that was so—the production level was very high, there were a lot of moving parts. But then also, the camaraderie that came through the pitch practices and the feedback was really unique to this competition. In other competitions, you show up with what you got, and if it's good enough, then it's good enough. BGV really helps each contestant really craft their pitches."


Kayla's number one advice is that reading the room is the essential part of any pitch. You have judges with different expertise who will ask various questions about your business. Judges have other things that matter to the judges, and each time you pitch, it's essential for any founder to pitch the most compelling part of their story that's going to relay to the judges and the audience.


But how do you hone your skills so that you can read the room? If you're a people person, if you like to talk to people, there are certain things people are just more interested in. It's also necessary to do your research. Kayla recently pitched at a competition (and won) where the judges were beverage-specific, so she knew they would question her about the ins and outs of the beverage industry.


She continued to say, "But with BGV, I think there's so much that's community-centered that you want to talk about, and you want to share why community matters to you and how that community influences your business model. How does it make your community better?" Regardless of the kind of business you have, try your best to pull out the story and know each part of your business very well. Kayla said, "What do they care about? And why do I care about this? And why is this going to be a meaningful dialogue between the two of us?"


Know the audience you're speaking to, don't forgo everything important, why your business is a good business model, success challenges, and your vision. Figure out who you're talking to and why it is important to say what you're going to communicate with the given time. Know your business model the vision, and know the audience that you're speaking to.


How do you measure success?


Kayla said, "Success for me is—as it relates to our business just having a product that folks can enjoy and that they have a positive experience with—whether that's experiencing it for the first time, or experiencing it in a new way or just being enamored with our packaging. If we can like, spark some sort of positive reaction for someone who has a positive interaction with our product, that is success to me. Overarching, I think success is just like building something that you're proud of from every angle. Something that you would want your grandparents to brag about, or you know something that you can talk to your friends about, and makes it worthwhile to get up every day to work on."


Support is not always given to Black and Brown women in business; when has this shown and hurt or disappointed you the most?


Throughout Kayla and Erin's journey with Agua Bonita, they've had various conversations with mentors, potential investors, and retail buyers who couldn't grasp their market traction for their product. Their biggest objection continued to be. They couldn't see how a Mexican flavored drink would appeal to the masses. The pushback was that Agua Bonita would do well in the Latinx markets but not the general population. They jokingly will say, "You guys like tacos, right?" There's this misunderstanding that products created by diverse communities aren't able to crossover.


"We are filling a gap in the marketplace by the makeup of our product. There's not anything out there that's juice and water blend with no additives. We're filling that space in the noncarbonated area. So even if we didn't identify as an agua fresca, we're still like bringing something of value to the competitive set, so actually, it's not just for Hispanic consumers. It's for consumers at large. There's been other like cultural drinks that assimilated like matcha is a great example, so it's like, bringing people down to earth with those assumptions, that's the biggest hesitation."


Even if that theory were true, if Agua Bonita were created explicitly for the Latinx community, then the product would have a chance of being successful because the Latinx community is the second-largest growing population in the U.S. Investors mustn't become blinded by their biases and look at what problem these founders are trying to solve.


What's the most critical lesson you've learned about business, in general?


Kayla said, "I would say lean into your network. There are more people that want to help you than you realize. You need to leverage those relationships if they're available to you. Because you cannot do everything on your own, you'll never be able to figure out things by yourself, but if there are people willing to help you along the way, then take that in stride." Not all advice is created equal, but people do want to help. There are moments when you might disagree. Find the space within yourself to understand why you disagree and be a bit more objective. Then work through that resistance.


What do you think is an important skill or asset you need to be successful in business?


"Being able to adapt," said Kayla. Entrepreneurs have a way of creating specific plans surrounding their businesses, i.e., business plans, and have it set in their minds how it will unfold. Still, more often than not, it doesn't develop the way you expected it to. "But if you get in your own way of being able to adapt, you're going to miss out on opportunities that could propel you to that next stage or get you the next stage to have that high leverage to say yeah, actually I was right...But you have to have that opportunity there to take advantage of it than not to have the opportunity at all." Kayla continued by further saying, "Adapt with a moving landscape, business changes day today."


What's the biggest risk that you've taken so far?


The most significant risk Kayla has taken has been the financial investment it takes to build a business. They didn't give themselves a salary the whole year of building Agua Bonita. This was a significant shift from transitioning to a life accustomed to independence and the comfort of having a regular income. "You know, you're really risking your ability to provide for people that you're used to providing for, or compromising on things in your life, and kind of having to choose, make those hard decisions like I can't do what I wanted to do. And not knowing if it's going to work out at the end of it."


Building a business is a risk of getting outside of your comfort zone and a lifestyle that you've known. It's even riskier if you come from humble beginnings. "You kind of start to associate financial security with general life security as you get older. If you've seen the flip side of the coin of what happens when you don't have enough money to make ends meet. It can be kind of scary, like letting go of income streams to work on your dream. But, if you get to the point of success in your business, there's going to be a day that demands that commitment," says Kayla.


What's the most exciting part of your business?


Kayla can't get enough of the Research and Development (R&D) part of the business. She enjoys creating flavor combinations. She and her partner have a drink trailer and will hit the streets vending at community events. For her, it's great to see how potential customers will interact with the product in real-time. "There's nothing that will replace that and being creative in the culinary sense," says Kayla. A lot can change when you begin in the kitchen and have to shift to commercial sales, and that transition can post many setbacks, but for her, it's fun to be able to tinker around in the kitchen. "I feel like I'm part scientist and part witch. It's just fun," she laughed.


What do you think the future holds for Black and Brown women entrepreneurs and small business owners?


Kayla said, "I think the future is happening now. We are demanding more attention in the marketplace and with validation to like, support that. I think that's just going to continue to grow as time goes on. I don't even think that's the future. I think we're living it, living in our moment and living in our power now."


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?


Three years from now, Kayla wants to be a captain leader in agua frescas, where it has its category in the ready-to-drink aisles. She hopes to see more competitors in this space; she hopes products like Agua Bonita would have their moment similar to sparkling waters. Kayla further hopes that more drinks with a strong heritage background take up more shelves, and she hopes that Agua Bonita helps lay out the blueprint for this ready-to-drink category.


Running a business while balancing a personal life can be demanding and taxing. How do you take care of yourself?


This is hard for Kayla because she and her co-founder Erin are natural workaholics and love the work they're doing. But what's great about having a co-founder is that they encourage each other to take breaks, take days off, and spend time with their families. They remind each other of what's important. It's great to have people around you to pull you back down to reality. Kayla admits overall. It's a balance to develop a self-care routine because of the investment and time she's already put into the business that it can be challenging to pull away. She's understanding now there's always going to be something to work on, and it's okay to work on it the next day. As entrepreneurs, you're playing the long game, so it's okay to step away from the work.


What is your favorite quote or mantra?


Kayla has been living between two mantras: when life gives you lemons, make agua frescas, and the answers are always no unless you ask, so just ask.


What is your favorite book and podcast?


Kayla hasn't listened to podcasts in a while.

Book: Capital Gaines: Smart Things I Learned Doing Stupid Stuff.


What's your favorite business hack or app that you can't live without?


Zoom.


Name one food item that you have a hard time saying no to.


Rice.


What's next for Agua Bonita?


Kayla and her co-founder Erin are right in the middle of fundraising. They need more capital to grow and meet the opportunities that are currently knocking at their door. It takes considerable volume to execute at a big scale, which means lots of cash. As a result, they're actively looking for strategic financial partners.


Kayla's last words, "The biggest thing that I would say if you are building a business right now don't be discouraged. Take the time to celebrate the wins because sometimes they're few and far between, even in a valley of 'losing' just remember why you started the journey, to begin with, and see it through to the next peak." Follow Agua Bonita as they are creating more flavors and seasonal drops.


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