Innovation. Drive. Purpose. Conversations with the entrepreneurs and leaders behind some of Minnesota's most beloved and enterprising brands.
Peace Coffee Owner/CEO Lee Wallace
In the 1990s, when Lee Wallace told business schools she was interested in studying the intersection of mission and money, they steered her into public policy. It was a time before B-corps and one-for-one brands. “Purpose” wasn’t the business buzzword it is today. But even armed with that master’s degree in public policy, Wallace continued to believe in the power of doing good while doing well. Eventually she found her way to a for-profit company founded on a mission to help farmers. That was Peace Coffee, an early champion of the fair trade model to create a transparent and sustainable system that directly benefits farmers and their communities.
“The thing that’s so amazing about being presented with the opportunity to run a business founded to do the right thing is authenticity,” says Wallace, who came on as CEO in 2002 and bought the business in 2018 from its founding nonprofit, the Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy.
Today, Wallace is a recognized leader in social enterprise business, as well as fair trade enterprises and specialty coffee importers. She holds leadership roles in the Climate Collaborative and the B corps movement. And she doesn’t apologize for Peace Coffee’s success, because selling more coffee means purchasing more coffee beans at fair prices from farming cooperatives around the world.
With a new eco-friendly Minneapolis manufacturing facility, Peace was well positioned at the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis to respond to the sudden spike in coffee bean sales for home brewing. In 2020, Peace Coffee doubled its store accounts with Target and added 70 more Whole Foods stores. Despite losing the 15 percent of sales that came from restaurants, theaters, and offices, Wallace says she expects to end the year up 17 percent.
But the challenges persist. The Peace Coffee headquarters is just off East Lake Street, near the Minneapolis Police Third Precinct that was burned down in protests following George Floyd’s killing. She talks about what it will take to restore the multicultural neighborhood’s vibrancy. And although it had not yet been announced publicly at the time of this conversation, Wallace shared that Peace Coffee is getting out of the coffee shop business to focus on growing wholesale. But even in that, she found a way to make it count, by partnering with nonprofit Wildflyer Coffee, which provides jobs to homeless youth.
After our conversation with Wallace, we go Back to the Classroom with the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business. Case Frid is an assistant professor in the department of entrepreneurship whose work focuses on how business relates to community. “A corporate purpose is about your core reason for being and the impact your organization wants to have on the world,” Frid says. “It’s got to be relational, not transactional.”
Dogs of Instagram/ Lucy & Co Founders Ashley + Ahmed El Shourbagy
Have you ever come up with what you thought was a really clever social media handle, sure to be your key to fame and fortune, only to find it’s been taken?
Ahmed El Shourbagy is the envy of all would-be influencers. He’s the guy who grabbed the handle @dogsofinstagram in 2011. It happened not with a business plan in mind—influencer marketing wasn’t even a thing back then in the early days of Instagram—it was just a fun way to gather cute images of dogs, like his own Boston terrier/pug mix, Lucy. But as the following quickly grew to hundreds, thousands, and then millions, Ahmed and his now-wife Ashley, whom he met on day 10 of @dogsofinstagram, started seeing possibilities.
They also saw the limitations of building a brand on a social media platform. Ahmed and Ashley parlayed a social media following that now stands at 4.7 million into a retail brand and platform they own. Lucy & Co. is a direct-to-consumer brand specializing in stylish dog accessories and apparel (the likes of which you might find on @dogsofinstagram). It took a while to find its footing, but Lucy & Co. it is now the fastest growing and most lucrative part of their business, with demand accelerated in 2020 thanks to a pandemic uptick in dog ownership and online shopping.
Ahmed and Ashley talk about the paths that led them to entrepreneurship, the evolution of influencer marketing, and the transition from founder to CEO of a growing company.
Then we go Back to the Classroom with the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business. Retail marketing expert Kim Sovell, participating adjunct marketing faculty, says the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated conversion to online shopping. “We’ve seen 10 years worth of changes in the way we shop in just a few months,” she says. Her best advice to retail brands launching today: “Know your consumers at a granular level.”
Tastefully Simple Founder + CEO Jill Blashack Strahan
“Sales will take you anywhere.”
That skill took Jill Blashack Strahan from a small farm town where she ran a café and didn’t dare to dream much bigger to founder and CEO of national meal prep brand Tastefully Simple. At its peak in 2008, Tastefully Simple hit $143 million in sales with 20,000 sales associates executing home parties in small towns and big cities across the country. Mission: bringing people together to answer that age-old question, “What are we going to eat for dinner?”
But after hitting that peak, sales began to slide. And slide. For 11 straight years, Tastefully Simple lost ground. For nearly seven years, there was no profit whatsoever. Strahan invested her own money to keep the company afloat—ignoring the advice of several turnaround consultants. “I just believed in my heart it was not time to give up on this.”
Indeed, Tastefully Simple is once again profitable. With a much leaner executive team and renewed focus on sales and marketing training, Tastefully Simple was well positioned to pivot to virtual parties during the Covid-19 pandemic and has benefitted from renewed interest in home cooking and a desire to socialize—even if over Zoom—around food.
Strahan takes us on her entrepreneurial—the jobs that led to her a-ha moment and the sacrifice it took to pull it off. “Fear is a great motivator,” she says.
But what would a business professor have told her during the dark days of declining sales? After our conversation with Strahan, we go Back to the Classroom with the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business. Professor David Deeds, the Schulze Endowed Chair in Entrepreneurship points out the fundamental difference between founder and CEO. “There’s a commitment and passion in an entrepreneur that is different than in a CEO. In terms of economics, she should have found a buyer. But from a personal standpoint, it made sense to keep going.”
Neka Creative Founder + CEO Rosemary Ugboajah
“Our vision is to be a role model for inclusion in the industry,” says Rosemary Ugboajah, founder and CEO of Neka Creative, a Minneapolis-based brand development agency that makes inclusion a centerpiece of every project it takes on through a proprietary process dubbed Inclusivity Marketing.
She entered the advertising industry without many preconceptions, having grown up primarily in Nigeria, without television. While in college in London to study engineering, she found herself drawn to design; an opportunity to learn the business side of advertising led her to the University of Minnesota.
Ugboajah started her agency a decade ago, after years of working in other agencies and for Target Corp. She calls Neka Creative her “protest movement”—a response to stereotypes being perpetuated in marketing and a lack of diversity in the field. Her efforts toward inclusion included eliminating set office hours and diverse hiring practices. “We made a commitment and we’re still working on it. You’re always working on it.”
The racial reckoning sparked by the death of George Floyd left Ugboajah feeling frustrated. “I was so angered by all the commitment emails I received—‘We’re committed to racial equity; we’re committed to diversity and inclusion.' I kept reading for concrete action steps, thinking: there’s no plan here. You have to tell us what you’re going to measure….People don’t want to stay in an uncomfortable place, but there’s no quick fix to becoming inclusive.”
Ugboajah shares how her upbringing in Nigeria and London influenced her views on equity and inclusion, and steps businesses can take to move toward transformative change. After our conversation, we go Back to the Classroom with the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business diversity, equity and inclusion ambassador Nakeisha Lewis.
“It’s a great time for making change, holding people accountable,” Lewis says. “My suggestion: think about what are some actionable things we can hold our organizations to. Business organizations understand metrics: recruitment, retention, how are we ensuring voices are amplified.”
So Good So You Co-Founders Rita Katona + Eric Hall
It’s a good time to be in the business of selling immunity. Minneapolis-based wellness company So Good So You makes plant-based juice shots packed with probiotics that support the immune and digestive system. Each variety is named for the “need’ it addresses: Energy, Sleep, Detox, and the No. 1 seller, Immunity. At the start of 2020, the 2-ounce So Good So You shots were sold at 3,000 stores; now they’re at more than 4,000 stores in 47 states including Target, Publix, and Sprouts. The company, which has the backing of investors, managed to meet and exceed its 2020 sales projections and hit profitability.
“What the pandemic has done is accelerate this movement of people understanding that investing proactively and managing their own health pays dividends when it comes to their immunity,” says co-founder Rita Katona. In 2014, she left a corporate job at Target Corp. to start a health and wellness company with her husband Eric Hall, a serial entrepreneur. It started as a cold-pressed juice café called Juice So Good, which expanded to three Minneapolis locations. Juice shots were simply an item on the menu, but became so popular, Katona and Hall decided to packaging them for wholesale and quickly realized the shots were a far bigger opportunity.
“In entrepreneurship, you can’t let any single failure stop you,” Hall says. “You have to keep iterating.”
So Good So You recently introduced its biggest innovation to date: a sustainable bottle it calls the BtrBtl that features a proprietary additive which allows it to biodegrade in landfills at an accelerated rate.
“Everything we do goes through the filter of is it the best we can do at this moment for the environment?” Hall says. “This a long-term investment that is authentic to who we are, but we did it because we think it’s the right thing to do.” It’s one of many things the couple loves about building their own company: “As a company, you can do more good in the world than you can as an individual.”
Katona and Hall talk about their very different paths to entrepreneurship, the opportunities ahead in the wellness space, and the importance of being willing to pivot. Afterwards, we go Back to the Classroom with the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business. Professor David Deeds, the Schulze Endowed Chair in Entrepreneurship, emphasizes the important of listening to consumers in the early days of a startup.
Abilitech Founder + CEO Angie Conley
Abilitech Medical is on the brink of launching the first-of-its-kind wearable assistive device that makes it possible for patients with upper-limb weakness or injury to use their arms for everyday activities. “This is my imprint on the world,” says founder Angie Conley. Even before the Abiliitech Assist device becomes widely available through hospitals and clinics, it has already won numerous awards including the Tekne Award for innovation from the Minnesota High Tech Association and the Grand Prize and Top Woman-led Business at the Minnesota Cup, which is the largest state-led business competition. Abilitech has also been recognized as a Top 20 Medical Device Startup You Need to Know by MassDevice magazine; and a Top Promising Life Science Company by Rice University. So far Conley has raised $12 million, primarily in equity funding.
Abilitech is Conley’s first startup, but years of experience in the medical device industry prepared her for the challenge. Following several years as a senior product marketing manager for Medtronic and a medical device marketing consultant, Conley took on the executive director role at Magic Arms, a Twin Cities-based nonprofit that works to help children with orphan medical conditions including muscular dystrophy. It exposed her to the need for an assistive device, and she quickly realized it would take more money than a nonprofit could raise to solve it.
“The mission is what carries you through,” Conley says. The opportunity is significant: Abilitech’s initial market of multiple sclerosis and muscular dystrophy patients with enough hand function to operate the device is around $2 billion; Conley has her sights set on the stroke rehab market, which she says pegs at $30 billion.
“It’s an exciting opportunity to fill an unmet need and change the lives not just of patients but their caregivers,” Conley says.
After our conversation with Conley, we go Back to the Classroom with University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business. Dan McLaughlin, director of the Center for Innovation in the Business of Health Care at Opus discusses the med tech innovation happening beyond computers, in the area of motors and sensors. Emerging technology is an area of particular interest at St. Thomas.
“That’s the best part of health care,” McLaughlin says. “You get to make those human connections and really change people’s lives.”
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A different view
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I really enjoy listening to Ali and the guests. Very insightful questions are asked and I always come away learning something. Fantastic, interesting people who have been interviewed. I especially enjoy hearing the interviewee's background and their thinking of what makes them tick. And I don't even live in Minnesota!
I don’t live in Minnesota anymore but I know many of the people you have interviewed .. so fun to hear their stories. Wonderful interviewer, thoughtful questions and you always listen and let the guest speak! Makes me nostalgic for my hometown and proud of what Minnesota has to offer!