Originally aired on July 21, 2020 @ 3:30 AM - 4:00 AM EDT
Founder Focus is a “Humans of New York” style spotlight on the human stories behind diverse startup founders, their life experiences and perspectives, the origin stories of their startups, and the path they took to where they are today.
Hi, I'm Jade and I run Cloudflare's startup program. Welcome to Founders Focus where we are trying to shine the spotlight on the stories of real startup founders all over the world. Today on our show we have the founders of Real Roche, Ayesha Siddiqui and Alfred Warburg. Say hi. Hi guys. Thank you two for coming on our show. And viewers, you have an email address down below where if you have questions that you would like to ask, please email them in. So very briefly, tell us what your company does. So Real Roche is solving a major issue for global cosmetic retailers desperate to access premium quality shea butter. We offer and supply unrefined grade A shea butter sourced locally from women-led cooperatives in the Savannah region of Ghana. We also promote sustainability. We pay our women in accordance to fair trade. And then we also create opportunities for these often disenfranchised women. And if you're unfamiliar with shea butter, it is a fat extracted from the shea nut. It's multi-purpose. It has many different uses. You can use it in your hair. You can use it on your skin. It has anti-inflammatory properties, vitamin A and D in the shea butter. And then also just really good for everyday use. Cool. So can you tell me a little bit about how the two of you met and started this company? Sure, Jade. I can take that one. So Aisha and I both went to college. We went to Virginia Tech together. I studied engineering and she studied marketing. We had a lot of mutual friends being at a PWI and being, you know, probably about two or three percent African-American. Everyone kind of knew each other, but we were always good friends. And once we, I think, towards towards the end of college and after college, we got a lot closer and we have a mutual friend that connected all of us. I was interested in being an entrepreneur in Ghana, sourcing coconut oil, actually. And of course, Aisha was interested in shea butter. So we decided to kind of come together, collaborate and explore the two ingredients together. And so far, you know, in the past couple of years, we've done a really good job with shea butter and getting that that product launched retail and wholesale. And so the next step for us is getting into coconut oil and really just scaling our business. So it was an interesting connection because we we are both from Ghana. We did, you know, very much kind of grow up the same way, right, like African but not African -American. So I think we connect on a lot of things. A lot of our family, a lot of our family and friends are also family and friends. And it's a really good partnership to to run a business together with with a good friend. Also, Alfred, prior to this company, you had worked in tech and managing cloud infrastructure at a media startup and at AT&T as a as a manager. You worked in roles that a lot of our viewers sort of live and breathe every day. How much has your day to day changed since starting with this new venture? Yes. So this the new venture is a little it's tough. It's different because you're using a different skill set. But I studied I went to business school as well and learned a lot about the business model. I got exposure to finance, accounting. And though I don't really like it or care for it much, it's necessary in a young startup. So I think getting those skills and kind of learning those soft skills and realizing that you're always a salesman is important. And another thing I'll actually start a story quickly on is in our business as a entrepreneur, it's really important to be reactive and not so much proactive. And so I'll give kind of a quick story about earlier this year when Aisha and I were in a very rural area of Ghana where our cooperatives are. We were we're building a factory out there to be the first factory in the region in the district. Sorry. And there's only one tractor in that village that can essentially clear the plot of land that we got to help us start building on it. And so we've been trying all week trying to get in contact with this guy, trying to call him, trying to catch him. And he happened to stop by our hotel. You know, this, you know, really recognizable 20 foot tractor just pulls up to the hotel and the guy gets out to eat. So we, you know, we start talking to him and telling him, hey, you know, we could really use your help sometime this week. Turns out he's always busy, but he had some time at that very moment. So Aisha and I said, OK, how are we going to side team this? I hopped in the one seater tractor. I was sitting on a beer crate for the next two and a half hours and felt like a crash dummy, like sitting in the crate as he's plowing through our land and destroying all the, you know, all the shrubs and really just clearing it. You know, we didn't clear any trees or anything because we're conscious of the environment. But I think it was just a really cool partnership because it's like if we didn't do it right then and there, it might have took us weeks to get our land cleared. And then the funny part of the story was my phone died in the middle of that. And I just sent over. We had to pay the guy, of course. So I found a way to send a bunch of money on a motorbike to a guy to get to me. And the guy knew that once he got to me, he said, I knew of this money didn't come to me. Aisha was coming for me. Of course, it got to me and all was well. I really admire that hustle. Yeah, you really have to be on your toes and doing business in Africa. And Aisha, you you've worked in health care consulting at a major firm and you have a master's in health care policy from Carnegie Mellon. Can you tell me about how the day to day differs from your other roles? Yeah, sure. So in consulting, it's pretty straightforward. You're brought in to solve an issue, implement a strategy or implement technology. But with Real Roche, you know, no day is alike. Like Alfred said, you know, expect the unexpected. Another big difference is that my clients are usually in the United States. Real Roche, like 95 percent of their operations is 95, you know, is based in Ghana. So working with, you know, different time zones at any time, we can be four to five hours behind Ghana. So just trying to get on the same page. Also with consulting, you usually have work year round. With Real Roche, we harvest our supply between June and August. So it's that short time frame to get, you know, enough supply that will last until the next harvest season. And with harvest seasons, you can have a season that you have plentiful fruit or you can have another season where, you know, it doesn't bear as much as the year before. So I think, you know, just you have to work within a small time frame. Usually on consulting projects, you're there for three months, six months, nine months. It just depends. Yeah. Are there any unexpected ways that your background in health care or consulting have come in handy while running your company? Yeah. So with consulting, there are, you know, you work with many different people. Like my background is in health care. You might be on a project with somebody's background in finance, technology. And, you know, you just learn how to work with different people. You know, compared to Ghana, you're working with different women, different backgrounds. And, you know, those experiences that I've learned from working with so many different types of people in the consulting world definitely translate over to working within Ghana. Also in consulting, we work on deadlines. So I definitely try to structure, you know, I try to stick to deadlines. And Alfred can speak to, I do not play about deadlines. She does not play about her deadlines. Do not masturbation her deadlines. Yeah. But it's a good thing, though. It keeps us on track and accountable to each other. Yeah. Absolutely. So on a previous episode, we had a guest, David Cancel, founder and CEO of Drift, who had mentioned that it was ten years into his career in the tech industry before he worked with someone else who looked like him. What have your experiences been like in tech and consulting and health care? Well, I can start, Jade. I think that's a great question, especially given the times. It's no secret that we need more black people in tech, not just diversity in tech, but we need more black people in tech. And I think we need to get comfortable saying that and realizing that there is a difference between the two. Though increasing diversity is absolutely important. I think blacks are disproportionately left out of a lot of these roles, especially speaking from my experience in the technology sector. So working at big companies and startups, this is a problem. And I've noticed that it's even more of a problem the more specialized you get. So in a lot of tech companies, you will find black males and black women and a lot of entry level and lower manager jobs. And also, in my personal opinion, I feel like we find more blacks in more general areas of technology. Right. So more of the management, project management and marketing management, those types of roles that are still technical, but not specialized, not as specialized as, say, a machine learning engineer or big data engineer or a DevOps. What would I do? I think that once you get into those roles, it's a very it's a subset within a subset. Right. So you just there's not many black people in those roles. And I remember a few years back, I gave a talk on DevOps for startups at a conference called Afro Tech. And afterwards, we had a large discussion with there was several people in the audience that did DevOps in different top companies, different top tech companies. And we realized that there's really not that many of us were really not well connected. And the takeaway from that was we need to start some type of a group or organization to come together and share what we know and try to increase the pipeline. And I think that's there's still a lot of work to do there. We didn't we haven't set that up yet. But it just goes to show that there aren't many people in the space, but the people that are in the space are very conscious of the fact that, you know, there's not many people that look like us in this field. And we definitely need to do something about that. So that's kind of my experience from the tech side. I'll let Aisha talk from a consulting perspective, as I'm sure she's experienced quite the same. Yeah, so just, you know, kind of piggybacking off of what Alfred has said, you know, within consulting, I definitely do see people that look like me. But the further up, you know, higher up you go. But again, with the recent protests against, you know, people like Alfred and myself face. You know, I do see my firm and other firms, you know, making an honest attempt at improving their inclusion and diversity. But, you know, the bottom line is they need more black people. Especially in leadership roles. Sure. Now, let's shine a spotlight on both of you as people. Could you give us a brief overview of the paths that you've taken to where you are today, your experiences and perspectives growing up? I'll start. I think we can, we could probably tag team this one. But when you say growing up, the first thing that that triggers is that divide that I think we're just now starting to talk about, which is African versus African American. I'd love to hear more about that. Yeah. It's really interesting. I mean, if you believe in the idea that African Americans are quote unquote second class citizens. I would go even further to say that growing up when we grew up in middle school and high school Africans were kind of the third class citizens. It wasn't really cool to be African or claim your African heritage or wear your kente cloth or You know, your parents had a thicker accent when they talked your, you know, we just had these different experiences that were literally just different. Right. But I think just the nature of of kids being kids. It, you know, it was an easy way to kind of get made fun of or something, you know, and it just wasn't really, it wasn't really any basis to it, but it's just I think it was, it was a fine distinction that we noticed. But I think now African Americans are starting to notice it and also You know, try to embrace more of their more of more their heritage and find out where exactly They're from where they're, you know, all these ancestry tests and genealogy tests tracing back our history. This is a recent trend. I think this wasn't this doesn't really speak to the times that we grew up in elementary, middle and high school. So I let I used to kind of piggyback on that, but Yeah, so you, you know, I share the same sentiments as Alfred. It wasn't cool to be African. I know. I probably didn't embrace being Ghanaian Ghanaian American until high school, excuse me, college and you know that is probably like when I probably started seeing more people embrace their, you know, their culture and their heritage. Just to add on that. I think also, you know, when you grow up in two different worlds. Basically, you know, sometimes you're, you know, you're too african you're not African enough to be with your African people and you're not American enough to be with Americans are black American So yeah, I think it's just, you know, trying to like figure out the balance. And, you know, especially being first generation American, you know, we have to unpack some of maybe the stereotypes that our parents put on to us as well, you know, growing up in America. But I can definitely say that, you know, growing up education was always number one in our house. I know, Alfred, you can probably say the same and I want to also say, you know, if you have the opportunity to go back and visit your family members and also, you know, shed. It also like shine a light on the privilege that we had As children, because, you know, we were able to go and visit and see a life that, you know, our parents. Kind of saved us from, you know, so it definitely added another layer of just growing up African because then you have, you know, you have cousins that may live very differently than you. So it just adds another layer. I can definitely relate to that being also first generation myself and my cousins living quite differently for me. And this is something that actually I also get quite curious about is I'm curious how your family's reacted when you decided to start a company. And, you know, being a first generation immigrant myself there's there's something kind of unusual about us first generation people as a group. On the one hand, there are a lot of the like our parents are sort of like education is first and they, you know, they You know, took a took a lot of chances to, you know, start over in this country with like almost nothing and built an entire life from the ground up to give us opportunities and there's, you know, At the same time there, you know, a lot of parent immigrant parents tend to be very risk averse and say, like, you know, take the safe choices make Stability, you know, grow your career path at a big company. At the same time, a lot of among entrepreneurs, there is an over representation of the first generation people And so essentially it kind of boils down to a lot of us took that risk averse advice from our parents and said, Nah, we got this. Yeah. I'd like to hear about your experiences with that and and how your how your family reacted and and just kind of how how that kind of came to be. Yeah, so my dad is also an entrepreneur and he does business in Ghana. And, you know, when we first started, we had I had Sent my business, you know, our business plan to my dad. And that's how we figured out that our dads knew each other. So, you know, from the get go. He was on board. My mom is more risk averse. So, you know, she was a little like apprehensive, but, you know, as they see us progressing. They definitely, you know, have fit in basically where they get in anywhere. They can help us. They have definitely helped And From, from my perspective, pretty similar, but I guess kind of put simply In terms of my parents, you know, they absolutely were not for the entrepreneurship life and I can't blame them because they Jay, like you said, want a very stable. Stable and high probability Career path that will have you set for life right that will have you not that will have you financially independent that will help you be able to raise a family. These are all things that were not easy for our parents right finding the right jobs in those right companies and staying there, years and years and years. So I think my parents were against pretty much anything that was not engineering for me. This just because of who I am. And again, that you can't blame them because knowing me, it makes sense. It's just kind of who I'm destined to be by the way that I approach thinking and problem solving. Now, but my parents. One thing that they that I credit them for doing is they always, you know, they never flat out say no. But what sometimes they flat out say no. But in this case, they They gave me the tools to kind of do my research. So my mom started connecting me with a whole bunch of Ghanaian and Nigerian businessmen and women entrepreneurs, just to kind of get a feel for the landscape. So talk to people to hear what some of the challenges are We, you know, you may hear a lot about how difficult it is to do business in Africa, just because of I can see nodding your head, just because Yeah, the heartache that we put into some very simple processes that would probably take a day or two here in the States can literally literally take you months and developing countries. Can you tell me more about About an example of something like that. Um, yeah, sure. So something as simple as registering a business and Yeah. I should, what would you say that was probably a less than a month process in the US, like from the time you started applying to the time you got the certificate and everything. If that I want to say a day. Okay, so Yeah, I think it's Good for us to get the equivalent of Ghana, we had to do a whole lot of registrations with the government. I mean, this process probably took three or four months. We had different registrations with the government. We had to register our product. We had to get our product tested. We had to get a sponsor. A local sponsor to kind of oversee everything we had to get an auditor and like these are each every single one of these steps is okay, we think we have everything we need. We're We're bringing the application and we think we're going to get this next week and every single time. They're like, You forgot these three things go back and get these three things back. So now it's like, okay, now we have to find an auditor. Now we have to find a sponsor. Now we have to, you know, Exactly. These things take time, especially when we're doing this from the States. Four hours four to six hours behind A crowd time so that in itself was was really frustrating. That's when I was like, we're really in for something because this is just how they're just a very follow the rules follow the process. Kind of society, especially with business. So it's it's frustrating for startups, because you have to be able to move fast. We talked about being reactive and pivoting earlier that's critical to our business and we've definitely definitely been limited by You know, slower. Business Kind of policies, but one thing I will say not to really get into politics, but the new administration in Ghana has done a good job of cleaning up and speeding up and automating and digitizing a lot of these processes that were like snail mail and, you know, they didn't You know, a couple years ago, you couldn't scan stuff over to You know, the registrar general, you had to physically take it in and get a stamp from them and have someone sign it go to someone else's office for them to sign it and it's it's getting better. But doing business in Africa is still a challenge and Yeah. It sounds like the world. It sounds like there, there must be a there, there is a missing opportunity for a guidebook on How to For all the things that you wish you knew Going in That was part of the hard part. There's no for what we're doing. There's no blueprint. There's no guy. There's nothing. There's nothing we can Google and Find a set of steps that will help us build a business where we built it to today. It's just being creative making connections and and persevering. Yeah. Speaking of Business in Africa. So you you source from cooperatives of nearly 1000 women in in Ghana. Could you tell us a little bit about what their lives are like their, their families, their aspirations, what they're like as people Yeah. So like you said, we do source Shane that's from many different cooperatives. There is a cooperative that we actually started and it's called the balloon. So women shape processing cooperative and they were founded by us and they live in the Savannah region. They are independent from us. We just sponsored the formation of them. So the Department of Cooperatives recognizes them as a independent cooperative, they can work with other They can work with other suppliers as well. But, you know, we did sponsor them the village that they're from. It's actually really cool. My great grandfather founded that village. So I speak the same language as the women pretty cool and You know, and it kind of feels like home, especially since my great grandfather did discover that village, the women, you know, the village where they do live in. There's no Running electricity. There's no water. Obviously, there's no cell phone service, you have to stand in like one small spot to get like one bar. So, you know, their standard of living is definitely different than all three of us. I can definitely say You know, and their main goal is to just put my, you know, food on the table and pay for their children school fees. Like Alfred said, we are building a factory out there. So we are anticipating creating 250 to 300 jobs, which is great for a lot of these women who are disenfranchised and are our senior are also breadwinners within their, you know, their homes as well. So yeah, it's just definitely. It's just a definitely a different way of living. They're just more appreciative of, you know, and they don't have a lot, but we are hoping to make a change. And with that new factory that will definitely, you know, open the doors for a lot of the women there. It's really I just wanted to add one thing. We in the US. We talked a lot about the gender gap in employment. And so I just want everyone to kind of just imagine how If you think there's a gender gap here in the US, one of the most developed countries in the world. Just imagine how it is in the most rural parts of in places in West Africa, like Ghana. Where we are. So what we're doing is providing opportunities for women that have very difficult times finding employment opportunities for a number of reasons. The main one being that there just aren't that many jobs out there and the jobs that are there are a lot of a lot of the men take them right there. A lot of work in the farms and Kind of doing stuff with agriculture and timber and a lot of the a lot of women don't have the opportunity to take on these jobs because the men take them right so having a source of income, having a craft a profession where they're able to Know that they'll they'll consistently have work right there's never going to be a season that we don't need Shay nuts so Knowing that they will have consistent work and it's a it's it's it's helpful to them to, again, like I mentioned, pay their school fees for their children and just be self sufficient And specifically thinking about the The ways that We're trying to kind of attack the gender gap. That's really great to hear How, how have they been holding up in in 2020 and also, you know, YouTube. How, how has 2020 been different than previous years, whether it's, you know, YouTube running the business or them planting and processing the Shay nuts. Yeah, so I can speak to that for us what for real raw Shay we definitely gotten busier with quarantine more people are interested in at home beauty at home health. You know, so just taking care of their, you know, themselves. So just, you know, just trying to adjust to the increase in demand. Like Alfred told you, we are building a factory, but because of coven we've had to stop. And now we're, you know, we can kind of pick up with building again. It's raining season. So that makes it a little difficult to build during that season. So right now the women are really focused on just collecting the Shay nuts because we are in the midst of harvest season and You know, just to kind of piggyback what off what Alfred said earlier about us creating opportunities with Shay nuts. Like I said, it's a short period to pick But with us building a factory. Now they can, you know, produce the Shay nuts into Shay butter year round. So, You know, that is the goal of the factory. That's something that will be there year round instead of just them working for a short period and making, you know, smaller quantities of Shay butter to sell and use amongst their family. Now they'll be able to, you know, make it at scale. I'm trying to think if anything else has changed. I know for us, you know, we're just working from home gives us more time to focus on real raw Shay We do have a team member on the ground in Ghana. So, you know, that's how we communicate with the women. But yeah, right now they're in the midst of just collecting nuts because like I said it is harvest season. Thank you for both for being on the show. Thank you. And, and I will ask our teammate for the link to rewatch. Awesome. Thank you so much, Jade. Thank you. Bye.