One of the qualities that separates entrepreneurs from everyone else is where the average person says, “That’s interesting” and moves on, the audacious Rare Breed finds opportunities and seizes them.
That’s the instinct that led Lisa Curtis to the botanical wonder at the heart of the food company she co-founded, Kuli Kuli. She grew up in a family that emphasized the importance of community service and giving back, and she spent a big chunk of her childhood volunteering at homeless shelters and animal shelters, taking Christmas gifts to kids who had a parent behind bars, and working on organic farms. The audacity to step into environments that might have made other young women uncomfortable—and once she got there, to serve selflessly—became one of her defining traits. It led her to join the Peace Corps, and that experience changed everything.
Lisa was volunteering in a small village in the west African country of Niger, but her diet—mostly rice and millet—left her feeling low in energy and malnourished. “I went to a couple of women in the village health center and I asked them what I could eat that would make me feel better,” she said in our interview. “They pulled these leaves off a tree and mixed it into this West African peanut snack called kuli kuli. I started eating it and I got hooked on it, and fast forward nine years later, here we are.”
Lesson: Sometimes, audacity means just saying “Yes.”
The tree was the moringa, a fast-growing species native to hot, dry tropical areas. Its leaves are a legitimate superfood, many times richer in vitamins, antioxidants and protein than kale. Lisa immediately saw that this extraordinary food could be a real resource for helping the women in poor villages, who were already producing moringa on a small scale and had keen entrepreneurial instincts, develop economic independence. She had zero business experience, but in audacious Rare Breed fashion, she offered to help women in the region bring their moringa products to the huge U.S. marketplace.
“The thing that really attracted me to these women was that while they aren’t given opportunities in the formal economy, they are so entrepreneurial, so talented, and they know exactly what they need,” she says. “They just need a little help unlocking opportunity. When I started talking to them about moringa and about how I thought it would be a great plant for people to eat more of, they were like, ‘We will grow more of it, but we need to find a way to sell it. Can you help us sell it?’”
Of course, now Lisa had backed herself into a corner. She’d found a product she believed in and producers who were ready to build something, and she had committed to helping them create a brand and build a company. But she was a 22-year-old volunteer earning $75 a month; she didn’t know the first thing about doing either one. But audacious people don’t buckle under pressure. They know that the person who acts first has the advantage. So she said, “This is what I’m doing and I am going to make this happen.”
“(I was) telling everyone I could find about how this was such an amazing plant and how this needed to be a new superfood in America, and we needed to source it in a way that helped women in West Africa, and that I was going to make it happen,” she says. “I didn’t see anybody else signing up to do it, so I was like, ‘Okay, it’s going to fall to me.’ Having the audacity to say, “Look, I don’t know how to start a business but I’m gonna figure it out,” is really what has taken me to where I am now.”
Lisa figured it out. When she got home, she rounded up co-founders Valerie Popelka, Jordan Moncharmont, and Anne Tsuei and launched a campaign on Indiegogo to crowdfund Kuli Kuli. They raised $53,000, the most successful food campaign on the platform at the time, and launched their superfood brand, sourcing moringa from women producers in west Africa and helping bring economic growth to poor regions.
In 2015, Kuli Kuli raised $100,000 as part of another campaign to plant moringa trees in Haiti and help Haitian farmers become part of the market for moringa leaf products. Today, Lisa is the face of a brand that has the audacity to think it can change the world…and the heart and ideas to actually do it.
“When I was a Peace Corps volunteer, I felt like I had a lot of passion, but I didn’t feel like I had a lot of agency,” she says. “And because we have built Kuli Kuli into a multi-million dollar business that has products in 7000 stores, and has gotten lots of great press and is resonating with consumers, I think that I now have the ability to effect change on an even greater scale.
“One of the challenges that I had when I was younger was that people often didn’t take me seriously—I had these audacious goals and kind of got laughed at,” she continues. “Now it’s easier for me to set really audacious goals and know that people will take them seriously.”
Audacity doesn’t have to be in-your-face. It’s not about style. It’s about standing at the edge of something with huge risk and huge potential and trusting in your brains, vision and resilience enough jump while other people retreat to safety. It’s about saying, “Yes.
If you’re inspired by this episode and ready to turn your vices into virtues, get your hands on a copy of our explosive new book, Rare Breed: A Guide to Success for the Defiant, Dangerous and Different. It’s available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, BAM, Porchlight, and Audible.
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