Any “no” can be an opportunity for a “yes.” I have been told “no” by investors and accounts so many times on the first try, but when I know someone is the right partner — persistence, grit, personality and hard data, has time and time again turned a “no” into a “yes.”
As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Isabella “Bella” Hughes.
Born and raised in Hawaiʻi, Hughes’ career spans arts, culture, agriculture and CPG entrepreneurship. She is the co-founder and president of Shaka Tea, an award-winning line of sustainably sourced, herbal teas all brewed with Hawaiian māmaki leaves, now available in over 3,000 stores across the US and Japan. A Pacific Business News ’40 Under 40’ Class of 2018 member; Burt’s Bees Natural Launchpad Cohort 3 member; and Foodbytes! by Rabobank Judges Choice CPG Award Winner, Hughes has also spent over a decade in contemporary art as a curator, editor and writer, in addition to directing and co-founding Hawaiʻi Contemporary (formerly Honolulu Biennial Foundation), an arts non-profit organization.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
Prior to founding Shaka Tea with my husband and business partner, Harrison Rice, I spent over a decade in a very different field — contemporary art. I was living and working all over the world, including a nearly six year stint in the U.A.E.
I had always been interested in museums and exhibition making (my MA is actually in Museum Studies) and through exhibitions and public programs, creating space for connection, continuous education, and cultural exchange. My work in the arts led me to co-found and launch a large-scale, international arts event and non-profit organization, Hawaiʻi Contemporary (formerly Honolulu Biennial Foundation) in my hometown, Honolulu in 2014.
Somewhat simultaneously, Harrison and I had always wanted to work together in CPG. Behind us we had a failed, better-for-you, Middle Eastern-style ice cream venture from which we learned the basics of supply chain, co-packing and distribution. We have always had a love for the beverage and food industry — and noticed a plethora of iced teas on the market that were either 0g sugar and totally unsweetned, or sweet teas that are extremely unhealthy. When I was pregnant with our second child, I developed an aversion to sugar and was drinking tons of herbal, naturally caffeine-free, māmaki tea that I would bring back to the UAE from Honolulu. It was around then, while living halfway around the world in Abu Dhabi, that we realized that we could combine our mutual interest in CPG and desire to work together, with my commitment to my community in Hawaiʻi through Shaka Tea.
By moving home to launch the first line of ready-to-drink iced teas on the market, brewed with sustainably sourced herbal māmaki leaves, we were able to support our local famers and bring zero sugar, gently sweetened, full-flavored iced teas to off-island and larger markets.
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
Shaka Tea champions a new model of doing business for Hawaiʻi, rooted in our rich, agricultural past with our sustainably sourced herbal teas. We connect local supply chain via māmaki, which is only found and grown in the Hawaiian Islands, to off-island markets and global demand through our iced teas that are brewed and co-packaged in North America and Japan. This enables us to pay local farmers a premium price point, but results in a product that has an everday usage occasion and price point.
At Shaka Tea, we believe deeply in ‘health for all’ and a culture of inclusivity. We are on a mission to offer our teas, which have an SRP of 1.98-2.49 dollars and are gently sweetened with 0cal/0g sugar monk fruit, to all Americans, not just affluent shoppers who are already overserved with healthy choices. We have billingual marketing materials in English and Spanish and are working on a 2021 sales strategy to ensure our teas are growing market share into urban food deserts. The growth into underserved communities will complement the premium, natural, and/or organic specialty channels.
Probably the most disruptive thing we have done period though — is building a model of abundance for our community through our supply chain system. We have had to become experts in all things māmaki and have built, from scratch, the entire māmaki supply chain since 2016!
Māmaki was not a commodity crop, or widely farmed, prior to us launching Shaka Tea, so I spent the earlier years deep in research, gathering data on best practices. To this day, we continue to build on our research and share our knowldege with the farmers we work with, as well as with our community and educational partners. This has been a monumental task and is now led by Mosese ʻŌhia, who is our Director of Hawaiʻi Ag and Community Development.
By the end of this year, we will have given small farmers over 25,000 free māmaki seedlings, and to date we source from 16 local farmers, practicing direct trade. By championing the growth of the māmaki industry, our community of farmers are restoring native ecosystem habitat, as endemic, Hawaiian māmaki serves as the host for our native and endangered pollinator butterfly, the Kamehameha Butterfly.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Oh yes — the first thing that comes to mind happened when we were recieving our very first 40-foot container of tea… 26,000 bottles, which in the beverge industry isn’t a lot, but is an absolutely ridiculous amount of tea to have on hand for the average person without a single, major account signed.
The day before the container arrived, OSHA cracked down in our lower Kalihi warehouse area and Harrison needed to get OSHA certified in order to unload those 20 pallets, each weighing one ton. With a 24 hour notice, we called everyone and their uncle to find someone to help get Harrison taught and OSHA certified for forklift use so he could personally unload the tea and store it in our shared warehouse. We quickly learned that while a mission and vision, plus great flavor and eye catching branding are at the heart of a beverage company, to win, it is all about execution and logistics.
We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
I am very fortunate to have a plethora of mentors — Maile Meyer, Gloria Lau, Pono Shim, Herb Conley, and Ambassador Cynthia P Schneider, to name just a few, who have been extremely generous with their time, support and knowledge-sharing over the years.
One of the things I struggled with when launching Shaka Tea was the rock-solid identity I had built for over a decade in non-profit arts and culture work — getting into sustainable agriculture and beverage was so out of left field. I was often asked, “But aren’t you in contemporary art? How can you also now be in beverage, launching something new and raising two little kids?” I had a bit of an identity crisis and hit a frustration point — why couldn’t I be a professional in both fields AND raise a family?
Two of my mentors, Gloria Lau and Ambassador Cynthia P Schneider, have had a profound impact on my realization that I do not have to be defined by one “career.” Through learning about their experiences, I was able to embrace that I am a multi-hyphenate. Both of these women have had very successful careers in a variety of fields — from business to non-profit work (Gloria), and art history to diplomacy (Cynthia). In our society we emphasize becoming a specialist, going to college for a profession, and diving deep into a focus for the entirety of our professional lives. But that doesn’t paint the whole picture, and there are so many dynamic, accomplished, impactful and most importantly, joyful people who have multi-hyphenate professional identities.
In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?
Being “disruptive” is probably the second most over-used adjective in entrepreneurship, after “innovative.”
When it comes to CPG and being competitive on shelves, especially in mainstream accounts with a broad audience, so many of us, Shaka Tea included, launch with novel ingredients to complement mindful eaters. These novel ingredients can often become “high education concept” products, which is extremely challenging.
We learned early on that while māmaki is tied to our commitment to our community and our reason for being, when we led with “māmaki” as our selling point to grocery buyers and consumers, we were swimming upstream and introducing a new ingredient and being first-to-market means a lot of education. To effectively sell Shaka Tea with a focus on our hero ingredient as our first talking point, we faced the impossible task of trying to educate wholesalers and consumers, whilst also launching a new brand and just needing to make the sale.
A product needs to sell itself — the education on what is new can follow. A product needs to look great, taste great, fill a true need (have a simple health case) — and be priced competitively.
When we lead with the attributes that make our RTD beverage complementary to specific dietary needs — from keto to plant-based, caffeine-free, diabetic, paleo, and low-sugar — which now enables us to grab attention quicker and communicate in our few seconds with a consumer perusing a grocery shelf or our Instagram feed, how our teas can support them on their personal health journey and lifestyle. Māmaki is the “dig deeper” moment to learn more about the brand, our authenticity and sustainability story, but not what makes the sale.
I think all disruptive ingredients in CPG face similar challenges — today’s consumer is overwhelmed with so many new products that are too high education for the 2–3 seconds you get their attention.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
- “There are reasons and results. Results count, reasons do not,” Is something my mentor, Honolulu businessman Herb Conley, has shared with me. It is the most helpful advice I have received when it comes to managing team members and knowing when to let someone go. At the end of the day, to live our mission, we need to sell literal tons of tea each month — we are in the business of sales. This advice from Herb has really helped set a more competitive tone for our sales team and guides how we asses team members.
- Fire fast — if you feel someone is not working, your instinct is right, and swiftly let them go in a respectful and kind way. This can be hard, especially as a small team in the startup phase, but it is what is best for the company and for the person in question so they can move forward to find the right fit for their skills and personality.
- Any “no” can be an opportunity for a “yes.” I have been told “no” by investors and accounts so many times on the first try, but when I know someone is the right partner — persistence, grit, personality and hard data, has time and time again turned a “no” into a “yes.”
We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?
Shaka Tea has a new form factor in the mix for our iced teas, launching next year. Later this fall, we have a new product launching that is focused on immunity-support.
I think the biggest thing I am championing at the moment is creating a consortium of better-for-you beverage brands that, like Shaka Tea, have an equitable price point, under 2.50 dollars a unit. By gathering a group of like minded brands, we can align our values and have a direct impact on communities in the United States. Through the #healthforeall campaign we are launching next year, we will service more diverse communities, and focus on those who have been overlooked when it comes to beverage marketing. Historically, there are so many underserved customer who are coming from communities of color and/or lower income neighborhoods who have been ignored by healthy brands and data shows, they are being disproportionately marketed sugary and unhealthy beverage options. I want to change that. Health is power and health must be accessible and equitable for all.
Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?
“Do the Kind Thing: Think Boundlessly, Work Purposefully, Live Passionately,” by Daniel Lubetzky is an incredible entrepreneur story from the man behind KIND Health Snacks, a brand that I very much admire. His brand, honesty, integrity and path to achieving success is a must-read for any socially-driven CPG entrepreneur. I believe that when done the right way, business can be a powerful force for good, and Lubetzky is a living example of this.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
In the non-profit arts space I have been fortunate to meet and work with many of my mentors, including Maile Meyer, a formidable local businesswoman, arts activist, and community leader. She taught me that through being of service, one can move mountains and make the impossible, possible. After sitting through many meetings with her, I learned that my most natural and effective leadership style is servant leadership. By being of constant and reliable service to my local farmers, my retailer and distribution partners across the country, we can get Shaka Tea out there in the world, thriving and growing. It is clear to me that my experience in the non-profit world has had an impact on my leadership style and the way that I think about collaboration and partnerships.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I want our business model to be a template for economic abundance, food security and sustainability for Hawaiʻi. Through our success, I hope to inspire entrepreneurs in Hawaiʻi and other remote, Pacific Islands, to build businesses that build up their communities.
We hope we can serve as a model for how sustainable ag, premium export crops, and local food security (did you know Hawaiʻi imports 85%+ of our food?!) can be practiced in harmony. One thing we often talk about with the 16+ small farmers we source from, is an urgently needed model for economic abundance in Hawaiʻi based on the “eat the overstory and sell the understory” mantra.
Māmaki is a quick-growing, profitable understory plant, needing partial shade. This makes it the perfect crop to grow underneath and/or alongside food crops for local consumption, such as ʻulu (breadfruit), banana, moringa, guava, starfruit, avocado and papaya. These are only a fraction of the overstory crops our farmers are working with.
The model is simple — we pay farmers a premium for their herbal, māmaki leaves, with the hope that this supports economic growth AND their ability to produce food crops at reasonable prices for local consumption. We then market our teas to large, off-island markets which is also where we co-pack them, only needing to ship our lightweight, hero ingredient māmaki.
How can our readers follow you online?
Follow us on Instagram at @drinkshakatea or on my LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/isabella-bella-hughes-1a72b7b/
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!