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Lisa Curtis of Kuli Kuli: “People tend to hire, invest in and support people who look like them”

People tend to hire, invest in and support people who look like them. The more women who are starting and leading companies, the greater the likelihood that those companies will have women in leadership roles and at similar levels of pay as men. Many founders who achieve success go onto become investors. The more successful […]

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People tend to hire, invest in and support people who look like them. The more women who are starting and leading companies, the greater the likelihood that those companies will have women in leadership roles and at similar levels of pay as men. Many founders who achieve success go onto become investors. The more successful female founders we have, the more female investors we’re likely to have, which is critical to closing the investment gap between men and women. Last, the more female founders we have, the more young women will start to normalize entrepreneurship as a career path.


As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Lisa Curtis.

Lisa Curtis is the founder and CEO of Kuli Kuli, a brand pioneering the sustainably sourced superfood moringa. Moringa is a protein-rich leafy green, more nutritious than kale, with anti-inflammatory benefits rivaling turmeric. Kuli Kuli’s moringa powders, bars and wellness shots are sustainably sourced from African women and other small farmers around the world and sold in 11,000 U.S. stores.

Lisa is an alumna of the EY Entrepreneurial Winning Women™ program, which identifies ambitious women entrepreneurs and provides them with the guidance, resources and access they need to unlock their full potential.


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?

As a Peace Corps volunteer in Niger, I found myself feeling sluggish from eating a diet of mostly rice. Women in my village advised me to eat moringa leaves, showing me how to mix them into a local snack called kuli-kuli. After eating the nutritious kuli-kuli moringa snack, I felt my energy return. The leaves of the moringa tree are packed with protein, vitamins, and antioxidants, providing a powerful boost of nutrition and caffeine-free energy. I recognized the potential for moringa to improve nutrition in my village and beyond. Moringa was recognized locally for its medicinal benefits, but farmers saw no reason to grow it without market demand. I was inspired to find a market-based solution to support African women farmers to grow and benefit from moringa. I returned home to the US to build Kuli Kuli, a social enterprise that brings the power of moringa to American consumers in the form of smoothie powders and superfood snacks while creating sustainable livelihoods and promoting local consumption in the communities where moringa is grown.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

During Kuli Kuli’s second year on the market, we put together a partnership with Whole Foods Market, The Clinton Foundation, Timberland, and Chef Jose Andres to help reforest Haiti with moringa trees. Though we were a tiny two-person startup at the time, we were able to come together with these incredible organizations in support of Haitian farmers. As part of it, we ran a #MoringaInspired recipe contest with all proceeds going to the Haitian Smallholder Farmers Alliance. We then flew the winner out to DC to dine with Chef José Andrés at one of his restaurants. We did all of this for less than 1,000 dollars, and it remains one of our most successful and impactful marketing campaigns.

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?

None of the mistakes feel funny at the time, but they’re certainly laughable later. We had a pretty funny moment in 2015 when we had five people, plus all of our inventory, in a small single room office. People were going out into the hallways to take calls, and finally the landlord came by after our neighbors, who unbeknownst to us were trying to run a massage therapy clinic next door, threatened to leave the building. Our landlord forced us to move right away into a much larger space after observing the absolute mayhem we were causing in the hallway. My lesson from that experience is that frugality will only get you so far — sometimes, you have to pay for the things you need.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I truly wouldn’t be where I am today without the help and support of my mom. She spent every weekend for many years passing out samples in grocery stores. She was our top seller as she’d always tell people, “this is my daughter’s company,” and then they’d buy all the Kuli Kuli products on her table. During the COVID-19 pandemic, she quit her job as a dentist to provide full-time childcare for my daughter. She is always trying to help everyone around her, and she inspires me every day.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

I love the book Traction by Gino Wickman. It’s really helped me figure out the right way to structure meetings and think about how to keep everyone on my team focused in the same direction.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

My favorite quote is, “the only real failure in life is the failure to try,” by author Deborah Moggach. I think this quote is particularly important to keep in mind as a female founder, as women often doubt their “right to be at the table” more than men. Every time I feel like I’m not qualified to do something, or like I might be pushing too hard, I remind myself of this quote.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

The coolest thing about running a social enterprise is that the more successful you are, the more you’re helping to make the world a better place. Kuli Kuli’s vision is to pioneer the plants of the future. We believe that by making climate-smart, community-grown superfoods into staple foods, we can improve the lives for millions of farmers while fighting climate change. We create sustainable supply chains based on climate-smart, nutrient-rich plants to provide reforestation, livelihoods and nourishment to communities around the world. Kuli Kuli works closely with our suppliers to support regenerative agricultural practices and women’s empowerment — and provide nourishing superfoods to the local community. As a Certified B Corp, Kuli Kuli meets high standards of environmental performance and public transparency. To date, Kuli Kuli has planted over 24 million moringa trees and partnered with over 3,000 farmers, providing more than 5 million dollars in income to small family farms. Kuli Kuli’s Pure Moringa line uses pouches made from recycled materials, saving the equivalent of an estimated 40 thousand plastic bottles per year. Learn more about our impact at https://www.kulikulifoods.com/pages/our-impact.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?

I think the biggest thing holding women back is societal ideas around what an entrepreneur should look and act like. A small example of this was at a tradeshow pre-pandemic where I was at the booth, alongside an older male employee of mine. A man came up to our booth and started asking me lots of questions about Kuli Kuli. I knew all the answers to his questions, but he kept looking to my employee for answers, and finally said “sweetie, thanks for helping but I think it’d be best for me to speak to the CEO.” The default image of a successful businessperson as a tall white man holds back so many women and people of color. Even worse, we often internalize these beliefs and think that we truly “don’t have what it takes” to start a business.

Can you share with our readers what you are doing to help empower women to become founders?

I block off two hours every week to chat with women and minority entrepreneurs who are starting businesses. I do as much as I can to provide advice and connections to these early-stage founders.

This might be intuitive to you but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?

People tend to hire, invest in and support people who look like them. The more women who are starting and leading companies, the greater the likelihood that those companies will have women in leadership roles and at similar levels of pay as men. Many founders who achieve success go onto become investors. The more successful female founders we have, the more female investors we’re likely to have, which is critical to closing the investment gap between men and women. Last, the more female founders we have, the more young women will start to normalize entrepreneurship as a career path.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Can you please share 5 things that can be done or should be done to help empower more women to become founders? If you can, please share an example or story for each.

1. Invest in Women — Only 3% of venture capital goes to female-founded companies. Investment in women is critical to helping more women get off the ground. The first dollars that Kuli Kuli raised were from angel investors who specifically focused on supporting female entrepreneurs. I went on to raise 10 million dollars from venture capital firms, a few of which specifically look for women- and minority-led companies. We need more investors who see having a female founder as a competitive advantage.

2. Mentorship — It is critical for men and women in positions of power to spend time supporting early-stage female founders. I formed an advisory board before I wrote a business plan. Advisors/mentors are so critical to provide guidance, act as a sounding board and cheer women on as they embark on the incredibly challenging journey of starting a business.

3. Storytelling — Take a minute to picture a “founder” in your mind. Most likely you just envisioned a tall white man, perhaps in a business suit, or a hoodie if you’re thinking “startup founder.” We need to shift the paradigm of what a founder looks like. I’ve spent the past decade writing a monthly column in the Forbes business section because I want more people to read business thought leadership pieces written by women.

4. Purchases — One of the greatest powers we have is our purchasing power. Buying from women-led companies can go a long way to equalize the playing field. Kuli Kuli has had a lot of retailers take a chance on our product because we’re women-led, and then stick with us because the product sells so well.

5. Affordable Childcare — The COVID-19 pandemic has shown all too clearly how much of the burden of childcare falls on women. With millions of women dropping out of the workforce, it’s clear that we need more access to affordable childcare to bring them back.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I would like for all of us to pause for 30 seconds before we purchase anything to reflect on whether our purchase is in line with our values. I think a lot of people value social and environmental sustainability, but we don’t always put our dollars where our values lie.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

I would love to have a superfood breakfast with Tim Ferriss. I’m a huge fan of his books and podcast, and based on what I know of him, I think he’d be super into moringa.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Check out kulikulifoods.com and lisamariecurtis.com, and follow us on your favorite social platforms.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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