Born in Lagos Nigeria, Toyin Kolawole was fortunate to have a very entrepreneurial mother, who exposed her to a variety of startup businesses as a child. These experiences have paid off, as Toyin was recently selected for Forbes The Next 1000 2021.
Toyin’s startup, Iya Foods, is introducing West African flavors to American palates, in the form of everyday American staples. Just as Starbucks adds Nigerian Hibiscus to make its Passion Tea, Toyin is spicing up traditional American dishes, such as pancakes, bread and muffins, with flavorful, West African ingredients.
Three Loving Words: “Have you eaten?”
John Greathouse: Toyin – great to connect with you. You were born and raised in Nigeria by a very entrepreneurial mother. What sort of businesses did she expose you too and how have these experiences shaped your startup career?
Toyin Kolawole: My mother is a nurse by training, my Dad a chemical engineer but my mother was quite the serial entrepreneur who started more businesses than I can count to make ends meet. For example, we sold kerosene (cooking fuel) in front of her small pharmacy, we raised and sold chickens in our home during the holidays, we sold water in buckets, later she opened a small fast-food eatery where I learnt to make donuts, buns, pies, etc. Entrepreneurship was a necessity and a way of life for us.
Greathouse: Great. I love that you’re building upon the business and life lessons your mom taught you. I also admire that your West African heritage is the foundation upon which you’ve built your venture – your authenticity is strong a competitive advantage.
Kolawole: Iya means, “Mother” in Yoruba, one of the most spoken languages in Nigeria, parts of West Africa and even Brazil. Our name pays homage to mothers everywhere for me it reminds me of those three words, “Have you eaten?” – the ultimate expression of a mother’s love. It shows love, care, community, humanity, and I think the world needs so much more of this.
Greathouse: Indeed! Did this desire to spread love motivate you to launch a food business?
Kolawole: There were a few things I think that sort of led me down the food path. First, food was always my village’s way of expressing love, for example it’s the way you welcome your in-laws during the marriage introduction ceremony, it’s how you let a visitor know they are welcome to stay. Food was, and still is, the center of community connections in Nigeria.
Second – the diversity of food culture in the United States is one of the things I first fell in love with. I can enjoy Mexican, Italian, Indian, etc. food. Third – I grew up a businesswoman, so I had learnt to recognize opportunity – it’s time for African inspired American foods.
Greathouse: Timing is everything in business, no doubt.
To what extent are you having to educate your users, as I’m not sure the average American is well versed in West African ingredients. Or, has your initial market been folks who are already familiar with Western African flavors?
Kolawole: There are three foundational pillars behind foods we offer: nutrition, taste and functionality.
As a businesswoman, I had noticed a trend in African ingredients and superfoods, but it just never quite became mainstream because there was a lack of functionality, by this I mean – it wasn’t intuitive to the average American consumer. We wanted our foods to feel intuitive, familiar to our American community but at same time feel new and exciting – this is where our innovative advantage comes in, i.e., finding a balance between these two things. Foods is a connector, so I knew this could work.
Greathouse: Like me, you earned your CPA (certified public accounting) certificate. Even though my career hasn’t been in accounting, understanding how to read financial statements has been invaluable. I encourage my UC Santa Barbara students to take as many accounting classes as they can, as it truly is the language of business.
To what extent has your accounting background played into your entrepreneurial success?
Kolawole: I don’t know that I would still be in business without this background. Cash flow is a top reason why so many businesses pack up, in addition to the already challenging journey of entrepreneurship. Maintaining proper books, especially cashflow, has been due to my accounting background. Cash is Queen.
Greathouse: You got that right!
You worked for years in the financial sector and then moved to the U.S. to earn your MBA from Kellogg. I’m not generally a huge fan of entrepreneurs getting advanced degrees, but I know that others feel differently. If you could do it over, would you still pursue an MBA?
Kolawole: Getting an advanced degree was not only about the learning, for many immigrants like me, it’s one of very few pathways to the American dream. For many of us, it’s also the only way our abilities are taken seriously, so we do this to get access to opportunities.
Greathouse: Got it. I hadn’t thought of it from that perspective, though now it makes sense.
Did your status as an entrepreneur from a traditionally underrepresented group influence your decision to initially launch on Amazon, rather than going the retail route? Would you advise other consumer-oriented startups to skip retail and go straight to online selling?
Kolawole: Absolutely. Many buyers saw me as selling ‘African Food’ even though I was holding a pancake mix in my hand and literally serving cakes, breads, pancakes, waffles and grilled chicken. Amazon being an online platform gave me the opportunity to explain who we are, what we do, how we are unique in a way that was easy for people to understand, but more importantly, connect to. So yes, Amazon has been a huge, quite massive opportunity for Iya.
That said, I do have some advice for underrepresented groups – I always remember these words from Ava DuVernay “While you’re waiting for a seat at the table, build your own seat AND table” Tyler Perry also said something similar. Shirley Chisholm said, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” So, my advice is while you are trying and working hard to get noticed, also seek opportunities to create your own market. This is what Amazon enabled us to do.
Greathouse: Those are both great quotes – very entrepreneurial and change oriented.
Congratulations on building a sophisticated Amazon store.
Kolawole: Amazon is an entire planet! An ecommerce planet of opportunities and I don’t mean this from a corporation point of view, I mean this from the customer’s point of view. Customers trust Amazon reviews, they trust the payment systems, the crazy fast shipping time – how will I, as a small business, deliver consistently in one or two days? It is the customers who have made Amazon their destination, so we go there.
Greathouse: On your site, a banner for your Amazon store appears on each page, yet you also sell products directly from your site. How should entrepreneurs think about cannibalization of potential sales which might have transacted on their own site from those which take place on Amazon’s platform?
Kolawole: I don’t see it as cannibalization, to be candid. Looking at cannibalization as when one opportunity eats another makes us see this differently. The Amazon store page link is for customers who are still ‘not sure,’ but they know and trust their Amazon experience and want faster shipping. For us, the Amazon connection has been a net benefit as our major goal is to acquire new, repeat customers wherever possible
Greathouse: To what extent were you able to leverage your online sales when you approached traditional retail distributors? And what advice do you have for successful online sellers who are considering accessing traditional retail outlets?
Kolawole: Everything revolves around data. In retail, having online sales data as a marketing tool when presenting to buyers has been a significant advantage.
My advice – redo the numbers. Retail is a different sales channels, customer engagement, placement, etc. is different, so consider your trade spend and customer engagement costs carefully.
Greathouse: You’ve created an impressive number of products. As a small venture, how do you balance so many SKUs (unique products) with managing your overall profitability?
Kolawole: We intentionally started with many SKUs so we could gather data and see what our customers love the most. Now we are in a deep SKU rationalization process to reduce the number of SKUs. I would not advise doing a lot of SKUs if possible – for us it worked at first, but as we’ve grown, we are starting to pivot to less SKUs.
Greathouse: Well, one advantage of starting with a lot of different products is that you get good at launching and evaluating new offerings. How have you vetted potential new products?
Kolawole: Our website – we do soft launches and gather feedback direct from our model customers. We have a pretty awesome customer community always willing to connect and try our new stuff.
Greathouse: That direct line to customers is key.
I know that sustainability is embedded in Iya’s mission. How does this manifest itself in the company’s operations?
Kolawole: This is an on-going process for us with everything from soil stewardship of the farmers we work with to working on environmentally friendly packaging. Even as a small business, we find our focus on sustainability does have an impact.
Greathouse: When you’re telling your grandchildren about Iya, what would like your company’s legacy to be?
Kolawole: Iya’s purpose is to ‘love through food.’ I hope that our legacy is one that brings people together to enjoy a meal. When people think of Iya, I hope they see in their minds the image of an African mother who loved people through food and encouraged everyone to do the same.
This is really why I founded Iya – I love seeing people come together to enjoy good food.