Speaking with Sujala Balaji, food scientist and founder of Kosha Foods, you sense she could achieve anything she puts her mind to. Not because she is the stereotypical “Type A” personality of a start-up founder. It is because she is driven by a higher purpose. Sujala is committed to making changes that reflect her own values and how she feels the world should be. Her story is incredible and one that FoodGrads had to share.
Starting a career in food
Born in India, Sujala moved to Canada in 2005 to do a Masters in Food Science. Upon graduation she secured a position with Shape Foods in Manitoba, which, at that time was a start up. Her primary job function was in Research and Development, but also saw the development of a product from its inception to final production.
After deciding, for personal reasons, to move back to Ontario with her baby daughter, she began working for a multi-national dairy company. However, after a few years she started to feel like the work was not challenging enough and she had a lot more to offer. As with many large companies, they were slow to make decisions, had minimal opportunities to be creative and a hierarchical management structure. At the same time she began to notice the limited number of healthy snack food options on the market.
Since coming to Canada, Sujala had nurtured a desire to help farmers in India. She had grown up in a farming community and her grandparents were also farmers there. She wanted to do something more than make monetary contributions. She decided to look for ways she could do something professionally that would have a longer lasting impact on the farming community in India.
In addition, both Sujala’s parents are diabetic and she discovered that millet was a good source of protein, carbohydrates, fibre and minerals for diabetics. With a low glycemic index, and no gluten, it is also great for celiacs. She found out that millet had been popular in India before the Green Revolution in 1960’s and, in fact, India is still one if the largest producers of millet in the world. This, partly due to the fact, it requires much less water than other grains (one third compared to rice) and is pest resistant.
Sujala had a hunch that, with the right product and marketing, millet could be the next quinoa. That is when her mission to make millet famous began. Sujala is a scientist though, and so “hunches” were not good enough for her to launch an entire business. Instead, she spent 6 months doing intensive research and market analysis on the potential of millet based food products. She wanted something that had a broad appeal, not just a grain alternative for celiacs or diabetics.
Sujala also wanted to find a way to source directly from farmers in India. That way she could assist the growth of millet farming in India. Eventually profits from Kosher Foods will also help farmers increase capacity in warehousing, equipment and production systems. The not for profit Tribal Health Initiative, helped her source millet producing farmers and manage the regulatory requirements of importing product from India to Canada.
When the UN announced it’s 17 sustainable development goals in 2015, it was a sign from the universe. The first two UN global goals were to end poverty and promote sustainable agriculture. It is this link to a higher purpose that keeps her driving forward. She waited until World Food Day to register her company so this would always be a reminder of her motivations for starting Kosha Foods.
Finding the right Intern
On the immediate horizon now is to finalize logistics in Canada, develop product packaging, find a co-packer who is gluten free and establish her online sales set-up (phew!). She is doing all this while working full time and parenting an 8 year old. In May of this year she realized that she needed help and hired her first intern, Trang. The story of how Sujala and Trang connected needs a whole other blog post. We’ll be featuring it next month on this blog.
When asked about what a start-up seeks in new hires, Sujala says that experience is not always a priority. A passion for the candidate’s chosen field and a willingness to take risks and learn can be equally, if not more, important. When an organization is in start-up mode, new hires need to be open minded, willing to accept challenges, problem solve, and be “comfortable with being uncomfortable”. After hiring Trang, she wishes she hired an intern sooner!
Advice for future Start-Ups
When asked her advice, Sujala recommends surrounding yourself with like minded people. She took a course in Social Entrepreneurship which exposed her to new ideas and resources. She also suggests taking advantage of the wealth of free content and advice that is available online. Her current favorites, in podcast format, are Ask Gary Vee and The Tim Ferris Show (me too!).
I would say the best advice for budding start-up founders is to have unwavering passion and dedication to their business idea, and Sujala has this in bucket loads! Visit Kosha Foods on Facebook to learn more about the wonders of millet.