Celebrate Small Business Saturday with 3 entrepreneurs who are playing it big

Know Your Value spoke with three small business owners who are making waves to discuss how they got their start, the barriers and how they continue to find success.

There are a total of 12.3 million women-owned businesses in the U.S., significantly up from only 402,000 in 1972. Even though those numbers make the growth of women-owned business seem huge, there are still many challenges and obstacles facing women entrepreneurs today.

Small Business Saturday, which falls after Thanksgiving each year, encourages shoppers to consider supporting small retailers. It’s also an excellent opportunity to show your support for women-owned businesses, either with your purchasing power, social media visibility, or personal referrals.

Know Your Value spoke with three small business owners who are making waves to discuss how they got their start, the barriers and how they continue to find success.

Keep your cool by setting up shorter-term goals

On Halloween of 2016, Hannah Hong and her best friend Mollie Cha had a lightning-strike moment. Cha put frozen bananas and almond milk in a food processor to make banana “nice” cream, a dairy-free alternative to calorie-laden dessert.

“I said, ‘This is bananas!’ because it was,” laughed Hong, who lives in Los Angeles. She had discovered she was lactose intolerant 15 years prior: “It had been so long since I had had dairy on purpose, so when I tried this and it was delicious, I knew we had something special.”

Hannah Hong and Mollie Cha of Hakuna Brands.
Hannah Hong and Mollie Cha of Hakuna Brands.Moana Surfrider (Marriott)

Hong and Cha worked in innovation for a large consumer packaged goods company, so they already had the know-how to bring new food ideas to the market. But they didn’t have a food science background, so the process of finding a recipe that was shelf stable and “scoopable” was an experiment in trial and error.

Once they hit on a recipe, these two friends started cranking out Hakuna Brands product in a 100 square foot commercial kitchen. They bought cases of bananas and hand-peeled and mixed everything themselves. “Our poor husbands were slave labor,” said Hong. “But I’m really grateful for that time because we learned everything about the product in the best possible way. We could scale up without sacrificing integrity.”

From their humble beginning at one independent specialty grocery store in downtown Los Angeles in January 2017, Hong and Cha’s products are now in 430 stores and available online.

Margie Clark

Hong was recently named the grand-prize winner of Stacy’s Rise Project, which offers funding and mentorship to women-owned businesses in the food and drink industry. Announced by Top Chef host and competition judge Padma Lakshmi, the honor came with a $100,000 prize. Through the contest, Hong had the opportunity to work with top executives at Frito Lay. She said, “The money is amazing, but the mentorship is priceless.”

Advice for entrepreneurs:

“Create stage-gates for success. Every time we met a goal, we felt very encouraged. So first we wanted to see if it would sell in a farmers’ market and if people liked it. Then we wanted to see if we could get into one retailer. Then we wanted to see if a national retailer would take it. If you have a gut instinct, do the work and really go for it!” said Hong.

You’ve gotta have heart

As a business owner and full-time primary care physician at the University of Wisconsin, Dr. Ronak Mehta is no stranger to hard work. Her big idea came to her while she was still in med school—she wanted to write a “Dr. Seuss-type” book about the human body. She wrote the book, hired an illustrator and self-published…but nothing really came of it.

“But this idea stuck with me in residency and clinical rotations,” said Mehta. “I kept thinking about how neat it would be to offer these sick patients something more than chocolates or balloons—something fun and quirky and useful.”

After putting the idea on the backburner for a long time, Mehta finally decided to take action in January of 2018. She took the illustrations from the book and turned them into a line of body organ-shaped plush toys that she called Nerdbugs. After a lot of late nights researching how to create a product, she contacted 100 manufacturers, debated on design, and finally posted five different products (heart lungs, kidney, uterus, neuron) for sale on Amazon and on her company website.

Ronak Mehta, founder of Nerdbugs.
Ronak Mehta, founder of Nerdbugs.Kathryn Larson

“Strangely enough, I got an order that first day,” Mehta told Know Your Value. “Not hundreds of orders—but there was one order. I screamed and jumped up and down and got ice cream with my husband to celebrate.”

Once customers started posting reviews, sales started coming in more regularly, but Mehta had major issues with her overseas warehouse: orders were delayed, forgotten or incorrect. Mehta said, “For months, pretty much everyone got a refund plus extra items because I felt so bad. I wanted people to be thrilled with what they got.”

Transferring her manufacturing and fulfillment to the U.S. solved those issues, and Mehta began receiving accolades for her efforts. She’s one of the finalists for Amazon’s Woman-Owned Small Business of the Year, and she was the recipient of a 2019 NPR How I Built This Fellowship.