Inspiring Stories of Our Owners

3 AAPI Founders on Building Their Delicious Food Brands

How can you celebrate AAPI Heritage Month? Support these tasty AAPI-owned food businesses.

May 19, 2022 6 min read

Hello Alice supports over 600,000 small business owners, nearly 7% of which identify as Asian American or Pacific Islander (AAPI). According to our data, AAPI owners are the most heavily concentrated community operating in Food and Beverage among our owner base — 23% own businesses in this industry. To celebrate, we’re highlighting some of our favorite, family-owned and -inspired AAPI small businesses that deliver you delicious drinks and snacks. 

Sajani Amarasiri, Owner of Kola Goodies

Kola Goodies sells teas and superfoods with ingredients directly sourced from South Asian farmer collectives.

What were you doing before you started your small business?

I came to the U.S. at the age of 19 for university. After graduating, I began my career working at Microsoft and Amazon, specializing in operations and tech supply chains, before I dove into my passion for connecting my Sri Lankan roots to modern life. Even during my corporate stint, I had many small side hustles. I left corporate and founded the first community-focused coworking space in Sri Lanka, called Colombo Cooperative, before connecting my eastern roots with my entrepreneurial aspirations to launch Kola Goodies, hoping to bring foods and herbs that I grew up eating to the wellness-minded consumers of the U.S.

How would you describe your small business and your role in it? Is there anything special you’d like to share about it?

Kola Goodies is the first DTC Sri-Lankan beverage company offering superfood lattes and milk tea inspired by my heritage, all made with ingredients sourced directly from farmers in South Asia. Within my company, I’m the CEO/Founder and as such take on many different roles — from marketing to operations to supply chain management (it’s always about the supply chain!) and everything in between. In our first full year of business, we have gone back to our roots to create a supply chain from scratch, created two first-to-market products (Kola Goodies Sri Lankan Milk tea and our Super Green Latte), and we have largely focused on sharing our products direct-to-consumers. But we’ve started to partner with experiential brands, like Boba Guys, to offer our Sri Lankan-sourced products to the masses. 

Are there any challenges or unique opportunities you’d like to describe that come with being an entrepreneur?

There are so many challenges and unique opportunities that come along with being a founder — in my case, the first great challenge was establishing a company in a place where I had little network, family, and support. However, this also ended up being one of our great opportunities — it’s all about taking your “weaknesses” and pivoting them into strengths. In this case, I realized, as an immigrant, I had unique insight into consumers in the U.S. and could leverage my community, use deep insights into my culture, and create products that would delight customers here while benefiting farmers in Sri Lanka and use my network there to source ethically, tactfully, and with intention. 

What inspires you as an entrepreneur and small business owner? 

My parents! They came from humble beginnings in Sri Lanka and built up from scratch. My parents dedicated so much to give us more than what they had and that keeps me going everyday. 

I’m also inspired by the breadth of women founders, particularly AAPI women founders — many of whom are immigrants or first gen — who have boot-strapped their businesses, bringing tastes of their family’s lives to the public. It’s incredible to be part of such a huge moment, and I’m constantly inspired by the energy and momentum that’s been created.

What would your advice be for aspiring entrepreneurs?

Where do I start? I feel like I learn something new every day, mainly through making mistakes. The first I would say is a popular quote by Marie Forleo — “Clarity comes from engagement and not thought.” Clarity isn’t intellectual, it’s built through experience, guidance, and trial-and-error. So without waiting for the perfect time to start, just get started. Start while you have a full time job, get the experimental phase for your company done on someone else’s dime, and in the future, pay it forward for someone else. 

The second is to build your network and support system around you. Being an immigrant founder, this network wasn’t established for me. Over time, it’s become a backbone of how I push my company forward. Being an entrepreneur is not about having everything figured out; it’s about being a master problem solver and creating innovative solutions with limited resources — so apply that framework to all obstacles that come your way.

Pooja Bavishi, Founder and CEO of Malai

Malai makes decadent ice cream flavors using South Asian flavors and ingredients available to taste at their flagship location in Brooklyn, NY or in pints at select retailers.

What were you doing before you started your small business?

Before I started my business, I worked in the nonprofit world. I have degrees in public policy and urban planning. But I always knew that I would “eventually” start a dessert business. The “aha moment” for starting Malai came when I made ice creams infused with the Indian spices that were so familiar to me. I’d found a way to finally start that dessert business and tell my story.

How would you describe your small business and your role in it? Is there anything special you’d like to share about it? 

An artisanal ice cream company, Malai focuses on South Asian spices and ingredients. We create never-before-seen flavors that tell the stories of my upbringing. Although my role has changed considerably from when Malai first started in 2015, I still conceptualize every flavor we develop (along with growing the business!). 

Are there any challenges or unique opportunities you’d like to describe that come with being an entrepreneur?

Like most entrepreneurs, I’ve dealt with imposter syndrome. For a long time, only I believed I was uniquely solving a problem and my product was the best in a certain market. Dozens of people struck that down. While it was important to listen and get their feedback, it was challenging to not let it get to me. Sometimes, I felt like I didn’t belong or that I wouldn’t succeed. So, in those early days, I made sure to keep my tribe close. I made sure that the people who loved me most were there to give me support and perspective when it all became a little cloudy. 

What inspires you as an entrepreneur and small business owner?  

First and foremost, my family. My flavor inspiration comes from them. These ice creams are based on my food memories from growing up! But they immeasurably support and believe in me. My parents have been entrepreneurs for my entire life. They’ve dealt with their own ups and downs while still encouraging me to pursue my dreams. I am also constantly inspired by other businesses. I love seeing new businesses pop up. Seeing founders really going after what they want is powerful. 

What would your advice be for aspiring entrepreneurs?  

Really learn your craft. You will eventually hire a team that is amazing and will do things better than you, but you should know your industry inside and out. Live and breathe the company, the mission, the competitors, the customers — everything should be about how you can create and be the best. When you are that involved, you will develop confidence in knowing what you can achieve. 

Ashley Xie and Hedy Yu, Co-Founders of Rooted Fare

LA-based Rooted Fare makes modern Chinese American pantry staples such as their tasty black sesame crunchy butter.

What were you doing before you started your small business?

As second-generation Chinese Americans, we grew up in two worlds that were sometimes hard to navigate. As we got older and went to college, we realized how little access we had to our culture and started to appreciate our Chinese heritage more — especially through food.

How would you describe your small business and your role in it? Is there anything special you’d like to share about it?  

We created Rooted Fare to make fun, modern Chinese-American pantry staples that are nostalgic yet novel. We use unique ingredients and flavors from both our childhoods and our lived experiences in America. “Rooted” refers to our roots, or heritage, while “fare” stands for “food” that sustains.

What inspires you as an entrepreneur and small business owner?  

Building a food brand and community rooted in heritage and togetherness humbles and excites us. We also love we can play and be creative!

What would your advice be for aspiring entrepreneurs?  

Experiment! Two years ago, Ashley and her aunt made sweet tang yuan for Chinese New Year and she wondered how it’d taste as a spread. She took some of the ground black sesame seeds, lard, and brown sugar. On a whim, she added breadcrumbs. It became our first product: Black Sesame Crunchy Butter.

Check out these small businesses, and continue to support the AAPI community year round!

In honor of AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) Month, join Team Hello Alice and friends at 2:30 p.m. ET on Wednesday, May 25, 2022, for a webinar on finding small business success and celebrating culture. Hear from and connect with inspiring AAPI small business owners who will be offering their top tips and answering your questions live! Register now for this FREE event.

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