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Branding, Client Feature, Interview

October 26, 2015

1-On-1 with Nailah Ellis-Brown, Ellis Island Tea

Nailah Ellis Brown - Ellis Island Tea

Nailah Ellis-Brown has gone from selling tea out of her mother’s basement to finding an investor to help build out her modern bottling plant. She is the epitome of turning your entrepreneurial side hustle into a business. Ellis Island Tropical Tea is brewed in the heart of Detroit. Last week, during our weekly client meeting, I got a chance to ask her a few questions in honor of National Women’s Small Business Month.

Jackie Palmer: How did you receive consent to use the family recipe?
Nailah Ellis-Brown: I actually flew out to NYC and asked my father for the recipe and explained how I wanted to become an entrepreneur by placing it on the market and use it to carry on our family legacy and essentially become an entrepreneur. He didn’t have a recipe with measurements. It was all from memory and “eye-balling”. It took me just under a year to perfect it with measurements.

JP: Whole Foods was your first real chain, and now you have Meijer. Congratulations, by the way. So, what advice would you offer on whether to seek investors or strategic partners? Or on even deciding on a strategic placement, because that’s what Whole Foods was for you.
NEB: Before you start seeking investment, do everything in your power to grow the company as much as you can without it. I don’t recommend anyone seek out financial investment until they get to the point that it’s an absolute necessity. On strategic placement – I just walked into Whole Foods and asked a guy stocking the shelf how the process works. I followed the food chain of approvals until I was in my first store. But I literally just walked in and asked. Sometimes that’s all it takes. But there’s no road map for entrepreneurship. Everyone’s path is unique. For me, it’s a faith-based journey. I stay ‘prayed up’, and believe it will all happen if it’s meant to be.

On partnerships versus investors…that wasn’t my experience. I don’t have a partner. We always want what we don’t have. I would love the help. But those I know that have partners, sometimes wish they didn’t. But I think people wish they had partners just to help with the workload because it’s truly never-ending. But I would never partner with just anyone. It has to be a great fit, and they have to have the same passion. They have to want to see the company through and be willing to put in 100% every day the way I am. But if you find someone to partner with and it makes sense, why not? But I wouldn’t move forward with an idea, because I can’t find a partner.

JP: In pitching, Meijer and Whole Foods, was there a difference in the audience? We all know that Whole Foods is very natural-based. While Meijer is a bit different and unique, was that difficult to pitch or was it a natural step in the company’s growth?
NEB: It actually just happened after I got the entrepreneur of the year award from MSU. They walked up to me and offered placement at the event. I’m still in actual shock about how that happened. But, their placement plan is totally different. The markets are completely different; the type of shopper is so different. Whole Foods is a premium niche market. Meijer is a little in between; they have some shoppers who go for quality and some who go for discounted quantity. They do have different rules, but they are totally different lanes that require me to have a different approach.

JP: What advice would you offer to someone who is still trying to decide on whether to continue to climb the corporate ladder or really focus on building your own empire? How do you know if you’re ready?
NEB: Whichever one feels greater to you. If you feel happy and free climbing the corporate ladder, keep going. I didn’t have that, so I knew I was in the wrong place. I had zero happiness working for others. I tried it several times and it just never worked out. It was very depressing for me every time. I always go for happiness. Being happy in your everyday life, to me, is priceless. And if it takes, grinding it out for a while, and being broke sometimes to grow my own empire, that’s what I’m going to do. I really value this feeling of freedom and joy. Entrepreneurship is considered cool. But it’s so much harder than it looks. You have to build your own, every day. It’s all self-motivation. You are responsible for your own motivation. So, if it’s not your true freedom or happiness, it’s probably not worth it for you.

JP: what do you feel you could have done more to prepare yourself for entrepreneurship?
NEB: It’s like having a child. You are never truly ready. No matter how much experience you have, no matter how much money there is. You get ready every day. I don’t know what I could have done more of. Everything has been trial and error since day1. Everything is ground zero. You are learning everything on your own. Every entrepreneurial path is so different.

JP: So you are a great example of having it all. You have gotten married and had a beautiful baby girl, all while leading this growing company. What would you say you learned about yourself in this process? And what would you say it takes to really “have it all” and be this woman that society debates on constantly?
NEB: Nothing is impossible. I feel like we did everything at the same time. I got married. Found out I was pregnant a month or so later. We renovated our house while I was pregnant. Then towards the end of my pregnancy, I renovated the plant and planned the grand opening. It literally felt like everything was all at the same time. It’s a lot to take on, all in one year. That taught me that no trial or tribulation is too much. You figure it out, all the time. You constantly impress yourself. I’m just now getting to the point of having a good balance in my life. I literally went from making sure I eat and running a company. To making sure my husband and daughter are happy, I’m happy and that my company isn’t failing. I had to learn to share the load. Now I have a plant manager. I had to learn and trust other people to help me stay happy. Learning to find the balance and share that load is key.

​JP: Time for my favorite question: What do you want to be when you grow up?
NEB: I want to be a successful entrepreneur. Meaning, I want to be able to share my story around the world and teach at-risk black youth the possibilities with entrepreneurship. My ultimate goal is to give back and uplift those that come after me.

Check out Ellis Island Tea at your local Whole Foods store and follow Ellis Island Tea on Instagram!


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