This CEO Is Taking Her Family Business To Healthy New Heights And ‘Soulfully’ Disrupting A $26 Billion Industry
Mondays can be rough—sometimes we need a little motivation to get the week started. Our #MondayMotivation blog series brings you tips and life hacks from Project Entrepreneur Alumnae—female founders who applied to the Project Entrepreneur Venture Competition to attend our two-day PE Intensive and join a nationwide community of hundreds of women entrepreneurs. Get to know more about the PE Community and #beinspired by how these women motivate themselves each Monday to tackle the week ahead.
When her father started preparing and selling American Soul Food to their neighbors in the 1980s, Rakhya El-Amin probably didn’t know she’d one day be known as founder and CEO of the family business. Fast-forward to today, and Rakhya is CEO and Managing Partner of Chef El-Amin, a company that prepares healthy and Halal Soul Food for both catering and at-home preparation (the company’s products can now be found in grocery stores, or delivered direct to consumer via their website).
We chatted to Rakhya about her role in the family business, balancing being a CEO with being a mom, and how she believes Chef El-Amin will totally transform the $26 billion fresh prepared foods industry.
What inspired you to start your business?
That’s a tricky question for me because the business has relaunched, been rebranded and remixed, based on [the business my family started when I was growing up]. Chef El-Amin started in our basement during the early 1980s with a broken freezer full of fish! My dad, who was a distributor at the time, decided not to throw the fish out—instead he opted to recoup his money by frying it up and inviting the community down for an old fashioned Fish Fry. As the Fish Fry grew in popularity, additional soul food favorites like soul potato salad, cheesy baked macaroni and collard greens were added to the mix. Fast forward a year or so, my Dad, along with his brothers and sisters, decided to open up a fast casual, brick and mortar soul food restaurant, the first in our community, and Chef El-Amin was born. The restaurant operated for about 10 years, then transitioned to solely catering, community fish frys and fundraising events.
Today, under our new business model, and using the traditional family recipes from the restaurant, we have launched a line of grab & go, heat and eat meals that are Halal, gluten free, lower in sodium and vegan, for busy families and professionals. Because soul food is known to be not so healthy with all the salt, sugar, and fat content, all of which contributes to health issues in our community such as Diabetes, Heart Disease, Obesity and Stroke, my family and I were inspired to create a healthier and accessible alternative to traditional Soul Food without compromising taste.
What’s been the biggest challenge you’ve faced so far?
To be honest, it’s a bit difficult to narrow down the biggest challenge because every day is a new challenge. Initially it was deciding whether to go back into corporate America after I had my daughter, or to sacrifice a steady paycheck and focus on the family business. Once I decided to take the leap of faith and become an entrepreneur full time, the challenge became balancing CEO duties, with mommy and wife duties. I remember one day, I’d finally gotten the Whole Foods buyer on the phone and I had to hide in the closet to [take the call] because my almost 2-year-old was screaming “Mama, agua please!!” because she was thirsty!
What’s been the greatest reward?
Gosh, there have been so many! If I had to choose, my greatest reward has been seeing the look and joy on my dad’s face when we finally signed our contract with a major retailer! He is the hardest working person I know. I really admire him. He has grinded for over three decades for Chef El-Amin and [he’s] never quit, complained, yelled…nothing. Even now, in his late 60’s, he still cooks all the food while singing and out-works everyone in the kitchen. He really deserves to see his vision go global and help better people’s lives.
What changes would you most like to see in your industry, and how are you working to make those changes happen?
Lack of variety! In terms of the fresh prepared food industry, I would like to see healthier soul food options that remind you of home. You go into any grocery store and can find a plethora of Italian, Chinese, Indian and Latin cuisine, but little to no American Soul Food. As a result, I am working with manufacturing partners who could replicate my traditional family recipes and swap out some of the bad stuff for better stuff (e.g. replacing iodized salt with himalayan salt, sugar with agave, and swap hormone-filled protein for Halal proteins vegan options).
Who or what motivates you to keep going, even when things get tough?
That’s easy: my daughter motivates me to keep going when things get tough. Those days when I am biting my nails waiting for a check to come in, orders to get funded, staff to be on time, product to sell etc., I think about how my daughter is watching my every move. I want her to admire my strength, grit, determination and willingness to have faith and keep going, especially when things get tough, so she grows up with the same qualities. I want her to be proud of her Mommy!
Can you provide a few updates on what’s new with your business or what you’ve accomplished since you attended the PE Intensive in April 2017?
Since attending the PE Intensive in 2017, my business has done a 180! Sales in 2018 have grown 200 percent! This year our product has launched in a local Shoprite Supermarket, and we are looking to expand to other supermarkets.
Chef El-Amin has graduated from Columbia Business School in partnership with The Harlem Local Business program where we have access to graduate level courses, mentorship, financial coaching and regional buyers from Wholefoods to Fairway. We have been interviewed twice by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Karen Hunter on Sirius XM Radio for Wellness Wednesday, which resulted in requests for our meals from all over the United States.
And as a direct result of meeting an HSN executive during the PE Intensive, I received information to apply and pitch our product during the American Dreams Contest, and Chef El-Amin was chosen as a semifinalist to develop our product to be sold on-air to their 100 million viewers!
Can you describe a problem you solved in your business that other early-stage founders face and tell us how you went about solving this problem? How can other early-stage founders repeat your success?
The problem I am currently navigating is having the ability to delegate. As early-stage entrepreneurs, we always try to be that Superwoman. We tend to think that the only way to get things done right is to do it all ourselves. From sales, to business development to accounting to marketing and social media, as your business grows, you have to be able to hire and trust the right people to take over certain tasks. I now have a team of advisors with expertise in accounting, law, project management, marketing and financial planning.
In order to be successful, my advice would be to network, network, network! Find out how to meet the right people, get in the right rooms, surround yourself with people that know what you don’t, and figure out a way to get them on board.
What’s one piece of advice you’d give to other entrepreneurs just starting out?
Like Nike says “Just Do It.” Figure out if you are really passionate about your idea—that idea that you have in your head, on your vision board, post-it note or whatever, just do the work that it takes to make it come to life. Find out if you are solving a problem, or developing something new that would make life easier. Test your idea with friends and family first. Make a pitch deck or business plan and map out how your idea can make you money or change the world. Look for local incubators, small business development centers and take some business classes at your local college or university. You have nothing to lose, unless you don’t even try!
For more motivation from our PE Alumnae, check out our interview with Hannah Yang, and alumna of the 2017 PE Intensive and the Co-Founder and CEO of TheShareWay, a startup that solves a real problem for nonprofits looking for donations. At TheShareWay, Hannah has created a directory of companies that donate food, raffle items and other “goodies” to nonprofits—nonprofits can then apply to directly to those companies to receive in-kind donations. We sat down with Hannah to chat about what sparked her genius idea, the ups and downs of creating a team, and her advice for other early-stage female founders.