Rising from the Ashes: Reflections on Resilient Leadership
Learn how one Ghanaian entrepreneur overcame fires, floods, theft, and COVID-19 to build a more resilient and successful company.
For Kwami Williams, CEO of MoringaConnect, the path to co-founding a social agriculture venture in Ghana based on the native moringa tree was anything but straightforward. A Ghanaian-American who earned a degree in aerospace engineering at MIT, his first love was flight. But on a trip back to Ghana, after 10 years in the United States, he decided to focus on improving the lives of the people in his home country and continent.
Five years into running the business, Williams and his team were helping smallholder farmers plant moringa trees and then adding value to the raw materials with a flagship consumer brand. Everything started to unravel in 2019, starting with a wildfire that burned over 15,000 trees, then a factory fire, floods, and a robbery. And 2020 only added fuel to the fire with COVID-19.
Williams knew he needed help to tackle these back-to-back crises, and he chose honesty over pride.
“If I could give one piece of advice to an early-stage entrepreneur, I would tell them to build an amazing team of people who they could go to war with because the hard days, the bad days, the battles will come.”
“I just acknowledged the fact that I have no idea how to bounce back from this. So I just committed to vulnerability from the get-go. And I committed to communicating as much as possible from the get-go.”
Professor Brian Lowery agrees that vulnerability is vital to both personal and professional growth. As a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business, he is an expert on the psychology of leadership and on training future leaders like Williams. “The leader is not the person with the answers. The leader is the person who brings people together to help figure out what the best answers are around a range of issues,” Lowery says.
Williams and his team found ways to overcome adversity by taking one slow, intentional step at a time and asking hard questions: “Why is this happening? What can we learn from it? Let’s also pause and ask ourselves, okay, what can we start? What can we stop and what should continue? And once those ideas materialize, we just say, what is the smallest version of that we can commit to and be consistent with?”
And despite facing a 90% reduction in revenue, the team backed campaigns supporting COVID-19 health workers and racial justice organizations. Today, the True Moringa brand has taken off and is poised to raise its first equity round in the second half of 2021. And most importantly to Williams, they’ve planted over 2 million trees and are serving over 5,000 women and family farmers across Ghana.
Listen to Williams’ story and Lowery’s insights to learn how to build resiliency in yourself and your company.
Grit & Growth is a podcast produced by Stanford Seed, an institute at Stanford Graduate School of Business which partners with entrepreneurs in emerging markets to build thriving enterprises that transform lives.
Hear these entrepreneurs’ stories of trial and triumph, and gain insights and guidance from Stanford University faculty and global business experts on how to transform today’s challenges into tomorrow’s opportunities.
Kwami Williams: On January 1st, 2019, a wildfire that had already burned about 1,000 acres of just woods, jumped over our fire protection belt and burned up 15,000+ moringa trees.
Darius Teter: 2020 was a tough year for all business owners, but for MoringaConnect’s Kwami Williams, that fire was just one of a series of disasters that stretched all the way back into 2019.
Kwami Williams: I realized when I looked at the jar of ashes and I looked at the videos of our factory burning that it was so crucial for me, and I think really entrepreneur, to figure out who they are separate from what they do.
Darius Teter: It’s hard enough being an entrepreneur in the best of times. So how do you prepare for when everything goes sideways? Is your company resilient? Are you?
I’m Darius Teter and this is Grit & Growth with Stanford Seed, the show where Africa and India’s intrepid entrepreneurs share their trials and triumphs, with insights from Stanford faculty and global experts on how to tackle challenges and grow your business.
Today, we meet Kwami Williams, co-founder and CEO of a Ghanaian company MoringaConnect. Kwami is grit personified. In piloting his company through multiple crises, he has discovered firsthand the building blocks that make a resilient founder and enterprise. And they’re not what you might expect. We caught up with Kwami to break down the surprising psychology of grit and how to lead when you’re hit with crisis after crisis. And, we’ll talk to Stanford professor Brian Lowery on how you can build those skills yourself.
Kwami Williams is a Ghanaian-American MIT graduate who co-founded MoringaConnect in 2013 with classmate Emily Cunningham. A social agriculture venture, MoringaConnect aims to capitalize on the many uses of the native moringa tree and change how value is added to raw materials on the African continent. From the outset, Kwami saw a potential opportunity that could also help Ghanaian farmers.
Kwami Williams: First and foremost, we are a team of people that are passionate and on a mission to take underutilized crops, like moringa, and use them in a way that improves the lives of farmers who grow it as well as create good for you, good for the Earth products in health, in wellness and in personal care.
Over the past six years of operations and seven years of being a registered business, we’ve built a vertically integrated supply chain that serves 5,000+ farmers here in Ghana, has planted over two million trees here in Ghana foresting communities, and as well has created our flagship brand True Moringa to be retailed in both online, and as well physical retailers in the U.S. and around the world.
Darius Teter: It wasn’t always Kwami’s plan to run an agricultural company, let alone one in Africa.
I understand that you were classically trained as an aerospace engineer, that you went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States. And, that you also even did an internship at NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in the U.S. How does an aerospace engineer make this massive pivot and get excited about trees?
Kwami Williams: To be completely honest, the journey from aerospace to now agriculture was one that shocks me to this day. I just grew up in love with and passionate about anything that flew. So I was a kid that was breaking everyone’s toys because I was trying to figure out how it worked, and then I was also the kid who was running around saying, “Hey, there’s a bird! Hey, there’s a helicopter! Hey, there’s a plane!”
What ultimately took me from that passion, and took me from the intern at NASA and schooling at MIT studying aerospace was a foundational trip back to Ghana. I left Ghana when I was in the fourth grade, and after 10 years I had the opportunity to return. I got to see rural poverty for the first time. I got to live with people who only had one meal a day, who had challenges accessing good healthcare, who had challenges accessing quality education. I realized that the development statistics that I had been jaded by or had become callous to were now people I cared about. That sparked a desire to figure out: is there a way to leverage what I’ve been blessed with at MIT, to actually now start working with people to improve their livelihoods?
Darius Teter: When you went back to Ghana, was it just totally weird? Or, did you feel like I’m coming home again? I ask because I think we’ve all been reading about this, it’s actually quite an interesting return of the desperate back to Ghana.
Kwami Williams: The first time I came back to Ghana, I experienced culture shock. I was traveling, I was the only Black person and the only Ghanaian person as part of a group of 30 Americans. To the Americans, I was Ghanaian. To the Ghanaians, I was American. I was like, “Well, I clearly don’t belong in either world at this point.” It took some time for me to just embrace the reality that I had a foot in both worlds. And rather than complain about it, I should start thinking about how to leverage that in making connections between both worlds.
During the class trip, the second time I came back, during that class trip that changed my path from aerospace to agriculture, I really got to see how being purposeful about using a foot in both worlds could actually give me a new identity, and move me away from just feeling awkward, and weird and frustrated that I didn’t quite fit in in either world.
Darius Teter: Given Kwami’s background, perhaps it’s not surprising that he was drawn to a plant that is both Ghanaian and global. MoringaConnect’s products all originate from the moringa tree, which grows across Ghana, India, South Asia and Central America. Moringas are inconspicuous. They have oval leaves that make the whole tree look just like an overgrown fern. And, it’s earned the nickname “The Drumstick Tree” for the thin seed pods that hang from its branches, up to 18 inches long. The tree has other names too, like “Tree of Life” or the “Miracle Plant.” But as you might expect from an MIT trained engineer, Kwami was initially skeptical about claims of miracles.
Kwami Williams: When I first learned about moringa, farmers told me, “Hey Kwami, there’s this tree called moringa, it’s this miracle tree.” I was like, “Hold up, hold up. Let’s slow it back, I don’t know about miracle tree.”
They began to tell me all about it. They shared how the leaves of the tree contain more iron than spinach, more calcium and protein than milk and yogurt. I’m just like, “Whoa, this is extremely nutrient dense.” It didn’t stop there. They went on to share how it’s not only more nutritious than kale, but also the seeds of the tree contain this incredibly moisturizing oil that outperforms argan, coconut and shea. By the end of the moringa education, if you will, I had caught moringa fever.
Darius Teter: Kwami and his co-founder, fellow MIT alumni Emily Cunningham, worked hard to develop their business and grow in a way that would bring value to the Ghanaians and their supply chain.
Kwami Williams: Our value chain starts from the soils of Ghana and goes all the way to the shelves of Whole Foods in the U.S.
Here in Ghana, we first start by helping small, older farmers in rural communities plant moringa trees. Typically, they have one to five trees in their home and we help them expand to about 500 trees in an acre. Secondly, we form rural groups with these farmers, so they have positive peers around them who are also engaged in the same cultivation activity. We’re able to train and provide agronomy best practices. We’re also able to provide financial literacy training, so that as they earn more, they understand how to save it, how to invest it to improve their livelihoods. The next element is actually sourcing, purchasing their raw materials, sew moringa seeds and moringa leaves, and bringing that to our facility here in Accra, Ghana to process and to finish products.
We fundamentally believe that so much of agriculture has been done wrong from the continent, where we export the raw material without any value addition on the ground. We’re intentional about taking the seeds and transforming that into oil, taking the leaves and transforming that into leaf powder.
Darius Teter: Now, this is the part of the story where tragedy is about to strike. To help us make sense of Kwami’s decisions during that time of crisis, we’re going to hear from someone who is an expert on the psychology of leadership.
Brian Lowery: I’m Brian Lowery, I’m a professor at the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University. I am focused on the teaching of leadership, so I manage many of the experiential leadership education courses.
Darius Teter: Brian is a professor of organizational behavior and a social psychologist by training. He will push us to think deeply about what it means to lead. But, we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
By the end of 2018, MoringaConnect had been around for almost five years. They’d established a network of 5,000 farmers and were preparing for their biggest year ever. But then, disaster struck. Or rather, multiple disasters.
Kwami Williams: I entered the year of 2019 really excited saying, “This is our year to scale up and hit $1 million revenues, we’re close.” I had a multi-million MOU in contract. There was just so much excitement and enthusiasm. From the very first day of the year, the challenges began.
On January 1st, 2019 a wildfire that had already burned about 1000 acres of just woods, jumped over our fire protection belt and burned up 15,000 plus moringa trees. There were, unfortunately, 25 miles per hour wind gusts that helped it do that. So day one I’m like, “This is not the plan.” Fast forward four months, in April, a fire accidentally starts in one of our dehydrators, and unfortunately expands and burns down our factory.
Kwami Williams: Fast forward to September, one of our colleagues actually suffers a health complication and passes away. In October, our farm is nested at the intersection of two rivers and we’re about 100 feet about the water level. The government’s dam opened up and actually lets the water rise in over 100 feet in a matter of hours, and flooding parts of our farm. And then December, on Boxing Day, December 26, while we’re all just relaxing and saying, “Ah, the year is over, we can look ahead for something new,” someone burglarizes our office and steals laptops and a bunch of other things from it. So that was 2019.
Darius Teter: To remind him of what he’s been through, Kwami has a unique keepsake from that year, a symbol of the adversity that they’ve faced.
Kwami Williams: In the aftermath of our fires I asked our team, “Hey, I know we’re demolishing what’s left, but I want you to gather some ashes from this burned factory.”
Darius Teter: Fire, floods, robbery. What was once a bustling factory now sat in a jar on his desk. Over 12 months, just about everything went wrong for Kwami. That kind of adversity can spell the end of any business and the trouble wasn’t over yet.
Kwami Williams: We’re thinking that 2020 was going to be this fresh start. Once again, filled with so much hope and excitement about a new year. And then, COVID hits and COVID pauses about 90% of how we historically have made money, starting in March 2020.
And then fast forward to July 2020, I actually get hit and experience a number of personal challenges. I got sick with COVID. To be a bit more vulnerable, my wife and I actually ended up having a miscarriage, all in the same month. I actually learned about both those things in the same week.
Fast forward a few more months, so just in September 2020, we ended up learning that three of our staff were actually attacked by armed robbers in a rural part of Ghana where we work. They were targeting some other people but unfortunately, our vehicle passed through during that.
It’s just been a book out of Job, where we’ve had back to back crises and challenges. We’ve had to learn the hard way what it means to have grit.
Darius Teter: Over those two years, MoringaConnect was faced with every catastrophe imaginable. And each of these crises had obvious operational and financial consequences, but they also posed threats to the organization’s foundational values. And to Kwami, on a personal and emotional level.
Professor Brian Lowery is interested in what happens to a company and its management in crisis.
Brian Lowery: I think what defines crisis is a breakdown of structure. A breakdown of, “I know how the world works,” and right now, in this moment, you don’t know how the world works. It’s a taking away of certainty.
Darius Teter: When certainty is taken away, the companies that succeed are the ones who can operate in ambiguity. Professor Lowery says one trait that becomes highly valuable in unpredictable times is flexibility.
Brian Lowery: The world is a dynamic place. The idea that any one thing is going to provide what you need across the range of situations you’re likely to encounter seems like a fanciful idea to me. The best practices are ones that are likely to give you the flexibility to engage in the situation, based on the demands that you face.
Darius Teter: This is an area where Kwami benefits from his complex cultural background. Having a foot in both worlds gives him multiple perspectives, allowing him to be more adaptable and resilient.
Brian Lowery: Understanding the complexity of the identities that you manage, that exist within you and being able to draw upon them, I think that provides incredible strength.
As a leader, I think being able to take multiple perspectives should be valuable. People have an idea of, “Here’s what it means to be a good leader,” and then they try to go about creating whatever that profile is. What I would say is there is no profile of a leader that works in all situations, in all places. So to some extent, what you’re looking for is flexibility. What range of behaviors is available to you, how many perspectives can you see and what tools do you have at your disposal? The greater that tool set, the more likely you are to be successful, or the greater your chance of success.
Darius Teter: Leaders are often portrayed as stoic, decisive, fearless. But in the midst of catastrophe, when nothing is certain, that kind of leadership may not be what’s required.
In fact, an important facet of Kwami’s leadership during crisis was admitting to his team that he didn’t know which way to go.
Kwami Williams: One of the things that’s been amazing is to acknowledge that life is hard. And then two, I just acknowledge the fact that I have no idea how to bounce back from this. I just committed to vulnerability from the get-go. And I committed to communicating as much as possible, from the get-go. No longer was there this, “Kwami has to be the Superman, or my co-founder, Emily, has to be the Superwoman.” It was, “Hey, all of us are in this together.”
Darius Teter: In fact, vulnerability and openness are crucial to good leadership, and not just during times of crisis. We use the term in our leadership courses at Seed, post heroic leadership. If you always present yourself as the person who has to have all the answers, people stop providing ideas for answers.
I wonder if there’s something linking vulnerability to a post heroic leader model, and it’s linked to trust, where you’re letting the team know that you don’t have all the answers and you need a team approach to finding creative solutions.
Brian Lowery: I would go back a step further. I don’t even know why anybody would expect the leader to even have most of the answers. I think if you’re in that situation, that seems crazy to me, I don’t understand. I’ll explain why it seems crazy to me.
There’s no way any one person can have expertise in the number of areas that even a mildly complicated organization needs to engage with, there’s just no way. You can’t be the most financial expert, the most expert on the technical aspects of the organization, the most expert on the needs of the consumers, the most expert on supply chains, there’s just no way. The reasons that organizations exist are to bring together people with different areas of expertise that allows you to achieve some larger goal.
If you accept that as what an organization is, the leader is not the person with the answers. The leader is the person who brings people together to help figure out what the best answers are around a range of issues.
So while your instinct may be to take on more of the burden, that’s precisely when you need your team.
Kwami Williams: If I could give one piece of advice to an early stage entrepreneur, I would tell them to build an amazing team of people who they could go to war with, because the hard days, the bad days, the battles will come.
Darius Teter: This openness and honesty isn’t just for the health of your business. Often, the first thing to go when a company is in turmoil is the founder’s own wellbeing. Two years of crisis brought home to Kwami the importance of his own emotional and physical condition. After all, a leader’s ability to look after their company and their team depends in part on their ability to look after themselves.
That is an incredible list of setbacks. I don’t know many businesses or business leaders that would be able to bounce back from that. How did all these crises in 2019 affect you personally?
Kwami Williams: I learned, unfortunately the hard way, that I was really bad at self care. I had under valued the importance of investing in my own mental health. By the time of the second fire, I realized that I was getting headaches constantly. I have eczema, a type of eczema that flares up even more when I’m stressed, so that went through the roof. I got to a point where, basically, my loved ones, my amazing wife was just like, “Hey, you can’t keep this up. This is not sustainable.”
That’s when I began to hyper focus on habits. I took the time to start investing in my physical health, guarded time with my wife, guarded time with loved ones. I think the reality is that I had to acknowledge the pain, I had to go through seasons of crying, of being angry and being frustrated. And then I had to let that acknowledgement drive me to a place where I was being intentional about caring for my mind, for my body, for my soul and being present with my loved ones.
We think about when we invest money and the power of compounded interest, and I think there’s a similar analogy or parallel with the compounding gaze that comes from small, consistent steps. We lost over $1 million worth of assets, lost revenue and product inventory. To bounce back from that we had to say, “All right, let’s rework the business.”
At MoringaConnect, we value passion, integrity, excellence, and in light of the crises that we’ve gone through, we added a fourth value of being reliable, of being consistent.
Darius Teter: But, it wasn’t enough just to be consistent. In the face of uncertainty, Kwami also had to be intentional. It’s like when the lights go out, you don’t just start running. You put on the brakes, you place one foot in front of the other and you reach your arms out, feeling for the wall.
Kwami Williams: So much of how we’ve been able to be resilient in 2019, not to even get to 2020, has been just a conscious choice by our entire team to take intentional steps, intentional small steps, one day at a time. Let’s pause for a second and let’s ask ourselves the five Whys: Why is this happening? What can be learned from it? Let’s also pause and ask ourselves what can we start, what can we stop and what should continue. Once those ideas materialized we just said, “What is the smallest version of that, that we can commit to and be consistent with?”
That’s been powerful for our entire team. It’s been freeing for us. It’s helped us make intentional steps that have opened up incredible opportunities of growth for the business. And it’s also given us some amount of peace as we’ve had to make really, really hard decisions, painful decisions, as part of our resilience and recovery.
Darius Teter: If you look back at this absolutely amazing, I’m saying amazing in the Chinese curse way, your year of great trials and tribulations, what’s been the defining moment for you?
Kwami Williams: When I look back at 2019 and 2020s trials and crises, there isn’t a defining moment. I actually think we get too caught up in moments rather than in everyday choices.
For me, it’s every single day that I wake up out of bed and just choose to try again. It’s every day that our farmers say, “We’re going to the farm and we’re going to take care of our trees.” It’s every time our colleagues are encouraging me that we can do this, that all isn’t lost. For me, I think there’s no singular event, but more just a culmination and a series of just small choices and small actions, where all of us are saying, “We’ve fallen down seven times, we’ll get back up an eighth time.”
Darius Teter: This narrowing of focus is key to making it through tough times. When the path becomes uneven, you don’t have the luxury of the big picture, you have to concentrate on what’s directly in front of you.
Brian Lowery: For me, something like grit is a little bit in that category where it’s what do you value and how do you know if you’re living by your values. That requires, I think, constant refinement, a paying attention to what you’re doing. And then, stepping back and assessing, “Is that really what I mean by courage?”
Darius Teter: For me, I think the key distinction is grit doesn’t mean you never change course. It’s not like fear of quitting. It’s that you have to be willing to reexamine. If you put one foot in front of the other and forever head in the wrong direction, it doesn’t matter how much grit you’re displaying, you’re never getting anywhere.
Brian Lowery: I think that’s a great distinction. This is I think what people have to do, you have to constantly clarify and evolve your understanding of what these things are.
Darius Teter: In an uncertain time, Kwami needed something solid that he could rely on and he found it in his faith.
Kwami Williams: The first thing I actually said to our team is a passage from the Bible that says, “I know that all things work together for good for those who love God.” I put the emphasis on I know because sometimes, we can wish for things to go well but there’s a certain certainty about that verse, a certain confidence. I love this version of faith. Faith is just trust and action. I trust the chair so I act, I sit on it. So I trusted the truth of that.
Darius Teter: That’s really remarkable. There’s this story that, if you ask three bricklayers what they do and if the first says he’s laying bricks, he just has a job. If he says he’s building a church, then he has a career. And if he says he’s building the house of God, then he’s really found his calling.
Kwami Williams: As we think about this question of faith, for me it is absolutely essential to who I am. I think that our crises actually intensified and amplified my commitment to making it a part of my every day and a part of not just who I am personally, but also how I lead our team.
I realized, when I looked at the jar of ashes and I looked at the videos of our factory burning, that it was so crucial for me, and I think really any entrepreneur, to figure out who they are separate from what they do. When your entire identity is wrapped up in something that just disappears, when that thing goes, which happened for us, you get to a point where you have no idea who you are. You get overwhelmed by just incredible, weighty, painful thoughts and emotions. For me, experiencing these crises became an opportunity to say, “Who am I, beyond the co-founder and CEO of MoringaConnect?”
Darius Teter: Though the crises that Kwami faced threatened the very life of his business, they also gave him cause for self reflection. Why was he doing all of this in the first place? This kind of introspection is something that Brian Lowery says is important for all leaders.
Brian Lowery: Why would anybody want to be a leader? Why should any want … What are people signing up for when they sign up to be a leader? Are you signing up … There’s no right or wrong answer. Is it that you want the adulation, you want to make a lot of money, you want to change the world in some way? But, I just think it’s worth really honestly reflecting on what are you doing and why. What do you hope to achieve, and living your life in a way that’s consistent with what you actually are trying to achieve, and being as honest as you can about that. And, looking at yourself. What have you done? What did you do? What was the consequence of that? Based on the consequences, would you do it again or not? You can learn something about yourself that way.
Darius Teter: Through reflection and a bit of reading, Kwami was able to solidify MoringaConnect’s purpose.
Kwami Williams: I was really encouraged by The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz in this season of crisis management. He talks a lot about how, when you have a crisis, really building a healthy culture really matters. Being, in his words, “a good company” is not just nice to have but essential.
We literally just went down to the fabric of saying, “This is who we are. Our mission is to improve lives through moringa, these are the values that we have and how can we take these intentional steps together.”
Darius Teter: Purpose can give you a north star, but there is a catch. It can’t just be an idea. To the people it affects, it has to be real. Your sense of purpose has to be their sense of purpose.
Do organizations that have that type of purpose beyond profit maximization, do they have some advantage or any advantage in a crisis? Does organizational purpose matter?
Brian Lowery: No. What matters is how people in the organization experience the purpose. There’s no, “This organization has purpose.” No. Do people experience it that way and in what context do they?
So in a particular situation, if people are engaged with and feel connected to that purpose does that matter, is that helpful? Of course. But, is it just because someone claims it’s a purpose driven organization, does that necessarily make it better suited to get through a crisis? No.
Darius Teter: So are the values real and are you living them.
Brian Lowery: Yeah. And it’s not just, are you living them, but are they real for the people that matter in the situation.
Darius Teter: Purpose can galvanize a community around you during a crisis. And for Kwami, this was the test. MoringaConnect had been built to help its farmers and its employees, while also generating a profit. So when the time came that MoringaConnect needed help, would that community and their financial backers be there to lend a hand?
Kwami Williams: I think we’ve been really fortunate to have a community of investors who largely invested from the onset because of our mission. Because they agreed that it is possible to take this underutilized tree moringa and use it to improve lives across Ghana. So a large number of them, in response to the crisis have said, “How can I help?” So it was putting new money, it was changing existing loan terms, it was helping talk to other investors who might be on the fence and really help them double down on their investments. We had over 90% of our investors rolled over, extended their loan terms for us at the end of 2019.
A really powerful example is that we decided and committed to run give back campaigns. This is where we’ll say, “Hey customer base, hello community, every purchase you make, we’ll give 20% to a cause that we believe needs it.” In COVID, it was to health workers and providing PPE for them, it was to serve charities here in Ghana. By the turn of the summer, it was also to support racial justice organizations. We just said, “We just want to do this because we believe these things are important.” The amazing thing is that revenue and purchases shot up triple digits for each of those weeks where we ran these give back campaigns.
It was this big surprise where we’re just saying, “We’re not doing this in any way to make money, we just believe that these organizations should receive support.” The pleasant surprise was that, as we committed to doing good, more and more people committed to supporting our brand and our causes.
Darius Teter: What’s amazing about your story is, even as you’re facing a 90% reduction in revenue, you’re making a proactive decision to take some percentage of whatever revenue you can recover and plow it into giving back to the community. And not just the Ghanaian community, but the global community. I think that’s a daring and remarkable move. I understand when Nike does that, or the NFL, or a Fortune 500 brand tries to jump on the Black Lives Matter bandwagon and get a bit of washing with it. You don’t actually hear that from struggling brands that are just getting started, so kudos to you for doing that.
Would you say that, within your whole value chain, that your employees and your farmers were on the same page with respect to that?
Kwami Williams: I would say that our entire value chain, everyone was committed to saying, “How can we not just survive, but how can we also be helpful in this season?”
This moved me to tears. Colleagues of mine, who before we were even talking about any changes in salary, just said, “Hey, I can go the next two months without pay.” People were volunteering ways to not just support the business, but support the larger mission. I think that was really special for me because it helped me realize that this is the fruit of being purposeful from the beginning, as a company. And that people were committed to our mission of improving lives, irrespective of the personal sacrifice that it was going to cost.
Darius Teter: We’ve talked about flexibility, vulnerability and purpose, as well as the importance of moving intentionally. But, what does it all add up to? Well, if MoringaConnect is any indication, you end up with a more resilient business, one that’s prepared to weather the bad times but also to take advantage of the good ones.
Kwami Williams: As soon as we applied this framework of start, stop, continue to 2020, a few really big things popped out.
One, we knew we needed to talk to investors to change their investment terms to buy us more time. Two, we knew that we needed to find and unlock new revenue channels. My co-founder, Emily Cunningham, started to explore other channels that we had historically just never doubled down on. So specifically we said, “Let’s hyper focus on our True Moringa brand online in the U.S. Let’s start investing in digital advertising on Amazon and on our Shopify website. And then as well, let’s start pitching our brand to subscription boxes who typically buy a bunch of products from smaller brands and curate a box that goes out to a customer.”
These intentional steps began to work, this compounding benefit of these small, consistent steps. We closed our first subscription box order, and then we closed another one. Yeah, Emily leads that charge to the point that, thanks to subscription boxes, thanks to online revenue growth, we’re actually growing triple digits in 2020. We’ve more than doubled 2019s revenue and more, in light of these steps.
Darius Teter: Kwami Williams had two years right out of the Book of Job, to use his own words. And yet, he outlasted companies that were bigger, older and richer than MoringaConnect. He managed to do so by leading with intention and leaning on his team, his faith in the values that he had established at the company. He took small, consistent steps instead of big swings.
Since we last spoke, MoringaConnect’s flagship brand True Moringa has taken off. They’ve increased revenue by almost 150% and diversified their revenue channels. You can find their products on the shelf across New England in Whole Foods, nationwide in Pharmaca, and sold online through their Shopify website, Amazon and Costco. True Moringa is poised to raise their first equity round by the end of the year. And most importantly to Kwami, they’ve planted over two million trees and are serving over 5,000 women and family farmers across Ghana, three quarters of whom are among the poorest 25% of the country.
For Professor Brian Lowery, the usual metrics of success matter but personal fulfillment is also about how a leader chooses to live their life.
Brian Lowery: Sure, there are targets you need. “I want to have $30 million in revenue,” or whatever. But the reality is, in my mind, almost all those things end up being small compared to what is possible. Just thinking about what are you trying to achieve, what do you value and making decisions that are, as best you can, in service of those things. And then almost certainly, my assumption is you’ll end up someplace you’re happy about.
Darius Teter: The future may not be knowable to Kwami, but he has chosen how to live his life with great purpose, and to trust where that will take him and his company. Remember his jar of ashes? There’s a reason that he still keeps it on his desk.
Kwami Williams: I made that request to our team because I knew that we could either let this crisis define us and paralyze us. Or, every day when I wake up I can look at that jar and say I believe that one, there’s a loving God out there who loves what we’re doing, loves seeing people improve their livelihoods, and is going to work for us and for our good. And two, I believe that there’s a community of people out there who believe that we can rise from the ashes. This jar is just going to be this physical symbol of those two truths for me. No matter what I feel overwhelmed by, I need to remind myself that new life can rise out of the ashes.
Darius Teter: This has been Grit & Growth with Stanford Graduate School of Business and I’m your host, Darius Teter. If you liked this episode, leave us a review on your podcast app. It really helps us to share the stories of these incredible entrepreneurs with as many people as possible.
If you would like to hear more from Professor Lowery, check out his new podcast Know What You See, where Brian speaks with people from a wide range of backgrounds, from activists to business leaders, architects to street artists, about their own experiences with race and power.
To learn how Stanford Graduate School of Business is partnering with entrepreneurs throughout Africa and South Asia, head over to the Stanford Seed website at seed.stanford.edu/podcast.
Grit & Growth is a podcast by Stanford Seed. Laurie Fuller researched and developed content for this episode, with additional research by Jeff Prickett. Kendra Gladych is our production coordinator and our executive producer is Tiffany Steeves. With writing and production from Isobel Pollard and Andrew Ganem, and sound design and mixing by Alex Bennett at Lower Street Media.
Thanks for joining us. We’ll see you next time.
For media inquiries, visit the Newsroom.