The Boston Globe has launched a weekly Q&A with Rhode Island innovators who are starting new businesses and nonprofits, conducting ground-breaking research, and reshaping the state’s economy. Send tips and suggestions to reporter Edward Fitzpatrick at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This week’s Ocean State Innovators conversation is with Saron Mechale, a recent Brown University graduate who has launched a startup that makes a cereal/granola product.
Question: Your company, goTeff, makes cereal and granola that includes teff. What is teff?
Answer: Teff is an ancient super grain -- 4,000 years old. It is our staple diet in Ethiopia. What rice is to Asian cuisine, teff is to Ethiopian cuisine. Ethiopian runners grew up on this grain. We decided to bring it to a typical American diet through this product -- a cereal or granola -- because we realize it has a lot of nutrients. Not only does a cup of teff offer 51 percent of the (recommended daily allowance of) protein, it offers 62 percent of the fiber and 82 percent of the iron. Our product has no added sugar and is oil-free and gluten-free. It can be used as a cereal, a topper for yogurt, or a nutritious crouton alternative. We started by targeting runners. We want to be able to give runners the nutrients they need, especially for endurance purposes -- long-lasting energy. Most of the products out there for runners are super high in sugar. They just offer sort of a high and a crash of energy. Our slogan will be: Go long, go strong, goTeff.
Q: How and when did this company get started?
A: I just graduated from Brown in May 2019. I studied social analysis and research, and business. I just turned 25 but I took time off from college, so I’m older than the typical recent graduate. I was working on goTeff when I was a student as part of a class project. I wanted to use the resources at Brown to help me understand how to launch a business and do market research. Brown has the fantastic Nelson Center of Entrepreneurship where I worked with executive director Danny Warshay and the rest of the amazing team there who supported me in starting goTeff. We officially launched sales in October 2019. We currently sell online on our website and at Plant City Providence.
Q: Ethiopia has had some legendary runners. Are you drawing on that heritage?
A: Abebe Bikila is the historical figure who ran barefoot in the marathon at the 1960 Rome Olympics and won -- the first time a Black African ever won an Olympic gold medal. Since then, Ethiopian athletes have just been dominating in long-distance races. Teff is the staple diet of these amazing runners. Haile Gebrselassie, who is like a legend, works with us. He is a big advocate of teff and wants to tell the Ethiopian story of teff. As an Ethiopian, I felt it was important to shine light on runners to help change the brand for the country. Ethiopia is not perceived in a positive light, as most African countries are not, in the Western perspective at least -- the Western media. To tell the story of victory and perseverance, of the success of these Ethiopian athletes, is a beautiful way to change that narrative.
Q: You have written about the representation of women and minorities in the start-up world. What have you observed?
A: For me, it’s very important to continue to meet more entrepreneurs, especially entrepreneurs of color and female entrepreneurs. The more I explore the industry, I realize that we are a rare case. When you walk into a room of investors or other entrepreneurs, I do mostly find myself to be the only female entrepreneur, and a lot of times I’m the only person of color who is an entrepreneur. So those two intersections definitely are something of interest for me -- to mentor other female entrepreneurs in the future. The more successful we are, the more it opens up opportunities and doors for female entrepreneurs of color.
Q: What is Rhode Island like for young entrepreneurs?
A: I think Rhode Island is a great place for young entrepreneurs to get started because it offers a small community of people. I’ve gotten to a point that if I’m reaching out to someone, it’s likely they might have heard of me through someone else. It’s much easier for me to be connected and get help and advice. I can wrap my hands around understanding where to get the resources I need, which is crucial as an entrepreneur because more often than not you get lost in this ocean of your own challenges, things you are working on. For instance, goTeff was part of the Rhode Island Business Plan Competition, and a two-time finalist. We were part of College Leadership Rhode Island, which offered a great network for me. I was part of the Social Enterprise Greenhouse. We also won a “Gold” award for the most recent MassChallenge Rhode Island cohort, in 2019.
Q: What could Rhode Island do better to help young entrepreneurs like yourself?
A: One thing they could do better at is getting a lot of this information in front of university students so they recognize the value of staying and working in Rhode Island. The other thing would be a collaboration between universities. For me creating a food company while I was at Brown, I had a whole culinary specialist university like Johnson & Wales right there, and then from a design and branding perspective, RISD, but I had do the work to reach out to people and sometimes you may find the right person or not. If there was a way to create a hub for these university students to connect, that would be a great resource.
Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at email@example.com