Former U.S. Army engineer officer Kimberly Jung found her business inspiration in the minefields of Afghanistan. While clearing roadside bombs, Jung decided there must be more she could do, beyond her military service duties, to help rebuild the devastated region.
“It felt like every time we found a bomb, a new one would take its place,” Jung recalls. “It was a never-ending cycle.”
During the course of her service, Jung and three fellow service members were introduced to an impressive farming community growing and harvesting saffron, which is the most valuable spice in the world. Known as “red gold” saffron is made from the delicate pistils of wild crocus flowers which are hand-picked and requires almost 175,000 flowers to create a single kilogram of saffron. It has been used for centuries to flavor food and for traditional medicinal purposes.
The farmers also explained how the war made it difficult to get their product to market. This was the “aha” moment for Jung: maybe she and her team could connect these farmers to the world. But how?
“[We realized] business is a sustainable way to lay a foundation for peace,” explains Jung.
Rather than expanding saffron and other crops, some Afghani farmers turn to cultivating poppies for opium, which funds the Taliban. Approximately 80% of the Afghan population relies on the rural agricultural economy.
“The international community, for over 16 years now, has put billions of dollars into Afghanistan,” explains co-founder Keith Alaniz. “But no one was really making the connection with the Afghan private sector and trying to do things to help rural Afghans by improving private enterprise.”
When when their deployment ended, she and her fellow colleagues packed their bags with saffron to sell in the United States. Within months, top restaurant chefs and gourmet food retailers were demanding considerably more than their inventory.
With their resources limited, Jung and team, Emily Miller and Keith Alaniz, looked to Bunker Labs for support in creating a sustainable business from their initial idea. It was there that Rumi Spice was officially founded in 2015. Bunker Labs helped to guide the burgeoning startup in creating a business plan and introduced them to contacts in packaging, importing, exporting, e-commerce sales, and even an accountant. At Bunker Labs they were also introduced to Family Farmed, a non-profit organization that runs the Good Food Accelerator for food start-ups.
Entrepreneurship is a popular career choice for military veterans: data from a U.S. Census Bureau survey found that veterans are 45% more likely to be self-employed than non-veterans. That self-starter mentality has proven successful: Nearly 1 in 10 small businesses are veteran-owned, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration. That’s approximately 2.4 million small businesses, generating over $1.1 billion of the nation’s total sales per year. These businesses employ 5 million people and generate an annual payroll of $195 billion.
“Veterans make some of the best entrepreneurs because they have very limited resources but they have a mission to accomplish,” says Jung. “They get it done, no matter what it takes.”
Some of the restaurants Rumi Spice supplies saffron to include Naha in Chicago, Daniel in New York and the French Laundry in California. Consumers can purchase saffron directly from Rumi Spice via their website and through Whole Foods and Local Foods stores in Chicago, as well as Dean & DeLuca locations in New York. Prices online start at $8.99 for half a gram.
Rumi Spice had about $500,000 in sales in 2016 and is expecting that to double in 2017 according to Jung.
Rumi Spice Enters the Shark Tank
In May of 2017 Rumi Spice debuted on the reality TV show Shark Tank. “Potentially, if it’s a good outcome, we can expect a lot more than that,” Jung said before the show. “An investment from one, or a couple, of the sharks would mean a new partner who is really going to scale us and grow us and introduce us to their networks.”
“Our goal is to really have people watch us and learn about saffron and start cooking with it so that saffron becomes the next acai berry or goji berry,” she said. “It’s good in sweet and savory dishes, and not enough people use it in the United States.” Jung says the opportunity to be on Shark Tank came as a pleasant surprise since the company had applied two years prior and didn’t make it..
As a result of their appearance on Shark Tank, Rumi Spice received an investment of $250,000 from entrepreneur Mark Cuban. Cuban will get 15% of the startup, Rumi Spice had initially only offered a 5% stake.
Upon making his offer, Cuban told the Rumi Spice team, “I think your mission is good. I think it’s going to be impactful beyond your product,”
“Striking a deal with Mark Cuban is a game-changer for the women in Afghanistan who work for us, the farmers in Afghanistan. Now we’re going to have the ability to scale and bring our brand to all the consumers in America.”