Starting a new business, Rushina Shah discovered resilience was important very quickly. In 2016, working as a former Procter & Gamble executive Rushina was at a crossroads. She had spent five years at the multinational, launching brands on behalf of her employer. “I started thinking, why am I doing this for a corporation when I could just do it for myself?” she says.
Inspiration struck one day when she saw her aunt cooking an unusual grain in her kitchen. “She was popping sorghum and it looked just like popcorn,” she recalls. “My aunt told me that it’s really good for you. I didn’t believe her so I checked. Turns out that sorghum is incredibly nutritionally dense.”
The snacking industry is highly competitive, with brands old and new vying to wow consumers with their latest innovations. The prize is significant: Brits spend £152m on crisps, popcorn and other nibbles each year.
Shah knew that standing out from rivals in this fast-paced category would be tough. Friends told her that her plans were foolhardy but she continued her research and realised her new product would be unique in the crowded marketplace.
“Everyone told me it was impossible and that I should just give up. They said that huge corporations with deep pockets had tried and failed. But I had nothing to lose. I kept going until I cracked it.”
“All the recent innovation has been on flavour,” she explains. “You’re not creating new consumers, you’re just switching them onto different flavours of existing products.” Sorghum, in contrast, is a brand new innovation. Moreover, research giant Mintel predicts that the growth in popcorn, the wonder snack of yesteryear, is set to stagnate in 2019.
Shah says: “Unlike popcorn, which is empty calories, sorghum is delicious and good for you. I knew it would be a great new entrant to the market.”
She hit her second hurdle when she tried to find a contract manufacturer. No one had perfected the popping process and most factories were unwilling to even try. Sorghum, which is a superfood just hitting shelves in the US, is still relatively unknown in the UK. Other brands, which has experimented with the grain, have quickly abandoned it.
“I kept getting knocked back but I was resilient,” she says of the 18 months she spent trying to solve the popping conundrum.
“Being a start-up founder can be quite lonely, so it’s time to get a bit of support.”
She went to factory after factory, hoping to find a partner to commercialise the process. Eventually, she struck gold: “Finally, I came up with a solution and found the perfect recipe. In 2017, I quit my job to focus on Not. Corn full-time.”
According to a study into entrepreneurial resilience by the Enterprise Research Centre, individuals who demonstrate self-sufficiency and belief in their own abilities are more likely to be successful in their endeavours. The research, which pulls together the limited research available on the theme, found that “resilience is a predictor for entrepreneurial success”.
Shah’s resilience has already paid dividends. The fledgeling business has gone from strength to strength over the past year, winning a host of awards across the food and drink, start-up, health, and innovation categories. A test batch of 1,000 packets sold out within days. Now listed in Ocado and Whole Foods, Shah has also had preliminary meetings with the likes of Tesco and Sainsbury.
However, Shah reveals that she still has tough days, and has to struggle to motivate herself. “My next challenge is to raise the funds to hire another person, so I’m not driving everything myself,” she says. “Being a start-up founder can be quite lonely, so it’s time to get a bit of support.”
Shah has exhibited self-belief and perseverance throughout her entrepreneurial journey, giving up a promising career in the corporate world to go it alone. She tells other would-be founders to trust their instincts too: “At P&G, I’d get given new products to launch but it was never my own brand. With Not.Corn, I get to own the whole process, from sourcing ingredients to getting the packets on shelves. It’s my baby and it feels amazing.”