Abena Foli, founder of POKS Spices.

Entrepreneurship program emboldens spice startup founder

For Abena Foli, the farm-to-table lifestyle is a birthright. Each day she uses the knowledge she gained from growing up on her father’s farm in Ghana to enrich her career as a food scientist and regulatory affairs leader.

“Working in the food industry, I get to sit in marketing ideation sessions, and research and development meetings. Whenever we talk about innovation in ingredients or products, West Africa is never mentioned,” said Foli, who now lives in Texas. “There was a lack of West African-originated products on shelves. I wanted to leverage my food science background as well as my West African heritage to solve that problem.”

She decided to start small for maximum impact: “When people are new to cuisines,” she said, “they tend to try seasonings first.”

Foli founded POKS Spices in 2016 to bring flavors from West Africa into American home kitchens. In 2021, she became one of the 60,000 women to participate in the certificate program offered by the Bank of America Institute for Women’s Entrepreneurship at Cornell, which is managed by the Cornell Law School and powered by eCornell.

Funding from Bank of America makes it possible for the students to gain the skills and resources to build a successful venture – and earn a business certificate from the university – at no cost.

“I’m a food scientist. I’m not a business person. I knew that I lacked the requisite business and legal acumen for entrepreneurship,” Foli said. “I wanted to be equipped because I wanted the business to grow.”

She credits the program’s “Funding Your Venture” course with helping her understand how to locate and secure financial resources, including the $10,000 Merchant Maverick Opportunities Grant for underrepresented entrepreneurs which the company won in 2021.

Last May, Target announced POKS Spices as one of 30 new brands participating in its Forward Founders Program, an eight-week accelerator experience for early stage consumer packaged goods businesses and historically under-resourced founders. Each company receives a stipend.

These opportunities were essential for Foli’s business at a point when it was difficult for her to secure financial backing, an obstacle she says is common for Black women entrepreneurs.

“It’s hard to get funding,” Foli said. “The Bank of America Institute for Women’s Entrepreneurship at Cornell was very beneficial, given how much I learned. I wish I had done this in the beginning. I would have framed and started the business differently.”

Each of Foli’s spice blends builds on the West African “holy trinity” of ingredients – hot chili peppers, ginger and onions – to enhance chorizo-stuffed squash, shrimp toast, paletas and other recipes she shares on her company’s website and social media channels. Her first two products, Original Spicy “Daddy's Recipe” and Extra Spicy “Mama’s Recipe,” honored her parents and garnered fans at festivals, markets and pop-up shops in northeast Texas where she launched the business with her husband, Eugene.

“What we’re doing is difficult because we’re basically introducing flavors that are uncommon in America. It’s not like we’re riding on a wave of things that already exist,” said Foli. “For us, it’s more about building that category, building something that’s not there. That’s the most difficult thing to do.”

As the company expanded in its early years, so did Foli’s desire to learn and explore other professions. In 2020, she completed a project management certificate through eCornell.

“I had reached a point in my career where I wasn’t sure where I wanted to go next and if I wanted to pivot to another field. I looked up project management because I felt that’s something I could be good at,” Foli said. “The program was helpful, but I didn’t think I wanted to pursue a career in project management.”

Foli instead used tools from the program to manage competing deliverables for product formulation, label development and co-packer relationships. She found her new project management skills to be instrumental in planning and leveraging limited resources to meet her company’s goals.

When a friend introduced her to the women’s entrepreneurship program, she knew it was the logical next step. In the program, Foli learned how to create a stronger legal foundation for POKS Spices and converted the company from a general partnership to a limited liability company.

“It became a separate entity on its own. That was very important for us because it gave credibility to the business,” Foli said.

Pitching to potential partners is part of her new approach. Contacting Burlap & Barrel, a single origin spice supplier, led to a collaborative venture: a top-selling Jollof rice seasoning. The spice blend captures the dish’s deep West African roots.

“The program increased my confidence as a woman entrepreneur. It built confidence in me to put myself out there, put POKS Spices out there and know that we do have a viable product,” she said. “Whether you’re fundraising, trying to get into retail stores or trying to get into a program, it’s important to have that confidence to tell your story, which I didn’t have before.”

Torie Anderson is a writer for eCornell.

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Adam Allington