A DEEP DIVE INTO SOCIAL JUSTICE AND COVID-19 FROM THE PERSPECTIVE OF IMMIGRANT ENTREPENEUR NICOLÁS ESTRELLA, CO-FOUNDER OF WAKU
By Elisabeth Morgan
BOSTON– You may have heard of local beverage startup Waku, a herbal tea company that’s known for its ingredients that support a healthy gut, but maybe you haven’t heard of their unique story or how they’ve been navigating the hardships that 2020 has sprung on small businesses.
Co-founder of Waku, Nicolás Estrella, came to America from Ecuador over three years ago to follow his entrepreneurial dream. While in Ecuador Estrella and Juan Giraldo, Waku’s CEO, spent time in the Andes Mountains with a community of people that welcomed them, taught them all about tonics, and shared with them their ancestral recipe which is what Waku’s products are based on now.
Though a very exciting and welcoming experience for Estrella and Giraldo, they found that they were simultaneously troubled by bearing witness to how difficult being a farmer in Ecuador is, especially in the Andean region. Ecuadorian farmers often don’t have access to big markets making it easy for middlemen to take advantage of their situation and buy their produce for much less while selling it for much more.
For that reason Waku buys their ingredients straight from small farmers in Ecuador, cutting out the need for a middleman, and buying their produce at fair-trade prices. For Waku, community and togetherness always comes first which is why supporting small farmers in Ecuador is so important to them, and why they needed a city that exemplified these values to start their business.
Estrella described his experience of coming to America as a good one. He said, “For me, I felt really welcomed to this country to be honest. We came basically by pursuing the American dream as entrepreneurs, so coming from Ecuador we had the perspective of the United States being a welcoming country for different types of cultures and backgrounds and really welcoming for businesses in general. We found that Boston really exemplified all of these, we felt really welcomed in this area.”
Boston, known for being a progressive liberal New England city, often sees a good portion of the social justice movements happening across the country. Estrella said that within his first few months in America it was easy to start gathering all of the social justice movements happening, though it has been difficult to fully grasp the backgrounds of all of them, nonetheless he feels closely connected to the values of many of them.
“I do identify with a lot of what these fights are standing for,” he said. “All about equality. One that I’ve personally always been really behind is all the feminist movements, in Ecuador as well. How important it is to always bring female perspective to a conversation… we always wanted to have the perspective of a woman at the table with us, because we feel that we maybe have a completely bias view of the world.”
Overall, Estrella said, “We consistently try to bring to the table all different types of perspectives in every job that we have and every position that we have. We really value diversity in general.”
Of course, in this ever evolving year that is 2020, we have seen a huge social outcry for racial justice. The Black Lives Matter movement isn’t unique to 2020, and this fight has been ongoing for hundreds of years, but in the aftermath of the brutal murder of George Floyd millions of Americans took to the streets to fight for change.
Estrella reflected, “The BLM movement has been going for a long time now but when all the things kind of exploded lately because of George Floyd, we tried as much as we could to just amplify the voices of the people we know in the Black community.”
He said, “We kind of feel as such a small company maybe the megaphone we have isn’t that big yet, but with the small megaphone that we have right now we try to get behind and try to learn and understand their perspective.”
Estrella continued, “For the first week we tried to just listen and understand and learn how to better support the movement… With the little resources that we have, I felt like we weren’t able to do something super big or super significant other than educating ourselves and educating our friends and in every conversation we’re having to just try to understand more perspectives and understanding for what’s right. As a company we’ve done some posts and tried to communicate with our audience in a respectful way and a meaningful way to try to understand the movement better.”
The overarching mission that Waku is on, though they support many social missions, is that of supporting Ecuador’s economy in a meaningful and impactful way.
“The social mission that we have and the social mission that we are fighting for, it has more to do with the economic impact that we can make on the economy of Ecuador. We source directly from independent farmers in Ecuador that were living under the line of poverty, they did not have access to too many things, they were being taken advantage of by the middle man.”
Estrella explained how Waku helps independent farmers in Ecuador, “So what we’re doing right now is we’re working with 25 different families in Ecuador, we source all the ingredients from Waku directly from them. The mission that we have for the future of Waku is, as the brand keeps growing, the impact that we can make in Ecuador can become bigger and we can impact more families.”
Certainly nowadays one can’t discuss 2020 without mention of COVID-19, the global pandemic that has shaped a whole sense of normallcy right before our eyes. The impact that COVID-19 has had on small businesses across America has not gone without notice.
Before this pandemic started, Waku was attending hundreds of in-person events. In this way they relied on their field marketing team and meeting customers face to face to explain their story. Naturally, they relied on these events for a good portion of their sales.
Estrella said, “Every opportunity for us to look our customers in the eyes and tell the story of why we started Waku and why we are doing this and why it is important to have a healthy gut, we were doing that in person basically. Now of course because of the pandemic we can’t anymore, most of the events have been cancelled. Most of the plans that we had for this year had to change a lot.”
As a result, and because of limited resources and a small business budget, Waku had to let go of most of their field marketing team. Early on Waku also made the decision to have their employees work from home in an effort to protect one another and those around them. When the team does have to come together for a meeting, masks are mandatory, social distancing measures are in place, and regulations are followed.
An unprecedented challenge that the general population may not know about concerning COVID-19 and small business and one that has affected Waku greatly, Estrella said, “is that the big retail chains, which are our biggest customer basically, started to postpone the acceptance of new items in stores. We are a company backed by investors and investors are always looking for you to grow the company exponentially so without the ability to promote products in the stores and in events, it was hard to help people discover the brand.”
But Waku didn’t lose hope. Instead, they derived a new business model.
“It had to change in order for us to keep the company going, we had to change our business model. We started to focus way more on digital channels and e-commerce, [for instance] starting to operate on Amazon. But, of course this takes time. It is difficult to change from day to night,” Estrella said. “We are very optimistic with this new business model that we have, we actually now feel closer to our customers and closer to our community.”
Along with this new business model, Waku is trying out a free trial subscription model that is said to be working well. Estrella described the process as, “basically customers can subscribe to a monthly Waku case and the first 6 pack is for free. So when you subscribe you just have to pay 5 dollars for shipping and you get a 6 pack with all the 6 flavors that we have…We want to make it very easy for customers to try Waku if they’re interested.”
As of right now Waku is focused on building a strong community behind their brand, and in order to do that as well as persist through these challenging times, Estrella said it’s all about mindset.
“The mindset is the most important thing that you have as an entrepreneur. No matter how hard things are seeming and how hard the problem is that you’re facing, if you have the right mindset you will be able to overcome these challenges. I always try to listen to podcasts or follow inspiring people or read inspiring things to keep my mindset right,” Waku makes sure to share these inspiring quotes and messages with their community.
“These months that are coming next, we want to keep close contact with our customers. How else can we add some light to their days? And how else can we brighten their days? How else can we help them have a happy life? We know that maybe Waku isn’t going to change your life completely but a note from us, a funny note, a funny email, we think that those types of details can just make your day happier and add to having a happier community.”
One community that Waku has seen major support from is the Boston vegan community. Estrella shared that he remembers clear as day the first vegan event Waku attended in 2018, and how well the product was received.
He said, “Those events were the most successful for us, we did hundreds of events, but these ones were the most successful ones in terms of how well the customers were reacting to Waku. We were really grateful to feel so welcomed and see people gravitate so much towards Waku. After the first vegan fest, that was one of the reasons we now put on every bottle the small icon that says that Waku is vegan because we saw how well the vegan community reacted to Waku.”
The name Waku itself in Spanish means conjunto, which translated to English means “together.” Waku is literally founded on the idea of togetherness and the importance of community. With that said, the next time you’re looking to support a small business that aligns with your values, whose mission you respect, and whose identity reflects those of your shared community, think about giving Waku a try. Share your experience with your friends and family, your loved ones, your community. It just might be that small bit of light someones looking for this year.
Our team here at VeganZine is dedicated to holding our fellow vegan businesses, as well as ourselves, accountable for following through in action to support not just the Black Lives Matter movement, but all racial and social justice movements. We like to remind others that educating ourselves on racism and not experiencing it firsthand is a privilege, and that these actions should be considered the bare minimum.
VeganZine has created a list of Black owned vegan businesses in the New England area, and will continue this series of interviews on racial and social justice on our platform. Individually, the VeganZine team in their personal and professional lives has taken action in a variety of ways including attending protests, donating, signing petitions, and speaking out against racism on and off screen.
We encourage everyone to continue educating yourselves and others, speak out against injustice when you see it, join protests if you can (wear a mask!), donate, sign petitions, read books by Black authors, listen to podcasts by Black creators, support your local Black owned businesses, spread information, and constantly check to make sure your veganism is intersectional.
Additionally, the VeganZine team is actively seeking BIPOC voices from the New England community, please email email@example.com if you are interested in writing for us!