Sarah Chalos – Co-Founder of I heart keenwah

[quote style=”boxed”]”All these things are fleeting, and I never want to feel regret, that I wish I had enjoyed life more.”[/quote]

Sarah is a Chicago native. It’s the city where she was raised, graduated from high school, found her first job, was married and (relatively recently) had her two baby sons. It’s also where i heart keenwah was conceived and founded. Before finding her passion there, Sarah studied engineering at MIT in Boston, worked in R&D, manufacturing and supply chain management at Abbott Laboratories, earned her MBA at Chicago Booth and consulted for big corporate clients at Bain & Company (wow). Sarah is a true engine behind i heart keenwah and being a working mom, maintains a real commitment to the integrity of the product’s ingredients. She’s also a home brewer: quinoa beer on tap!

What are you working on right now?

i heart keenwah is an all natural food company. Our current line of products includes a ready-to-eat, gluten free quinoa based snack called quinoa clusters. They are a little bit sweet, a little bit salty and altogether tasty.

Where did the idea for I heart keenwah come from?

On a trip to Bolivia, we noticed that that Bolivians had all kinds of ready-to-eat quinoa options, while we had none in the U.S.

How do you make money?

We sell our quinoa snacks to food distributors, directly to stores, and on-line directly to consumers.

What does your typical day look like?

Every day is different, which is what I love about being an entrepreneur. It is typically a mixture of operations (ordering ingredients, prioritizing orders, scheduling transportation, etc), sales (visiting stores, sending samples to distributors, attending events and shows), strategy (structuring pricing, setting up promotions, designing marketing plans), and fighting fires (quinoa shortage?!). There are also days we spend hours in the kitchen experimenting with new quinoa concoctions. The fun part of being an entrepreneur is getting one’s hands dirty (or in our world, kovered with keenwah).

How do you bring ideas to life?

It’s part art, part science. The art involves brainstorming, throwing ideas back and forth with anyone who will listen, being both creative and critical. The science is the nuts and bolts: running the numbers and figuring how to actually execute an idea.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

The all natural food trend really excites me. There’s a lot of controversy over what this truly means, but to me, it means “real food:” looking at an ingredient list and recognizing what you see. When I look at the ingredients on a granola bar, a supposedly healthy product, and I see a long list of chemicals, it makes me nervous. These aren’t ingredients that our bodies weren’t made to process. But people are starting to pay attention to what they eat and food companies are responding with innovative new more simple, less processed products.

What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?

Consulting was a double-edged sword. I liked the concept of what we were doing: helping companies solve difficult problems, but the day to day was very challenging. The hours were long and the environment was stressful. I learned that I liked to have flexibility, control, and variability in what I do, which is why I heart keenwah is perfect for me. I feel I have truly found my passion.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

I would have invested more time in learning the science behind food formulation. Understanding how the grains and sugars behaved didn’t come naturally to me, as I did not have background in food, so a lot of our product development was trial and error. With a formal background in food, maybe we could have moved faster.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

The most important thing is to make sure that people are willing to buy your products for the price you are charging. We continually interact with the customer to ensure this is the case: we do product demos, send samples to reviewers, and attend events, so that we are always getting feedback directly from our consumer. This is particularly important when you are in the new product development phase, when it is easiest to make adjustments to your product.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

I spent many years working in the healthcare space. I had an idea that I worked on with some friends to develop an internal kidney dialysis machine: a set of very small tubules lined with kidney cells that would perform the “cleaning” work that healthy kidneys typically perform. It was a great concept that got interest from some healthcare professions, but we were overwhelmed by figuring out how to actually make it happen and the long development timeline. It taught me that you need expertise in the area in which you are starting a business: the entrepreneur will be the engine so he or she needs to have the passion and know how to drive the car.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

Since I’m a working mom, high quality child care is always on my mind. The current daycare system has three issues:
1) it is heavily over-subscribed,
2) centers aren’t open long enough hours to accommodate most work schedules, and
3) many places don’t focus on child development with the kind of discipline I would expect.

I think there is room in the market for a daycare network that can more flexibly meet the needs of working parents that have high expectations for their child’s education. In particular I am envisioning longer hours, smaller teacher/child ratios, better lesson plans, and assistance with back up options when your child is sick.
Business ideas come from figuring out where there is a pain point or an unmet consumer desire and figuring out how you can solve it.

If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be and how would you go about it?

I would like to increase access to basic healthcare. Even in the U.S., the quality and access to healthcare is not what I think it should be. I would focus on bringing low cost healthcare innovations to market that could expand access and quality of healthcare. And this wouldn’t just mean hospital medical care — promoting good nutrition and eating habits is as important to the healthcare equation as is medical technology. I feel good that in one way, our company’s focus on promoting all-natural healthy foods is helping to further this cause.

Tell us something about you that very few people know?

I have a weakness for eating spoonfuls of peanut butter, right out of the jar. I actually can’t believe I just told you that.

What are your three favorite online tools or resources and what do you love about them?

• Elance – this is a great way to find freelancer workers of all types: graphic designers, PR, etc
• – this website is an amazing resource for people starting a food business
• – we all need to stay current on what’s going on in the world, and is a great way for me to squeeze an insightful snapshot of events into my busy day

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

Michael Pollen’s “In Defense of Food”. This book makes you think about one of the things most critical to our everyday lives: what we eat.

Three people we should follow on Twitter and why?

I’ll be honest, I’m not a huge twitter person. I like to read good old fashioned websites and e-books. But for a laugh, @honesttoddler has some true words for parents. Very true.

When was the last time you laughed out loud? What caused it?

This morning when my son said “dirty toes!” I love how he is figuring out how to put words together.

Who is your hero?

My I heart keenwah co-founder, Ravi Jolly. Ravi is insightful, unbelievably motivated, and highly effective. He makes you want to be a better person. And his photographic aesthetic is incredible.

How do you balance being a mom and an entrepreneur?

I didn’t realize this until I started doing it, but being an entrepreneur is actually an excellent complement to being a parent. You have the ultimately flexibility and you don’t have to answer to anyone. But to make it work, I often feel like I am shorting either my children or the company. For example, I often need to leave my kids with someone else beyond the regular 8 to 5, and I struggle to get all my work done when they are sick or childcare falls through.

How do you appreciate life amidst the day to day grind?

This is something that is of the utmost importance to me. Multiple times every day I try to take a moment to appreciate what is going on around me: the way the sun hits the water, my child’s toothy smile, my mother’s phone call, my company’s success. All these things are fleeting, and I never want to feel regret, that I wish I had enjoyed life more.


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I heart keenwah on Twitter:  @iheartkeenwah
Sarah Chalos on  LinkedIn: