Rare is the medical research professional who would give up an established 23-year career to start a healthcare clinic in Africa. Fewer still are those who would fund it out of their own pocket, eating through their savings and foregoing retirement benefits. Meet Margaret Kilibwa, clinical nutritionist and social entrepreneur.
“I wasn’t prepared when I made the leap, but I suppose if I knew then exactly what it would take, I might not have jumped into it. Then again, when I’m at the clinic, many women come to tell me ‘you saved my life’ but even if it was one woman it would be enough for the amount of investment I’ve made.”
Kilibwa was born in Sabatia not far from Kisumu, on the banks of Lake Victoria in Western Kenya. Influenced by her American classmates at boarding school, the young graduate crossed the Atlantic to study chemistry at the University of Cincinnati, where she had won a scholarship. From Ohio, she was accepted to the prestigious Cornell University where she did a Masters, followed by a PhD in clinical nutrition. Although she was interested in going to medical school, Kilibwa decided to gain work experience instead, “not in the diet area but rather to understand in more practical terms how nutrition can be used to prevent disease,” she recalls. (more…)
Trusha Patel has a passion for spice and finding just that right flavor as she cooks has always offered her sanctuary from the stressful life of corporate law. And now she has made it her mission to bring those high quality ingredients from the farms of India and Europe to your table, helping you transform all kinds of dishes in ways you could never have imagined. “A simple thing like adding a little ginger and cinnamon to smoothies or even black pepper to orange juice can turn good into exceptional.”
Born in Kenya to Indian parents, Patel moved to the UK as a child. Fulfilling her childhood dream, she studied law at the University of Manchester and, after training and qualifying with Linklaters, she moved to Credit Suisse First Boston as an Associate specialized in banking transactions. After one year, she was recruited to Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (CIBC) in London where she spent the next 8 years as a front office derivatives lawyer.
“It was a trading floor position. Basically I sat among the traders and marketing guys, working with them on the transactions. I got a lot of exposure as to how things are really done. The trend at that time was very much on credit derivatives and everything that basically triggered the economic crisis. That’s what was driving the volumes, driving the revenue for the bank, all these high-end, multi-million-dollar transactions.”
It was a lucrative career, but it all started to come apart in 2008 with the lack of liquidity in the market. “It was all about cheap credit, cheap loans, and the bigger corporations leveraging off that to make money. I had wanted to be a lawyer since I was ten. I was pretty senior and successful, and at the time it was everything I had dreamed of,” she recalls.
Once the crisis took hold, CIBC’s focus was to mitigate its risk. It was not going to be easy as – of all Canadian banks – it had the greatest exposure to these types of transactions. Patel’s job centered around managing the losses and reducing inventory, essentially deconstructing all that had come before.
Two years earlier, after a trip to Canada, Patel and her husband had applied for permanent residency under the Canadian Federal Skilled Workers Program. “We were looking for a lifestyle change and wanted to open some options for our future. Since I was working for a Canadian bank, it seemed like a good idea.”
So it was providential timing that the residency applications were approved around the same time CIBC started cutting jobs and repatriating staff.
At the end of 2009, the couple relocated to Canmore, about 1 hour outside of Calgary, Alberta. Unable to practice law without retraining, she carried on working for CIBC but on a consultancy basis. Her husband was less fortunate and found it very difficult to find work. Reluctantly, he returned to the UK to work for a British bank. “We were having this long distance marriage, which was not in the plans, but we had to adjust to the situation. He was doing months there and a few weeks off in Canada. It was a very difficult time.”
Patel speaks openly about how she wanted to make the transition from the banking sector. “I felt pretty toxic about what was going on and really wanted to break free from it. I was on the lookout for something else.” Cooking had always been her passion, an escape. “I would lose myself in it without thinking too much, it would take me away from my long, long days in the office.” She had a special affinity for Northern Indian cooking as it recalled days spent in her mother’s kitchen.
Initially she thought she could open a modern Indian restaurant and catering business and conducted some marketing research but quickly it became apparent that “Canmore was not ready for that. There were people who didn’t even know what a samosa was!” But even aside from that small issue, Patel found she was having to adapt the ingredients of her favorite dishes to what was available locally. The quality of spices was particularly disappointing, “The dishes I made in the UK always needed additional seasoning. Even switching to more organic sources was not doing it for me, they just weren’t delivering the same flavor profile.”
Taking things into her own hands, she begin experimenting with her own blends and, encouraged by her husband, decided to sell them at a local market stall with tasting notes and advice on spice pairings. When they were quickly snapped up, Patel knew she was on to something. She began researching different spices and the buyers from whom they could be sourced. She was particularly interested in understanding the relationship with the farmers and how the spices were harvested and processed.
It took a further eight months to get all her suppliers on board, but the real challenge was establishing the business and dealing with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). “It was a completely new industry and new country for me. All the labelling rules, the bureaucracy involved in setting up the business, getting my organic certification, understanding what could be said and not said according to the CFIA, the little nuances or things that may be misinterpreted by the consumer… it all took me more time than finding the people I wanted to work with,” Patels explains.
There were other hurdles too. She learned a hard lesson by spending a lot of marketing dollars early on at a trade show. While interest at the show was high, the sales conversion was not great and the expected orders did not materialize for months. “After that, I just got on the phone and started cold calling. It was difficult. I’m not a salesperson. I’m pretty reserved. I took the rejection so personally. My husband was my savior because he coached me on how to respond to people and we even did some mind-mapping to help with my response to people’s feedback.”
But after a slow start, the Spice Sanctuary emerged undeterred. The production line was launched, the website was live with an online store, and bloggers started to mention her range. By the end of 2013 Patel was listed with 50 outlets and had built up a relationship with wholesalers. “Purveyors of Fine Quality Spices and Seasonings”, the Spice Sanctuary imports an exclusive range of premium grade organic spices, blends and rubs as well as Pukka-branded teas.
The best news came when her husband landed a job in Calgary and the couple was “finally able to have a normal life”. They celebrated by traveling to India to meet her suppliers and the farmers. “I came back recharged and in full-speed-ahead mode.”
“We got a gelato company on board, a popcorn manufacturer, executive chefs, and even a brewery uses our spices. Sales have doubled. Right now we are listed with 75 stores but my target is 100 by the end of this year. Being featured on The Marilyn Denis Show was especially fun.”
Does she ever miss law? The 40-year-old spice guru’s response is swift and unequivocal “No! It’s been tough to wait two-and-a-half years to see success and get buzz around the products, but it’s finally coming and I know I am on the right track. I have full job satisfaction in what I do right now.”
- Always give things in life your best shot. As long as you know you have done your best, that’s what matters.
- Make sure you have a support network (family or friends), someone who can give you perspective. Someone who knows you and gets you back on the right track.
- Travel and see the world. It will enrich you in more ways than you might think possible
- Life is too short so don’t be afraid to laugh, cry, believe and feel the beauty around you as much as possible!