Meet the founder of Spice, who sees Chai as a metaphor

In Bustle's Quick Questions , we asked female leaders for all the advice—from the best mentoring they've ever received to the questions they're still figuring out. Here, Diaspora Co. CEO and founder Sana Javeri Kadri talks to Bustle about finding her way in the food industry.

Before graduating from college, Sana Javeri Kadri worked in vineyards, olive groves, urban farms and bakeries. But despite being surrounded by food, her experience with everyday spices was bland.

“The tastes I grew up with were not only underrepresented but terrible,” Javeri Kadri, who was born in Mumbai, India, said of life in the United States. “I was drawn to turmeric. Before I started sourcing our pepper, I really thought pepper was a nasty spice."

By "our" she means the varieties now sold by her spice company, Diaspora Co. After discovering turmeric, Javeri Kadri moved back home in 2016 to connect with farmers who believed the flavor of the spice took precedence over its beauty, even when the latter was more profitable. In 2017, she founded Diaspora Co. to produce single-source turmeric while working other jobs to make ends meet.

“I was a 23-year-old punk with no money to my name trying to find farmers who also believed in this vision,” said the 28-year-old who lives in the Bay Area. "That meant finding some really eccentric farmers who were able to think beyond money in some situations — and at this point, they really matched my energy." Today, Diaspora Co. sells more than 30 different varieties of ethically sourced spices, as well as chai tea kits and various merchandise collaborations. Javeri Kadri and Diaspora cookbook editor Asha Loupy also recently announced a cookbook called "The Diaspora Cookbook," expected to be released in 2024.

Here, Javeri Kadri reflects on self-care, getting good advice, and her biggest business challenges.

How did you decide to cross over into a fragrance company?

For my thesis, I asked about the history of chai (as an installation) by turning an elevator into a chai stall. Tea was forcibly brought to the Indian subcontinent (pre-partition) because (the British) would say, "Oh, it would be great if they grew tea and bought it from us." South Asians didn't like the taste - Adding spices, milk and sugar to tea [to make milk tea] is an act of rebellion. This is a very beautiful metaphor to me. From that point on, the jump to owning a spice company was actually very short because I was already thinking about spices as a tool of power. South Asia has a lot of indigenous knowledge about spices that has been passed down for thousands of years.

Do you have a backup plan for this?

It wasn't until the fall of 2019 that I started working on Diaspora full-time. Cooking at a Mexican restaurant two days a week, plus tips, paid for rent and therapy. Freelance Photography provides all the money I put into this business. I don't have health insurance. That's how I put Diaspora together for the first few years.

It should be noted that I also have supportive wealthy parents in India. If I need to suck it up and live with them or let them lend me money, they say sure. I'm very aware of what an honor this is. But even in 2019, I had no backup plan, except that it would take me four years to learn how to scale the business and I would have to make money in other ways.

As a business owner, who do you turn to for advice?

My business coach is my closest advisor. He and I have weekly one-hour stand-up meetings. It's like therapy. I am also a member of a group of Bay Area Natural Food CEOs who I can turn to for advice. I also have many group chats with BIPOC women in the food space, where we ask questions like, “Did this person lie to you?” or “Do you trust this supplier?” It’s important to remember that these are relationships that need to be nurtured, we are more than just each other’s Rolodex. We also became friends with each other there. We'll share vendors and resources, but we'll also talk about our breakups and our love lives. We are also people other than CEOs.

How do you shut down your brain?

You have to know that shit will hit the fan and disconnect from it. My advisor calls it resilience. For example: Maybe two years ago, hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of pepper got lost between a co-packer and a warehouse. I finally found it, but for the past two days my heart was in my throat, thinking that tomorrow the whole business would collapse. Recently, the same thing happened. I was like, "It's going to show up. Or we're going to file an insurance claim, or we're going to close the business, whatever. One of those three things is going to happen. I'm going to the gym right now."

In this industry, you can only think about what you can control today. There’s no need to lose sleep over things that are out of your control. So I turn off my laptop at 4:30pm, go to the gym, and talk to my parents. In India, sometimes I really need to turn my brain back on between 7:30 and 10:30 pm to answer the phone, and then it's hard to fall asleep. I usually eat something or watch or read something.

What has been the biggest challenge running Diaspora Co. over the past five years?

Maybe growing as a leader. I was a kid when I started this company, and now I'm responsible for the professional development of 15 people. Making sure we do the right thing for them is a scary and difficult thing. Know how to conduct performance reviews to ensure my employees are growing and understand that the manager's job is not to punish them. These are all new things for someone who has never really had any work experience.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to start their own small business?

Many people come to me with great ideas, but they are completely overwhelmed by their own inability to do anything about it. They look at the big picture and think all these things have to be done right for it to work. My packaging and website have been terrible for years. You have to think step by step.

I also find that a lot of BIPOC founders underestimate themselves and think they need a white co-founder or a male co-founder to handle the finances. You don't need that. Know your strengths, know your story, know who you can hire. These are the two big things I tell you. Your worth gives you confidence.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.