Inside the first Latino-run beverage startup to raise $1 million

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, Agua Bonita founders Kayla Castañeda and Erin PonTell share what they've learned about running a business built on sustainability and tradition.

Kayla Castañeda and Erin PonTell knew each other for about a month and decided they would make great business partners. Castañeda, 29, was hired by a beverage startup to replace Pon Tell, 31, who is giving birth to her first child. Except this was still March 2020; before PonTell could return from maternity leave, the startup had collapsed due to the lockdown.

"We no longer have jobs, but we still have a lot of fighting to do," Castañeda tells Bustle. “We always joke – when life gives you lemons, make aguas frescas.”

Thus, Agua Bonita—Spanish for beautiful water—was born. The brand produces cans of aguas frescas, a mixed fruit drink popular in Mexico and Central America, inspired by Castañeda's grandfather, who would make the drink using fruit from the fields where he worked. "We think it's a treat, but it's really a way to stretch things out," she said. Their version uses products that would otherwise be thrown away and cans instead of bottles to make the product more sustainable. It also contains far less sugar than traditional aguas frescas, a nod to "new health trends," according to PonTell. Both flavors, Pineapple Cucumber and Watermelon Chile, have sold out since launching in fall 2020, and in September, the founders achieved another major milestone: The company became the first Latino-run beverage startup to raise more than $1 million The company is financially sound.

Below, Pon Tell and Castañeda share the lessons they’ve learned as female founders while growing their businesses, the advice they immediately ignored, and the role models that inspire them.

Of course, besides being fully hydrated, how do you pump yourself up before a big presentation?

Castañeda: Literally every time I go into it with a do-or-die mentality. I gave myself a pep talk and said, “We need this much money if we want to stay in business.” Thankfully, it’s no longer a question of “life or death,” but in those early days , we definitely said, "Hey, we need $30 or I don't know what we're going to do."

PonTell: I jump around before every call to get out of it. And then Kayla and I would always text each other saying we got this - with lots of emojis.

Wait, which emoji?

Castañeda: My hands are hands of praise.

PonTell: I often use all caps (not emojis) and exclamation points. Then there's the guy in the party hat.

Ha, we're the party hat people. So, how do you turn off your brain once you've finished your big presentation?

PonTell: I’ve watched Friends probably 30 times now. I played it in the background as a distraction.

Castañeda: If I really needed to get away from the world, I would have a drink with my three brothers or something. Personally, I would like advice on how to have a better work-life balance. Especially when you've been working from home, it can be hard to draw a clear line between work and personal time.

Do you have any advice you would like as far as business is concerned?

PonTell: I've been thinking about very technical things, like how do you transport goods? [ laugh. ] This aspect of growing the business was new territory for both of us — we had no money in the first year, trying to get the product to market. Now that we actually have some opportunities, we're asking how we can best utilize our capital while growing as much as possible.

Castañeda: This is a dilemma that many female and minority founders may be facing. If you grow up with nothing, you get used to running a business out of nothing. Then, once you have money, it doesn’t feel right to spend it all. We want to be good stewards of our money. We feel very lucky, but also a bit surreal.

Did you receive any bad advice when starting your business ?

Castañeda: "It's so hard." Just because something is hard, doesn't mean you shouldn't do it. Sometimes, this is what sets you apart from other businesses.

PonTell: We get a lot of advice from people saying, "Trust me, I've been doing this for 40 years and I've always done it this way." The reason there's not a lot of innovation in the very specific area of ​​canned beverages is because people Saying, “It’s been done this way for so many years, so you have to do it” – but that’s not the case.

Last question: Who is your role model?

PonTell: I have a cheesy one. One of my best friends in college was one of the youngest female venture capital partners in Silicon Valley. I've known her for over a decade and she's my best friend, but she's been handling billions of dollars worth of deals. She reminded me that this playground also provided space for women and minority women.

Castañeda: I would say Danny Garcia. She is Dwayne Johnson's ex-wife and they still collaborate on many business deals. She’s also a bodybuilder – not that I want to be a bodybuilder, but it takes such dedication and confidence. I really admire how she is able to balance all of these impressive deals with her health and family, all while being a Mexican-American business woman.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.