Julie Sullivan grew up in Oregon and, after graduating college, spent two years working for a social enterprise in Northern Uganda. When she returned home, she continued to explore ways to volunteer and give back, eventually creating plans to launch a social enterprise company.
Today Julie runs Ground Up with her business partner, Carolyn Cesario; together, these two women are spreading good with a line of nut butters that tastes delicious and promotes social change too.
What did your path to launching Ground Up look like?
At 13, my eyes were completely opened during a service trip to the streets of San Francisco. From then on, I spent all of my energy finding ways to create opportunity for women in need of help. This ultimately led me to Uganda, where I oversaw operations for a social enterprise with a team of 160 women facing extreme poverty.
I will always remember Stella. She helped me to see firsthand the power of opportunity, as she walked through our gate with very little financially and low self-esteem. Two years later, she left the organization to confidently run her own small business. It was amazing the impact we had. She was able to save money from this job and, through the educational training, she was able to provide for her children’s education, believe in herself and know that no one in the family was going to bed hungry. It was a powerful example of the ripple effect of giving one woman an opportunity.
I saw how an employment training program worked and thought – why isn’t anyone doing this back home? So I returned to my hometown of Portland, Oregon and set out to use my experiences abroad to create a similar program here at home.
Through local, hands-on research with non-profit organizations, I saw that there is a gap in employment for impoverished women. They have the motivation to work but may lack the skills, experience or confidence to be hired by an employer, so that’s where Ground Up comes in.
The only problem was I didn’t have a product at first. I believe that business can be a powerful tool for social change and I was set on creating a business that could sustain itself. That’s when my business partner Carolyn came into the picture.
What did Carolyn bring to the table?
Several years ago, she experienced a lot of health issues, which launched her on a journey to healing. She discovered that food truly could be medicine. It can be healing and powerful and can fuel you in a way that makes you feel great. Throughout the various doctor-mandated diets she went on, nut butter quickly become one of her favorite healthy and nutritious treats. It fueled her, tasted delicious and made her feel good.
But when a scoop of nut butter is your “guilty pleasure”, you want it to taste absolutely delicious! And that wasn’t the case for many nut butters she found on the market so she started making her own. After much experimenting, she discovered that a unique almond-cashew base provided the most creamy consistency. She played around with flavors, infusing them with cardamom, lavender and even smoked honey – combinations she wasn’t finding anywhere else on the market.
When I met Carolyn, she had no intention of starting a nut butter business. I went to her house one day to learn how to make it, not at all with the intention of business but mostly for my own selfish desire to learn how to make nut butter. (I am also a huge nut butter fan!)
During that time, we talked about my employment training program vision and why I hadn’t pursued it further. When the missing piece was a product, Carolyn was intrigued to hop on board. We started by making each small batch in a small food processor two jars an hour and hosted a tasting where we got great feedback from friends and family. Before we knew it we had orders coming in and Ground Up PDX was born.
What drew you to entrepreneurship over going a more traditional path?
There are a number of factors. After moving home from Uganda, I found myself not fulfilled or challenged in the work I was doing. By choosing the path of entrepreneurship, every day is new and different and each day there is a new problem to solve. I also was drawn to the piece that I would get to use all of my skillsets to build and create something.
I think there is a misconception that entrepreneurship equals flexibility in your schedule. It is true to an extent but when you are doing something you love you end up putting many un-clocked hours in to see it succeed!
Why did you decide to make a social impact with your for-profit company, and how did you decide which cause was the right fit for you?
I believe that business can be a powerful tool for social change and every business has the opportunity to do good and create a social impact. I could not have seen starting this business any other way. The business was birthed more from seeing the need and creating the social impact model before the product came into play.
Through local, hands on research, I saw that there is a gap in employment for impoverished women. They have the motivation to work but may lack the skills, experience or confidence to be hired by an employer. So that’s where the vision for a 6 to 9 month employment training program came into play. Through part-time work, these women will find the skills, confidence and understanding they need to transition into sustainable full-time employment.
What does a day in your working life look like? And are you full time in your business or is it a side-hustle for you?
No day looks the same! It involves everything from nut butter production to labeling product to get ready to hit the shelf to email communication to working at farmer’s markets and other events where we sample our product. Other days, I’m driving around dropping off samples and meeting with potential new wholesale accounts. Or meeting with potential partners and working with our interns as we pilot the employment training program. I’m full-time in the business but have a number of different side hustles too.
In the early days of your business, what were your biggest challenges, real or self-imposed?
Our biggest challenges were maintaining cash flow and figuring out how to make the shift from our small food processors to a more efficient production system. As well, we struggled to figure out where to pour our energy. We had a lot of ideas for sales channels to pursue, promoting our brand, etc. but we had to figure out how to narrow down where our energy was going. There are only so many hours in a day!
How have you worked to overcome your challenges?
We have secured a couple sales channels that bring us more consistent cash flow. We received money to purchase a larger food processor and move into a commercial kitchen. (We now make 30 jars an hour!) I think we are still continuing to learn how to narrow down our focus of where to spend our energy. Something that has been super helpful is having yearly, quarterly and monthly goals, and then each week set specific tasks that will help you reach your monthly goals and to-do lists. This has helped us when we have bigger ideas we want to pursue to see where they best fit in the timeline.
How have you learned to simplify your business and find focus when – as you so accurately described it – entrepreneurship can feel like you’re operating in a pinball machine?
Sometimes we still feel like we are operating a pinball machine. The biggest thing we have learned to simplify our business and find focus is to come back to our “why” as well as utilize our skillsets best. Carolyn and I both have different strengths that compliment each other, so really letting the person own the areas of the business where they have the skills is key. And then within those areas really setting quarterly and monthly and even weekly goals helps to keep on focus.
What drives you to continue giving your time and energy to Ground Up, even when it’s hard?
It’s the vision for the impact that can be had in women’s lives here in Portland. We have had two interns from a local teen shelter work with us and they are truly what motivates me to get up each day. The reminder that we can play a part in giving someone an opportunity and helping them believe in themselves, gain confidence and discover their strengths to ultimately lead them into sustainable job opportunities. The vision for this training program is big and we have already seen huge strides in the lives of the couple girls we have worked with. I know that there is more to do and we cannot grow our employment training program without growing our sales channels, so I stay motivated.
Let’s talk about failure. How have you learned to deal with failure in your life as an entrepreneur?
I’ve definitely learned to deal with failure as an entrepreneur by focusing each day and week on something positive that has happened or on a positive stride that was made. I continue to deal with failure as well, by believing that in order to succeed, failure is just a part of the game – that often failure in one way can lead to opportunity for other doors of success to open.
I don’t like to use the word failure in a negative connotation because I believe that every time there is failure, there is an opportunity to learnand grow and build strength for what’s to come ahead.
You mentioned you love sales. How have you made the sales process easier or more successful for you?
Yes, I view sales as a game that constantly challenges me and sometimes I win! When I lose, I try to figure out why and then I play again. I’ve also made the sales process easier and more successful by trying to focus on building relationships. This may make the process more of a long game before you sign a deal, but there is something refreshing about focusing on building a relationship and then the sales come. People are more inclined to support and buy from you if they trust and connect to you as a person. It’s worth the long game sometimes and then likely those will be longer standing sales channels.
What’s the best investment you’ve made in your business or self-development so far?
The best investment has been purchasing a grinder to increase the efficiency around our production. Secondly, seeking out mentors to guide our decisions. Thirdly, creating space to dream and create an actionable quarterly and yearly execution plan.
What is your long-term vision for Ground Up?
Our long-term vision is that we will be selling our product on a national level and become a reputable employment training program in the Portland community, where businesses looking to support and employ our graduates will feel confident in the skillsets the women have gained from our program to transition into full-time employment at their workplaces.
What’s the best business advice you’ve ever received?
There are a few things. First, don’t take “no” for an answer. “No” is an opportunity for other doors to open. I’ve also been told that those who succeed in the food industry (especially in the early stages) are those that persevere through the challenges. Few persevere through all the challenges, but if this is something you truly believe in and stand behind you can make it through. Also, it’s important to make the shift from “me” to “we”, from a founder brand to a mission brand. And to understand who is on the bus and put the right people in the right seats. You may even end up having to kick a few people off because you need to bring on the right talent or team for the jobs you need done.
What book has made the biggest impression on you?
Start with Why by Simon Sinek. The concept in this book to figure out your why has been crucial in our business to stay focused and motivated.
What are you listening to right now that’s influencing your work?
The NPR How I Built This podcast has been a great way to stay motivated and learn from successful entrepreneurs who faced similar challenges in their early stages of business. Another podcast I’ve been listening to is Girlboss.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with readers or any requests you have of them?
I would say to readers who are in the early stages of starting a dream and have a vision not to give up. There are many days when it feels like it would be easier to just quit and get a job but I encourage you to persevere and surround yourself with others who can encourage and support you and help you to see how far you’ve come. It can become exhausting to have people telling you that you’re crazy and it’d be easier to just get a job. But stay strong and think about who you want to share the ups and downs of starting a business with.
We’d also love for readers to try out our nut butters – and if they like it #spreadgood by spreading the good word to their friends.
Where can we connect with you online, and learn more about your nut butters too?