While volunteering in India as an undergraduate student, Annie Ryu fell in love at first sight. What she saw at the market wasn’t tall, dark, and handsome. It was a spiky, green fruit she had never seen. The huge fruit she was looking at was the jackfruit, the largest tree born fruit in the world.
Fascinated, she researched the fruit and ate them. Many of them. So much so that she’d soon be known “The Jackfruit Lady.” The jackfruit, which tastes different in its various stages, has several nutritional benefits. It’s high in vitamin E, magnesium, fiber, potassium, and manganese.
It also tastes great! The jackfruit is incredibly fibrous and has a meaty texture similar to pulled pork. When ripe, Annie describes it as, “a combination of pineapple, banana, and mango.” That sounds delicious!
The meat industry is the second largest contributor to global warming. The problem is, many meat alternatives don’t taste too great. But what if someone could create something that did?
Annie Ryu had an epiphany shortly after: by marketing the jackfruit all over the US as a meat-alternative main dish, she could create jobs, fight global warming, and improve human health. When she returned to campus, she said no to a Fulbright scholarship and no to medical school. Instead, Annie created The Jackfruit Company.
She figured out how to start a company in India, though she had zero knowledge of the food industry. She contacted farmers, local providers, and vendors to create a supply chain for the jackfruit. She bootstrapped the operation for years, concocting flavors in her own kitchen. The flavors that Annie now offers includes: Teriyaki, Curry, Tex-Mex, and BBQ. More are on their way.
But it hasn’t been easy for Annie. “I was working all hours of the day,” she said, describing her early days. “Initially, you’re doing everything,” she expressed. Her first three shipments were disastrous and had to be dumped. As she hired people, she realized how little experience she had as a manager. “Becoming a good manager was a whole new learning curve,” she said.
Yet Annie Ryu kept pushing her limits. “I had the conviction that what I was doing was the right thing to do, even though there was so much more to learn,” she said as she thought about all the benefits the jackfruit would bring to the world.
The company grew and grew, and they now run a factory in India and is generating jobs for 50+ locals.
Annie was recently named in the Forbes 30 Under 30 List. In this episode, she also talks about her relationship with her Korean father, her aspirations, personal struggles, personality test results, and why she decided to start a social enterprise instead of a traditional nonprofit organization.
You can buy The Jackfruit Company’s products online or near the tofu and meat-alternative sections in Whole Foods, Wegmans, Safeway, and other supermarkets.
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Annie Ryu show notes
- The jackfruit is the world’s biggest fruit that grows on trees
- It is huge, green, and spiky on the outside
- The jackfruit is like a pomegranate when ripe and gets yellow
- The jackfruit tastes different in its different stages
- It tastes like a combination of mango, pineapple, and banana
- The jackfruit is a rich source of vitamin E, magnesium, fiber, potassium, and manganese
- The jackfruit is incredibly fibrous and has a meaty texture similar to pulled pork
- Annie Ryu loves to eat the jackfruit in tacos
- For ripe jackfruit, Annie likes to have jackfruit smoothie
- I get the breadfruit and jackfruit confused
- Annie Ryu went to Bangalore, India with her brother to help implement a community health program
- She saw the jackfruit during her first day in India and had no idea what they were
- She did some research and went to a jackfruit festival
- The jackfruit has many supply chain problems because it grows mostly in developing countries and markets haven’t developed
- You need significant infrastructure to produce, harvest, and process the giant jackfruits
- People call the inside of a jackfruit “latex” or gum, which makes it difficult to prepare
- Annie Ryu had gotten a Fulbright scholarship to go research the jackfruit in India
- But she realized she needed to spend more time in the US to build the company
- Annie Ryu decided not to use the Fulbright opportunity nor go to medical school
- Annie’s parents were not tiger parents. Her Korean father was very quiet but made his expectations known
- Annie Ryu had zero background in food and in business
- The idea of a minimum viable product is a good one
- She bootstrapped the Jackfruit Company for some time
- However, she didn’t get as much feedback as she hoped for
- It takes a significant amount of investment just to get to a stage where you can get feedback
- People are sometimes scared to get feedback because they’re afraid others will take their idea
- Annie Ryu won some business competitions in Harvard and got feedback there
- People were less keen to start food companies a few years ago
- A food company is more complicated in many ways compared to an online business
- Annie Ryu figured out the legal paperwork by reading, asking, talking to people
- The Jackfruit Company didn’t have to plant any trees because they are everywhere in India. A lot of it was going to waste because the jackfruit tree is so high yielding
- They paid farmers for the jackfruits
- Annie Ryu has been to India 21 times and has visited many factories
- If you want a great partner, you have to meet them in person
- It would cost more than a million dollars to build the factory that Jackfruit Company is using
- About 50 people are employed in India, and they work with many farming families
- “Becoming a good manager is a whole new learning curve.”
- It was difficult for Annie Ryu to create the right systems for accountability
- “Initially you’re doing everything.”
- The CEO needs to keep offloading different responsibilities
- The first three shipments of products were bad. In one, the Indian partners added a preservative that wasn’t allowed and the shipment had to be thrown out. In the second shipment, the product dried out because the packagers used the wrong packing material. In the third, insects destroyed the products.
- “There was never enough time for it all.”
- “I was working all hours of the day.”
- Annie Ryu didn’t have a food network to tap into, to find experts and mentors
- Quality control is difficult when you’re working out of a developing country. Finding an expert in quality control is important
- “You need to have built something first to attract attention and financing.”
- Annie Ryu had finished the package design just five days before a meeting with Whole Foods
- “You wanna know who all of your suppliers and vendors are?”
- Annie Ryu did the initial formulations for the flavors. Back in her kitchen and at her friend’s kitchen
- They went through multiple iterations to get the right flavor, and eventually hired professional chefs
- She started the Jackfruit Company while in college
- She got funding from Kickstarter, competition prizes, family and friends, angel investors
- “I had the conviction that what I was doing was the right thing to do, even though there was so much more to learn.”
- “I’m someone who’s striving to be better, the best I can be.”
- “Personality tests tell me I’m an achiever and learner.”
- “Right now, I’m trying to become a great manager.”
- “There are challenges that just come up every day.”
- “The types of challenges that I had last year, they don’t phase me anymore.”
- Annie Ryu enjoys having a few, close friendships that she’s developed over the years
- It’s critical for your health and well-being to have friends
- Annie Ryu had to uproot herself and relocate because of work
- A social enterprise has advantages to a nonprofit because you don’t have to keep fundraising. Social enterprises can scale quicker
- “We aim to be the global leader for the jackfruit.”
- Annie Ryu hopes that the company will soon be acquired
- After she sells the company, Annie hopes to work on environmental projects
- New flavors will be coming out in the fall
- You can find their products in the major supermarkets near the tofu, usually
- Both Annie’s parents are physicians and wanted her to become a physician