Alina Morse (she/her)
Founder and CEO, Zolli Candy
On life: It’s about finding your people and finding the people that at the end of the day support you for you.
On business: As long as you can communicate your wants, your vision, and your needs to your team members, confidently delegate tasks, and set up processes in which your team members can succeed, then you’ve done your job as CEO.
On social: Social media can be a great tool. At the end of the day, it’s about how we use it.
On college: Look for a good fit.
Alina Morse became a chief executive officer (CEO) when she was just nine years old, and she has been defying expectations ever since. She could not have imagined that being offered a lollipop at the bank when she was seven would spark an entrepreneurial journey, and yet that one event inspired her multimillion-dollar idea to create a healthy candy that’s good for your teeth. After two years of perfecting her formula and taste testing, Alina came out with Zollipops, the first product in the Zolli Candy line. Today, Zolli confections are sold on Amazon and in more than twenty thousand other retailers in the United States and around the world, and have expanded to caramels, taffy, and peanut butter cups. Now in her late teens, Alina is leading a healthy-candy revolution, challenging a traditional industry filled with legacy brands--and men--to think about candy differently. She even uses her high school experiences in business, applying her theater training to public speaking and media interviews, and lessons from competitive tennis and dance to management and team building. Alina has retained her original vision by creating the Million Smiles Initiative, through which she distributes her candies to schools around the country and simultaneously educates children about the scientific applications in candy making, entrepreneurship, and oral hygiene. She talks to us about how she convinced the industry to take her seriously, challenging the status quo, and being true to yourself.
What is the origin story of Zolli Candy?
I came up with the idea when I was seven years old on a trip to the bank with my dad. The bank teller offered me a lollipop. My dad always told me you shouldn’t have candy because sugar is terrible for your teeth. So I asked him, “Why can’t we make a healthy lollipop that’s good for my teeth?” so that I could eat candy without it being bad for me. And Zollipops were born.
Did you know from the very beginning that you had a hit?
Even from the start, I was surprised by my own idea because it seems like such a simple theory. But I really did think it could be transformational, and something that could fill a niche in the market. Granted, I had no idea to what extent Zolli would grow, and I’ve been shocked along the way to see an invention that I believed in become a staple at my favorite retailers and in so many households.
It took two years for you to perfect your first product. Could you tell us more about that process?
Those first two years really entailed a lot of trial and error. Initially, it started by purchasing some ingredients from our local supermarket--some sugar substitutes like stevia and other ingredients that I had done some research on--that could act as replacements to the sugary ingredients in a regular lollipop. I learned to make candy by watching YouTube videos, and after attempting to make candy at home in my kitchen, making a huge mess, and having to replace some kitchen appliances, I realized that I needed some help. So we proceeded with researching various manufacturing facilities, taking some tours, and eventually landing on a manufacturing facility that was a perfect fit. They could create sugar-free candy. Then we just got to work with this plant, where we said to the food scientist, we want to start off with six flavors, and let’s just try and fail and try and fail until we come up with something that’s really delicious. It felt like over a hundred, but we did upward of twenty trials per flavor--tweaking the flavor, the color, the texture, and then testing it in various climates to ensure various stability ratings. That process was about a year and a half, and then those other six months entailed formulating the packaging and all the logistics that come with trademarking your taglines and logos and other behind-the-scenes stuff before pitching at the end of that two-year period to our first retailer, Whole Foods in Southern California.
Can you describe that first sale?
Whole Foods is merchandised regionally, so you have to pitch each region. California is a very progressive market littered with early adopters. It’s definitely a great place to launch a new and up-and-coming innovation. We traveled to Southern California from Michigan, where I’m from, and I practiced the pitch all the way there. I was super nervous because it was my first time in a real business meeting, and I was also very excited to get this in front of some very powerful people. The meeting went fantastic. At the end of it, they said they would let us know in the next few months if we were in or not, and we waited patiently for an answer. And we got in! It was just a very exciting and almost surreal moment, from picturing our items on store shelves to being in a mainstream retailer. From there, we got on Amazon.com and then the business took off after my first media appearance on Good Morning America. We were able to reach out to more and more retailers, attend business conferences, and get to where we are now, which is more than twenty thousand retailers across the country.
What are the advantages of being a teen entrepreneur?
There’s definitely that shock factor that’s played into people’s interest in the company. It’s also been interesting to see which retailers, brokers, and executives have actually heard of Zolli Candy and heard of my story prior to us meeting with them. That’s pretty exciting as well, whether they’ve seen me on TV, or heard about our story via social media, or word of mouth. There have been several instances where people have already heard of Zolli Candy and have been excited about bringing it into their stores, because it does have that authenticity and that organic family business story that ultimately resonates with their customers. That aspect has been definitely helpful.
Has your age ever hindered you from finding investors or people to partner with?
On the disadvantage end, there’s some very traditionalist views in the consumer-packaged goods industry, as well as traditional retail. It is the oldest form of sales. Depending on the retailer, it’s definitely an industry that can be pretty stagnant and traditional. Often with those values come the views of “you need a business degree, and you need to go to college before pursuing a business venture.” For me, that’s been tough to crack because I was starting a company when I was in elementary school. Obviously, I didn’t have a degree or real-world experience yet. But being in those situations, and having the mindset of being like a sponge, wanting to soak up all that information, I was luckily able to prove a lot of those traditionalists wrong. Ultimately, it has created a more open-minded market, and has broken down some of those stereotypes.
Does the current education system fail to properly prepare students with skills they need to be an entrepreneur, like public speaking, negotiation, and investing?
Most public schools don’t even have personal finance courses that could benefit students going into the real world, whether they’re going into entrepreneurship, business, or just looking to take charge of their own financial futures. I’m starting the entrepreneurship club at my school, focused on the behind-the-scenes of building a company, like creating a business plan, how to crowdsource or crowdfund, and how to analyze sites like the Small Business Administration for loans and programs to help teen entrepreneurs, young entrepreneurs, and women in business. They might not be the most fun parts of business, but they are fundamentals that are important to learn.
What is your day-to-day like in running a business?
My day-to-day is pretty typical. So many teenagers nowadays work. Granted, sometimes I’m feeling like I’m bordering on a heart attack owning a small company. But it really isn’t much different than any other typical teenager, juggling school, work, and extracurriculars. For example, today I woke up, I played tennis, I came home, did some meetings and emails, this interview, and after this, it’s going to be some homework. Tonight, I am going on a date with my boyfriend. I like to find the balance between mental health, physical health, and extracurriculars. I’m a dancer--I’m on my school’s dance team, as well as on the tennis team. Having that physical outlet and teammates has not only helped me maintain my physical and mental health throughout tough, stressful days, but has also helped me in the team aspects of entrepreneurship. I always like to say business is a team sport. Those team sports and activities where you work together translate into a work setting.
What is your favorite part of the business?
My favorite part is definitely sales and marketing. They intertwine in a way, doing sales calls, interviews, and communicating with people, whether it’s investors, reporters, or team members. That is when my communication skills and relaying my passion, which I would consider my strong suit, shine through. I love to be creative and apply that in fields that I’m knowledgeable about, like social media, and analyzing cash back advertising services like Google and Instacart. I love marketing, being creative, and applying that in a real-world setting, but above all, I love communicating with people.
What do you find the most challenging?
The most challenging aspect for me is accounting and logistics. Going into a business career with a second grader “math degree”--my math was very low level. Figuring out the finance and logistics has been a game of catch-up my whole career. It has actually provided a lot of real-world insight into what sort of math that I’m learning in high school math class is actually applicable to a real career. I know it’s an ongoing comment from generations of students and math classes: “When am I going to use this? Where am I going to apply this? I want to become an oceanographer; when am I going to use Algebra 2?” But it really is applicable even in personal finance. It’s been interesting for me to see what’s relevant and what’s not so relevant in the real world. That’s probably the biggest challenge to overcome.
Your Instagram is filled with posts about being a teen entrepreneur. Do you ever experience cyberbullying or get hate comments?
Yes--I’ve received lots! Either people don’t like that I have a Samsung, or they don’t like my personality, or they don’t like that I’m a girl starting a company--there’s always going to be that negative aspect of social media. At the end of the day, it’s about how we use it, and how we portray ourselves as a brand, and it has been a great tool to help highlight our essence as a brand. It has also taught me to have thick skin!
What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs who have unique ideas, but don’t know how to bring them to market?
My best piece of advice is to write out a plan and do some research. That was the advice that was given to me by my dad when I was seven years old, and it stuck with me. Every time I have an idea, whether it be for a new planning strategy, a new marketing strategy, or a new product, that’s the first step. Research if there’s anything else like it on the market and research the unique proposition that you provide with an item or an invention. Moving forward, you have to look at your goals. You have to analyze what you want it to be--one item, one SKU, a whole brand, a whole line? Where do you want to sell it? Do you want to sell it online? Direct to consumer? In retailers? Set those goals for yourself and outline that business plan. Then it’s about finding team members and people that not only support what you’re doing, but support you, and that you feel that you can trust, and you can delegate work to, because as a CEO, as the founder, you’re not going to be able to do it all. That brings me to the next piece of advice, which is find a mission, find a driving passion that’s not just making money, whether it’s an organization that you start, a nonprofit that you’d like to support, or helping people on a day-to-day basis fill that niche in their lives. Find that driving force that’s not just monetary, because that’s not sustaining. Finally, ask questions. You have to maintain that childlike curiosity and tenacity. You have to stay curious and continue to always look for the next way to improve. You can’t do that if you’re not asking questions.
What has running a business taught you about not listening when others doubt you?
There will always be people in the world who doubt you. For me, it was because of my age and my gender. That’s not a great mix in a traditional industry, like candy, which is full of legacy brands and lots of men. I definitely stood out in the room. It always took me a few extra steps to prove that I knew what I was talking about before people stopped doubting me and started believing that I knew what I was talking about. I think Gen Z has already done a great job of standing out and being confident in themselves and their ideas and being accepting of others. You can’t let the limitations of close-minded individuals dictate how you feel about yourself. You have to keep that in the back of your mind, regardless of how high-powered an individual may be. If they are close-minded, that’s not going to get them anywhere further. When you start embracing what you don’t know, embracing what you can learn, embracing your curiosity and kindness and positivity, there’s no end to what you can achieve.
• Set goals and outline a plan.
• Hire a great team.
• Embrace what you don’t know.
• Have a childlike curiosity and ask questions.
• Find a motivation outside of money.
Jane Park (she/her)
Founder and CEO, Tokki and Julep
On life: What stays with you at the end of the day isn’t how much money you made, but how you treated people. Both in terms of moments of pride and regret.
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