After completing combat tours in war-torn Afghanistan, a couple of American army officers realized they had some unfinished matters of service to address when they returned home. The Chicago-based entrepreneurs meant business.
Rumi Spice, launched in 2014, is the brainchild of army veterans and co-founders Kimberly Jung, Keith Alaniz and Emily Miller who wanted to empower rural Afghan farmers by working directly with them to import high-quality saffron to homes, stores and restaurants in the United States. Out of that idea, Rumi Spice has been able to generate sales — last year of more than $1 million — while introducing an alternative to opium for Afghans to farm.
Of course, appearing on an episode of the television show “Shark Tank” last year, when the owners of Rumi Spice received a $250,000 investment offer from Mark Cuban, and winning the grand prize of $25,000 in the FeDex Small Business Grant Contest, hasn’t hurt business, either.
Libby Hikind, founder and CEO of GrantWatch,com, said small business grants like the FeDex grant award are more beneficial to startups because, unlike loans, they don’t have to be repaid. While government grants provide a large portion of money to incubate small businesses in their early growing stages, they are not the sole nest egg for up-and-coming startups to covet.
GrantWatch lists government grants, corporation grants, and foundation grants and funding opportunities for small businesses from corporations, some of which back the most prominent brands in the world. FedEx selected Rumi Spice for the small business grant from among 7,800 entries.
Rumi Spice evolved from a startup program at Harvard Business School, where Jung and Miller were students. The forward thinkers had already made a connection with Carol Wang, an international tax attorney with the Afghan Rural Enterprise Development Program, which links local enterprises to companies that have the potential for high growth on the global market.
Thanks to the partnership, more than 1,900 Afghan women have gained employment at three facilities, where they hand-process the saffron during the five-week harvest season each year. From Afghanistan, the saffron is then shipped to Rumi Spice at a facility in the Backyards section of Chicago where it is packaged and sent to Michelin-star restaurants and consumers across the United States. The Rumi Spice network, which boasts more than 300 Afghan farmers, sustains 3.6 percent of Afghanistan’s total foreign direct investment in agriculture.