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Founder Friday: Something Brewing—How Nicole Dean Found her Path Creating KOLLO

KOLLO Founder Nicole Dean sitting on a couch.
As a #ByWomenForWomen company, we love celebrating brands that are led by fellow female founders. Our new series, Founder Friday, is a chance to get to know some of these standout women, including our very own Heidi Zak!

There’s a saying that goes, “Life is like a cup of tea—it’s all in how you make it.” This couldn’t be more true for Nicole Dean, who boldly veered off her life’s “expected” path to pursue her passion. For as long as Nicole could remember, she had approached her education with one goal in mind—to study science and become a doctor. It wasn’t until she began taking business classes at night that she realized she was actually creating the foundation for her ready-to-drink, single-origin tea company, KOLLO. In this feature, Nicole talks about why you should never settle, how she practices self-care, and shares advice for other women entrepreneurs.

Why did you start your company?

After cutting-out coffee several years ago, I fell in love with loose leaf tea and the art of tea-preparation.  During a trip to Japan, I was struck by the fact that I was unable to find a high-quality, unsweetened, RTD (ready-to-drink) tea in the United States that tasted like the tea I was preparing for myself at home. After researching the bottled tea market and discovering what I believe to be a hole in the market, I decided to create a line of teas that would utilize beautiful single-origin tea leaves and allow the brew to be enjoyed without the addition of any additional flavors, preservatives or sweeteners. I do not believe that we should have to sacrifice quality for convenience, and thus KOLLO was born.

Tell us about yourself.

I grew up in the Midwest and moved to Southern California 19 years ago. I have always loved science and thought from an early age that I would either find a place in the entertainment industry, or become a physician, I chose the latter path. I graduated college with a Biological Sciences degree and was accepted into medical school shortly thereafter.

After realizing that I hated the intense academic rigors and stress level that medical school requires, I dropped out and went on to start working for a small biotechnology company where I stayed for the next 5 years. Towards the end of my time there, I decided to go to business school in the evenings, never with any intention of starting a company, only to progress in my current field.

After receiving my MBA, I realized that I needed a break from science as I was not feeling fulfilled or that it aligned with my personal interests. After finishing school and leaving my job, I took a trip to Japan in-between job interviews. That trip sparked an interest in starting a high-quality line of teas and the rest is history! I currently live in LA with my two rescue dogs and my husband.

What was one challenge you overcame during the early days of your company?

So many, with new challenges popping up every day! I would say learning a completely new industry was very challenging. I came from a very traditional corporate and academic environment, so I had zero clue how one enters the beverage industry. On a very basic level, I had to learn the new “language” of the beverage industry, as well as how to “talk the talk” with buyers and suppliers.

One early example: I assumed that bottle suppliers also supplied matching bottle caps, and quickly realized that was not the case after placing a large bottle order. I spent the next 6-months trying to find a bottle cap that fit my bottle! Six months! I have Google to thank for getting me through the beginning stages, without a doubt.

What are some of the ways entrepreneurs today can help raise and inspire the next generation of women entrepreneurs?

First, be kind to all women, including ourselves. We all have a unique history that has shaped our way of viewing the world, so I try to practice self-love and kindness to other women, whether that be complimenting a stranger or making a point to partner with female-led brands.

Secondly, make introductions. While formal mentorship may not always be an option due to time constraints etc., making email introductions can be worth their weight in gold in my experience. I personally have benefited greatly from other women offering to make simple email introductions, so I try to do the same whenever I am in a position to help.

What’s something most people might not assume about you at first glance?

That I am a science nerd at heart. Living in Los Angeles most people assume that I am in some way involved in the entertainment industry, so you just never know!

If you could give your younger self advice, what would you tell her?

First, I would tell her, be patient, it will all work out. When I decided to leave medical school I rushed into finding my next “thing”, rather than allowing myself to just experience life. Never in a million years would I have imagined that I would start a beverage brand, yet I feel as though I am exactly where I was always meant to be. Things take time and will fall into place. Slow and steady wins the race as they say.

Secondly, I would tell her “he’s not good enough for you!” Do not waste time on people who do not bring you joy or make you feel good about yourself.

What's the top song on your playlist right now?

I am very into SG Lewis right now, a dance music producer from the UK. I like upbeat music that makes you feel like you are at a party, even if you are just sitting at home!

What is your motto?

This too shall pass…

Thinking about your time as an entrepreneur, what do you believe is one of the most challenging hurdles women entrepreneurs have to overcome?

There are well-documented stories about female founders facing great resistance from male-dominated Venture Capital firms simply because they did not value or understand the products that are important to women. As someone who will soon enter the fundraising world, it is disheartening to think that someone would devalue an idea simply because of who is bringing it to the table. It is a fact that companies that strive to include women and people of color perform better than their counterparts, so I hope that diversity and inclusion will continue to be a part of the conversation.

What motivates you to keep going in the toughest of times?

Perspective and Podcasts!: I try to remind myself that my work is what I do, not who I am. When you are a founder it is easy to conflate work wins/loses with personal wins/loses. I have always taken work pitfalls very personally, so I try to remember that more often that not, it has nothing to do with you as a person, simply circumstances.  Podcasts because I live in LA traffic and have found great pleasure from listening to podcasts such as How I Built This and Million$: Women Entrepreneurs Talk Money. Hearing the stories of other female-founded and led companies really helps center me while also giving me practical tips to use in my own business.

What are your favorite ways to practice self-care?

Most days I try to have a “hard-stop” for myself at 5pm. I get up very early so I like to do most of my work in the morning and early afternoon. Having “work-hours” even though I work for myself is a boundary that I have created to help keep me sane.

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