Female Founders: Farrah Moussallati Sibai of Afia On The Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder
An Interview With Candice Georgiadis
Be ok with mistakes: Many have been made along the way but mistakes have many a time been my biggest lessons. Early on in Afia’s day, we made one mistake that taught me the importance of timing is one of the first things we think of whenever a big decision has to be made, it is the right time to do this now. Why is it the right time? When would be the best time and why?
As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Farrah Moussallati Sibai.
As President and Co-founder of Afia, Farrah Moussallati Sibai is dedicated to making authentic Mediterranean cuisine more accessible to Americans and empowering women and children to pursue their best selves. Born and raised in England and of Syrian descent, Sibai dreamed of having a big family and becoming a lawyer, but life would show her a different path. From enduring personal tragedies and loss at home in Syria came resilience, strength, and determination. Finding roots with her family in her new hometown of Austin, TX, Farrah wasn’t able to find the Mediterranean foods her family knew and loved at the local grocery stores. Together, with her husband Yassin Sibai, she founded Afia in 2017 to answer this need.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
My career path was anything but the one I had envisioned when I was a girl.
I was born and raised in England and of Syrian descent, and I dream of having a big family and becoming a lawyer. Life gave me another path.
I found myself in a foreign land of Austin, Texas, after having lost two children, my marriage, my entire life in Syria without a career and a way to support myself. While I was rebuilding my life, a new marriage, an expanded family, I started to volunteer with the refugee community. I saw how much food gave them a sense of belonging and connection to community. At the same moment, I saw that I couldn’t find the foods I missed from home in the grocery store.
With no background in running a food company, I taught myself everything. I asked a lot of questions. And I educated myself on the business.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
There are so many interesting things I learned throughout my journey, but the one that I found most interesting is how product production changes as you scale, or as you change a step in the process. We use amazing authentic generations-old recipes from my mother-in-law’s family recipe book, and when we took these recipes and applied them to mass production, things changed. Once we perfected the process or made any slight change, it affected the product, whether it’s the machinery used, the length of time to mix/grind/soak product alters, the room temperature, the cooking process, the freezing process, every single parameter that is changed had a different effect on the product so implementing strict rules/guidelines in the production of the product was crucial and as we upgraded machinery, expanded into larger lines, we had to reassess the process and implement new findings.
This fascinated me as we never think of these things when we are cooking at home.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Interesting thing about ‘funny mistakes’ is they don’t always feel so funny when you are going through them.
When I founded Afia, I had no background in the food industry as we’ve discussed, so I was not aware of some things I needed to account for in our detailed business plan, which led to one of my first ever mistakes. I was completely oblivious to anything called food safety, moreover never heard of USDA certification, which is what I needed to produce meat products. Yes, just those ‘small things.’
So I had to learn HACCP and create and implement a food safety plan. This I was able to do, struggled a lot, but completed it.
But my first ever run under USDA observation was a complete fail. At the time, I was distraught because we were so tight on money and a full production run had to be disposed of because of something as simple as filling in a form incorrectly. The food was completely safe to eat, but I filled in one part of a form slightly incorrectly, which cost me the whole run.
Looking back at it, I can laugh and see how funny it was that I was so unaware of one crucial step in the process and the minor mistake I made is something I do with my eyes closed now.
Lesson learned — always be aware and mindful of regulation at all stages of your business and that food safety and its documentation is one of the most important of our business.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Being an entrepreneur and a founder needs not only a lot of help but also a lot of support. Without this support you can sometimes become disheartened because it is so difficult. There are so many people and companies that helped along the way, from H-E-B deciding to start carrying our product to Chobani selecting us for their incubator program.
But at the end of the day, my success was defined by my mother. I know without the help and support of my mother, the success of Afia would have been almost impossible. She was my inspiration through my life, an incredible role model, and when I decided to launch Afia, she was my biggest champion. My mother would call on a daily basis from across the ocean to check in, listen, talk through my challenges and was always there encouraging me to keep going.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?
I think it’s a mix of things:
For mothers, it is their everyday life and responsibilities that is one of the biggest challenges. Had my own kids been younger when I founded Afia, I probably wouldn’t have been able to do it. We need to be realistic about how much mothers carry on them in terms of the workload.
Beyond that, from my own experience, there can be a lack of confidence, fear of failing, and getting easily discouraged by failure.
Plus, let’s be honest: venture capital investment in women-founded companies is better than it was but it is still lagging.
Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?
- Believe in yourself more and don’t underestimate the strength women have as a society.
- Continue to support women-founded companies.
- As a leader, I need to stand up and encourage other women,
- Women need to support women through empowerment.
By the government,
- Increase women founded business initiatives which results in strengthening individuals
As a society,
- On a retail level, retailers and buyers continue to support and take in more products made by women founders.
This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?
To become role models for the next generation and for generations to come.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?
Being the boss means you are in charge. While that is very true, it also means you wear a million hats — and you are very much the worker too. As a start-up founder, you need to be willing to dive in on the job. I tell people all the time that I taught myself Illustrator and Photoshop to create our first logo and packaging. Was it exactly what I had in my head? Maybe not, but I needed to learn it to understand it but also to save money. My husband and I have truly done every job. I believe we need to learn it to appreciate it.
When you see a successful company, you assume the founder got lucky or just miraculously it became successful. Far from the truth, it took blood sweat, tears, and sleepless nights, sometimes unmeasurable sacrifices to get where they are at the point of success. An example I like is an iceberg, what you see above the ocean is only the tip of the iceberg, what is beneath the ocean is 100 times bigger than what you see above is really what founders went through.
Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee? Can you explain what you mean?
Being a founder is not easy, many characteristics make a founder and not all of them have to be in a person for them to be successful. A founder has to be prepared to sacrifice, be determined, resilient, have passion, be fearless, empathetic, adaptable and persistent. There are two things I would say are definite traits of a person who should seek a regular job instead and they are laziness and no motivation.
I firmly believe that people need to be willing to pivot and accept change and what they don’t know. So much of being a founder is learning as you go, making so many choices, and assessing every step along the way.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, what are the “Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder?” (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Self Confidence: I founded Afia with no experience in the CPG or the food industry, my background was in business, but I believed in the concept of Afia and the opportunity, and believing in Afia meant I had to believe in myself and my judgement/vision.
- Perseverance: Afia was founded with $20K. We started in a commercial kitchen selling to farmers markets. The first 2.5 years of the company, leading up to our first retailer, H-E-B, were rough. We would make cold sales calls to restaurants in Austin, San Antonio, Houston, and Dallas and would travel for hours to get to many of the restaurants, and 9 out of 10 times, there was no interest. Without perseverance for 2.5 years, we would have thrown in the towel.
- The humility to know what you don’t know: Being an entrepreneur is all about learning and growing not only as an individual but as an entrepreneur. I knew very little when I entered the world of CPG and it wasn’t something I was shy to admit to, I constantly asked questions and still do till now, as founders it is impossible to know all the answers and be an expert in every field but as a founder you will always be learning.
- Be ok with mistakes: Many have been made along the way but mistakes have many a time been my biggest lessons. Early on in Afia’s day, we made one mistake that taught me the importance of timing is one of the first things we think of whenever a big decision has to be made, it is the right time to do this now. Why is it the right time? When would be the best time and why?
- Be Empathetic: Being empathetic impacts not only your business but the community. Having empathy towards your employees, towards a cause/your mission leads to not only being successful, but making a difference, changing lives and having a larger impact than just a successful business.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I knew from the beginning that Afia needed to have a mission of giving back to our community. I am so grateful to everyone who helped me find a better place after my own tragedies, that I saw a huge opportunity for us to do the same for others.
Early on, we set out to employ refugees and donate to local food pantries. Not only are we raising awareness for Mediterranean cuisine with the American public, but we need to give back in a meaningful way. The refugee community provided me a home when I first came to America. Volunteering there, I found meaning and saw how much food was an important connection for them. I’ve never forgotten that. As we grow, we continue to seek out refugees as employees, for mentorship opportunities and for food donations.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I wish I could be a voice of empowerment for women and girls everywhere. If I can do it, you can too. We need to believe in ourselves and we could do amazing things.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
She faced adversities from an extremely young age, and her strength to overcome them and be the successful influential person she is today is incredibly admirable. Her impact on society and her charitable foundation has changed lives, given people a chance at life. She is inspirational in that nothing stood in her way, that she has empathy, and that empathy led to action which led to change.
To me she is the definition of an impactful person — she is strong, patient, determined, successful, smart, business-minded, empathetic, mission-driven, knowledgeable, worldly, all encompassing, confident, beautiful, heartwarming and comforting — a lot that I would love to learn from during a 4-hour lunch 😉
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.