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Lisa Curtis of Kuli Kuli: Five Things Business Leaders Can Do To Create A Fantastic Work Culture

This is a moment for leaders to step up and reimagine how their workplace can be a flexible space that encourages both productivity and quality of life. It is my hope that more bosses will wake up and embrace the humanization of work before the big quit hits their office.

As a part of my series about about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Lisa Curtis.

Lisa is the Lisa Curtis is the Founder & CEO of Kuli Kuli, the leading brand pioneering the sustainably sourced superfood moringa. Moringa is a protein-rich leafy green, more nutritious than kale, with anti-inflammatory benefits rivaling turmeric. Kuli Kuli’s moringa powders, bars and wellness shots are sustainably sourced from African women and other small farmers around the world and sold in 11,000 U.S. stores.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

As a vegetarian, I was feeling sluggish from a diet of mostly rice while serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Niger. Women in the local community advised me to eat moringa leaves, showing me how to mix them into a local snack called kuli-kuli. After eating the nutritious kuli-kuli moringa snack, my energy returned. The leaves of the moringa tree are packed with protein, vitamins, and antioxidants, providing a powerful boost of nutrition and caffeine-free energy. I recognized the potential for moringa as a powerful tool for nutritional health. While moringa was recognized locally for its medicinal benefits, farmers saw no reason to grow it without market demand. I was inspired to find a market-based solution to realize moringa’s potential as a powerful tool for nutritional health and expand US market access to African women farmers. I returned home to the U.S. and built Kuli Kuli, a social enterprise that brings the nutritious moringa leaves to American consumers while partnering to create jobs and promote local consumption in the communities where moringa is grown.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

During Kuli Kuli’s second year on the market, we put together a partnership with Whole Foods Market, The Clinton Foundation, Timberland, and Chef Jose Andres to help reforest Haiti with moringa trees. Though we were a tiny two-person startup at the time, we were able to come together with these incredible organizations in support of Haitian farmers. As part of it, we ran a #MoringaInspired recipe contest with all proceeds going to the Haitian Smallholder Farmers Alliance. We then flew the winner out to DC to dine with Chef Jose Andres at one of his restaurants. We did all of this for less than $1,000, and it remains one of our most successful and impactful marketing campaigns.

Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

I am working on a super exciting project to help bring moms back into the workforce. Together with two other Mom CEOs, I created a Pandemic SuperMom Award to give away $10,000 in cash and $10,000 in prizes to 50 moms. Through the award page here, moms are sharing their stories of juggling work and childcare during the pandemic. We’re compiling these stories, along with best practices, into a report that we’re sharing out with other CEOs to help them create a better workplace for working parents as we go back into the office. I’m really excited about the impact that we can have.

Ok, let’s jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?

There are a lot of factors that influence workplace burnout, from heavy workloads to compensation and isolation. The leading researcher behind the study of burnout, Christina Maslach, identified the major factors of burnout in a theory that I like to summarize as the “triple C’s”: a lack of control, compensation, and community.

Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?

From both personal experience, and from all the research I’ve read, the number one determinant of a company’s success is how happy their workers are. Unhappy workers are unproductive, and they have high turnover rates. There is no way to have a high-growth profitable company if you have unproductive workers who are constantly quitting. Thus employee happiness should be the number one focus for every business leader.

Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?

I like to summarize my strategy as addressing the three key “triple C’s” that lead to happiness: control, compensation, and community.

  • The first, and most important task is to create a Connected workplace. This requires leading with vulnerability, and making time to build authentic relationships. I lead all of our leadership team meetings with a “check-in” where everyone shares how they’re feeling. I’ll often go first, and openly share how I’m anxious about the upcoming board meeting or stressed about the timeline of our new innovation. I also make an effort to check in with other people on my team who I don’t normally work with at least once a quarter. I always invite them to share how they’re feeling about their trajectory and that of the company overall. I begin these conversations by making personal disclosures, such as my own struggles balancing work and childcare during COVID.
  • Establishing an open dialog about bandwidth is key to giving employees a sense of Control. It’s important for everyone on the team to understand what the top 1–3 business priorities are, and to feel like they can raise the flag if there are too many things on their plate for them to focus on the top priorities. We’ve challenged everyone on our team to answer two questions on a quarterly basis: what does burnout look like for you, and what does growth look like? These simple questions help managers quickly course correct when employees are on the path to burnout.
  • Lastly, creating the right type of Compensation is key to make employees feel valued. As a startup founder, I realized quickly that I would never be able to compete with larger companies on salary. I started thinking of compensation more holistically, and tailoring it to individual employees. For some employees, having unlimited vacation and lots of flexibility may be more valuable than a salary increase. For others, positive feedback may go farther than a bonus. For many startup employees, workplace flexibility, the ability to work independently, and equity ownership in the business can be more important than a higher salary. For many office workers in today’s post vaccine economy, workplace flexibility is the new money.

It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture”. What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?

Workplace flexibility is the new money in today’s post vaccine economy. It’s the ability to walk your dog at 2pm, or drop off kids at 10am. It’s in folding laundry while on a conference call, or going on a run in between meetings. Working has enabled many white-collar workers to feel like they no longer had to choose between their work, family and well-being.

But this can be a challenge for bosses who are used to measuring productivity by seeing who’s left in the office after 7pm. For those leaders and managers, I recommend asking three simple questions:

  1. Did productivity of this person/team fall during quarantine? Research shows that focus and productivity improved
  2. Do I need employees in the office full-time to reap the benefits of the office? Many companies are embracing the 3–2 model of three days in the office, 2 days remote
  3. Am I willing to lose employees due to my remote work policies? As discussed above, employees are serious about quitting in search of more workplace flexibility

This is a moment for leaders to step up and reimagine how their workplace can be a flexible space that encourages both productivity and quality of life. It is my hope that more bosses will wake up and embrace the humanization of work before the big quit hits their office.

How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?

I seek to be a servant leader, supporting my employees to help them achieve their goals. To me, this looks like employees who take real ownership of their work, and feel comfortable coming to me with challenges. I’m definitely not a great servant leader all the time, but I am on a journey to be constantly improving myself.

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?

I’m extremely grateful to Carole Robin, the author of Connect and a former Stanford Business School professor, for helping me understand the value of vulnerability and connecting at a deeper level.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I’m proud of how Kuli Kuli’s success in selling moringa products to 11,000 stores has helped to improve the world through our supply chain. Kuli Kuli’s supply chain spans 24 million moringa trees and includes over 3,000 farmers, generating more than $5 million in income to small family farms. Kuli Kuli’s Pure Moringa line uses pouches made from recycled materials, saving the equivalent of an estimated 40,000 plastic bottles per year.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My favorite quote is that “the only real failure in life is the failure to try” by author Deborah Moggach. I think this quote is particularly important to keep in mind as a female founder, as women often doubt their “right to be at the table” more than men. Every time I feel like I’m not qualified to do something, or like I might be pushing too hard, I remind myself of this quote.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

I would love for more people to try eating unique superfood plants. My vision is to pioneer the plants of the future in the US market. Kuli Kuli’s mission is to turn climate-smart, community-grown superfoods into staple foods, enabling us to generate income for thousands of farmers while also fighting climate change. We partner with local entrepreneurs to create sustainable supply chains that provide nourishment, livelihood, and reforestation in communities around the world. With each supplier we work with, our focus is on regenerative agricultural practices, women’s empowerment, and providing nourishing superfoods to their local community. This vision will only come true if more people purchase sustainable superfoods.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you continued success!



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