When Nichole Nzegwu immigrated to Canada as an international student 20 years ago, it was to build a better life. But she soon encountered challenges with immigration, faced issues with her school funding and experienced an abusive relationship that led to feelings of isolation and depression.
Feeling like she had nowhere to turn, she was saved by her love of cooking, which ultimately led to the founding of her business, Krave Granola, the first Black-owned granola business in Canada.
“I studied economics at Trent University, says Nichole, “but I had some stumbling blocks.” Her father’s business had a setback, and he could no longer help support her, so Nichole took time off to work. But her return to school proved difficult as she couldn’t cover her education expenses on her own. At the same time, a trusted friendship turned abusive she says. “I couldn’t get out. I couldn’t run. I was so isolated and afraid, and my self-esteem felt beyond repair,” Nichole recalls.
When she considered returning home to Nigeria, however, Nichole was saddened at the prospect of arriving at her parents’ home with nothing to show. “It broke my heart to think of my family being so disappointed. They sent me to Canada to build a better life and now I was coming home. I know they would have accepted me with love, but that’s how I felt at the time.”
Nichole found refuge in cooking. “During this whole experience, cooking was one of my happy places,” she says. “I love to cook, gather people together and share my recipes. That was my escape.”
Nichole found what she wanted to do. “I realized I wanted to do something that would put a smile on people’s faces,” she says. “I also wanted to create something that could help me empower other women in difficult situations. I thought that if I went through something so hard, many others probably were going through something similar, or worse. And knowing that many immigrant women are in a vulnerable position, I wanted to create something that could lift them up.”
Testing out business ideas
Nichole’s mission was set. She wanted to empower women. She had the drive and the ambition to build something. She just didn’t have an idea yet.
“I tried a mobile hair braiding business, but it wasn’t my passion. I cleaned houses for some time, but that’s not what I wanted to do. Then I started cooking, and friends loved my food,” she says. Nichole did meal preparation for people who wanted a week or a month’s worth of food, offering it on a subscription basis. She was running a business, but wasn’t yet fulfilling her mission.
One day, her sister arrived from England jetlagged from the travel. At 3 a.m., Nichole says she woke to a beautiful aroma. “I went to the kitchen and saw trays and trays of granola,” she says. “Granola has always been one of my favourite snacks — it’s one of my go-to meals. But it never occurred to me that you could make your own. My sister showed me how to make it, and since then I have been making it on my own.” Nichole supplemented her meal deliveries with a bit of granola and people loved it. In 2020, she realized this was the business idea she had been looking for. “I thought, this is the one for me — the one I should go with. It’s not that complicated and while the market is saturated, I felt there was still room for one more big granola business.”
Learning on the go: The launch of Krave Granola
“I registered my business and the name. But I didn’t have any idea of how to run a business. YouTube and Google became my best friends,” she says. “But the universe has a way of bringing things together when you’re ready to move forward.”
With the granola market already strong, Nichole knew her products had to be special. “My flavours are not something you would see in stores. They are unique flavours, such as coffee, goji berries and cocoa butter, which is sourced straight from Ghana.
Krave Granola also offers customers the option to customize their granola. “You could be gluten-free, allergic to nuts, diabetic, or just not like seeds,” she says. She wanted to create new options for customers to build their own granolas to suit their dietary needs and preferences.
Nichole discovered quickly, however, that the ‘if you build it, they will come’ approach does not always work in business. “I launched my business, but had no sales,” she explains of her launch. “I could see 200 – 300 people visiting the website, but no sales were happening.” Nichole therefore joined some accelerated programs, did website testing, boosted her social media activity and collaborated with influencers to generate sales and gain traction.
Then RBC called, and everything changed. “RBC reached out one day to ask if I would be interested in participating in their Canadian Employee Perks program,” Nichole says.
RBC partners with Perkopolis to provide RBC employees access to exclusive entertainment and lifestyle offers, travel, insurance benefits and other value-added perks. A new program was launched in 2021 to elevate brands run by Black, Indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC) entrepreneurs. Further, the Perkopolis team offered to profile all the Black-owned brands uploaded to the RBC Canadian Perks Program on their network of 1.1 million members to honour Black History Month. They also deployed a newsletter to approximately 560,000 subscribers featuring the brands, all for no cost.
“When the newsletter went out, boom: we saw an immediate increase in sales,” says Nichole. “I woke up one morning to 20 orders — on a normal day, I was getting two to three.” The impact on her business was remarkable and she received a lot of feedback directly from customers. That extra exposure also led to interest from grocery stores looking to sell her products.
Fulfilling her mission to give back
While Krave Granola is still a very young company, Nichole is dedicated to using her business as a tool to help empower women and girls. Krave Granola is now a founding partner of The ShePreneur Project which supports, mentors and inspires girls and women in difficult situations. “The ShePreneur Project aligns with our mission to empower and inspire women in vulnerable circumstances,” explains Nichole. “We are working on a program to give women an opportunity to finish their education. Our resources are used in ways that guide women to career paths they otherwise may not have thought possible.”
Today, Nichole and her team are getting ready to change the company’s name to Kare Granola. “The reason for the name change is to align with the vision and mission of the business. We care about the health and well-being of our communities, and our goal is to meet every customer’s need when it comes to granola,” says Nichole.
While insists the granola continues to be handmade, Nichole is looking into machinery that can assist with packaging to make the processes more efficient — a move that was made possible through increased demand and sales. Says Nichole: “I just want to say thanks to RBC — honestly, they helped push the sales for my business, helped to bring me more customers and gain more exposure. I can build my brand, which can help me give back to the community.”
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