Updated: Mar 30
As a part of our interview series on women-owned businesses, I had the pleasure of interviewing Margaret Barrow, Founder of It's Nola.
Margaret Barrow is the Founder and CEO of It's Nola, which she launched in 2018. In addition to building a successful granola brand, Barrow is also a tenured Associate Professor at Borough of Manhattan Community College. She earned her doctoral degree at Columbia University and Master's and Bachelor's degrees from City University of New York. Barrow grew up in the Arizona desert with no water and no electricity. After 31 years, Brooklyn, New York is the only place where she feels at home.
Thanks for joining me! Tell our readers about what you do.
It’s Nola is a Black Woman-owned limited liability plant-based snack manufacturing company located in Brooklyn, New York. It's Nola's mission is to inspire and promote healthy living by creating plant-based snack options using real food ingredients with audacious flavors.
I am working hard to make It's Nola a household snack name not just in the U.S. but also in Africa.
What does being a woman-owned business mean to you?
To me, being a woman-owned business means taking responsibility and being accountable for creating opportunities not just for myself but with other women in mind. I want women in their middle ages to look at my decision to start a business in my 50s and know that they can too.
How did you come up with the idea for your business?
Initially, I never thought about starting a plant-based snack business. In 2017, I entered full blown menopause and found myself eating unhealthy snacks. I'd been a vegetarian most of my life and my go-to snack was granola bars. Gaining 15 pounds really made me re-examine how the snack foods I was eating was contributing to my hot flashes and weight gain.
My biggest complaints about granola bars was the crumbling mess it left in my car, at my desk, in my purse. When I realized how unhealthy the bars were, I decided to take control of my own options and created my own snacks. I became a vegan because I wanted to also make better food choices. I love how compact my granola snack bites are and how easily you can pop them right into your mouth. I began taking them to the college and giving them to my students, faculty and staff.
Okay, coming up with a great idea and actually taking the steps to become an entrepreneur and launch your company are two very different things. How did you know it was time to start?
It wasn't me who came up with the idea to take my granola snack bites from sharing with those in my life to creating a business. When I created my granola snacks, I started bringing them to the college for my students. At first, they were a bit hesitant, believing that vegan food tasted like sawdust. I told them that decades ago that was true. It became evident that they enjoyed them as they asked for more and more of them each time I brought them to class. In fact, my students would find me in the college hallways and ask for my granola bites. After months of eating these bite-sized snacks, my mentees, students, family and colleagues insisted that I should start a company because they were so delicious.
Each time my mentees mentioned to me that I should start a business, I would emphatically tell them, "NO!" Then, one day, my mentees dumped hundreds of surveys on my desk. "See!" They told me. "People love them!" I couldn't believe it at first. I read through every survey response. They had gone to colleges in NYC and shared the snack bites and asked students to fill out a survey they had designed. I was pretty shocked and moved. It took a little more convincing, but eventually I became convinced of the possibility.
Becoming an entrepreneur is no easy feat. What are some of the lessons you learned along the way?
Don't choose to be alone on this journey. Entrepreneurs need a community of folks who are going to tell you like it is, people who will be honest with you. Choose to find your own mentor, someone who has had success in the industry in which you are a part. Most importantly, learn about business finance. There are so many choices I made that I wish I had had someone to steer me from making, yet it is in making those choices that I feel myself growing into the business woman I am proud of becoming.
If you had to list three traits or attributes that have been pivotal for your success, what would they be?
Resilience, Accountability and Compassion.
How is your company making a difference?
It's Nola works with community college students who are interested in starting their own businesses. I've worked with two students over the last three years. One has started her own business and shared with me recently she has her first client. The other one has intelligently and carefully designed her own community center which will focus on nurturing and educating young Black boys. She's already created the curriculum. At this point she is not ready to start the community center, but I have no doubt that she will and it will be a game changer for all involved. Next year, I'll choose two additional community college students to work with. We also plan to donate to community college mentoring programs.
I know you probably have many, but what’s your proudest moment as a founder?
My proudest moment so far is realizing that It's Nola would make it through the difficulties experienced during the height of the pandemic when 41% of black-owned companies were failing. Another moment was when The Food Network placed us on a list of foods you need in your pantry! I've idolized that network. I actually pinned it on our LinkedIn profile.
What's one myth you'd like to debunk about your line of work?
There's this myth that if you get into a large national retail chain, you've made it! No, it's not true. We've turned down going into them at the moment. You literally could receive a purchase order for 10,000 cases, and you don't get paid right away. You have to come up with the money to make the product and get it to the company. Then if all 10,000 cases don't sell, you're often responsible for buying them back! I've known CPG brands that are in these large stores and they complain all the time about how they don't make much.
What advice would you give to burgeoning entrepreneurs?
I think you have to take the time to build a presence for your brand so that once your product is in the store people will recognize it. For a small business with little or no budget for marketing, it's going to take some time to build a presence. Don't be in a hurry to fail. Take the time to build your brand.
What does the future look like for your company?
I am excited for It's Nola's future. We are slowly building the brand, working with snack companies creating snack boxes, working with corporate accounts, hotels and colleges and universities as well as small independent retail stores. I believe that building the brand this way will pave the way for space on large national retail shelves. Also, we're looking into licensing our snacks in Africa. We'll see what happens.
What words do you live by?
Don't judge what others eat. My responsibility in the food industry is to provide healthy snacks and education about living health to promote healthy living.
Any final words of wisdom?
Don't let age limit your dreams.