Millennial Nailah Ellis is quickly on her way to owning a multimillion-dollar enterprise. At only 28, this young go-getter possesses the ambition, drive, courage and grind to make it happen. She’s the owner of Ellis Island Tea, which was born from a family recipe, and is now in major chain stores around the nation. She went from selling $8 bottles of tea out of her portable rolling ice cooler from the back of her trunk to landing substantial distribution deals with the likes of Whole Foods, Meijers and major U.S. airports in no time at all.
Rolling out caught up with the young mogul in the making to discuss how she got her start. In the exclusive interview below, she talks about her success journey, from dropping out of college, to doing what she loved the most, bringing her family’s tea recipe to the masses. Read how this millennial is taking charge of her destiny and making real boss moves to get her closer to her dreams.
Tell us briefly about yourself and your journey and how you got to where you are today.
I actually started the company about eight years ago. My original plan was to go to college, get a degree in business and end up on Wall Street, make a bunch of money and then quit my job after I saved up some money and go after my true dream of entrepreneurship. But freshman year, while I was at Howard [University], I realized how student loans work. I would have graduated with between $80-100K in debt. And just like everybody else, I don’t like debt and it just didn’t sit well with me. I figured if I’m going to take [on] that much debt and spend basically half of my life trying to pay those loans back — why not just go for my true dream? At that time, I wasn’t married, I didn’t have any kids, I didn’t have any responsibility except to make sure that I ate every day. To do something so high risk, I had to do it young because I was still young enough to change my mind. So, I dropped out and moved back home to Detroit, in my mother’s basement and I wrote out a few business ideas.
That’s interesting that you had that much foresight as a young adult. How did the idea for Ellis Island Tea come about?
I immediately wanted to start a business and it just made sense to do the beverage company because it was a recipe that was in the family and I was most passionate about it — everything was just about money. Adult Foster Care was on the list because I heard you can make a bunch of money in that, but the startup cost was high. With the beverage company, all I had to do was go to the store and buy some teas bags and then the trial and error began from there. I started out by selling tea out of the trunk of my car; it took me a year to get the recipe right. I made it every day for an entire year, in my mother’s kitchen.
The first time I made it, it tasted horrible, the color was off — because it was given to me, not by measurement. My father would eyeball it when he made it because he knew it so well. I flew to New York — that’s where he was living at the time — and I sat in the back of his car and asked him for the recipe. I think I still have that little sheet of paper where I took the notes on when he gave it to me. It was given to me like a couple lemons, a couple tea bags, get this flavor, that flavor and I just had to figure it out.
I finally got it good enough to sell. I went to a Mediterranean restaurant, bought some empty bottles and loaded up my cooler. I sold my first bottle for $8 for a 32-ounce bottle. It was in a very rough area and if they would spend $8 on a bottle that small, there, I could see it anywhere. I started out strolling this cooler around and then from that point I had to cut myself off from the cooler because the cash I was making at that age was good money to me because I didn’t have any bills, so I got comfortable in it. So, I told myself: the original goal was to get this thing in grocery stores and on the market. Never again will you load up this cooler. If you wanna sell, it’s gotta be in a grocery store. I wanted to make money, so I had to go to the stores.
I heard you say that Ellis Island Tea was a family recipe. Did you say it was your father’s recipe?
It was my great-grandfather’s recipe. He gave it to my father before he died. My dad would make it for different family events and people would just go crazy over it. I knew if it ever hit the market it would do well based on how people would literally go crazy over this tea. So, I asked for the recipe and made it my job to get [it] to the market.
That’s a fascinating beginning. So, your goal from the very start was to get into major chain stores? How did you go about getting your first account?
My dream account was Whole Foods. Like with the whole college thing, instead of taking a long route because I’m scared to go approach my dream account, I just walked into a Whole Foods and I said, “What is the process for getting on the shelves?” That took about a year, the guy kinda laughed at me. He tried to discourage me because he couldn’t see me — this little girl in his eyes — ever making it to a point where I could get on the shelves in Whole Foods. I went through the process and got my first Whole Foods to carry me. And then, we caught fire, we did so well there that I got a call from another Whole Foods saying they were interested.
Fast-forward to today, we’re in Whole Foods all over the Midwest region and we are also in all of the Meijer stores across six states. We own our production operation and we are now in airports. We’re getting ready to be in six airports, including Atlanta, Texas, Detroit — we’re already in Detroit — New Orleans and Milwaukee. We’re being on-boarded as we speak.