Skip to content

Learn how Nailah Ellis-Brown secured the bag; now sells teas at all Sam’s Clubs

Photo Credit: Justin Milhouse

Founder of Ellis Island Tea, millennial Nailah Ellis-Brown, just landed the largest distribution deal that her fairly new company has experienced to date: a national deal to sell her Jamaican Sweet Tea in every Sam’s Club Warehouse across the country!

“This Sam’s Club order is by far the biggest order I’ve received in my 10 years in business,” Ellis-Brown said. “It’s exciting to have our plant operational every day almost ’round the clock. I know I am creating jobs for fellow Detroiters, which has been one of my goals since I opened my plant in 2014,” Ellis-Brown told the Michigan Chronicle.

Rolling out had the opportunity to speak with the Forbes 30 under 30 recipient about her burgeoning success and what being the only African-American female beverage maker in the United States with her own manufacturing plant means to her. Ellis-Brown also dropped some tips on being a successful entrepreneur, an African-American female leader and what she considers her superpowers to be. Check out the interview below and leave a comment on what you think about this millennial success story.

As a Black woman/woman of color, what do you consider your superpower to be?

My superpower is that I hustle harder! I am a Detroiter, built tough and resilient. People who grow up in Detroit grow up knowing that nothing is going to be handed to us. We have to work harder for what we want and do it with fewer resources. We’re used to outsiders’ negativity and we rise above it. When others said to me ‘you can’t’ I knew that I would. Today the family tea I once brewed in my mom’s kitchen and sold on the street has grown into a brand that is sold in every Sam’s Club in America.

What key skillsets or qualities makes you unique as an African American female leader?
I know my worth. I started with nothing, but the product I make and lessons I have learned on my entrepreneurial journey have value. Knowing that makes me a tough negotiator and keeps me from wasting time and energy on people who see a young black woman and think they have an edge. They do not. I’ve got 10 years in business and I have learned a lot in that time.

What thoughtful or encouraging piece of advice would you give to your younger self?
Surround yourself with supportive, positive people. Find mentors. There are experts out there who can clear obstacles from your path. Accept help. Listen to advice. But never forget that this is your journey. Only you can decide the path you need to take to get where you want to go in business and in life.

Why is it important for women of color to lead and/or work in leadership roles and decision-making capacities? 

When we have the power to say “yes,” no one can hold us back. One of the reasons I became an entrepreneur is because I wanted to be in charge of my own destiny and not have to respond to the whims of others. I think there are many women of color who feel the same way since African-American women are the fastest growing group of entrepreneurs in the United States.

How do you feel about the hashtag #CollaborationOverCompetition?

There’s room for all of us to succeed. I have a small group of Detroit entrepreneurs that I bounce ideas off of, [including things like] hiring strategies, cost cutting techniques, best sourcing etc. We’re in different business lanes. Gwen Jimmere owns Naturalicious, a natural hair care product line and Melissa Butler runs a cosmetics company called Lip Bar, but we struggle with common problems such as marketing, staffing and suppliers. We could each strive to be the hottest Detroit brand, but we just don’t. We offer each other ideas and solutions.

What are your thoughts on taking risks?
Without risk, there is no reward. Everything about my business is a risk. I am literally up against the “big boys” in the beverage industry but I am not afraid. I just do what I do and put my faith in God. When I face a really tough decision, I pray on it and then I know what to do.

What are 3 success habits you implement into your daily routine to maintain your success, sanity, and/or peace of mind, etc.? 

First, as I mentioned before, I pray. Second, I’m pregnant at the moment, but ordinarily, I work out each morning before heading into the plant. It clears the head, strengthens the body and keeps me healthy. Third, I try to make sure that I spend quality time with my husband and daughter. That’s really difficult to do in times of rapid growth, but they are the reason I do what I do. Travel, I love to travel [as well.]

As a successful woman in business, what is your proudest achievement? 

Opening my own beverage production facility in Detroit. I am the only African-American woman in the country with her own beverage manufacturing plant and that’s pretty amazing. Landing Ellis Island Tea in every Sam’s Club in the country this month is at the top of the list too.

Who is your biggest inspiration?  Why? 

My mother is one of the most amazing, humble women I have ever known. She has great inner strength. She’s smart, hard-working and determined. She raised my brother, sisters and I alone but never made us feel like we were a bother or burden. My mother taught us to be proud of our heritage. She put us in Nataki Talibah Schoolhouse, a school with high standards that allowed African American children to view ourselves as the norm. It was a great experience.