Rumi Spice: A Veteran’s Path to Starting a Business

Photo courtesy of Kimberly Jung

Rumi Spice: A Veteran’s Path to Starting a Business

•  13 minute read

Starting this Memorial Day weekend, CentSai teams up with Bunker Labs to salute our service members who have embraced entrepreneurship and founded unique businesses. Our first veteran spotlight is on Kimberly Jung, co-founder of Rumi Spice.

In 2008, when Kimberly Jung graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point as a mechanical engineer, becoming an entrepreneur and starting a business was hardly on her mind. It was during a one-year stint in war-torn Afghanistan, where she and her platoon were disarming improvised explosive devices (IEDs), that the seeds of a business opportunity were planted — literally.

Jung and two fellow officers, Emily Miller (cultural support team, Special Operations Command) and Keith Alaniz (a program manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers), saw that Afghan farmers were growing opium, a huge cash crop, on acres of land that could potentially be used to grow an even more lucrative crop: saffron.

Saffron, which can cost as much as $13 per ounce in specialty grocery stores, is considered to be one of the most expensive spices in the world. It’s mainly used in cooking rice-based dishes.

It’s grown in few places in the world, and in its original form, it’s a tiny part of the center of a flower. Nearly 1,000 flowers create one ounce of saffron, making it both scarce and costly.

The three officers, who would later become co-founders of Rumi Spice, remember thinking that this meant Afghan farmers could make nearly seven times more than they were earning from growing opium if they chose to grow saffron.

For Jung, Miller and Alaniz, a business idea was born — one with the potential to play a role in bringing economic stability to the war-ravaged country.

How did Jung, an officer in the 54th engineering battalion of the U.S. Army, go from leading a 43-soldier platoon that cleared 348 miles of perilous IEDs to become the co-founder and CEO of Rumi Spice?

She spoke with me about her childhood and her tours of duty; how her business has blossomed to a network of 300 farmers and 2,000 Afghan women; and how she transitioned from an army veteran to a successful business owner.

Early Life: A Sense of Drive

Doria Lavagnino: Before we get into your success with Rumi Spice, can you tell me about your background?

A childhood photo of Rumi Spice's founder, Kimberly Jung
A childhood photo of Rumi Spice co-founder Kimberly Jung. Photo courtesy of Jung

Kimberly Jung: Sure. I grew up in downtown Los Angeles, in Chinatown. My parents are immigrants from Hong Kong, and like typical immigrants, they worked hard and prioritized education above everything else for me and my younger sister.

I grew up super nerdy. I did go to private school, and I worked extremely hard. I aimed to attend an Ivy League school and become a doctor, in accordance with my parents’ expectations.

DL: I take it you were a very driven child. How were you as a student?

KJ: My GPA was a 4.5 or something. I took a lot of AP classes that were weighted. It was a bit ridiculous. But I really do credit my immigrant parents for pushing me to always aim way higher than anyone would ever expect.

Joining the Military

DL: Were they supportive of you entering the service?

KJ: In the beginning, they weren’t, because I think they knew I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into. I was swept up in the romanticism of the military. And in reality, you go into the military and you do serve your country and are a part of something greater than yourself. But you also do get deployed to a foreign land, and people don’t necessarily understand what that means when they start.

My parents understood this, and they did not foresee a future in which the military would launch me into a nice career as a doctor or a lawyer later in life.

The Influence of West Point

DL: When did you decide to join the armed forces?

KJ: In my junior year of high school, I was really struck by the service academies, and I decided I wanted to go to West Point so I could serve my country.

I attended one of the summer preparation sessions, where I was able to preview what it would be like to be a part of a service academy.

I loved the physical and mental challenge, as well as the opportunity to become a leader.

DL: So the summer program at West Point changed your mindset?

KJ: Yes. It was such an adventure, to be really honest. I’d grown up in downtown L.A. I’d been used to a certain way of urban life, and I’d never been to the outdoors and I’d never done any real camping out in the woods.

DL: West Point is competitive. How did you get in?

KJ: I sent in an essay about why I wanted to go to a service academy, about what motivated me to serve my country and become a leader of men and women in the armed forces. I even had to get a nomination from my local Congressperson. I had to go through a series of physical and medical tests. It was absolutely all worth it.

Becoming an Engineering Officer

DL: What came next?

KJ: In 2008, I graduated from West Point and was commissioned as an engineering officer. I was stationed in Germany. So I was there for three years, and during that time, I was deployed for one year in Afghanistan and four months to Bulgaria.

DL: What kind of engineering did you specialize in?

KJ: I was a mechanical engineer as an undergrad at West Point. You can commission as an engineer into the Army and not have an engineering background. You do things like bridge building and route reconnaissance and explosives. So these are things you learn in Army engineering school, but it’s not your typical academic engineering.

DL: Sounds very practical.

KJ: It’s much more practical, hands-on, and hasty.

Afghanistan

DL: Tell me about your time in Afghanistan.

KJ: Our platoon was a horizontal construction unit, so we had a bunch of loaders, grazers, dozers, and excavators.

We were deployed to Afghanistan to help with route clearance, meaning we would go slowly along roads and prepare them to be safe for infantry and logistic patrols. We were looking for IEDs and ambushes and neutralizing those threats.

You’re basically a lightning rod, and you go ahead of everybody else.

DL: What was the most dangerous moment? Or was it a daily threat?

KJ: That’s a complicated answer. I remember one time we got shot at as we were maneuvering through a village, and we got to the house where the shots came from, climbed to the roof, and found all the spent shells from the RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades]. We were going to enter the house and this woman came to the door with a dog barking like he was about to attack everybody.

I know that a lot of soldiers in my platoon wanted to go in because they wanted to fight to get these guys out. It was getting dark as well. Ultimately, we made the decision not to go in because there were other ways that we could neutralize the threat. The people [who shot at us] were contained in the house. We could have entered it and ostensibly found ourselves in an ambush. That was a critical decision that we made.

DL: Is it accurate to say that on a daily basis you were in a life-threatening situation?

KJ: Everyone is in a life-threatening situation daily, you know? You could get hit by a bus. Things happen all the time. It’s a very different mindset when you’re in Afghanistan.

When I was at the forward operating base [FOB] Shank, mortar rounds would come in maybe every other day and kill indiscriminately. The bombs would go off, and sometimes if you were close enough, you could feel it in your bones when those things hit. It could happen at any time of the day — 2 a.m., 6 a.m., the middle of the afternoon. That was pretty demoralizing.

Discovering Saffron

DL: I can’t imagine. During all this, when was the moment that you became aware of saffron?

KJ: When I was deployed in Afghanistan I had heard about a spice named saffron that farmers were growing. It was an alternative to growing opium. Saffron gave farmers up to seven times more income than opium poppies. But I didn’t run into any saffron farmers while I was deployed.

But the idea stuck with me for a while. My experiences in Afghanistan working with the local population made me believe that we weren’t doing anything necessary to help Afghanistan in the long term.

To make a difference, we would need to lay down a foundation for peace through business.

So I, Emily — one of the other co-founders who had similar experiences — and Keith got together and were talking over Skype. Keith was telling us about a farmer named Haji Yosef who was growing saffron and trying to sell it to aid organizations.

Starting a Business: The Beginnings of Rumi Spice

DL: Was this the starting point?

KJ: I realized that at the end of the day, they [Afghan people] are not doing sales and marketing; they’re not doing trade shows; they’re not talking to chefs; and they’re not getting the product out there.

At this point, Emily and I were at Harvard Business School finishing up our first year and looking for internships. It was on the Skype call with Keith that it hit me there would be no other time in my life that I would be free to do what I want and have the financial independence to take the risk.

At the end of the day, I was going to graduate from Harvard Business School, and even if I tried something and failed, I would still have a safety net. If there was a time to try something — to be involved in something greater than myself and to do something meaningful — it was now.

Returning to Afghanistan

DL: Tell us about the moment when you decided to head back to Afghanistan.

KJ: I knew that this [making businesses out of saffron] had been tried in the past unsuccessfully. But I was at the best business school in the country, and if anyone was going to make a difference, it was going to be someone like me, Emily, or Keith. It seemed like there was no other choice.

So I bought myself a ticket to Afghanistan. My parents thought I was crazy. They were finally happy that I went to Harvard and that I was going to be some big businesswoman working for some large company or an investment bank, and now I was starting a saffron business in Afghanistan.

I took my entrepreneurship professor, Shikhar Ghosh, with me and met with Keith, who was still deployed. We drank tea with Haji Yosef, and I remember we were bargaining over pricing.

Then we went to Herat, on the western side of Afghanistan, near the Iranian border, and met 11 other farmers. They were sitting there in their very traditional clothing, and I was not wearing body armor or a weapon — I was just wearing a hijab.

I was speaking through an interpreter, and I was thinking, This is so surreal. I was here a couple of years ago in a very different capacity, surrounded by armed men and women and trying to talk about political stability and now I’m actually doing something worth doing.

In the beginning, these farmers would not shake my hand — more as a cultural thing, not out of disrespect. But fast-forward a year later, and we had three processing facilities and had exported over a hundred kilos of saffron.

Further Reading: Learn about other entrepreneurial veterans — like Michael Penney, a Marine who started a podcast!

Business Growth

DL: How big is the business now?

KJ: We are the largest private employer of Afghan women. We hired just under 2,000 women this past harvest last October, and we now work with more than 300 farmers.

The farmers don’t just shake my hand now — they also take selfies with me. They participate in sales and marketing; they want to provide materials for good marketing because they get it, and they’re connected to the customers. If anybody asks them, “Are Americans infidels?” they will say, “No, they are our customers.” That is a far stronger bond economically than anything we were trying to do in the military — which I would also argue is not the job of the military, either.

Challenges of Entrepreneurship

DL: When you started out as an entrepreneur, what was the biggest challenge that you faced?

KJ: One thing entrepreneurs do well is to overcome obstacles. You might fail, but what entrepreneurs realize is, Oh wait, that’s not a failure — you just have to try another way.

DL: Can you give me an example of the challenges very early on? You mentioned the farmers not being receptive to you. What was it like importing?

KJ: Absolutely. One challenge was how much time I spent at U.S. Customs and Border Protection. I decided I was going to try and import saffron myself instead of using DHL. One of our other co-founders, Carol Wang, went to Afghanistan and brought back saffron that she hand-carried. And so I had to declare that to customs and I didn’t want to use a customs broker.

I’m very frustrated with U.S. Customs. They basically outsource their entire job to private companies, and you’re not allowed as a citizen, who can read all the regulations, to do it yourself. That one was super-frustrating, and we got it done.

A Rumi Spice worker separating saffron flowers
A worker separating saffron flowers. Photo courtesy of Jung

Improving Lives Through Entrepreneurship

DL: Tell us an example of improvements you introduced to Afghan farmers that you’re proud of.

KJ: That has to be the exciting story of how we helped get some form of food safety standards up and running in Afghanistan. In the beginning, we bought dried saffron from the farmers. They dried it on the ground, and the women worked in their own homes as part of the family economy.

There were no procedures for how to properly pick the saffron and dry it. They didn’t even have drying machines. So in year one, we started buying the flowers from the farmers. Then hiring women was a challenge. We had to ask each father and husband for permission to allow the women to work in our facilities because it’s culturally sensitive. [As per local cultural norms,] you have to have all-women or all-men spaces. You can’t have a mixed-gender facility, and so that’s an extra step.

Another initiative we undertook was to offer women food-safety classes. We realized that these women needed food-safety-training classes. In 2017, we partnered with Perdue University’s agricultural faculty to do some actual training for quality assurance managers in Bangalore, India. As you can imagine, coordinating it and trying to get the money for that is a lot of what people would call a pain in the ass.

Entrepreneurs will go through so much pain to get what seem to be such little things done, so it’s exhausting. But that’s what entrepreneurs have to do.

Woman in saffron fields
A woman working in the saffron fields. Photo courtesy of Jung

DL: The women are doing the actual fieldwork. I assume the men are in the factories.

KJ: The men are the farmers. Out in the field, I’ve seen both men and women working, but they’re in separate groups. That’s not part of our supply chain. So we buy these finished flowers after all these groups of men and women pick them, put them in baskets, aggregate them, and ship them to our facilities. That’s when we take charge of the saffron.

What Rumi Spice Looks Like Today

DL: Where are the facilities?

KJ: There are three, all in Herat, Afghanistan.

DL: How much does a kilogram of saffron go for on the open market today?

KJ: A kilo would be $2,500 or more. But they’re all in 0.1-gram packets.

DL: Can you give me some sense of your growth from year one — from 2013 through 2017?

KJ: Financially, we started off with $30,000 revenue in the first year, and now we’re a little over $1 million in revenue for 2017.

DL: How many employees do you have?

KJ: We employ 1,952 Afghan women, and we have a couple of other more managerial men and women. Then we have seven employees in Chicago.

Female Entrepreneurs

DL: Is there anything you want to say to women entrepreneurs specifically?

KJ: I never thought it was harder for women to be entrepreneurs because all entrepreneurs are at a disadvantage. Entrepreneurs already have so many disadvantages, so being female doesn’t really matter. Getting investors is tough.

One of our investors is Hivers & Strivers. They’re a group of mostly former military personnel who invest only in military-academy-graduate start-ups.

All their investees were white males, and then they invested in us. I don’t think it was because they were looking for diversity. They really took us in. They had a lot of cigar moments. Doug Doan [a general partner of Hivers & Strivers] — he’s so great, isn’t he? I feel like he’s my dad. He’s a Republican; he will throw a cigar party and say things to me and Emily like, “It’s now time to put your big-girl pantyhose on,” and I actually love it.

It’s a different culture than I would be exposed to as a millennial.

That doesn’t mean he needs to change anything about himself. He has embraced me and Emily, and in turn, we embraced him.

Funding for Rumi Spice

DL: The seed rounds that you raised — one was on Kickstarter right? Can you disclose how much the other rounds were and in what years they took place?

KJ: We raised a little under $300,000 in 2015 and a little under $450,000 in 2016.

DL: And these were all military investments? People who were former military?

KJ: Not all of them. We also had a group called Goldenseeds. They invest only in women-owned-and-led companies. SLoFIG is another. They are a Chicago-based sustainable local food group, so they believe in sustainable food and being part of the food system.

DL: Have you ever taken out any loans?

KJ: Yes. Our bank extended us a line of credit about a year ago. It’s for working capital and to help with inventory purchases.

Bunker Labs

DL: How did the nonprofit veteran incubator Bunker Labs help?

KJ: Bunker started around the same time that we did. I had the privilege of knowing Todd [Connor, CEO of Bunker Labs] from the beginning. Watching the Bunker grow and develop and flourish — watching a nonprofit do that was really great. I’ve always been impressed by Bunker’s mission and how they execute.

I know a lot of other nonprofits, and there can be a huge mismatch between the goals of the people running them and what they’re actually doing to have an impact on veterans.

Bunker Labs is solely focused on improving veterans’ lives by helping them along the entrepreneurship path — allowing them to see how they can become great entrepreneurs, giving them the resources to do so, and connecting them to people all over, whether or not those people are veterans.

Bunker is run by veterans, too, so they always have veterans in mind.

DL: How did they help you specifically?

KJ: We found our first accountant through Bunker Labs. I would just email or reach out to Justin [Walker, executive director of Bunker Labs] or Todd and be like, “Oh well, I need so and so.” They were so great. We wanted to do a curated event where we invited a bunch of people and investors. Todd personally invited so many people in the Chicago network, including SLoFIG, and they became our investors.

Bunker Labs network has been absolutely important to our growth. Their structured classes and online classes are geared to veterans. They have a 10-week program, so budding entrepreneurs have to sign up, make a commitment, and do these events and learn. In the end, they have to pitch in front of everybody, so it’s serious.

They have another program called CEO Circle. Once you have this fledgling business, you can meet other CEOs to talk about issues that you wouldn’t be able to talk about at work with your coworkers, [talk] to people who have maybe gone through the same thing either emotionally or operationally, and get advice.

And the last thing would be Bunker Brews. Bunker Brews is great because it’s just a casual place for people to come and drink beer and meet with other people and mobilize the network in Chicago [or the many other locations in the U.S.] who want to help veterans.

The Market for Saffron Spice

DL: How many stores is your product in nationwide today?

KJ: About 350.

DL: And who are your biggest distributors?

KJ: The biggest stores are Whole Foods, Central Market, Home Shopping Network, and Market Basket.

The Future of Rumi Spice

DL: In three years, where do you want to be?

KJ: We want to be tomorrow’s spice company. It’s not just about saffron — it’s about all the other amazing goods, services, and handicrafts that come out of places like Afghanistan.

People have this idea that Afghanistan is a scar, a desert — that nothing good comes out of Afghanistan except terrorists and IEDs — and that’s not true at all. There’s so much that Afghanistan has to offer to the international economy. And what greater way to connect ourselves to these post-conflict countries than to buy goods from them? So I would like to become tomorrow’s spice company, tomorrow’s post-conflict goods-trading company.

This article is the first that CentSai will produce bimonthly in collaboration with Bunker Labs, a national nonprofit organization for U.S. service members who have changed paths to become entrepreneurs. The Bunker, which is run by veterans for veterans to help empower their community to become entrepreneurs and leaders, is currently located in nearly two dozen cities.