Daring Greatness Resonates: Know Your Fruit’s Jacqueline Alexander on Community, Culture and Commitment

The Crunchbase “Female Founder Series,” is a series of stories, Q&As, and thought-leadership pieces from glass-ceiling-smashers who overcame the odds, raised funding, and are now leading successful companies.

Jacqueline (Jackie) Alexander on a tractor

Jacqueline (Jackie) Alexander has a proven track record in business. A lawyer by trade, she purchased a pear orchard and, after realizing how much fruit goes to waste due to falling off the tree, discovered an opportunity to create freeze-dried fruit for snacking. 

Alexander, a BIPOC female entrepreneur, has faced many hurdles along the way including overt and systemic racism. However, she has also garnered the attention and support of highly influential individuals in the food, farming and agriculture industries. She’s received several business commendations, including ranked in the top 50 Black-owned businesses in the Portland area. 

A highly engaged and busy philanthropist, Alexander sits on the board of SBP–formerly the St. Bernard Project–a disaster recovery nonprofit that got its start after Hurricane Katrina. She’s also a benefactor to Lewis & Clarke College.

In this Q&A she shares more about her journey, including what inspired her to start Know Your Fruit, how she’s creating job opportunities in rural areas, and the legacy she’s leaving for her children and others in her community as a Black, female founder.

Q: Why did you choose to get into the food industry?

I consider myself a conscious capitalist. As such, there were two main reasons I chose to manufacture value-added food products. The first is to address the problem of food waste, a problem I became acutely aware of after I lost 750,000 pounds of Asian pears due to a faulty cold storage facility. Having that much cull–fruit that can’t be sold due to cosmetic flaws–was an eye-opener to the huge amount of food that goes to waste in this country. 

The second reason I decided to start a food manufacturing business was to create jobs in rural areas. I work as a farmer, with an orchard in beautiful Hood River, Oregon. I’ve seen the community struggle due to a lack of good paying jobs. I chose manufacturing value-added snack food products because it enabled me to address both of these problems head-on. 

Our food manufacturing facility would enable me to create new revenue streams and outlets for growers. Just as importantly, because we wanted our manufacturing facility to be close to where the food is grown, it meant we’d be able to bring good jobs to rural areas. 

Q: What issues did you see in the industry before starting your company?

I was an absolute neophyte in the food manufacturing industry and I’ve had to learn “on the job.” As a woman of color, and a grower, I’ve been very aware of a general lack of diversity. While it may be different in other parts of the world, the ranks of minority farmers in rural Oregon are not very strong. Then, as a parent, I’ve been very concerned with a lack of transparency regarding food safety. The idea that consumers should be able to trace the origins of their food to ensure safety is still not mainstream.   

Q: What inspired you to start Know Your Fruit?

Having spent a decade as an orchardist, I was intimately familiar with the challenges faced by growers, the up and down cycle of being a grower, and only receiving pennies per pound from the juicers for cull. 

Most people do not understand just how much goes into growing the food that appears on the grocery store shelves, let alone all the food that is lost and can’t make it there. 

I had a very personal stake in figuring out how to create new revenue streams for growers like me who wanted to increase their margins from their cull. As a philanthropist, I realized that significantly reducing food waste required scalable, sustainable solutions that I was determined to provide.  

Q: What problems were you trying to solve with Know Your Fruit?

One of the biggest problems I identified when I first started this business was our extended, global food supply chain driving food production to the cheapest locations around the world, and value-added manufacturing jobs going along with them. It’s resulted in lower prices at the grocery store, which is good, but it’s also putting tremendous pressure on rural communities everywhere. This simply has to be rebalanced. 

This is part of what’s behind the farm-to-table and slow-food movements. Greater transparency, higher quality and local jobs. By manufacturing value-added, freeze-dried snack food products in rural communities, close to where they’re produced, I want to help do my part of being a solution to this problem. I also considered it vital to combine my philanthropic passion and past with my company values by working to create a job training/re-entry program for formerly incarcerated black, indigenous and people of color (BIPOC). 

Q: How did you network, find communities and make the connections you needed to succeed?

Typically, finding the community partner for manufacturing is the easy part, while building the relationships and networks are the hard part. 

For me, on my journey, it’s been exactly the opposite. In fact, growing my network and connections has been remarkably painless. I attended many trade shows and conventions, and generally found people to be very open and generous with their time. I attended more workshops, classes and seminars than I can count, and was always impressed by the quality of the educators. My personal and professional relationships never once hesitated when it came to helping me procure mentorships and curate a team of experts to support me on my journey. 

Finding the right community partner, however, was initially more problematic. In fact, the Port of Cascade Locks, which we had selected as the location for our first Puff Factory, inexplicably broke our leasing agreement. It was quite shocking and unexpected, as we had thought our vision of good-paying jobs in a rural community would be shared by the community leaders. Even worse, its breach of contract proved to be one of the largest, and most costly, setbacks we could have imagined. That single breach, which happened nearly four years ago, is still impacting us to this day, and we have had to file a claim in federal court under Section 1981 and Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act. 

In the end, we have been able to find a solid partner with the community of Hood River, where we have built The Puff Factory, Hood River. To say that it’s been a night and day experience working with them is an understatement.

Q: What is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned as the founder of your own company?

Choose people based on your gut. It is uncanny, but when I look at how I came to rely on those who contributed to my setbacks, it’s because I didn’t listen to my gut. Conversely, when I look at the people I have been able to rely on time and again to come through, it’s because I knew in my gut that I could trust them. 

By way of example, our angel investors–Taste Thirst run by Michael Wilson and Adeline Fong–have been remarkably steadfast in their support of my business. I can’t think of a better example of listening to my gut. I chose them because I knew that their first and foremost desire was to make me, and my company, better.

Q: What is your advice for other entrepreneurs trying to scale their companies? 

While every company has the same imperative to scale, it’s important to remember that scaling successfully is not a one-size-fits-all approach. For example, while Reid Hoffman’s Blitzscaling is a must-read for anyone launching a consumer-focused SaaS company, the complexities and infrastructure requirements for value-added food manufacturing are entirely different. 

In a food manufacturing business, everything from the growing to the processing is about much more than just speed. It’s about quality and reliability and, most-importantly, safety. Because, while an error with TikTok may result in a video that doesn’t play, an error in a food supply chain could result in sickness, or worse. 

Q: What is your advice for other female founders and women of color at the beginning of their entrepreneurial journeys?

Be willing to risk it all. It’s not going to be easy, and there will be times when it seems like you are not going to get to the other side; this is the time that you need to double down on your efforts. On the days when you are feeling your absolute worst, these are times you wear your best suit.

Give people a reason to help you. There is no shortage of great people out there who will stand shoulder to shoulder with you to make your vision a reality. But, your job is to make it clear to them why they should.

Don’t sit back and be silent. I’ve come up against, and been challenged to overcome, countless instances where doors were inexplicably closed to people who look like me, where my competence was questioned, where my business was patronizingly “protected.” The list goes on. 

The reason I’m still here is simple–I wouldn’t stand for that kind of treatment. You shouldn’t either.

Q: Do you have a favorite quote or “personal mantra” you use to keep yourself motivated?

I have two quotes that I find myself reciting daily, both are from a close family friend and mentor, John Paul Dejoria. “Successful people do what unsuccessful people won’t,” and “success unshared is failure.” I cannot tell you how many times these words have driven me to stay true to my course.

Q: What challenges are you most proud of overcoming in your career?

I am proudest of successfully completing the construction of “The Puff Factory, Hood River” as the owner/builder. The factory is my flagship 36,000-sq.-ft. freeze-drying, processing and manufacturing plant. I’m proud of it for the obvious reasons–it’s my first factory–and that’s a huge accomplishment in and of itself.

But, it’s particularly important to me for another reason. I was compelled to take over and manage the completion of its construction as an owner/builder following the unavoidable firing of my general contractor. Despite having absolutely no background in commercial construction, I have a factory built. If that’s not a commitment to being willing to risk it all, I don’t know what is.

Q: How have you integrated your values and mission into your own company culture?

The company’s mission and values and culture are mine, because I see it as the beginning of a movement to change how food is manufactured.

We are relentlessly focused on reducing the unsustainable amount of waste that has become the norm in the food production ecosystem. We need to do this for the health of the planet today and, more importantly, for the world our children will inherit tomorrow. 

We are steadfast in our commitment to bringing good-paying jobs to rural America. As growers ourselves, we are committed to the land and the culture that supports it. That’s why we are resolute about growing and manufacturing in the United States, because we believe that good-paying jobs are essential if we are to sustain America’s agricultural regions.

We are passionate about manufacturing the highest quality products without the trade-offs that have become the norm in modern agriculture. For us, the food we make and the values that inform our business are inseparable. 

Q: What are the biggest lessons you have learned in the process of obtaining funding for your business?

Always have a back-up source of funding. Even if you have the signed letter assuring you that everything is approved–until the check has cleared and you have that money in your bank account, it’s not your money.

Q: What qualities do you possess that you think have contributed most to your success?

I believe my sense of limitlessness and vision, when combined with my natural enthusiasm, have been so incredibly helpful to me. Not just to see where we’re going, but sometimes to blindly believe that everything will work out in the end.

Of course, there’s another side of my personality and that’s an innate fearlessness combined with a relentless work ethic. Because I do believe that luck is made, not given. 

Lastly, I am tenacious and thorough. If there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that being an entrepreneur is not for the faint of heart or the humble of nature.

Q: What do you find most rewarding about your experience as a founder so far?

The most rewarding aspect of being a Black female founder is knowing that I will leave a legacy for my children and other black children: The belief that anything is possible, in spite of obstacles along the way. 

It’s gratifying knowing that the example I have set can and likely will empower subsequent generations by providing tangible proof that their outsized dreams and aspirations are, in fact, achievable. 

Q: How has your experience as a founder impacted those around you?

Daring greatness resonates. I do feel the pride that my friends and family and my community have in me. I sense the positive impact I have on them. I strive to build a tactile legacy. I hope that legacy expands the realm of possibility for those around me. I hope that my journey is successful and therefore inspirational and aspirational. I seek to help friends, community and family internalize the notion that all is attainable with the requisite hard work, commitment and belief. 

  • Originally published December 11, 2020