Nailah Ellis-Brown knew in elementary school she wanted to be an entrepreneur.
Now, at 27, she is the founder and CEO of Ellis Infinity, a company that brews and bottles Ellis Island Tropical Tea in Detroit. She sells her hibiscus tea — served hot or cold — in markets, including Whole Foods, throughout southeast Michigan, Illinois, Indiana and, of course, to a retailer near Ellis Island in New York.
Earlier this year, she was featured on NBC’s “Meredith Vieira Show,” with Bobbi Brown, CEO of Bobbi Brown Cosmetics, and “Shark Tank” investor Barbara Corcoran. They said on the show they would mentor her.
To start the company in 2008, she dropped out of Howard University. The tea recipe was passed down from her great-grandfather, who came to the United States from Jamaica via Ellis Island. The company is not yet profitable, but Ellis-Brown said that in a year, she’s more than doubled sales.
She also has been honored this year by the Manufacturing Institute with an award for women in manufacturing, and the Michigan State University Product Center named her entrepreneur of the year.
We talked to Ellis-Brown about what it takes to create and run a company.
QUESTION: How did you get started with this enterprise?
ANSWER: My original plan was to go to school, get a degree in business, then go to Wall Street, make a bunch of money and walk away and start a business. I knew entrepreneurship was my destiny. But, when I got to college, I learned a little bit about debt, and I could not accept I’d come out of college only to spend the rest of my life paying back loans. With entrepreneurship, you’re starting from zero whether you have a degree or not. My thing, was, why not just go for it now? So, I dropped out. I created a list of businesses that were ideas I’d go into. Through the process of elimination, I decided on a beverage company. It cost nothing to get started. I just had to go buy some tea bags and start playing around in the kitchen. It was trial and error.
Q: Your tea recipe is a family secret. What’s the story there?
A: I asked my dad for the recipe because it was passed down from my great-grandfather to him. And, before my great-grandfather died, he told him: This recipe is to be sold and not told, which means, put on the market. He never got around to it. He’d make it for family events. I’d watch people’s reactions to tasting it. To me, it was always an overreaction: “It’s just tea. Calm down.” But, it dawned on me, this is my ticket to entrepreneurship.
Q: So, in order for you to start this company you had to convince your dad to break his promise?
A: Yeah. It was work. He was living in New York. I flew to New York to ask him. It took me 30 minutes to spit it out: “How would you feel about me having the recipe and trying to put it on the market?” First, he laughed. Then, he said: “So you want me to give you this recipe?” Then, he tried to tell me how hard it is to get on the market.
Q: When did you start selling the tea?
A: There was one night, I was hanging with a bunch of friends and I told them about this tea I make. They forced me to make it so they could try it. Their reaction when they tried it was the same reaction when my father made it. I knew that was it. The next day, I started selling it. I’d brew tea at night; the next morning, I’d bottle it, load up my cooler and drive around the city and sell it. I sold out every single day.
Q: How did you get into stores?
A: I found myself getting stagnant. My goal was to become a national brand and get into grocery stores. So I said: You will never again load your cooler and sell tea. The next day, I went to a local bakery. The owner’s only question was: Is it locally made? I said yeah. She said bring me a case tomorrow. From that point, we got into store after store after store. I landed my first Whole Foods account a few years ago.
Q: Your best advice to other entrepreneurs?
A: My motto is pray like everything depends on God. Work like everything depends on you.
Q: What do you mean by that?
A: Entrepreneurship is a faith walk. There’s no road map. It requires a lot of prayer. My faith keeps me going. There have been a lot of times, I ask: Is this stupid? Should I just have gone to college? But, there’s days when this is awesome. Entrepreneurship is an emotional roller coaster. You give it your all — and pray.
Title: Founder, CEO
Family: Husband, Rob Brown; daughter, Aaliyah, 11 months
Education: Attended Howard University
Car: 2006 Mercury Mountaineer