Today we’d like to introduce you to Nigel Smith.
Hi Nigel, can you start by introducing yourself? We’d love to learn more about how you got to where you are today?
We each have a unique story.
I am an immigrant from a developing country in the Caribbean, Trinidad & Tobago. Even though I grew up in paradise in a family of love, I also had very humble beginnings and also faced numerous hardships. Upon arrival in the USA, I started off in the honors program at a highly reputed community college in Rockland County, NY. I transitioned after my first year to Howard University where I did really well.
I graduated as valedictorian at 20 years old from the Howard University School of Business. Then, I began working at one of the Big 6 accounting firms in NYC, became a CPA, and went on to Stanford University to earn my MBA. Interned at Goldman Sachs, and spent the next few years working in strategy and innovation roles at some of the most admired companies in the world – McKinsey & Company, Visa USA, and AARP. During that time, I became a pioneer in the ag-tech industry and even had a chance to present to the United Nations and Brussels Forum.
In my mid-40s, I became a full-time entrepreneur. My late Grandpa was an amazing mixologist and taught his children the tools of the trade. Through my Uncle David, I learned how to make one of Grandpa’s amazing rum-based recipes – a secret family recipe for over 60 years.
Along the way, I added my own twists to the recipe and took out the alcohol, leaving behind a non-alcoholic elixir that was transformational, not just with rum but with any spirit or non-spirit base. We now have multiple versions of that elixir, and we are bringing our portfolio of these simple and versatile Caribbean drink mixers to the world.
Prior to becoming a full-time CEO, we had a proof of concept in the market focused on learning and de-risking our business model. In 2022, we are in that critical transitional phase of incubation to acceleration, with a myopic focus on execution and scalable growth.
In addition to my full-time entrepreneurial role, I serve on the board of directors of two insurance companies in my homeland of Trinidad & Tobago, and volunteer for numerous initiatives that focus on democratizing health, wellness, and digital skills.
I currently live in Silver Spring, Maryland with my wife of 20 years, daughters Zuri and Rena, Mom and mother-in-law.
Can you talk to us a bit about the challenges and lessons you’ve learned along the way? Looking back would you say it’s been easy or smooth in retrospect?
It has been a roller coaster ride, with amazing highs and some low points along the way. I will highlight three of the biggest challenges in my journey to date.
One of the big transitions I have had to manage is the one from a big company to a start-up, and this is one that has both upsides and challenges. One big challenge has been with buyer-power. Working for billion-dollar companies in the past with the promise of million-dollar contracts always translated into amazing responsiveness in quality and timeliness with just about every vendor in our supply chains.
As a start-up, where I represent one of so many clients, I am suddenly in a position where I need some of these vendors more than they need me. It is becoming increasingly challenging to have vendors live up to agreed-upon contractual terms, and I have had to leverage carrot-vs-stick tactics to yield influence, raise my visibility and bring more value to the table than my counterparts. This is likely going to be our reality until Zurena scales and we become that “800-pound gorilla”.
Another major struggle has been finding avenues for normalcy and being me. Being the CEO of a start-up can be a lonely path, and I have so much going on between my entrepreneurial role, board role, volunteer work, and the functional responsibilities of being Dad, Husband, and Son. There is not much me-time left after factoring-in exercise and sleep.
Thank goodness for WhatsApp and text messaging. I have friends from different walks of life – from Stanford to high school to pseudo friends in fantasy soccer leagues. Through these outlets, I can vent about the frustrations of start-up life or simply get away completely from start-up life. This keeps me sane, gives me a sense of normalcy, and ensures that once I’m focused on Zurena I’m 110% focused on Zurena.
Another exciting challenge that I’m still working through is how to get to the best balance from Team Zurena between what we have to do to survive and thrive as a start-up, and what we want to do to have fun, innovate, and self-actualize as an organization. As a start-up, our plates are consistently overflowing with just the basic operational, marketing, business development, sales, and customer relationship management needs of the organization.
Yet, each member of the team has a second life focused on social impact and has great innovative ideas for extending the utility of the Zurena platform. One thing I share with my staff members is that in any organization, personal knowledge becomes organizational IP, personal reputation becomes an organizational brand and personal relationships become organizational networks. In a big organization, that gets lost in the fray, and a lot of personal blood sweat and tears may never be revealed to the world as attributable to employee X vs that of organization Y.
One major upside with Zurena is that everything is a lot closer to home. Getting interviewed for this publication puts me, the CEO, at the forefront where my point of view can be shared with the world. We are attempting to do the same with all of our small-yet-mighty contingency of staff members through the media, newsletters, and our social media outreach.
We are leveraging weekly team meetings and platforms like Slack to provide overall transparency around operational excellence. And we have “innovation” as a function in the organization that is owned by me with KPIs attached to encourage everyone to be key cogs in a continuous innovation process.
We are shaping an ambidextrous organizational culture, one defined by operational excellence, fun, innovation, and societal impact, one that we intend to nurture as Zurena scales.
Thanks – so what else should our readers know about Zurena?
There are no other products in the world quite like Zurena, positioning us to steal market share in a global $700B industry.
The most versatile drink mixers in the world today, they are absolutely delicious – a tropical melange of lemons, limes, passion fruit, mangoes, bitters, and other natural flavors. They contain no alcohol and any one of our mixers can be mixed with any spirit, beer, wine, bubbly or non-alcoholic base to create an unlimited number of high-quality tropical cocktails, mocktails, and hot toddies in seconds.
All-natural, gluten and sodium-free, they empower restaurant owners without a trained mixologist on staff with the ability to have a credible beverage program. For those with mixologists on staff, they add effectiveness and efficiency to the cocktail preparation process. For consumers, they empower the creation of high-quality cocktails, mocktails, and hot toddies in seconds.
We are actively raising funds and are interested in speaking with angels and institutional investors who invest in early-stage CPG startups. We are also eager to speak with food service managers, event and catering managers, restaurant and bar owners as we have a product that can bring meaningful topline, bottom line and customer differentiation benefits to operations.
Zurena combines the names of my two daughters – Zuri, Swahili for beautiful, and Rena, Hebrew for joyful melody. A beautiful, joyful melody, which is what it does to anything it touches. I wanted to set an example for them of the art of the possible, that if you have a dream, just go out there and make it happen. Because my product is named after my daughters, I have kept the image positive and above board, and I have kept the product itself as healthy as it can be. I am proud of these decisions.
Zurena is not just a product, but a platform for uplifting spirits. We have engaged in numerous virtual and community activations over the past few years to explore the intersection of beverage with social engagement as a pathway for reducing social isolation and uplifting mental health. From virtual mocktail creation sessions to providing refreshing mocktails at the annual African American Male Wellness Initiative, we have been innovating and measuring impact.
We have a powerful team. Milton B. Yates, Global Brand Lead; Njideka Cornwall, Director of Digital Marketing & E-commerce, and Hubert Braithwaite, Strategic Business Development and Sales. Everyone is committed to making Zurena an incredible success.
So, before we go, how can our readers or others connect or collaborate with you? How can they support you?
Customers can purchase mixers online, at select retailers in Maryland and Washington, D.C., and soon at select H-E-B grocery stores in Texas.
For a full list of availability go to https://www.myzurena.com/shop/.
Please follow us @MyZurena on IG, Facebook, and Twitter, and sign-up for our newsletter at https://www.myzurena.com. Please also search for us on LinkedIn: Zurena.
Inquiries for collaboration can be made at info@MyZurena.com.
- Each mixer retails for $17.50 online