Sajani Amarasiri is a total natural at being a small business owner. Her tea company, Kola Goodies, has experienced fast growth in the two years since its inception. The brand’s Sri Lankan tea blends are already selling in brick-and-mortar stores, they’ve landed a partnership with a huge Boba chain, and they’re currently in the works of expanding their product line. This success won’t be surprising to anyone familiar with Sajani’s background.
“My parents are entrepreneurs — small business owners,” Sajani said. “So for a long time, I didn't realize that was the only reference I had for a career… so corporate was not the dream. I always thought I would do something on my own.”
But, the road to paving her own company took some time. After moving to the United States from Sri Lanka for college, Sajani decided to go into the tech field not because that was her dream career, but because it was the most realistic option for her – a survival mechanism as an immigrant. She ended up working at Amazon and then made the move to Microsoft where the company sponsored her work visa.
It turns out, that Sajani actually enjoyed working in tech. Her job specifically focused on hardware supply chain, which would prove to be useful once she made the switch to running a business. And, despite the long hours, Sajani didn’t let her day job take up all of her time. She always had side hustles like starting an online clothing store. Eventually, she decided to tackle an even bigger project and managed to open up the first ever co-working space in Sri Lanka – Colombo Cooperative – which was entirely women-founded and funded.
But even that wasn’t enough for the Sri Lankan native. The itch to do something bigger and bolder was brewing inside of her. By connecting back to her roots and leveraging her distinct perspective as an immigrant, Sajani would go on to create a small business that embraces her Sri Lankan heritage.
A unique and multicultural perspective
A few years ago, Sajani noticed the wellness boom which promised health and vitality through holistic superfoods. Living in the Bay Area, Sajani was surrounded by this new health kick. It quickly became apparent that rituals and ingredients she grew up with in her Sri Lankan household – like turmeric and coconut oil – were blowing up in her new home.
And while it was nice to see parts of her culture being recognized, Sajani couldn’t help but feel like her upbringing was also being co-opted.
“[These ingredients] have been in our generational kitchens and families for 1,000s of years,” Sajani said. “But our stories weren't being told. That cultural appropriation was kind of crazy to witness being an immigrant.”
She realized that all of the tea brands that were selling turmeric drinks at the time were not owned by South Asian founders, despite the yellow spice originating in South Asia. With her background and expertise, Sajani knew she could develop an authentic, nutritious, and delicious turmeric drink. Even more so, she wanted to create a product that would seamlessly blend her two identities.
“You get to have this unique insight from a different cultural lens. Two homes …my home in America and my home where I grew up [in Sri Lanka],” Sajani said. “For me, it was like, ‘how do I create value addition from that perspective, in a way that gives back to both the places where I come from?”
In fact, Sajani named the company after a popular Sri Lanka drink “Kola Kanda,” which is made from raw rice, coconut milk, and herbal leaves that are said to have medicinal properties. This was a drink she grew up with and has particularly fond memories of.
“It’s a deeply popular, very Sri Lankan breakfast tea that is so good for you. It's filled with greens, it's warming, and it's great for your digestion and energy,” Sajani said.
In 2020, she launched a minimum viable product of their first blend, the super green latte, which includes turmeric. Through this testing process, Sajani received tons of feedback and learned what consumers wanted.
This laid down the framework for Kola Goodies. Now, two years later, the company just launched their third product – a dairy-free oat milk latte. While Kola Goodies has seen a lot of success, Sajani has had to alter her vision a couple of times along the way.
Finding your why and sticking to it
Sajani credits her success as an entrepreneur to one main thing: knowing her why. Even when she’s faced obstacles in her businesses, she’s been able to connect back to her end goal which has always pushed her forward.
“I think one of the biggest things is having your ‘why’ very clear as to, ‘why you’re starting this?’ And, ‘what’s the vision behind it?’” Sajani said. “Because it’s not easy to go through every day pushing a small business to be successful. But having that why… will always help you get through it.”
For Sajani, her main purpose has always been to raise more awareness of Sri Lankan culture and amplify the voices of the Sri Lankan community. So, even though it was difficult for the entrepreneur to close down Colomba Cooperative a year into the pandemic, she was still proud of the experience because she knew she'd achieved her goal. The co-working space was the first of its kind in Sri Lanka and brought people together, making the community stronger.
Similarly, early into Kola Goodies Sajani had found that she needed to pivot with the kinds of teas they were producing.
“When we first started, we were more focused on the superfood drinks, like Moringa, and turmeric latte,” Sajani said. “But then, we wanted to have more culturally inspired products that we’re bringing to life supporting our own farmers, and that were going to bring our culture forward in modern ways.”
Rather than just focusing on strictly healthy drinks like their Super Green Latte, Sajani was able to expand the product line to add the Sri Lankan Milk Tea, which is currently their best-selling product. Expanding to provide milk tea also made it possible for one of Kola Goodie’s biggest partnerships.
Boba Guys – a well-known milk tea chain in California and New York – had an accelerator program for minority founders and ended up loving Kola Goodie's tea blends so much, that the two businesses collaborated to launch a turmeric boba milk tea. Not only did this venture provide more exposure for Kola Goodies, but for Sajani, it was another way to bring in more diversity in the beverage space.
“It’s one thing to see golden [turmeric] milk boba available at such a big chain,” she said. “But it’s such an amazing collaboration to see East Asian culture and South Asian culture coming together in a drink.”
Working closely with the Sri Lankan Community
Ushering in more representation for the Sri Lankan culture has always been a goal for Sajani. But more importantly, she wanted to directly help her fellow Sri Lankans. This is why Kola Goodies directly sources their ingredients from local farmers, despite it not being the most practical route.
“I am going to use that extra time and resources to find the [Sri Lankan] farmers to be able to support them because that directly correlates to my why. And it makes sense because that's a value framework that I have for all the decisions that I make,” she said.
Not only does this lead to the freshest and most authentic ingredients, but it also allows Sajani to pay these farmers in USD and provide them with a more stable income. Currently, Sri Lanka is facing a political and economic crisis and Sajani has used her platform as a small business owner to educate her customers about the situation. She’s also raised money for Sri Lankan organizations and donated hundreds of meals directly to those in need.
Being able to give back to her hometown means a lot to Sajani. And the entrepreneur said she has one person who deserves the credit for making it all possible – her mother. Kola Goodies’s slogan, “Got it from my amma,” is a direct shoutout to her contributions. If it wasn’t for their morning rituals in the kitchen, Sajani said she may never have been inspired to open up a Sri Lankan tea business.
“[My mom] is such a cornerstone, because if she didn't take the time to make the things that nourished us, that became a huge part of my day-to-day growing up, then well, I wouldn't even have an inspiration point to bring a super green latte or Sri Lankan tea,” she said. “That was all her.”
The entrepreneur has come a long way from drinking Kola Kanda at home as a child with her family in Sri Lanka. By merging all of her idiosyncrasies– her distinct background, her experience in tech, and her drive to empower her community – Sajani has created something special. Kola Goodies is one of the brands bringing much-needed representation to cultures that don’t normally get a spotlight.
“The fact that there is Sri Lankan milk tea in a San Francisco supermarket is huge from a cultural point of view,” Sajani said. “[Sri Lanka] is such a small country. We are very much not represented, even when it comes into the South Asian dialogue. So it's amazing to just see yourself on a shelf when you're walking down the grocery store.”