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As Ellis Island Tea grows, founder Nailah Ellis-Brown makes hiring local a priority

Nailah Ellis-Brown of Ellis Island Tea

"As we expand and our production increases, my goal is to lower the unemployment rate in Michigan. I can do that by hiring and putting people on the line."
Buying local may be all the rage these days, but Nailah Ellis-Brown says introducing her Detroit-made product into the local market has still been an uphill battle.

Ellis-Brown is the founder and owner of Ellis Island Tea, which produces a traditional Jamaican hibiscus bottled tea. Since founding the company in 2008, she's been named one of Forbes' "30 Under 30" in the manufacturing industry and her beverages are now available in Meijer and Whole Foods stores across the Midwest. Getting her product into more stores—as in her recent deal with Lipari Foods, which will distribute Ellis Island Tea to retailers across 12 Midwestern states—is one challenge. But Ellis says actually getting eyeballs on her product is another.

"The shelf space that everyone fights for is center eye-level space because that's the most prime spot," she says. "It's always filled with Pepsi and Coke because they pay more money."

The tyranny of the big guys becomes even more pronounced in certain situations. Ellis-Brown recently hit a roadblock while trying to hammer out a distribution deal with HMSHost and Hudson News, which operate rest stops and airport stores nationwide. She was initially told Ellis Island Tea couldn't be sold at Detroit Metropolitan Airport because the airport had an exclusive contract to sell Pepsi products.

"I can't even start in my hometown," Ellis-Brown says. "I'm at the Westin at the airport, but once you pass security, it's only Pepsi."

Ellis Island Tea is available at Meijer, Whole Food, and across the Midwest.She found a solution to that frustrating problem in an unexpected way earlier this year. Late last year, while accepting the Michigan Black Chamber of Commerce's Sankofa Next Generation Entrepreneur of the Year Award, Ellis-Brown connected with Leon Richardson, president and CEO of the Southfield-based chemical management company ChemicoMays. The two bonded and Ellis-Brown says Richardson has become invaluable to her as a mentor. Richardson guided her through the process of passing an NSF audit earlier this year, allowing her products into Metro Airport by way of a clause in the Pepsi contract that provides for the sale of audited local products.

"Everything for me from day one has been trial and error," Ellis-Brown says. "[Richardson has] been doing this a lot longer and he's helped to save us a lot of wasted money and cut down the trial and error bit, because we have been able to learn from the mistakes he's made already."

The airport situation is just one example of how Ellis-Brown's mentorship has helped her business. Richardson funded Ellis Island's $15,000 initial order from Meijer. Ellis-Brown says he's also been helpful to her business in building a relationship with the distributor Aramark, which services cafeterias in hospitals, schools, and businesses. 

"A lot of times it's just a phone call," she says. "A lot of doors won't be open because I'm coming in as a cold call and no one knows who I am. It just makes it a lot harder."

There's an interesting coincidence in the fact that Ellis-Brown discovered such an important mentorship at the Sankofa awards ceremony, because the acceptance speech she gave that night focused on the power of nurturing the next generation. She says it's important not only for consumers and distributors to support local business, but for the Southeast Michigan business community to support its own as well. 

"Those who come before us, it's their job to make it easier for those who come after," she says. "Just because it took you 30 or 40 years to get a positive cash flow, it should take me less time because that's what you came before me for: to open the doors and make it easier for me."

Ellis-Brown has applied that ethos in a particularly focused way at Ellis Island. She says she tries to prioritize hiring Detroit residents, particularly those of color. That practice arises partly from her frustration with the fact that businesses have moved into Detroit from its suburbs in recent years, and they may bring workforces in with them instead of hiring Detroiters.

"My passion is more for Detroit natives," Ellis-Brown says. "Because Detroit happens to be majority black, we should have more of a hiring rate of Detroit natives who happen to be black."

Ellis-Brown says she may expand her business to include facilities in other states, but she firmly intends to maintain her headquarters in Detroit. 

"As we expand and our production increases, my goal is to lower the unemployment rate in Michigan," she says. "I can do that by hiring and putting people on the line."

As for mentoring local young entrepreneurs herself, Ellis-Brown says she's just beginning. Although she's helped a few with simple questions, she says she feels she doesn't yet have the experience required of a good mentor.

"I can show the basics, but as far as mentoring and actual business and manufacturing, I'm not at that point," she says. "But once I get to that point? Absolutely."

Patrick Dunn is the interim managing editor of Concentrate and an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer for numerous publications. Follow him on Twitter @patrickdunnhere.SaveSaveSaveSaveSaveSaveSaveSave
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