Emily Olson, Co-Founder of Rainbow Road
Always seeing the golden thread that ties it all together, Emily Oslon of Rainbow Road Kaua'i gathers her diverse experiences and creatively weaves it into her growing work. She is the CoFounder of Rainbow Road - a local, beyond organic, plant-based ice cream company that captures the unique flavors of Kaua'i and strengthens connection to the flavors of the ‘aina. Her lessons learned from past businesses has shaped her values and vision over time, allowing her to accept the journey for all that it teaches her and find a deeper purpose that ties it together. Listen in on this interview to be inspired by the hidden abundance that exists in every experience that shapes our calling.
Tell us who you were as a 10 year old girl?
"I would love to say that I was already making ice cream and all of that. I think it was my first job when I was 12, so it's not too far from that. But yeah, I was making soft serve at a little shop called Cheeseburgers in Paradise, and they taught me how to make the perfect swirl. My dad always said that from the time I was little, I was always a leader. It was something that was inherent in my personality from the beginning. It's actually really nice to get other people's reflections of who you were, because you're kind of... 10-year old me, I think I was just in middle school. I just cared about playing Alanis Morissette with my Discman, and middle school things."
What sparked that sudden interest of wanting to start, run, own a business?
"I didn't always know that I'd be an entrepreneur. It was something that I was grateful for mentorship into the process of being an entrepreneur. I was, however, always dedicated to finding my passion. Perhaps it was in my freshman year of high school - Oprah was really big at that time. I remember my mom would have her on, and she said something like, "Whatever you're putting off your homework to do, whatever you're putting off, the real work to do is where your true passion is." And so, I always just followed that; and I think it just stuck with me at that age of, "Well, what's my passion?" And it was this journey of, "What is that thing?"
When I got to college, I was really passionate about chemistry. When I was in high school, I had an amazing teacher; and when I got to college, I thought I'd be a chemistry major. But I was putting off all my chemistry homework to cook, and I was like, "Well, the food lab in the kitchen is far more tasty and interesting than these other chemistry labs." Of course, chemistry applies to ice cream and to cooking. But at that time, it was more just like, it was where all my interest was being drawn to. Right? It was for health, really, for me to feel vibrant and healthy. I wanted to cook, and I wanted to learn how to make my own food.
I ended up majoring in Communications, with a major in Journalism and minored in Food and Nutrition. Ever since then, my whole journey has been connected through food, and how to make delicious things - always connected to local food systems, always having a health angle, all of that. That's been a golden thread, for sure, since that really was activated in me.
What were the key milestones or turning points that led you to this particular business that you're in now?
When I graduated from college, I went to Virginia Tech, I met my husband on the first day of college, Rob. We've been together for 19 years now. That's a long time when you're only 37. I went and worked for the Fresh Market, a specialty food retailer. I noticed all these small food purveyors that we were trying to work with for our private label line, and how hard it was for them to get into stores, in general. Offhand one day, I said to him, "Wouldn't it be cool if we created a place where they could just sell their products online, where you could follow all these different makers and buy from them directly?" He and another friend at that time, were working; they were both really technical. Rob was more entrepreneurial, and the other friend was more technical. This was in 2007. They were like, "That's a much better idea than what we're working on - we should do that. That was the birth of my first business, which was called Foodzie.
At the time, I was living in North Carolina; but there was someone that came to visit UNC Chapel Hill that talked about this program called Techstars, which was a business incubator program for tech businesses. At the age of 23, we got accepted into that program. It was a huge trajectory change, because once you get immersed in a network, once you get immersed with mentorship, and once you are given access to funds, then you really catapult yourself into a different place with the business. So, building Foodzie also was a wild ride.
In 2008, the recession and the market had just fallen out. But people were all focused on local at that time. We were getting put on every magazine - a lot of measures of what would be deemed as success: a lot of press, publicity, all that, which allowed me to see what can be false indicators of success of the actual business. We were able to get all of that attention, but when it came down to business fundamentals, do I have a solid business here? There were some of those things that could maybe inflate your ego, but don't really matter when it comes to, "Is your business legit?" So I learned a lot on that front, in those early days of just trial by fire. That whole experience, being in that network was huge.
Other pivotal moments were failure- that business, we ended up selling, which was a lot of learning from that. And then the second business that I started was called Din; it was a meal kit business, partnering with local restaurants, where the restaurants would create a meal; prep ingredients, and you could fire that dish at home, and have a restaurant quality meal at home. We built this amazing team. We partnered with the local restaurants, and those restaurants would create these amazing meals. You could cook something new every time you made these dishes. It was amazing. But we were in a super competitive space, and there was so much money being pumped in from VCs. You saw what happened when an industry gets subsidized; and we were trying to stay locally focused. Then there were these values that mattered, like not having all this packaging waste, or wanting to work with local vendors. Every other company, it was like, "Oh, you can just use these plastic materials, and you can ship it to states away if you use this insulation."
I had these values that were coming up for me, where I was just getting pissed. I'm like, "No, we're not going to do that." We were at odds with the third co-founder, who disagreed, and it ended up causing us to part ways. My husband and I then carried forth that business. In the end, there was so much competition in the space, we weren't able to raise the funds we needed, for various reasons. We weren't able to get it profitable; and we ended up shutting down the business.
But I learned a lot in the process about the things that matter to me when building a business, again, those golden threads that come through every time you create something. And the lessons in failure, which is just allowing it to happen and the acceptance of it. That was a huge lesson as well, and a lot of learning. We stepped out of that business, recognizing the need to go deeper into the healing of our planet, which of course, we're all aligned with, because of what's happening, collectively. Each of our own individual vectors. For me, it was like, "Okay, regenerative agriculture, ways of growing food in harmony with nature, and using my skills as an entrepreneur to make food, give an offering to the community that is more in this harmonious way." That has been the beginnings of what Rainbow Road is now.
I was looking through some of your recent flavors that you guys have, and you do such a creative job of partnering up flavors, and having it really true to what is local here on our island.
"Absolutely! Paying attention, and using what's available to you does take an act of creation to say, instead of, 'I'm just going to do what I know,' to 'I'm going to pay attention, observe, and make from what I have.' "
What have you learned about yourself through this process?
"I've learned that I'm definitely a leader, as my dad said I've been from the beginning, so I'm always at the start of things. I'm also a space holder, too. So the way that I like to lead, is that it's a collective vision that comes through. I see certain parts of what needs to happen, but really bring a whole team in for a collective vision, how to hold space for that, how to really navigate that process. I focus on being really clear in the foundational elements of a business, the mission and the values that ground the business. It creates clarity for when you have to make hard choices, and how you attract a team. Cultivating a team is something that I love doing, and making sure everybody's wellbeing is considered in a holistic way. "
What are the roles you play and how do you balance them?
"Well, first and foremost, I'll just say, when you live in community, and this is a contrast to what I experienced in San Francisco; but when I say community, I mean people showing up in all kinds of various ways that are a give, that are not transactional, that are not in service of just to network your way to a certain business outcome you want. It means showing up for humans on a human level. In San Francisco I was a 24/7 entrepreneur, because I had no children at that point. Now I'm a mom, and I'm in a community, which means when there's a baby, and there's a mom that needs a Meal Train, I'm cooking that or I'm volunteering and I'm helping out at a farm, or I'm giving my time in so many different ways, because when you're in a culture that's relational. That relational currency is what's the underpinning, which is amazing. It all feeds the whole. That notion that you have to just work 24/7, just your thing, is very narrow. You gain so much by helping all these other ways outside of your business.
And then yes, I am a mom. So far a mom to only one human child; and now, most recently, a little kitty. I have been very intentional so far. I have only one child, since I have a business child. This has been a big decision for me - holding off on having any more children so far, because being an entrepreneur has so much to give to it. My almost four-year old; she's three and three quarters, as she would say, has taught me so much about balance and priorities. And also, it can be really hard. I think that was probably my biggest fear of even getting pregnant, wondering could I pursue the things that I desired from an entrepreneurial standpoint? The reality is, creating and cultivating a human is far more important than ice cream. The balance is definitely a daily, weekly practice of patience and self-compassion of the many times that I'd say, "I missed that." Or, "I can't do this because I'm sorry, my daughter needs me." Completely just asking for that a lot. Also, learning to stand in my power as a woman and as a mom, saying, "It's okay for me to ask for these things, to be in both these roles, which is so important to our communities, I get to ask to move things around. I get to say that this is okay."
What are the moments that make you feel most alive?
"When I'm in a vibrant garden, when I'm cooking, when I connect with customers, or anybody on a deep level, swim in the ocean, create something new; those are all, yeah, things that make me feel alive."
What are you reading, watching or listening to:
"I’m currently reading The Mushroom at the End of the World, which is on the possibility of life in capitalist ruins. Honestly, it is so much my journey of going through business and the capitalist journey in Silicon Valley, and the earth part of me - being here to heal the earth, and the intersection of those themes.
My favorite podcast right not is called Green Dreamer with Kamea. She's just very gifted at pulling in so many thoughtful, different people on her show, and the topics; you're just like, "Ah." It's the richness and the depth, you're just craving for that when you see so much shallowness in media and everything. So, big fan of Green Dreamer. "
What impact or influence do you hope to have with Rainbow Road on Kauai?
"I am deeply grateful for the chance to live here as long as I do. And for all those who have come before, and the Hawaiian culture, our host culture, of having those values of loving, caring for the Aina, each other; it's really to embody that, and to carry forth those values. Continue to be a great student, and show that we are embodying that through the business, through our practices, the way we make our food, the way we treat people, the way we give, the way we give to the island. It's always a desire to "Leave it better than you found it." I know that my purpose is transformation. While this island is its own garden of Eden already on the planet, still, there's the possibility for so much transformation, particularly at a local food level. How much food is imported on this island, shifting that; that would still leave a mark. It would be in shifting the food sovereignty. Starting with ice cream."
What advice would you offer to others that are on the journey of entrepreneurship or innovation, and following that call in their life?
"Entrepreneurship is a tool for creation. I think we're all amazing, creative beings, and we all are guided or called to create something in the world. Never losing sight of that; there's always the business side of it, but there's something you're here to leave, as far as your creation. Also, having that practice to be able to tune into your own inner guidance; because there's a lot right now happening, as far as just transformation on our planet. What's coming through is, in so many ways, new. It's not what's been here before. I believe in this particular time on earth, that there are major shifts happening. To be able to trust in yourself that what you see is completely valid, even if you haven't seen anybody who’s done it before. That's why you're here; it's to pull that through you.
Have the courage to always listen to yourself."
Thank you so much for sharing your journey with us Emily! Follow along as they grow and
check out where you can find their flavors at a local shop near you!