Q&A with Lola Milholland, CEO and co-founder of Umi Organic
Lola Milholland, CEO and co-founder of Umi Organic is the recent winner of our Portland, OR Brewing the American Dream Pitch Room Competition where five Portland-based small business owners had the opportunity to give a two-minute business pitch for a chance to win a $10,000 grant, a year of extended mentorship from Samuel Adams, and a $5,000 media package from Foursquare.
We caught up with Lola to ask her what inspired her business and how she’s helping change how Americans think about ramen.
What inspired you to start Umi Organic?
I started studying Japanese in kindergarten as part of an immersion program at my public school. I studied Japanese all the way through college and spent time living in Japan, where I fell in love with the craftsmanship of Japanese food and became a Japanese food nerd.
After college, I got a job at Ecotrust, a non-profit organization that supports local farmers and the food economy. While in that role, I learned that Portland, OR is a hub of wheat exportation – and that 85% of Oregon-grown wheat is exported, often to Japanese companies whose noodles are imported back here.
Between that experience and a ramen making workshop I took, I realized that I wanted to make a certified organic noodle I loved that could really change the minds of Americans around what ramen could be.
How was the Brewing the American Dream Pitch Room Competition experience for you and how do you plan to use the grant to support your business?
I think it’s amazing to try to tell a story in two minutes - you have to really think about what’s most important to convey. The quality of the judges was incredible – by connecting with them, I accomplished so much more than simply getting advice on my pitch.
In terms of the $10,000 grant, we have two big things coming up that we’ll use the money for. One is that we are launching a new product – a noodle and sauce kit, which has been a long time in the making. Launching this product will require a lot of hands-on work that allows people to try it – promotions, demos, events, etc. The second is that we are expanding into the Seattle market, so building awareness will be important.
What makes your noodles so special?
The quality makes our noodles unique. We are certified organic, which is important to me because that means more dollars go back to the farmers. We are also a fresh product, which is challenging because of the short shelf life, but worth it for the texture.
Our Umi noodles have all the qualities you want in a ramen noodle – springy, good in hot broth, etc – but with healthier ingredients. America is discovering that ramen can be more than the inexpensive, dried ramen that most people know. It can be an amazing culinary experience. And with our noodles it can be part of your life on a regular basis and make you feel good when you eat it.
What is your favorite way to prepare your noodles?
My favorite way to prepare the noodles is to boil them, and while they’re still warm, toss them with a sesame-miso sauce and lots of vegetables and maybe some meat or tofu. There’s a miso sesame sauce recipe on our website for cold noodles, but I really like it on hot noodles.
What is your favorite part of owning your own business?
The combination of doing what I love, working with people I admire, and how much I am learning. I always loved being in school and learning non-stop. A year ago, I didn’t have the [business] vocabulary I have today and next year I’ll know even more.
What is the most challenging part of owning your own business?
For me it’s the world of financials and figuring out what it really takes to bootstrap a business like this. I had no idea what to even ask people when I first started out. Learning how to ask better questions has been invaluable to me. I have sought out advisers and am excited to have Samuel Adams mentors to help me with things like this.
What advice do you have for emerging entrepreneurs?
Find mentors who are available. Work with them to start honing in on good questions. The quality of your questions will determine the quality of the answers that you get.
Want to learn more about Umi Organic? Visit their website.