On a hazy, almost-wintry late November day in Boulder, Colorado, people crowd into a conference room at Justin’s, the nut butter company, for a presentation. It is Grace Umutesi’s last day as an intern and the business plan she is about to present is both a culmination of what she’s learned and a document she hopes will guide her into the future. Her plan is to start a peanut butter company in her homeland of Rwanda.
An expectant gathering of co-workers, friends, and community members vie for space with a film crew setting up in the back. There’s even a video conference link to Austin, Minnesota, where management from Justin’s parent company, Hormel Foods, awaits the proceedings. In a nearby cubicle, Grace goes over her business plan one last time.
Grace has persevered through great hardships to get to this moment. But even alone and in thought, Grace’s poise and easy confidence are unmistakable. She looks excited but not nervous, eager yet composed. It’s as if she has internalized one of those business mag listicles about the “must-have” traits of self-made entrepreneurs. Today’s presentation represents the end of one journey and the beginning of another.
Justin’s founder Justin Gold stands up to begin the proceedings. Over the previous months, Gold has become Grace’s mentor, critiquing her business plan, touring production facilities with her, and introducing her to every aspect of his business.
Before bringing Grace on stage, Gold says he wants to set expectations. “The spirit of today isn’t to have Grace perform this flawless, well-rehearsed presentation. We’re her rehearsal. Because someday she’ll present this to people who can help her get her business going. She can work out the butterflies with us.”
After a round of applause, Grace fires up her first presentation slide, takes a deep breath, and begins.
A Dark Start of A Long Journey
It’s a long way from the Kigali hills to the Rocky Mountains, but distance alone can’t describe how far Grace has come. She was two days old in 1994 when ethnic tensions in Rwanda exploded into madness and mass slaughter. By day three, she was an orphan.
After several harrowing years in neighboring Burundi where Grace’s aunt had fled with her, they returned home to a place they had longed for – but no longer knew.
“Coming back to Rwanda, there was only destruction – and anger for what had happened,” she says.
“People would come up and say, ‘I’m sorry I killed your family.’ It’s not easy to see someone who killed your parents, and be like, yes, I forgive you and we have to move forward.”
Yet somehow, that is what Grace said, and did. “I don’t want to hold this anger,” she says. “I want to be a change-maker. Somebody who can bring a positive impact instead of going back to what happened.”
Moving to a New World
If you’re ever wondered about the difference between luck and serendipity, Grace’s story will be instructive. At crossroad after crossroad, impassable obstacles have become doors that the hard-working 24-year-old has prepared herself to walk through. Luck is chance. Serendipity is luck plus grace.
Grace’s prospects for education were dim until her aunt found out that her own presumed-dead daughters were alive and living in a nearby orphanage. After the reunion, Grace’s older cousin got a job that paid for Grace’s primary schooling.
But high school cost more money still, and only private schools taught English, which was required for university. Serendipitously, Grace was chosen to receive a scholarship through Richard’s Rwanda, a program originally created by an 11-year-old American girl named Jessica Markowitz who was so moved by the story of Rwanda’s that she held bake sales to fund the scholarships.
I’ve overcome a lot and this is something I want to do. I’m going to give it a try.Grace Umutesi
Grace’s good marks in science made her eligible for a scholarship to Earth University in Costa Rica. There was just one problem: instruction was in Spanish. The official languages of Rwanda are Kinyarwanda, English, French and Swahili. Grace speaks all of them with some degree of fluency. Spanish was not on her radar.
“I was very much worried about it,” Grace says, laughing. “But I thought, I’ve overcome a lot and this is something I want to do. I’m going to give it a try.”
Grace started watching Spanish language movies and talking back to the TV. Her host family in Costa Rica spoke no English, so Grace would rub her stomach when she was hungry and learn the word for it when her family replied.
At university, Grace began shifting her studies to agriculture, and for very personal reasons.
“I’d spent so many days and nights in my life not eating,” she says. “I started dreaming of providing food to people so they won’t have to go through what I did.”
“My class had a project to create food products. I thought, ‘What can I make?’
That’s when she had an epiphany that put everything into focus.
“I remembered tasting peanut butter in high school and really loving it.”
The reason that taste stood out so vividly in Grace’s memory: Rwandans eat peanuts, but rarely peanut butter. Typically, peanuts are roasted for snacks or ground to make flour used in soups and stews. What peanut butter there is comes from overseas and is only affordable to the wealthy few.
“That’s the reason I didn’t grow up eating peanut butter,” Grace says with a laugh.
I asked my professor, ‘Can I do mantequila de mani?’ which is peanut butter in Spanish. And he was like, ‘Yeah, muy facil.’”
“So I started reading about peanut butter. How healthy and nutritious it was. I started remembering kids that are malnourished in Rwanda, that lack protein. I began to dream about starting a peanut butter company back home. But honestly, how can I do this? I need an internship where I can learn.”
As if summoned, serendipity intervened once again.
Justin Gold was vacationing with his family in Costa Rica, jogging on the beach when he ran into Will Paradise, a friend from Boulder. Paradise was traveling the world with his family and had stopped in Costa Rica to visit Earth University, an agriculture and agribusiness research center that supplied bananas to Whole Foods, where Paradise was a regional executive. The men resolved to get their families together back in Boulder and share their globetrotting stories.
“Not a week goes by and I get an email from Will’s wife Annika,” Gold recalls, “saying ‘Justin, you’ll never believe what happened. We met a young woman at Earth University who needs an internship – and her dream is to start a peanut butter company in Rwanda. We told her we were just with the peanut butter guy and that you two should connect and figure it out.’”
Meeting a Mentor
This young lady has every reason to be bitter, to be angry, to get back at the world. And she doesn’t have any of that in her. She grew up in an environment I can’t even imagine, and she goes off and learns another language just to go to college? That’s crazy.Justin Gold
Justin’s has a well-earned reputation for doing good in the world, but that doesn’t make it a charity. So when Annika Paradise approached Gold about hiring an intern with a particularly heart-rending story, he responded the way any prudent businessperson would.
“I told Annika, ‘I need to meet her,’” Gold recalls. “We can’t just create internships out of thin air. We have to have an opening and the right person has to fill it. For something like this to happen, it has to be really special.”
It took all of one Skype call for an internship to open up and for a very unique mentor-protégé relationship to begin. It was Grace’s extraordinary positivity that won Gold over, and it’s fair to say, blew his mind.
“This young lady has every reason to be bitter, to be angry, to get back at the world. And she doesn’t have any of that in her,” says Gold. “She grew up in an environment I can’t even imagine, and she goes off and learns another language just to go to college? That’s crazy.”
Despite being from radically different worlds, Gold saw a lot of himself in the ambitious young Rwandan. That recognition became the key to determining what the internship should be about.
“You bring someone like Grace into your organization, and you want to give her all the tools necessary,” Gold says. “Not just to make peanut butter, but to have a successful business. It made me think, well what did I do to get started? I wrote a business plan. So okay, Grace, we’re going to write a business plan.”
Once she settled in to her new surroundings — living with the Paradise family, riding Annika’s bike to the Justin’s offices each morning, becoming comfortable in a dog-friendly workplace (“Dogs are not treated like children in Rwanda!”) — she and Gold got to work.
“As an agriculture major I know about growing food, but I didn’t know the business part of that,” Grace says. “Justin told me, ‘Grace, you need a business plan or nobody’s going to understand what you are trying to do.’”
Creating a Plan And A Recipe
Gold gave Grace his original business plan, and the two began retracing his steps. “We went to the same library at the University of Colorado’s Leeds School of Business where I had walked in, timid and nervous, trying to figure out how to start my business,” Gold says. “I told Grace, this isn’t for a grade. This plan is about changing your life, and other people’s lives.”
While squeezing in time to write her plan, Grace assisted the heads of every department in the Justin’s enterprise — from sales, to finance, to operations. Without exception, they were impressed.
“She’s got the two sides,” says Penny Andino, who leads the marketing team. “The yin and the yang. The passion with the smarts. Put those things together and you can go really far.”
For a field trip, Grace visited a Justin’s production facility in California and started dreaming about big shiny machines.
“I remember telling Justin, can we change the business plan and put this big facility in it? He was like, Grace, you must start simple, then add things as you grow.”
When it came time to formulate the first batch of peanut butter, the pair again went back to basics — in Gold’s kitchen, with a blender, peanuts, and a soupcon of salt and sugar to taste. After an inedibly sweet first attempt, Grace started to get the hang of it. When she hit on a recipe she liked, she handed out samples at Gold’s birthday party.
“Justin’s mom was there,” Grace says, “and two uncles with their kids. I said, ‘Can you taste my peanut butter?’ They tried it and said, ‘This tastes great!’ So I said to Justin, ‘My peanut butter tastes better than your peanut butter!’” While it’s funny to think of Grace in competition with her celebrated mentor, Gold entertains the idea to make a point.
“Someday we might want to sell peanut butter in Rwanda. Why create our own competition? The answer is that when you share knowledge it comes back to you. The natural foods industry is kind of built that way. We don’t have to be competitive about doing good in the world. We all share in the benefit of that.” Not to mention that Grace’s plan entails broadly popularizing a product that has only been consumed by a small set of elite Rwandans.
A Moment in the Spotlight
As Grace presents her business plan to the gathering at Justin’s, she shows no sign of having butterflies. Faces are sober during her personal story, heads nod during her organizational breakdown, and there are beaming smiles at her inspirational summary. In addition to hugs and high fives at the end, Grace receives a nut grinder from Whole Foods and a pledge of seed capital from Hormel. Not a bad haul for a first-time entrepreneur.
The hugs continue at a pie and kombucha after-party, with emotions palpably close to the surface. This isn’t just Grace’s presentation day — it is her last day at Justin’s. On Monday she’ll be on a flight to Rwanda to visit her family for the first time in three years.
“It’s hard not to cry,” Grace says. Tears come more easily to her co-workers, who form a queue to bid her farewell.
That night around a kitchen island, Grace and her host family chop soup veggies while retelling the tale of how their destinies converged.
“It was meant to be,” Will Paradise says. “Doors open for Grace because she meets adversity with positivity and a smile.” Annika adds that when people say how fortunate Grace was to end up in her family, she gently counters with, “How fortunate were we to end up with Grace?”
Still, it’s another quality of Grace’s, according to Gold, that most presages future success: humility.
“She’s so mindful of the help she’s received and how she will pay it forward. Whether it’s sourcing peanuts from local farmers, paying employees a living wage, or using a portion of profits to support education. We’ve all had help and wouldn’t be where we’re at without community. She gets it.”
Grace blushes when told about Gold’s sky-high praise.
“I’ve been given such great opportunities,” she says. “It’s like, I should not let all these people down. All these people who have worked so hard to make me who I am today.”
It’s unfair to rank feelings, but it’s hard to imagine anyone will miss Grace more than Gold himself. Reflecting on their time together as night falls outside his snow-flecked office window, he joins the chorus of Grace fans who say she changed their lives as much as they changed hers.
“She taught me that no matter what circumstances in our life we’re presented with, we can overcome them with grace and humility.”
There’s a flash of recognition on Gold’s face when he uses Grace’s own name to describe her conquering qualities. But as with everything in Grace’s story, coincidence is never just a coincidence.
“My aunt told me that my mom named me before she passed away,” Grace says. “I feel blessed to have that name. It’s what I live by. I live by grace.”