Today’s guest was introduced to me by Kill Anderson, from episode 182 at the Pat Tillman Foundation, who described Kim Jung as someone who moves a “mile a minute.” That may be an understatement. Kim went from the Army, to Harvard Business School, where she started Rumi Spice, a for profit company that employs over 2,000 women in Afghanistan. She raised over $500k in 24 hours, appears on the TV show the Shark Tank, where she raised funds from Mark Cuban himself. And is now at MIT getting another advanced degree, and focusing on the space industry. She asks herself frequently about if she is operating at 100% happiness… and if not, finds a way to get there. There is something for everyone in this episode.
About Kimberly Jung:
Kimberly Jung is a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and also serves as the Vice President of the Board of Directors of Bunker Labs. She started out at West Point, after which she served as an officer in the Army for 5 years, most recently as a Brigade Construction Officer. After her military service, she earned her MBA from Harvard Business School, and then started Rumi Spice, a for-profit social enterprise that imports saffron from Afghan farmers and cooperatives.
This episode is sponsored by Lockheed Martin. At Lockheed Martin, veterans are at the center of everything they do — in fact, one in five of their employees has served in uniform. Lockheed Martin is proud to help men and women like you successfully transition into civilian careers. Join Lockheed Martin and you will find opportunities to take on the same kind of long-term challenging assignments you tackled while in the military. Whether you’re on active duty, transitioning or already embarking on your civilian career, Lockheed Martin’s Military Connect is your online community for professional support. You can find out more at https://lockheedmartin.bravenew.com
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Transcript & Time Stamps:
Joining me today from Boston is Kim Jung. Kim is a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and also serves as the Vice President of the Board of Directors of Bunker Labs. She started out at West Point, after which she served as an officer in the Army for 5 years, most recently as a Brigade Construction Officer. After her military service, she earned her MBA from Harvard Business School, and then started Rumi Spice, a for-profit social enterprise that imports saffron from Afghan farmers and cooperatives.
How did you decide to separate from the Army?
I learned a lot, I got stationed in Germany and got the opportunity to lead troops. I left because I wanted to learn more about being a leader which my business school really does. What you learn is to mobilize people and resources to get things done.
How did you decide to business school after your military service rather than going straight into the workforce?
I got advice from a lot of people beforehand. I remember that I did apply to both jobs and business school so I wasn’t closing any door. But when I got into Harvard, it was kind of a no-brainer that I should go there.
Can you tell us more about the origins of Rumi Spice?
The idea came about in business school. A lot of things the Army did in Afghanistan, I’m proud of. But it seemed like we were addressing an effect rather than a problem. The underlying problem is economic opportunity. My co-founder felt the same way. So we had a couple of veterans that had served in Afghanistan that came together to start a small business opening up markets for Afghan farmers. So these farmers are not a recipient of charity, they are our business partners. They are part of our supply chain and they have a stake in how well we do. We have directly hired 2000 Afghan women to produce the saffron.
How did you approach the question of whether or have a for-profit or not-for-profit business?
We struggled with that question for a while. There’s pros and cons to either. With a for-profit, all the stakeholders involved have a monetary value attached to them as far as what they have given and what they have received. With non-profits, it’s a little different. The people who are donating the money are not necessarily the recipients who receive the value of the non-profit. So there’s an agency problem and accountability issue there.
So we really struggled with it and looking at our experiences in Afghanistan, we saw the same accountability problems with massive government budgets in agencies such as USAID. So we wanted to try a different for-profit approach. As I mentioned before, the farmers that we work with have an economic stake in what we’re doing. Because of this, it’s a fair process.
When we were all in business school, we saw that there are a lot of for-profit businesses out there that are doing great things in the world. Frequently we think of for-profit as “bad” and non-profit as “good” but I do not feel that this is the case. In fact, I would advocate that it’s the other way around.
What was it like balancing launching a company with going to business school?
It was tough. I was living with Emily Miller - one of the co-founders - at the time. We were taking classes and then in the evening, we were working furiously on the business. Our living room was filled up to the ceiling with boxes and equipment. So we really didn’t have a life for over a year which was tough. But what better way to learn business than by doing it?
What was it like getting in this business started?
In February 2014, I was in an entrepreneurship class and we were being asked what we were going to do with our life. I really got to thinking about it because when you make big decisions, you’re making decisions about what you do to spend your your time everyday. I had always wanted to start a business that helped women in Afghanistan.
I wasn’t married and didn’t have kids so for me it wasn’t that much of a leap to start a business and just go for it. So I bought a ticket to Afghanistan and I got my entrepreneurship professor to go with me. I met up with Keith, who was deployed at the time. We met up with a lot of farmers throughout Afghanistan. I remember traveling around as a civilian wearing a hijab and it was such a refreshing experience. At first the farmers didn’t want to shake my hand because it’s not part of their custom to touch a women that’s not part of their family. But a year later, they were taking selfies with me and shaking my hand because they were really part of the business by that point.
The first time I went to Herat, I remember the saffron coming into the room and the smell was amazing. But it came in a box with string. So there was a problem with marketing because this was some of the best saffron in the world. So if you think about how businesses can create value, effective marketing can really make a significant and practical difference. I think that’s something that the American government and agencies like USAID have overlooked. In order to win hearts and minds, it really helps to build up local businesses.
What was your experience like as an entrepreneur?
My first entrepreneurship training was when I was in the Army as a Brigade Construction Officer. I had a small budget and I was organizing construction projects across Fort Leonard Wood. You wouldn’t think that this would be entrepreneurial but it really was. You had to take to people in order to gain what you needed. We were able to build all of our construction projects but we had to source things for our project from other people and groups. Anyone can do this but you must have people skills, diligence, and hard work.
It was really a roller coaster at Rumi Spice. After Shark Tank, we were trying to close a deal with Mark Cuban but we also had other investors who wanted to be part of it but weren’t happy with our deal with Mark Cuban. At the same time, we needed the money and we got a loan from the VDEC. About a week after we were supposed to receive the money, we got a call the VDEC saying they couldn’t support our loan. Emily and I pulled a few all-nighters and ultimately the VDEC offered us the loan.
How did Rumi Spice end up on Shark Tank?
I will caveat everything by saying that all reality TV has been cut and re-arranged. So what ends up on TV can be pretty far from the reality. The whole purpose of Shark Tank is for entertainment. For us, it was an opportunity to get in front of angel investors that would also offer us resources and networks.
The second thing that was good for us is that we got in front of viewers who then made Rumi Spice purchases. It’s also helpful when you’re making deals to have your product sold in places like Whole Foods because they recognize that you were on Shark Tank and that can tip things in your favor.
Did you receive direct counseling from Mark after the show?
I think Mark has a couple hundred companies in his portfolio. So he has a team that is responsible for all of his investments. But we did email him a few times and he would respond within three hours. He was very direct which was helpful.
Rumi Spice is a B-corporation. What is that?
B-Corporations are a group of for-profit companies with a social impact mission. Like anything, you have to approach things with skepticism. B-Corporation connects you to a variety of resources to help your company. You need to be qualified and approved in order to be named a b-corporation. Then once you’re approved, you can put a stamp on your product stating that you’re a b-corporation certified company.
After four years at Rumi Spice, why did you make the decision to leave?
I think I reached a point when I felt like someone else could do the job better than me. I feel like I’m best suited for early stage startups. One of our co-founders, Keith, took over the business in April of 2018. I based my decision on being as happy as possible. I always try to operate at 100% happiness.
How did you make the decision to go back to school at MIT?
I always wanted to go back into engineering and my dream is to go into the space industry. For me I don’t understand why people wouldn’t want to be a part of this. If you go out at night and look into the sky, there are billions of stars out there. I want to be part of space exploration and that’s why I wanted to go back to school to earn a degree in mechanical engineering.
Can you tell us about your Self Reliant Leadership experience in Alaska?
It was amazing. I met so many amazing people that are in various stages of their transition out of the military. We had a couple of Special Forces guys, a Sergeant Major, and someone that worked at Google and had transitioned out within the past year. We were hiking glaciers and sleeping out there at night. It was a really incredible experience.
Is part of the reason you are studying mechanical engineering at MIT is that you want to become and astronaut?
Potentially. I would certainly apply for it. But I’m happy going anywhere in the industry.
What is your advice on the MBA and how it relates to entrepreneurship?
I’m a huge fan of the MBA. I think it was extremely valuable for me. Some people would argue that you don’t need it but I think it gives you a basic skill set that can be really valuable when starting your own business.
When we started Rumi Spice, if it wasn’t for the Harvard network, we wouldn’t have been able to meet our farmers. It was through a classmate that we were able to make the connection that allowed us to go meet our first farmers.
Getting an MBA gives you great information about how to lead and inspire people. It really helps you grow in this way.
How do you look at risk-taking?
I don’t think the willingness to take risks is something you’re born with but you can cultivate it over time.
I’ll change, when I have a family, my priorities will shift. The way I think about things is that people don’t accurately make calculations about how they spend their time. If someone were to ask me, if you die tomorrow, will you be happy with you life. The answer for me is ‘yes’. I would be happy. I’ve lived my life to the fullest, I’ve “carpe diemed” the crap out of my life.
The entire world is in front of you and if you have some gumption and dedication, you will eventually succeed. If you see something you want, you should just go after it even if you end up failing. People see my resume and they think that I’ve never failed. But I’ve failed a million times. Everyone is just trying to live life so why not live it to the fullest? There are so many opportunities in front of you. You might not succeed in everything but you continue to try.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with our listeners?
I feel really blessed and fortunate to be on this podcast with you, Justin. I think we share a lot of the same attitudes about life. That you should just get out there and go for it. I really admire your entrepreneurial success and the way that you’ve given back. So I just want to say thank you and that I’m very happy to be connected to you.