By Lauren Herber, Editor-in-Chief
Thunderbird is such a unique place because of the qualities inherent in the people that it attracts—qualities like boldness, determination, adventure, and innovation. T-birds are committed to pursuing their goals and making a difference, and they don’t back down in the face of adversity. Perhaps this is the reason that many T-birds go on to start their own businesses. Starting a business is a daunting proposition; it requires patience, careful planning, resilience, and a willingness to take risks. The level of commitment and risk involved in starting your own business drives many away, but for T-birds it often has an opposite effect: they’re drawn in by the challenge. This is especially true of recent T-bird grads Pablo Mora (’14) and Noelle Alabdulrahim (’14), who have built their global chocolate company, Berra Bites, from the ground up, overcoming numerous obstacles in the process.
Pablo and Noelle’s journey started at Thunderbird, where they both graduated from the MBA program in 2014. Like many T-birds, they weren’t necessarily planning to go back to school or to start a new business. But then Thunderbird found them. “I started two other companies before I went to Thunderbird for school,” said Pablo. “I was always involved in international business. I’m from Costa Rica, which is a very small country but very open in terms of borders and trading with other countries. With my other two businesses, I was always traveling to different places, and I loved getting to know different cultures. Then I met an alum who was learning Spanish in Costa Rica, and he told me I’d be really good for Thunderbird and asked if I’d ever considered the program. Before that I hadn’t even heard of the school and didn’t want to go back to school. But I started looking into it and got really excited and applied—it was a great fit for me because of the businesses I’d been involved in beforehand.” So he took the leap and moved to Glendale in 2013 to get his MBA from Thunderbird. It was through that program that he met Noelle, who would eventually become his business partner. “We did a couple of projects together and worked very well together,” Pablo told me. “We then came up with the idea of starting a business together in Costa Rica.”
The early days were filled with dreaming and planning: brainstorming ideas, finding gaps in the marketplace, analyzing competitive landscapes. After bouncing a few ideas back and forth, they settled on Berra Bites. “Our goal was always to create a product that could be introduced in to the U.S.,” said Pablo. “We realized that there was a lack of snacking products that we really liked and that we felt comfortable eating — no chemicals, not too crunchy, and healthy. And we knew we had access to great fruit and chocolate in Costa Rica. So we decided to create an all-natural snack with a soft fruit center, and that’s how we started Berra Bites.”
Just like its founders, Berra Bites is international. Pablo and Noelle developed the product in the United States, scaled the production in Costa Rica, and sourced their packaging from Hong Kong. “So during our journey we’ve been working intensively with people from Asia, South America, and North America,” said Pablo. And while this international focus has brought many opportunities, it has also brought challenges. “It doesn’t matter how much you study or read about international business, there are always challenges you don’t expect. This venture has been an implementation of everything we learned at Thunderbird,” said Pablo.
One such challenge is timing and the way different cultures approach scheduling. “In Costa Rica, everything is very slow—mañana. And when they say mañana they don’t mean tomorrow; they just mean an unspecified time in the future. You just have to get used to it,” laughed Pablo. “You also have to be aware of different holidays,” added Noelle. “That was a big thing. Sometimes processes are interrupted by holidays you aren’t even aware of or forget about,” she said, pointing out the time that she and Pablo lost two weeks of production due to the Chinese New Year. And when working with other cultures, you can’t always expect an immediate answer like you might in the US. “Another thing I learned is that sometimes when people don’t answer you right away, it’s because they’re working,” said Pablo. “They don’t always respond, but that doesn’t mean they’re not filling your order. Their concept of time is different—they get back to you later, only when they have an answer.”
Another challenge that Pablo and Noelle have faced is, of course, communication: they work routinely with people around the world with levels of varying proficiency in English and Spanish, the two main languages that they use to conduct their business. “They have their own culture, and sometimes the people we work with speak very basic levels of English,” said Pablo of the Asian packaging companies they partner with. “When you’re writing an email to them, for example, you have to make it very simple and direct. It can’t be too complex—it must be very straightforward.” Communication plays a role in marketing processes as well as supply chain. “When we’re marketing in Costa Rica, for example, we have to change our message,” said Noelle. “In the US we do a lot of messaging about ingredients and fair trade. But in Costa Rica we get different questions, so we’ve had to adapt our message and communication to different people and what they prioritize.”
Noelle is facing this challenge in a unique way because Spanish is her third language. “I grew up in Saudi Arabia so I speak Arabic and English. And I took some crash courses in Spanish, so I speak un poquito,” she told me, laughing. “But Costa Ricans have been very receptive to my efforts to learn Spanish. In the beginning it was a big challenge, so having a Costa Rican partner was a huge help. I found a local to be my champion to move things forward as I learned the language,” she said of Pablo. “It’s very intimidating, especially at first, and especially in business terms. But as you put yourself out there you improve. And even if you don’t speak the language fluently, it’s very helpful if you can attend meetings and understand most of what’s going on rather than relying on translation. There’s a lot left out in translations—meaning can be easily mistranslated.”
One of the most important aspects of starting a business, Pablo and Noelle have found, is building relationships. Cultural sensitivity plays a key role here. “Sometimes the direct way of doing things can come off as harsh,” said Noelle. “When you’re in a meeting in Costa Rica, you have to start off with dialogue—how’s the family, commenting on the weather, etc. Meetings always last over an hour.” “So much of our success is due to relationships,” agreed Pablo. “If you know somebody who knows somebody, that’s everything. Everything. We’re launching in Guatemala soon because we were able to find a representative for our brand who knows the owners of the top supermarket chains there. It’s all about relationships and building relationships.”
Luckily, Pablo and Noelle’s time at Thunderbird equipped them to face these challenges. “I remember Professor Leclerc teaching us about different cultures—what you should do, gift-giving policies, how to greet a person, that kind of thing,” said Pablo. “At the beginning, you may think those little things aren’t that important, but they can make or break a deal. To be culturally sensitive is so incredibly important, and every country has their own different culture where the little aspects of conducting business differ. Even Costa Rica and Guatemala have huge differences in terms of culture and how business is done. Both countries are in Central America, both speak Spanish, but still, both are very different.” Noelle remembers Professor Gonzalez and Professor Ramaswamy. “I took marketing with Professor Gonzalez and strategy with Professor Ramaswamy; I learned a lot of very helpful concepts from both of them,” said Noelle. But Pablo and Noelle both agree that some of the most important things they learned during their time at Thunderbird came from their fellow students. “One of the most important things you get from Thunderbird is that you not only experience these concepts in the class, you experience them with classmates from all over the world,” said Pablo. “It helps develop your sensitivity. It teaches you to think, ‘This person might be different. I might need to mold what I want in order to accomplish my goal with this person.’ Hearing your classmates’ stories about their experience around the world enriches you as a student. You have to learn to fulfill your objective while working effectively in partnerships.” “Our whole Thunderbird family has been completely supportive,” agreed Noelle. “They’ve shared their thoughts, and given us invaluable feedback.”
So what advice do they have for T-birds looking to start their own businesses? “Keep with it, no matter what!” said Noelle. “Starting your own business alone is really hard. I couldn’t have done it without Pablo. It goes beyond language barriers—the support, the concept of talking things over with another person who’s invested in the project with you, is very advantageous. Finding that crucial partner is very important. And have patience! So many times I threw my hands up in the air, wondering if this was going to work out. But when you see your product on the shelf it’s so worth it. We always see these successful products, but you never see the work that goes into them. So don’t give up!”
“No matter what you do, you have to adapt to the culture. Be patient and flexible,” said Pablo. “You have to be patient and persistent to get the results that you want. You can’t just ‘try’—you have to find a way to work with people, to get the product on the right shelf, to push it to the right people. As a small business, you have to be willing to do anything. You can’t shrug and say, ‘Oh, that’s not my background.’ In the end you have to get involved with and learn about everything, and immerse yourself completely in the culture where you are producing, selling, have stakeholders, etc.”
Pablo and Noelle faced this firsthand when they took on the role of food scientists in order to accomplish their goals. “They have a protective culture in Costa Rica, which is different than the US,” said Noelle. “When we were in the development stages, I told them I wanted to create a product with strawberries. ‘Oh no, it’s never been done before, so it can’t be done. Let’s not even try,’ they told me. It was so difficult to convince a lab even to try. But eventually we did—by doing exploration ourselves in the realm of food science.” “When we said we wanted to do something all-natural,” continued Pablo, “they told us it would be too difficult to do. We had to do our own research and work with the scientists on what they needed to do.” “We did a lot of our own research,” said Noelle. “We tried to minimize the amount of middle men involved in the communication process. We had to break down the barriers and figure it out together. We had to compromise a lot, play the game right, take the time that they needed, and be patient.”
It won’t be easy, but “you’ll never get bored,” said Pablo. “No matter how many books you read or courses you take; you don’t fully understand until you experience it.” But like Noelle and Pablo, you can’t let barriers to entry or learning curves keep you from following your dream. If you truly believe in something, follow it with passion, never give up, and put the skills and relationships you’ve built at Thunderbird to the test. You won’t regret it.