Becky Holmes grew up eating the bread and processed foods her family could get from food pantries. They struggled with obesity, mental illness and other ailments that made Becky realize what you eat matters. She vowed to break the cycle of poverty and be the one to give back.
After winning a full ride to Duke University, she joined a program for student entrepreneurs and made healthy food her work and life’s mission. As the founder and CEO of Ello Raw, Becky makes vegan dessert bites that are now on shelves at Whole Foods and other retailers. But the path has been anything but smooth.
Host Frank Stasio talks with social entrepreneur Becky Holmes about where she finds motivation to continue with a risky business she hopes will help her family, and change the way our country eats.
On Holmes’ unprivileged background: My father made below the poverty line in income and so it was definitely a hard life growing up. But I think at the time that was all I knew. So like any kid, you grow up and that’s just life. And so it’s hard to think about when I realized: Oh, I don’t have the resources other people have...Pretty much every issue out there has touched my family in some way, shape or form. Whether it was drug addiction, teenage pregnancy, poverty, fighting, abuse. I kind of saw it all, and definitely as I get older and reflect on it really realizing how that’s shaped me to who I am.
On her drive to get to Duke University: That focus on school paid off. And the more I got to middle school and high school I realized, “Wow, I’m moving towards the top of my class, and teachers are telling me I can be something.” And I know from a young age, my dream was to be President. I always told every single teacher, “I’m going to be President. I’m going to invite you to the White House,” …I diverged from the political scene and realized that I wanted to do good through business instead. But I ended up working hard and somehow even though society was telling me I should have had a box around me and my sights shouldn’t have been so high, I just never had that limit. I knew; OK: I want to go to a top school; I want to be successful. And I want to have a different life than I grew up with.
On how Duke changed her perspective on giving back: I took these two courses: one on education reform and one on basically just social justice. And it was really interesting for me to kind of look at social justice in a new way and say, “How do we help people?” And it’s not just going on mission trips and giving to people...So I think it really re-shaped my mind on how I can make an impact and how I can make a difference… …The Melissa & Doug Entrepreneur program is an incredible program that started at Duke, and I was part of the first class of that. That’s really what allowed me to sort of take everything I’d learned at Duke and really make it a reality. There is incredible programming through that and out of the Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative, which is also incredible. And (they) really gave me the tools and the means and surrounded me with people and mentors who could help me along the way and really provide me with the resources that I never had.
On sacrificing to make her company a reality: I would say the last year, probably starting last summer, I had come out of a fellowship program—a residential program in Raleigh—and I didn’t have enough money to support myself and the company. So I was at this crossroads of: Do I give up? Do I try to get a corporate job? Or, do I keep going? And at that point I realized I have the energy and the passion to continue doing this. All it means is that my life is going to look a little bit different than my peers’. And at that point it meant living out of my car. That was a sacrifice that I said, “It’s worth it to me to put that money into the business and to run with this.” Because I think I always know that even if I’m going through trials and struggles, it’s temporary. It’s not forever. I see that vision of me getting out of it, and so I’m willing to sacrifice now to be able to reap those rewards later.