By the time she was 17 years old, Kavita Shukla held multiple patents. Today, she is the 27-year-old CEO of Fenugreen and inventor of its core product FreshPaper, a technology that aims to keep fruits and vegetables fresh for longer. Inspiration struck in an unlikely place: a tooth-brushing accident while visiting her grandmother in India, an experience that has shaped her core business philosophy.
No idea is too simple, Shukla said today at the Women in the World Summit, where she was honored as a "mother of invention." The annual conference in New York is hosted by Newsweek and the Daily Beast and gathers some 2,500 attendees, including A-listers like Hillary Clinton, Oprah Winfrey and Angelina Jolie. Shukla shared her startup success story and lessons for other aspiring inventors.
At 13, Shukla accidentally drank the water while brushing her teeth at her grandmother's home in India -- a recipe for disaster in a country with notoriously unsafe tap water. As a remedy, her grandmother mixed up a batch of herbs and spices. She didn't get sick. When she returned home to the U.S., Shukla started experimenting with those same spices as part of a middle-school science project and discovered the combination was a potent inhibitor for bacterial growth.
A few years later, when she was a senior in high school, FreshPaper was born. It is a simple sheet of paper lauded as a "dryer sheet" for produce. Put a piece of FreshPaper where you store your fruit and vegetables, and they will stay fresh up to four times longer, the company promises.
Last year, Shukla launched FreshPaper in a local farmers market in Boston. It rapidly gained attention through word of mouth and is now sold in 35 countries. While she initially imagined that the paper would be most useful in the developing world, as 1.6 billion people globally live without proper refrigeration, the product is increasingly popular in the U.S. and recently became available at Whole Foods.
"I didn't realize [food spoilage] was a big issue in the U.S.," said Shukla. "I was really amazed by the response. People said things like, 'FreshPaper makes it possible for me to eat healthier and for me to afford fresh healthy fruits and vegetables.' Now, we actually donate FreshPaper to local food banks."
The next major step is to engage with farmers, both in the U.S. and in the developing world. If she could get FreshPaper in their hands, Shukla believes they could stop a great deal of food spoilage at the source and create more access to healthy food for people around the world. Fenugreen has already worked with farmers in Malawi and Haiti and hopes to expand.
Shukla offered these three tips for aspiring entrepreneurs.
Simplicity is valuable.
"FreshPaper is powerful because it's so simple," Shukla said. "Simple ideas are the ones that have the power to change things because they can be used by everyone, everywhere around the world."
A good idea doesn't have to be trendy.
"Believe in your idea," said Shukla. The next big thing doesn't need to be a fancy mobile technology or app. You never know how your idea will connect with others until you test it out.
Inspiration is everywhere.
"I often think [of] what would have happened if I hadn't drank my grandma's mixture, or dismissed it," Shukla said. Don't be afraid to play and experiment. Her grandmother's potion may as well have been magic, she said.