"I Am Not a Diversity Quota," Says the Founder Disrupting the Dessert Category
Here are three lessons Najwa Khan has learned in building her better-for-you brand.
My mother is the most amazing cook I know. Whether she's frying, grilling, stirring, flipping or baking, anything and everything that comes out of her kitchen is incredible. So when my mom told me how obsessed she was with Dalci's lemon coconut blondie, I knew it had to be incredible. And as someone who is pre-diabetic and watching what she eats, my mother is very particular about reading what’s on the label and what she puts into her mouth.
“During the pandemic, I found myself making compromises to my health by trying to eat convenient, on-the-go treats. I couldn't find clean desserts in the marketplace,” says Najwa Khan, founder and CEO of Dalci “I was tired of bars and ‘gut healthy’ snacks made with chemical alternatives, natural flavors, bad oils and sugar alcohols. That’s when I founded Dalci, to create brownies that are real, delicious and always clean.”
The idea of “clean eating” is prevalent on social media now, but it was originally made popular by Canadian fitness model Tosca Reno with her book The Eat-Clean Diet. With clean eating, you focus on a natural form of nutrition. Pure, fresh and unprocessed foods; cutting out artificial preservatives, colors and flavorings and sweeteners and names of ingredients you can’t even pronounce. Although many of us aspire to eat a more healthful diet, it’s not always the easiest or most convenient option.
According to a recent NPR survey, 75% of Americans say they eat healthy. Yet the statistics reveal otherwise: Many of us tend to overeat refined grains and sugars and don’t control our portion sizes. Before the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that about 40% of Americans qualified as obese. According to a new study, 61% of adults experienced undesired weight changes during the pandemic due to stress, not eating healthfully and having a less active lifestyle.
Enter Dalci. The bars are individually packaged and portioned. You can warm them up in the microwave to get that gooey, fresh-baked brownie experience. You can also freeze them and eat them later. They are easy to toss in your bag and have as an on-the-go snack. Flavors include dark chocolate brownie, almond butter dark chocolate blondie, and my mom’s favorite, lemon coconut blondie. They're gluten-, dairy-, grain-, soy-, refined-sugar, sugar-alcohol, lecithin-, natural-flavor, and preservative-free.
“I believe Dalci is in a category of its own," Khan says. "Our first product line, the brownies and blondies, are true desserts that are disrupting the sweet category. Ultimately, we want our customers to say, 'Hell yes, I can have a brownie anytime I want!'”
Here's what starting Dalci has taught Khan.
“I launched before everything was perfect.”
In her previous roles as a product manager, Khan learned how to pilot, test and try ideas and quickly pivot when needed. She credits those early years in her career with teaching her how to be nimble. “I allowed pre-sales for Dalci even before I knew how the product would be manufactured and shipped to customers,” she says. “Some might think that was crazy, but I was confident I needed to test the viability of the business before attempting to accelerate growth.”
Khan says that her ability to launch before everything was perfect has been critical to the brand’s success. It was the best way for her to learn how to improve Dalci's recipes and messaging. It also helped Khan continue to find and build relationships with her customer base and be strategic about how she wanted to build out her product lines.
“I can’t do this alone.”
Kahn launched Dalci during the pandemic. She wasn’t working full-time, and she found herself disinterested in jobs she was finding in the marketplace. With only a trademark and an idea, she bought the domain dalci.com, built a cheap website, spun up an Instagram and decided to see if people wanted indulgent-tasting, clean brownies. Khan’s husband helped her bake, pack and fill orders in the evenings. “I went ahead and self-funded and skipped over the steps most commonly taken by CPG brands,” Khan says. “I loved the grind. I learned so much about food science, production, supply chain issues, and branding and marketing early on.”
Despite her early success, Khan regrets not building a team from the get-go. “One person alone cannot build a business. A team is so critical,” she says. “I know I took the risk to start Dalci, but I did it with guardrails where I kept telling myself 2020 was a 'test.' That limiting belief prevented me from building a team at the very beginning.”
“I am not a diversity quota."
The name Dalci is derived from dalchini, the word for cinnamon in Bengali. Khan spent countless hours cooking South Asian treats with her family on weekends when she was growing up. Dalci is a reflection of her upbringing, representing home, love and the importance of treating yourself.
Khan is proud to be a woman of color founder. And on her journey to build her business, some have said to her, "You should use the fact that you are a woman of color to get that investor check.” Khan’s response is clear: I am not a diversity quota.
“Raising money is tough, with less than 3% of venture capital funding going to women of color founders,” Khan says. “That has to change. And I just want to be me, Najwa. I want allies who sign on with me for all of the right reasons. Because they ultimately believe in me and Dalci and how we are on a mission to ignite change.”
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