This 28-Year-Old Went From Car Trunk Sales To Whole Foods

It’s been a few years since Nailah Ellis-Brown ran her natural tea manufacturing company, Ellis Infinity Beverage Co., from her parents’ basement and sold her beverage product from the trunk of her car.

She is the 28-year-old founder and CEO of this bottling operation that required a $150,000 investment. Today, her Ellis Island Tea brand is sold at regional Whole Foods Market outlets. It is also receiving orders from other such retailers. Sales have grown from $27,000 in 2014 to more than $60,000 in 2015. She projects revenues to reach $200,000 this year.

[Related: New Study Explores Troubling State of Minority-Owned Businesses]

Ellis-Brown’s original plan was to earn a business degree from Howard University and then make her fortune on Wall Street to seed a future enterprise. Overwhelmed by the enormous student debt she would incur, Ellis-Brown decided to drop out of college and return to her hometown of Detroit to start a business. “I am pro-education [and] plan on going back to get my degree, but once I realized how student loans work and how much more you’d actually end up paying back and how much money I would walk away with, I couldn’t accept that,” she says.

After dropping out of college and taking up residence in her mother’s basement, she decided to take her family recipe, carry on the family legacy and start a beverage company. What separated Ellis Island from its competitors was that it produced the sweet tea using hibiscus, rose hips, and peppermint leaves, giving it a red color and a smoother, fruitier taste.

Ellis Island can be found in 20 Whole Foods stores throughout the entire Midwest, including Michigan, Indiana, and Chicago, among other locales. And recently, Ellis-Brown secured an account to supply beverages to 100 Meijer grocery stores throughout Michigan. That deal led to Ellis-Brown building a relationship with KeHE Distributors, an outfit with a national reach.

She admits that the company would not be in this position had she not gained financing and mentorship. While receiving the Sankofa Next Gen Entrepreneur of the Year Award from the Michigan Black Chamber of Commerce last November, she made an impassioned “call to action” for established African American entrepreneurs to support emerging black millennial business owners.

Leon Richardson, CEO of Southfield, Michigan-based ChemicoMays L.L.C. (No. 45 on the BE INDUSTRIAL/SERVICE COMPANIES listwith $85.8 million in revenues) as well as a slew of additional mentors answered. ChemicoMays funded the production facility and provides Ellis-Brown with strategic planning support and accounting services needed to restructure production costs. Ellis-Brown and Richardson will share their experience on mentor-protege relationships at the Entrepreneurs Summit in Miami (May 4-7, 2016).