Interviewed by Diaspora Co. Editor Natalie Pattillo
Aishwarya Iyer could not silence her inner voice. It was telling her to leave venture capital firms in New York City for, quite literally, the greener pastures of a California olive farm. Upon learning that nearly 70 percent of imported olive oil in the U.S. failed to meet international standards, she felt gravitated towards making real change in the industry. What could she do, she wondered, about the fact that, for years, “extra virgin olive oil” sold in American supermarkets was typically rancid or even diluted with cheaper peanut (a huge health hazard for those who are allergic!) or sunflower oils?
At the time, she didn’t have any experience in the food industry, so her inner voice was met with her inner critic. She read books, studied her South Indian ancestry, and went back to her roots to unearth where her inherent drive for food transparency stemmed from. Through that journey, Aishwarya was able to silence her doubts and fuel her intuition, which eventually led her to become the CEO and founder of Brightland, an organic and artisanal olive oil label produced on a single-estate California farm.
NP: Growing up, did you ever foresee yourself diving into the food & wellness industry?
AI: I grew up in a family that was (and still is) completely obsessed with talking about food, cooking and enthusiastically eating at home. As the daughter of first generation Indian immigrants who came to the US in the 1980’s, my parents viewed food as a way to preserve and pass on their culture and heritage. I certainly did not consider it as a career and spent a decade in New York and LA in tech and startups. Around 2015, when I learned about issues plaguing the olive oil industry and wanted to build something, I actually went through a bit of an inner critic crisis, because I wasn’t sure if it could be my journey to go on or story to tell, given my lack of expertise in the food industry. Reading Hal and Sidra Stone’s book, Embracing Your Inner Critic: Turning Self-Criticism into a Creative Asset, was pivotal to the mental shift, as was learning that my ancestors in South India were actually farmers who harvested salt from the sea. I did not know my ancestry had deep roots in food and the land, and I think I needed to know where I came from in order to know where I was going.
What's a food memory from your childhood that has stuck with you?
My LOVE for mushy food. My parents used a blender to make anything that I ate super soft and mushy! It could be carrots, rice, anything it was pureed into a delicious mush and I was delighted. I had no desire for crunchiness in my life. Funny/weird enough, to this day, I adore all mushy foods: bread pudding, tapioca, mashed potatoes, applesauce...yum.
How does your cultural background as a woman of color shape the way you run Brightland?
My background informs how I think about building a team, the recipes and content we create, our creative strategy, and the way I select partners, suppliers and brand advocates. It’s a part of the brand DNA, because it’s who I am!
Who are sources of inspiration for you today?
In life: My mother for her tenacity, my husband and sister for being themselves, unapologetically, at all times and my father for his humility.
In business: It’s a noisy time right now, so I really admire creators and founders who are quietly and diligently moving mountains while turning antiquated industries on their heads. I also admire business people who recognize that it’s a marathon, not a sprint...and at the end of the day, you’re only racing against yourself.
What is the most unexpected yet helpful advice you've received on being a CEO + founder?
Daina Trout, the CEO of Healthade Kombucha, wisely shared: if you are feeling overwhelmed by the sheer number of things to do or the steep climb ahead of you - just remember...ONE. STEP. FORWARD. Take one step, then another, then another.
It’s very simple advice but works when you feel like you have email or work overload staring at you in the face!
What's your fave way to use turmeric? What about cardamom?
My grandmother used to make this incredible masala milk for me every evening when I visited India...it has both turmeric and cardamom in it. She boiled milk, added turmeric, sugar, some saffron, cardamom, and chopped almonds + pistachios. We would drink it together while watching the Cartoon Network (Captain Planet!). I haven’t made it myself since she passed away, but I’m so excited to use Diaspora’s new cardamom to make it and share with my family.
PS - Wanna try Brightland's olive oil? You can use the code "ABrightDiaspora" for free shipping on your first order!