January 4, 2023
Shana Marie Gilbert & Laura Lind
WomensNet is pleased to announce the recipient of its 2022 annual $25,000 Year-End Amber Grant for Women.
Shana and Laura’s busy year has seen their sales grow by at least 10%. They used some of the June grant to purchase a new tank to get ahead on their vanilla production and meet new order more quickly. And, with the year-end grant, among other things, they have plans to make a short film about the challenges of the vanilla growing in Uganda and how they are using it as a way to bring prosperity to an impoverished community. Here are the highlights, in their words:
WomensNet: Hi everyone, this is Jama Hernandez with WomensNet, and we’re so excited to announce our 2022, $25,000 Amber Grant winner: The Sweetest Bean. We are just so thrilled to connect with Shana and Laura to learn a little bit about what they’ve been doing and what they have coming up. So, congratulations.
Shana and Laura: Thank you. We are just shocked. Really. Thank you. We got the phone call and we were really, really blown away. It was a lovely Christmas gift.
WomensNet: Well, we’re very excited. And we want to know all about how you guys have been doing the past couple months with the $10,000 grant first, and what’s coming up.
Shana and Laura: Absolutely. We have had just an insane summer, so busy, and we go right into the busy Christmas baking season, fall season…so just kind of winding down [now] and we’re very grateful for that.
But the $10,000 grant that we were gifted back in July was just truly a game changer for us. With that $10,000, we were able to buy a brand new tank. We brew our vanilla extract in big giant tanks, if you will. And we were able to purchase another hundred gallon tank, so almost doubling what we had in production at the time. We always felt a little behind in meeting some of the needs we had, and growing, gaining new clients… and having that extra tank was just awesome. It allowed us to get ahead.
We ended up purchasing a hundred more pounds of vanilla beans from our team in Uganda. That came at a time where we were still in that summer curing season. And so we were able to still get a hundred more pounds of beans. So that was phenomenal. And as a thank you for all of their hard work, we were able to give our team in Uganda a thousand dollar thank you.
Because of all the production that was increased, we were almost 10% up in sales this fall, so it was really a huge gift. So thank you.
WomensNet: Wonderful. I’m just thinking about how wonderful all those vanilla extracts smells, or vanilla smells, must be. Just amazing.
Shana and Laura: You do, you start to smell vanilla all the time.
My daughter, she’s in college but she’s like, ‘mom, the house just smells like vanilla all the time. It’s in our clothes.’
WomensNet: Can you tell us a little bit about what differentiates yourselves from your competitors?
Shana and Laura: Well, it’s just the two of us. There’s not this big huge world behind us. It really is just the two of us. So when you order online, that’s Laura. She gets it and she’s the personality behind it all. So that differentiates us because all of our major competitors — there’s not many vanilla companies across the country — but the ones that you know, that you buy in the store, they’re generational. So they’re three, four generation. They’re over a hundred years old each. And, of course we’re competing against them in many ways. So that differentiates us. And I’d say the big thing that’s personal to my heart is I wanna do things differently. When you’re working with a product that only comes from impoverished places in the world, Uganda being one of them, rethinking economy and how charity should work in very poor extreme poverty locations like Kampala…
We are providing employment and we’re trying to create an economy, and that feels so good. I just wanna say, I know our competitors are trying to do the same thing. I just happen to live there and be ingrained in the community for a decade, and that’s where the relationships come. But that’s something I feel really confident about and happy that we’re able to continue to do, and also help other people learn how to rethink their industry and not just reap their rewards from from places around the world, and gain their profits….but actually try and employ people. Have mothers pay their own school fees, their own medical bills, and not sit and wait for charity. Pay their own kids’ school fees instead of abandoning them to an orphanage….
So all of those things happen in the vanilla industry, in Madagascar, in every country. A lot of child labor is used to make vanilla because it’s labor intensive. So I feel very confident that we’re trying to do something different there.
WomensNet: Absolutely. It’s just fantastic work. Even if any of our viewers here have not tried vanilla from Uganda, it’s superior and amazing. And so it’s definitely a high quality product coming from a very beautiful, and wonderful place and even close to my heart. So thank you so much.
Shana and Laura: That means a lot to us for sure. We are just blown away by how hard our team in Uganda works. As Shan mentioned, it is so labor intensive and just their heart and soul and time and energy and sweat and tears goes into just every little vanilla beam that we get. So it’s pretty great.
And so we do get some complaints. ‘Why is vanilla so expensive?’ And I always feel very obligated to explain that it not only needs to be hand pollinated, but it takes nine months to grow that bean on that vine, which is the same exact time it takes to grow an entire human being. So then once that happens and we get it in the market, our team gets it in the market. It’s another three months in the hot sun every day. So you think it takes a year to create one bean, and it’s actually very cheap.
WomensNet: I’m even thinking of the environmental factors that are sometimes out of your control and having to make adjustments for that.
Shana and Laura: Absolutely. And you never know what’s coming down the pipeline. This is one industry that I’m not used to…she (Shana) has a little more experience than me as far as just the volatility that comes with it. And, you know, there can be challenges obviously working in a foreign country.
WomensNet: We talked a little bit about some of the challenges. What’s kept you two going and motivated and just moving forward?
Shana and Laura: Well, I think each other — that’s helpful. Lauren and I have known each other a long time. We’ve worked on a lot of projects. We kind of know each other’s personality. She’s very good at sales, very good at collaborating with companies. She’s so good at that. I am terrible, just terrible. I’d like to think I’m good at it, but she’s got those skills.
Then on my end… I don’t know what I offer. I was in Uganda so long. I offer that side of it — the relationships for us. But the truth is, I think we keep each other going when things are frustrating or hard. Also, we’ve been working a lot, [and] a long time in a lot of different industries: Music industry, film industry. We’ve done all kinds across the gamut. We’ve been working on a lot of things. I’ve run a nonprofit. So we’re used to the challenges, and there’s a lot of ups, there’s a lot of downs and failures. So I think we know how to pull ourselves out of it really well.
We’ve learned, hopefully ways to not fail. We’re not 20 anymore starting our first company. And so I think there is experience that comes with some of it. But as I said too, one of the challenges we’ve had in particular this last year working in a foreign country is some of the fuel pricing to get our beans over here. So you have to plan for that. With the growth and even with this grant, we’re able to kind of set aside a little money for things that we don’t expect sometimes. So we just have to be open to some of the things that come our way and become problem solvers.
I specifically remember…I’m making vanilla one day and Laura calls and tells me we normally spend about $1800 to $2,000 on our shipment. And she all of a sudden then tells me, ‘oh my gosh, we’re in trouble. It’s $6,000 because of fuel prices.’ And I just start screaming.
It was a huge deal, but I negotiated that down a little bit…
WomensNet: So what are some exciting, maybe projects that we can all look out for coming up in this next year?
Shana and Laura: Good question. One of the projects we really wanna do actually, and some of what this grant would help us do, is take Shana to Uganda for a video. And really highlighting our team and showing everybody what the vanilla process looks like, almost doing a short, if you will…highlighting everything good, bad, challenging, fun about vanilla and telling the story. I think when we share the story at farmers markets or events, or even to friends and family, they’re really shocked at how intricate it is and time consuming. And as mentioned earlier, how long it takes. So really doing a video and kind of a short and really doing a lot more of that so people can understand why it is so expensive.
I’m gonna try and get Laura to be in on this with me, but I wrote a podcast, so I’m very excited to start. It’s not just about the vanilla industry, but it’s the vanilla industry as a way to help, and as a way to make a difference in impoverished cultures. So I’m using vanilla as our base, but it’ll spread out from there. I want to start that in Uganda this summer with our team.
WomensNet: Amazing. Well, we look forward to learning more about it.
If there was one thing, or a couple things, that you would like our WomensNet supporters to know about the Sweetest Bean, what would it be?
Shana and Laura: When we first applied and were nominated for the month of June, almost instantly all the other companies wrote us congratulations, introduced themselves… and it was so encouraging. So I would like to say to everyone out there, we encourage you, we love the encouragement, and I think it’s important we keep helping each other because out of that came a couple collaborations and some new friends. I was really grateful for that. So I feel like I want us to be able to offer that to other people as well.
Now that we are part of the WomensNet family, I feel like we will continue to do that for other companies. And reiterating what she just said — we did receive so many emails of just congratulations and thank yous. It was pretty special.
WomensNet: Awesome. Thank you for sharing that. And where can we find your product?
Shana and Laura: Yes, absolutely. The main avenue for us right now is our website. It is TheSweetestBean.com. We have all of our products there. We have some special gift kits you can buy for people that love vanilla. You can mix and match different products together. We are in the process of adding a recipe page, because we get asked all the time. We’re always adding vanilla to random things. My latest is chili and soups. I add our vanilla powder — it’s so good as a spice. Treat it like you would and it’s so good. Soups and stews and barbecue rubs… People are like, ‘wait, when are you gonna add a recipe page? We need to see these.’ So we are in the process of doing that too.
Everybody watching — you can use the discount code SWEET at checkout, and it will give you a 10% discount.
WomensNet: Thank you. And I do love that Vanilla bean powder…you just use a little bit of it and it really goes a long way.
Shana and Laura: It almost binds the other spices together.
WomensNet: One of my favorite discoveries of that is putting it in my coffee grounds. It doesn’t taste like artificial vanilla coffee. You know, it’s got a really beautiful, nutty flavor that it just infuses while it’s brewing, so it’s very nice.
Shana and Laura: That’s awesome. I love that.
WomensNet: Thank you so much. Please keep in touch with us; and we do appreciate you taking the time to connect. We’re so excited. Congratulations again.
Shana and Laura: Thank you. Oh my gosh, so much. Thanks for making our year so amazing. Happy New Year.