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Asheville-area woman brings vision for a new organic industry in WNC

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6/22/2011 - Asheville-area woman brings vision for a new organic industry in WNC
by Dale Neal - Asheville Citizen Times

INTERESTING PEOPLE BRING INTERESTING INDUSTRY IN WESTERN NORTH CAROLINA!!

 

         ENKA -- The tattoo-bedecked Kara Errickson doesn't look like your typical businesswoman in a power suit, but listen carefully: She's mastered all the jargon of return on investment and intellectual property when she talks about her vision for CoCoChi, a new company winning both awards and customers.

 But her business sense runs more than skin-deep: Errickson feels it to the bone that Western North Carolina has a real future in natural products -- like CoCoChi's maiden product, an organic skin cream called Skin Food Topical Nourishment. 

"I was never a cosmetics kind of a girl," Errickson said. "I blame it all on my daughter."

Kara and Tyler Errickson's baby, Kaia, was born in Bali along with the couple's idea for a new business and skin care product. Skin Food blends organic coconut oil and six other natural ingredients and comes in a cleverly designed cartridge made from biodegradable, recycled paper. You can use it as a skin salve or lip balm. It's even safe enough to eat -- as Errickson's 2-year-old toddler does on occasion (though as a mom, she doesn't recommend it as a snack).

You can't raise coconuts in the Carolinas, but the Erricksons have found the rest of the ingredients for success back home. "Everything that we needed to turn our business vision into an actual plan of action occurred right here in the resources of this community. It's a Goliath world, but we found our slingshot," she quipped.

Their secret ingredient has been the newly opened Natural Products Manufacturing Line at Blue Ridge Food Ventures, where the Erricksons fill the cartridges with organic coconut oil and other natural ingredients, completing orders already coming in from Whole Foods and other retailers across the Southeast.

"Wow" is what Mary Lou Surgi said when she heard Errickson's ideas for CoCoChi. As the head of Blue Ridge Food Ventures, Surgi has seen plenty of people with ideas for salsas or soaps, but not so many with a plan to turn their recipe into successful businesses.

"Everybody thinks that love and passion for their food or product carry them forward. It's rare to find a person who has a passion and bigger vision," Surgi said

Changing the world

From Haywood County to exotic Bali and back home again, it's been a long journey to a successful business startup. Errickson first saw herself as a "hippie artist-type," earning a degree in furniture-making at Haywood Community College. "I can cut a mean set of dov etails." Errickson laughed.

But working only in wood wouldn't change the world. "I had to stop being a hippie standing on a soap box, yelling at people to change. I didn't have the venue to create the change in the world. You have to work within the system to change the system."

She earned a degree in industrial design at Rhode Island School of Design, then went to Bali to intern with the Environmental Bamboo Foundation. Her love of wood led to an appreciation for versatile bamboo, from which she helped create a three-story chandelier and a sustainable house. The couple were living large in paradise, surfing most every day and enjoying their work.

"Then we got pregnant," she said.

Errickson never paid that much attention to skin care products until she got pregnant and started reading the labels on skin creams. After the birth of her daughter, Kaia, "the Balinese embraced us as a family," she recalled. She had a new appreciation for the ubiquitous coconut oil that the locals used as a cooking oil and a skin cream for their healthy skin and hair. "I knew we had to bring this home with us."

So along with their baby, the Erricksons brought back an initial business plan. "I call that version the adorable narrative." she said. That plan has since evolved into a 60-page document she calls "The Beast" with projections of cash flow and sales and marketing strategies to promote Skin Food.

That detailed business plan won competitions sponsored by AdvantageWest and the Haywood Chamber of Commerce and more importantly, infusions of capital like the $35,000 Advantage Opportunity Fund bridge loan for entrepreneurs. The Erricksons perfected their blend of ingredients at home -- not too runny or yellow or greasy. Using just seven ingredients, all natural and derived from plants, they were able to reach another milestone -- earning organic certification from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

But then came the need to package the product, and the Erricksons worked hard to come up with the clever cartridge. You push up the balm from the bottom and apply it to your skin. No fuss and no overpowering smell. "We wanted to keep it gender-neutral," she said. When you're through, simply tap the cartridge down and replace the cap.

Errickson spun off a separate company, SFTN Inc., to handle producing and marketing Skin Food. Meanwhile, CoCoChi can develop more organic cosmetics while helping other entrepreneurs brand and package their products. She would like to bring more ideas she brainstormed in Bali back home.

Growing a local industry

For instance, Errickson can see some varieties of bamboo becoming a cash crop in the mountains, providing a versatile material that can be used like fiber in paper, clothing, packaging or even as a food. She envisions a whole supply chain growing up in WNC as growers, entrepreneurs and manufacturers create a "Napa Valley of natural products."

Western North Carolina has such a history with Cherokee and early settlers gathering natural botanicals and herbs for soaps and tinctures and medicines. American ginseng, goldenseal and black cohosh grow wild in the coves of WNC and are still in demand worldwide. Botanical and herbal products represent a $5.2 billion annual market in the U.S., according to Greg Cumberford, president of Bent Creek Institute at the N.C. Arboretum.

"We're starting to get the pieces of the puzzle here in WNC," said Paul Knott, director of the BioBusiness Center at A-B Tech's Enka Campus.

Indeed:

o Bent Creek Institute, which collects and preserves the seeds from the region's vast diversity of plants, can provide basic research.

o N.C. State University's Mountain Horticultural Crops Research Station can teach farmers how to grow and harvest medicina l herbs.

o The Biobusiness Center at A-B Tech can help entrepreneurs research usable compounds from botanicals and do analytical testing of proposed products.

o Natural Products Manufacturing Facility at Blue Ridge Food Ventures can help produce and package their product.

And along the way, there are plenty of counselors offering hints on business plans, financing and marketing.

Those groups along with AdvantageWest and Western Carolina University have received a $235,000 grant from the Golden LEAF fund to better understand how to grow the natural products industry in the mountains, promoting more businesses like the Erricksons'

Changing the world is good, but making a profit as a business is important as well. Errickson has found plenty of people who look past her tattoos or her youth and look hard at her business plan.

Return on investment isn't just business jargon now, but something she now deeply believes in. They found their seed money among family and friends who believed in them. In turn, the couple didn't take loans but gave those people equity shares in their fledgling enterprise.

"The emotional impact of that was surprising for me," she said. "We will be so happy to go back and show the profits we can generate for our investors."

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