Nailah Ellis-Brown’s story is one of persistence, vulnerability, and standing firm in your purpose. It’s one that began on the island of Jamaica and was cultivated in the city of Detroit, on Howard University’s campus, and in her mother’s kitchen.
Ellis-Brown went from perfecting a family recipe to sitting across from major retailers and world-renowned entertainers. As the founder of Ellis Infinity Beverage Company, she operates the only Black woman-owned beverage manufacturing plant in the country. Unknowingly, this story began long before her existence on earth through a recipe that was passed down from her great-great-grandfather “to be sold, not told.”
Witnessing her story unfold is a testimony for girls—especially young Black girls—that you can seek to occupy an unfamiliar space and succeed. Her testimony shows women that your story can look different, unconventional, and even unrealistic to some, but your faith is enough to persevere. Her testimony shows that the amount of no’s have no value in the face of the right yes.
Ellis-Brown spoke to Her Agenda about her start with Ellis Island Tea, her newest partnership with Kevin Hart, and what’s to come from Ellis Infinity Beverage Company.
Her Agenda: What would your great-great-grandfather say about the current success of Ellis Island Tea?
Nailah Ellis-Brown: He would say, ‘well done.’ Of course, he was long gone before I was even thought of, but I think he would be extremely proud.
Her Agenda: Let’s chat about your concept-to-creation process. You took an idea and turned it into a profitable business that pours into the community. What did that look like for you?
Nailah Ellis-Brown: I literally built this company on trial and error. I’m a college dropout. I went to Howard University in Washington, D.C. During my freshman year, I realized how student loans work, and I would have graduated north of $100k in debt. I figured I was young enough, I could walk away and come back.
It went from dropping out of college to getting my hands on the recipe to carry on my family legacy. This would also be my ticket to entrepreneurship because I wanted to start a beverage company. Everything was, okay, now what? The recipe had never been written down before me, so I went to the store to get the ingredients and the first time I made it, it was absolutely disgusting. The tea is red. The first time I made it, it came out brown. I made it every day for an entire year. 365 batches later, it was ready for market.
I didn’t know how to bring anything to the market and get it on shelves, but I did know how to sell. I would brew tea every night, load up my cooler, put it in my trunk, and drive around the city. Wherever I saw people, I would get out and try to sell it. I was making good cash to be so young, but I was getting too comfortable. I was afraid of walking into a store and asking what it took to get on the shelves. I looked myself in the mirror and said, “no longer will you sell tea from a cooler in the trunk of your car. If you’re going to sell tea for another day, it’s going to be in stores.” I just put that on myself. I had no choice but to face my fears and walk into the store to ask the question. The worst thing they could say is no.
I walked into Whole Foods—which was my dream account—and I saw I saw a guy putting beverages on shelves. I asked what it takes to get my products on shelves, and I handed them a bottle. He laughed, and he’s like, “you don’t have a barcode, you don’t have nutrition, etc.” Everything he was telling me, I was writing it all down. I built this whole company on trial and error; taking the clues that life would give me and piecing it together. 12 years later, we’re beyond concept. I’m the largest Black female beverage manufacturer in the country, and that’s all through just taking life’s clues, and working every day to make it to the next step.
Her Agenda: You spent a full year perfecting the recipe, and later (literally feet on the ground) built an organic customer base leading up to your placement in Whole Foods, Sam’s Club, etc. With so many no’s—literal and figurative—what motivated you to persist and see the vision through?
Nailah Ellis-Brown: My motivation when I got started was different than my motivation today.
Back then, taking it back to selling tea out of a cooler from the trunk of my car, I didn’t have any other choice. There was no walking away when I got a no because I had left school, I was living in my mother’s basement, and I don’t do well depending on other people. Quitting was not an option. Though there were times where I felt extremely frustrated, there was no quitting because I eliminated all of my cushion. There was no Plan B. People say that you shouldn’t put all of your eggs in one basket, but for a path as tough as entrepreneurship, I had no choice. There was no giving up, and I’m glad I did it that way because it’s what has pushed me to this point. I couldn’t walk away and get a corporate job because I walked away from school. That was my motivation to be successful.
I wanted to live out [the] definition of my name. Nailah means, “one who succeeds.” Once I learned the definition of my name, I was very proud of that, and I wanted to make my mother proud. I couldn’t let myself down. I was on a mission to become successful, and I’m still on that mission.
Her Agenda: You’ve had to show vulnerability—something that lots of us struggle with—a lot throughout your journey, starting from pitching your product to people in your community. How has that helped your business growth?
Nailah Ellis-Brown: It helped as far as people wanting to jump in and help. I didn’t build this company alone. Being open, honest, and allowing myself to be vulnerable and not being afraid to ask for help, [led me to where I am today]. Ignorance is bliss in a lot of areas, and there was a lot that I didn’t know. I would just reach out to people for help, and their support helped me get to this point. I am where I am because I was willing to make myself vulnerable.
I didn’t build this company alone. Being open, honest, and allowing myself to be vulnerable and not being afraid to ask for help, led me to where I am today.
Her Agenda: You went from selling your product out of your car to being sold in major retailers, and later partnering with a global entertainer. What did preparation for these moments look like?
Nailah Ellis-Brown: Preparation looked like—prayer. There’s a lot that I didn’t know. It looked like putting energy towards getting in front of Sam’s. Closing is what I do. I don’t take no for an answer. The more I hear myself say that, the more I believe it. I don’t know the outcome of anything, I just put all of my energy towards winning. In my mind, I don’t have the option to do anything other than win. I’m just putting one foot in front of the other. Once I got the meeting [with Sam’s], I needed to figure out what problem I was solving for Sam’s in order for them to bring me on. What beverages are being sold? Which of those were successful? Which are not successful, and why not? How does Sam’s Club benefit by putting Ellis Island Tea on their shelves? That’s what preparation looks like for me with any account. How would they benefit from working with me?
Preparation looked like—prayer.
Her Agenda: You recently made a huge announcement! Ellis Infinity Beverage Company is partnering with Kevin Hart. How did that come to fruition?
Nailah Ellis-Brown: That opportunity came about the same way the Sam’s Club opportunity came about. I started putting all of my energy towards getting in front of Kevin. I started calling everyone that I know, and I felt crazy doing it, but there’s that vulnerability. A lot of people were telling me that things don’t work like that, and I would have to pay him to endorse my product. I wasn’t trying to hear that. I had that conversation with a handful of people before I realized that my mentor is really good friends, with a really good friend of Kevin’s bodyguard—who happens to be from Detroit.
I was on the phone with his bodyguard and I told him that I wanted to pitch to Kevin, and I wanted his help to get in front of him. The first thing he said is, “first of all, how did you get my number? Who told you that I’m his bodyguard?” He told me that he had been doing security for him for ten or twelve years. He does his job and goes home and doesn’t bring things like this to him, but he believed in my company and would put a bug in his ear. Kevin’s response was yes. He wanted to meet me and learn more.
I jumped on a plane a few days before Christmas and told my family that I’m not coming back until I have received an investment from Kevin Hart. Yet again, I felt crazy saying it, and everyone thought I was crazy, but I jumped on a plane. Three days after I got there, I was sitting across from Kevin Hart. We had a one-on-one meeting and within 15 minutes he committed to investing in the company, and we became partners. Everything has been happening so fast since then. We just broke the news and it’s just going crazy.
I am where I am because I was willing to make myself vulnerable.
Her Agenda: So many people can hear your story and see themselves in your work ethic, vulnerability, and a genuine will to win by any means. All done without massive funding or a huge rolodex. How does this moment feel? Could you have imagined this when you were on day 175 of perfecting the recipe?
Nailah Ellis-Brown: It feels great, and it also feels like we’re just getting started. This is only the beginning. We have a lot of work to do. I have been on the shelves of major retailers like Whole Foods, Kroger, Costco, and Sam’s Club. We’re still in Sam’s Club, and we’re going to roll-out in Wal-Mart within the next two weeks in the southern region. We just revamped our website. All of that sounds great, but one thing about retail and the way it works is, you’ve got to prove yourself before they give you these national, long-term commitments. Though I’ve been on some major shelves, none of those were long-term commitments. I’ve always gotten a lot of media attention, so people will see me on TV or read an article and go to stores all over the country and be frustrated because they cannot find the product. The largest pain point for consumers is they want to do business. They want to buy the product because they’re in love with the story. Once they try it, they love the product, but accessing it consistently has always been a problem.
We just invested in revamping our website to solve that pain point. What I’m most excited about is the fact that you can order from anywhere in the country and have a case of Ellis Island Tea delivered to your door for less than thirty dollars. That’s huge for us because beverages are heavy so shipping is super expensive. We got out of glass and got into plastic because it’s a lot lighter so we’re able to make it affordable for people to order online through our website. We’ve got a lot of work to do on the distribution side, and a lot of product awareness to create. That’s why we’re excited about partnering with Kevin Hart because he’s helping to increase that product awareness, which is huge for distribution. You’ll get stores like Target that come knocking on your door and are interested in bringing your product to their shelves because they know that you have a marketing machine behind you when you’ve partnered with someone like Kevin Hart.
Also, since Beyonce posted us in her Black owned business catalog, our e-commerce sales have increased by over 1000%.
Her Agenda: How has your vision for Ellis Island Tea evolved over the years? What do you see in the years to come?
Nailah Ellis-Brown: When I started, I could only see so far into the future. I knew that I wanted to provide jobs for people who look like me. I had no idea how I was going to do that. Manufacturing and opening a production facility was not something that I was thinking big enough to even visualize at that time. I just wanted to provide jobs and carry on my family legacy. Today, with us being the largest Black female beverage manufacturer in the country, we’ve got bigger goals.
As far as the global market, there is a crop that I am working with now, which is the new innovation that Kevin Hart was so excited about. This Caribbean punch is super healthy, zero added sugar, and it’s got antiviral properties. And it tastes amazing. With that, the supply chain is a huge focus for us right now. Our staff is 100% Black. We’re literally all Black everything, and that part feels good.
Our staff is 100% Black. We’re literally all Black everything, and that part feels good.
There’s a narrative that we need to change. Black women business owners were the largest growing group of entrepreneurs, yet at the same time, we’ve received less than one percent of all V.C funding. I’m working on a majority, if not all, Black cap cable. Right now, 100% my cap table is Black. Kevin Hart is on my cap cable and we have some other very influential people that are looking at joining. Everyone is starting to see the vision.
Providing jobs, providing opportunities, and helping to create a sustainable living for Black people all over the world; that’s what we’re working on building. Also, just making noise and changing the game for the global beverage market. We’ve got big dreams, and they’re already becoming a reality. We’ve got a lot of work to do, and we’re dreaming big over here.
[Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]