Early on in life, Jennifer Ntiri became interested in finding creative ways to positively impact basic human needs. Born in New York to immigrants from Ghana, her childhood was a tapestry of family traditions and a new, American pastiche of different and unfamiliar cultures, and she quickly discovered the inherent value in creating lasting and more meaningful connections with people in a cross-cultural world.
“I had to learn the perspective of others, my own perspective and the big picture as well,” says Ntiri, currently a student at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business.
“I was learning to adjust and fit in, and ultimately I ended up with a friend group that was a combination of other first-generation kids. We all connected on how our parents were raising us and a strong emphasis was placed on the value of education.”
‘HAVE THE COURAGE TO TRY ONE MORE TIME, EVERY TIME’
Ntiri graduated from Harvard University in 2007 with a degree in psychology and went to work for Abercrombie and Fitch as an assistant merchant.
But as a believer in Thomas Edison’s model of thinking outside the box and failing quickly to work through new ideas, models, and paradigm shifts, Ntiri soon left the corporate world for the startup one.
She joined GIVEAsia, which works to facilitate giving across the Asian continent by offering a top-notch platform, as its chief campaign coordinator.
“What made being part of their team so special was the founders’ infectious energy,” Ntiri says. “I seized the opportunity to learn from their ever-shifting business model whenever I could. To be successful in business and to be successful in life, many of us have to face our fears, take that leap of faith, and pave a way through to where the meaning we want exists.
“If you don’t have the courage to try one more time, every time, it’s so much harder, because a lot of entrepreneurship is about finding a way, and so is much of life.”
KEY EXPERIENCES FOR THE ROAD AHEAD
While with GIVEAsia, Ntiri watched the founders take in stride every setback on the journey toward meaningful impact, consistently prioritizing inclusion through flexibility and always delivering on their core mission: making it easier for donors to give. The organization has proven itself to be a powerhouse of impact, offering a clear and transparent interface – one that has led users to successfully raise nearly $10 million dollars for charitable causes in just a few short years.
She learned how to make a startup run successfully and credits her experience there with inspiring her to create her own business.
“The organization was highly experimental and operated on a model of failing quickly and integrating market obstacles to make an impact,” Ntiri says. “They taught me an important lesson that while innovation is fun, it is not a game in its entirety rather it is a tool we can use to change the world.”
A MARKET FOR FOOD FUSION
After GIVEAsia, Ntiri returned to Harvard for a health careers program. But then her life changed in a sudden and unexpected way.
Ntiri developed severe food allergies — more than 30 in all — that forever changed the way she would shop for food, eat, and think about nutrition and diet.
“Having food allergies changed my life. After two decades of living somewhat oblivious to the consequences of diet, I had to start caring about everything I consumed, all from a perspective I had never considered,” Ntiri says. “I didn’t have the option not to care, if I wanted to sustain my life in the long term. I had to make a lot of sacrifices, giving up what I wanted to enjoy for what I needed to be okay, and it was hard having to make that tradeoff over and over again.”
With every allergen she had to avoid, Ntiri says she found exponentially fewer options available in the market, a stressful and disheartening series of revelations. “Here I was, a Manhattan-born foodie, going through one of the most difficult transitions of my life without any feasible comfort food to help me de-stress. It sounds redundant and perhaps silly, but comfort food exists in part for that very reason, to comfort us when we seek a release from more anxious, sullen, or overwhelmed mental states,” she says.
“For people who had multiple dietary considerations, whether medically mandated or honored for personal reasons, there wasn’t much to seek comfort in and enjoy. The market offered no meeting in the middle between indulgence and health, and I realized that if I wanted to experience that kind of fusion I had to create it.”
FOOD THAT IS ‘BOTH DECADENT AND NUTRITIONALLY INCLUSIVE’
With her mother, Agnes, as her business partner, Ntiri founded Underscores Baked Goods, an artisan online and B2B production offering premium artisanal comfort food with options that are gluten free, vegan, allergy conscious, non-GMO and organic.
“My perspective was that if I didn’t want to eat what I was making, it wouldn’t fair to ask anyone else to either. Our recipes had to be about making food that was both decadent and nutritionally inclusive, and if they weren’t both they didn’t solve the market’s problem,” Ntiri says.
“My partner and I saw a market full of people trying to stay in their current lifestyle without the minimum amount of quality necessary to have true enjoyment, and that is why we started Underscores to bridge the gap.”