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Rebecca Holmes of Ello Raw takes the complicated reality of business ownership and success then adds an extra dash of nuance and a pinch of personal hardship.  

While her raw food dessert bites will soon be on local Whole Foods shelves, she’s faced, and is still facing, some hard times. 

At best, Holmes was a thriving Duke student and business owner. At her worst, she was living in her car. 

This past summer Holmes hit her personal rock bottom. Despite being the CEO of a profitable company and a Duke graduate, she was homeless. She had enough money to buy 3 plastic drawers you might see in college dorms. She had a hair brush and a few changes of clothes. She was okay, according to her. It was good enough. 

The reality of her situation, according to Holmes, didn’t set in until her sister gave her a combat knife so she could feel safe when she was sleeping in parking lots alone at night. 

On the other side of the coin, Holmes was an active and high achieving Duke student. Though she grew up in a low-income household, she landed a full-tuition scholarship through a program reserved for students of families at or below a certain household income level. While in college she took advantage of every opportunity she could. She was a finalist in the Duke Startup Challenge for her startup Ello Raw. She landed a spot in the Melissa & Doug Entrepreneurs program. Holmes even founded a program of her own that sends wannabe undergrad CEOs to Brazil to learn from the country’s best entrepreneurs. Her life was on track in many ways. 

It’s been a bumpy road for Holmes, filled with ups and downs. Holmes says her determination helps her pick herself up every time she falls down.

The Situation Now 

The past few months have been a whirlwind of progress for Ello Raw.  

The company produces raw, organic, non-GMO, gluten-free, soy-free, agave-free and egg-free dessert bites made from nuts, oats, oils, honey, dates, berries and spices. Holmes’ idea is to produce a healthy and environmentally responsible dessert that even non-health-nus can enjoy. 

Considering most desserts start with a unhealthy helping of butter, refined flour and processed sugar, hers is a lofty goal. However, Holmes think’s she’s done it. Based on her the mentors she’s attracted, awards, sales and her growing customer base, others seem to agree. 

Ello Raw Founder Rebecca Holmes
Becky Holmes, founder of Ello Raw, dishes up her product at a Expo East. Photo Credit: Ello Raw.

At the end of September, Holmes attended the Natural Products Expo East in Baltimore. It was one of the bigger trade shows she’s ever attended, boasting 28,000 attendees this year. Holmes estimates she took home over 200 business cards and is in talks with about a dozen new retailers. 

Holmes was named one of the top new vendors at the expo. 

Just before Expo East, she was selected for the latest batch of mentored companies of SOAR Triangle, a program designed to help women-led ventures raise capital through mentorship and networking. 

Later this year, Holmes hopes to find her products on shelves in Triangle Whole Foods stores. For burgeoning food businesses, chain stores like this are a key proof point. If the product sells well, Holmes sees a huge uptick in profit and earns some local brand awareness. If they sell extremely well, the products could eventually be carried in Whole Foods stores across the country. 

Holmes says she is incredibly excited at the growth of her business, but as an individual she’s still roughing it. Almost every penny she makes through Ello Raw goes back into scaling the business and meeting the increasing demand for her products. 

While Ello Raw is making about $40,000 in annual revenue, Holmes is sleeping on a friend’s floor. Renting a room or even buying a bed are things that cost money—money that Holmes believes could be better spent on her business. She takes the idea of a low-burn startup to the extreme. 

The original Ello Raw logo was even hand drawn by her sister and digitized. Total cost? $5. 

This company CEO and founder still works as a cleaner once a week in Raleigh to help pay for food and other living expenses. 

While most of us would have quit as soon as we found ourselves sleeping in the back of a car in a Walmart parking lot cuddled up to a combat knife, Holmes refused to quit. While this tenacity might seem foolhardy to some of us, Holmes has her reasons. 

Not All Origin Stories Begin with a Spider Bite 

Some, like Holmes’, just start with poverty. 

Holmes says she was brought up in a home where two of her main sources of nutrition were the McDonald’s Dollar Menu and meals from the local Lancaster, PA homeless shelter. Her family was in dire straits financially, and plagued with mental and physical health problems. Homelessness had a strong influence on her life and she isn’t shy about just how fresh these 20 year-old experiences still are. 

Holmes found solace in school, where she was guaranteed a meal and an intellectual escape. 

Early on, she recognized her own aptitude, helping her to find confidence, peace and a path. Once Holmes realized she could excel in school, she was determined to “control my [her] destiny and to break the cycle of poverty.” 

Holmes used to tell her teachers she was going to be the first female president, and that they could visit her in the White House. She still exudes the same sense of confidence, though not applied to her original aspirations. 

The Birth of the Business 

Her senior year in high school, Holmes learned of a Duke program which offers high-achieving and low-income students a full scholarship to the school. After a few information sessions, she applied and won a Duke scholarship worth more than $50,000 per year. Come August, Holmes was in Durham with her nose to the grindstone. True to her childhood dreams, she was at one of the best universities in the world working to enter the political arena. 

But like many young people in college, Holmes grew disillusioned with politics. She calls the field “corrupt” and “slow.” She’s a fast mover, and the idea of working for decades to make a minimal impact did not appeal to her restlessness. 

During her sophomore year, Holmes found herself in Professor Anthony S. Brown’s Social Entrepreneurship in Action course, and developed an interest in the idea of using business to affect social change as opposed to legislation. Soon enough, she was changing her focus to business. 

A year later, she was accepted into the Melissa & Doug Entrepreneurs program. The foundation gives undergraduate entrepreneurs support and mentorship over the course of a summer, in addition to a small stipend. For Holmes, this was huge. She says she had the perfect setup for founding a business, and the stipend meant she could find a safe place to live. 

How Ello Raw became Ello Raw 

Most people who have subsisted on ramen, rice and dodgy frozen meat products understand the pleasure of eating good, healthy food. Ever since achieving relative financial stability, cooking and nutrition have played a huge role in Holmes’ life. 

Holmes has worked to reshape her diet and escape her family history of poor physical and mental health. She explains that she is a big believer in the idea that you get out of your body what you put in. She admits she’s become “obsessed with health” now that she’s an adult. When it came time to brainstorm business ideas, Holmes knew she was going to work on ”clean” consumer food products. 

Her first idea was a plant-based, nutrient-packed cream cheese. The vision was for fitness-oriented individuals to treat the cream cheese in the same way they treat peanut butter, as a calorie dense and nutrient filled snack/ingredient. 

After some months of research, testing and late nights in the kitchen, it looked like the idea wasn’t going to pan out. In the end, the product required more investment, and Holmes didn’t have the luxury of readily available funds to finance her vision. 

She was back to square one with the summer almost over. 

During a beach vacation late in the summer Holmes and her sisters wandered the boardwalk looking for food. The “green smoothie obsessed” Holmes managed to herd the less health-conscious group into a raw foods shop, where one of her sister’s partners turned his nose up at most of the offerings. Holmes and her sisters managed to convince him to down some of the raw desserts, which to their amazement he enjoyed. 

“This is a guy who drank soda and ate hamburgers”, she said, and if he could find enjoyment in raw foods, anyone could. “It’s about finding something everyone can love but that just so happens to be amazing for their bodies.". 

Ello Raw was born that weekend, but Holmes still needed to come up with a convincing product and business plan to show the Melissa & Doug Foundation that she didn’t waste their time and money. In a surprisingly and thankfully uninteresting series of events, she managed to pull off her product development without a hitch. 

According to Holmes, the experience at the beach was all it took for her to spur her to start working on her own dessert bites. Working out of her own kitchen, she spent weeks throwing together different recipes for her products, handing them out to friend to taste. 

Ello Raw product
Ello Raw's signature dessert bites are made without refined sugars or gluten. Photo credit: Ello Raw.

Raw ingredients meant no costly industrial kitchen equipment. There are no high volume ovens, no need for flash chillers, walk-in refrigeration units, or any other the other equipment that drive up capital costs for other food businesses. Even though she’s now working out of a kitchen space in Raleigh, she says the process is much the same and nearly as simple as it was during the first few nights she spent frantically working in her apartment kitchen. 

In a rare stroke of good luck and serendipity for Holmes, the pieces fell together when it came to putting together her product. It just worked, as she describes it. 

What’s Next 

Like many others, Holmes has discovered that life after college can be difficult. Without the funding and support of Duke programs and the structure of academia, she’s struggled to find her footing. The process was only exacerbated by the lack of a family safety net. There was no parent’s basement to move into while starting up her business. 

This was a personal problem though, and temporary one. Her business has only grown since its inception, and the fact that Holmes’ difficult personal and family life has only been a boon to her business is at worst commendable and at best inspiring. 

“Becky is an exuberant and dedicated entrepreneur. She is creating a culture around a seemingly simple, yet unique product that has shown promising market demand,” says Reagan Reynolds, Program Manager of SOAR Triangle. 

While Holmes may not have a cap table full of investors or a trust fund to help with business expenses, she does have endorsements from prominent local business figures like Reynolds. 

Now, she also has a comfortable (albeit bare) floor to sleep on, the mentorship of SOAR Triangle members, and new business deals in the works with major national companies. 

Instead of finding where she’s going to sleep for the night or where she might find her next meal, Holmes’ biggest problem now is how to scale her production to meet demand. And that, according to her, is a problem that should be solved shortly. 

The Doubters Can Go to Heck 

Holmes paints a complicated picture of an entrepreneur. She was born poor and still is. She’s a woman in a male-dominated field. Her faith has challenged her to never use profanity in an industry where bringing a swear jar to happy hour could net a day’s salary. 

Ello Raw Team
The Ello Raw team with their product. Photo credit: Ello Raw.

While she might make sweet and decadent dessert bites, Holmes isn’t saccharine—and her story far from a slice of heaven. Her story paints a nuanced or maybe even sometimes dark picture of what entrepreneurship can look like, especially when you’re born with a plastic spoon in your mouth instead of a silver one. 

“When I'm on Whole Foods shelves, making a million dollars in retail, that's when you can't deny what's going on,” says Holmes “Give me a year. Give six months. I’ll prove I'm not just a random person building a small business.”

Despite her disadvantages, Holmes has sacrificed all to paint that plastic spoon silver. And somehow, she’s making it.