Pradeep Akkunoor grew up in India, and even though he has traveled, studied,
and worked all over the world, the staple of his childhood is still
important to him and he eats rice every day.
"In India many different varieties of rice are readily available," he
remembers. "My mother liked to cook different dishes with different types of
rice. However, I had never seen black or red rice until I was in Thailand for my graduate studies."
When he asked Thai friends if something was added to the rice to make it
black, he was told, no, it is just the color of the rice. Curious, Pradeep
researched black rice and learned that the color comes from anti-oxidants,
the same ones found in blueberries. "I had found something healthier than
either brown or white rice and with a distinctively delicious flavor."
Inspired to start a business from his discovery, Pradeep researched
importing black rice to the US as a project for an MBA marketing course with
a team of other grad students. They won awards in competitions around the
world. " One of the prizes for winning a business plan competition in Canada was to
ring the closing bell at the NASDAQ stock exchange. "We were the first team
from Thailand to do that!"
After completing my MBA in Thailand and at Northwestern University in Illinois, his initial business plan was focused on marketing organic black rice.
"That plan didn't work out for many reasons. That's what happens with
entrepreneurs." Pradeep laughs. "Challenges included introducing the raw
rice to buyers, because cooking has to be done properly. So I left my
original company and set up a new one to develop value-added specialty rice products."
Pradeep’s sister and brother-in-law, Fremont residents, pitched in with initial funds and support to get the company off the ground.
Pradeep looked at long list of things that could be made with the rice:
ready-to-eat, snacks, crackers. He had done a lot of research, so had a good
idea of how to make crackers with these rice varieties. "It was about a
three-year story, involving many iterations and consulting with experts."
Pradeep knew that he wanted to work with partners. Through the business plan
competition, he had met Ennis Olson and Renata Bell, both graduates of
University of California Berkeley's Haas School of Business. They
reconnected, and Ennis and Renata have become integral partners in Laiki. Together the team shaped the journey of Laiki from its initial iteration to building up an award-winning brand loved by consumers nationwide.
Renata came up with the name Laiki, which has multiple meanings. One is
"farmer's market" in Greek, which fits as an expression of their commitment
to using simple ingredients that can be found at a farmer's market. "We
liked the sound of 'like' in the name, and we were delighted with
'MeLaiki'." An early taste test involved her children. "Renata's kids just
ate it, finished it, and that’s a big thumbs up!” The early approval from her kids motivated Renata to join as a partner and help build the marketing foundation of the brand.
Ennis, with his extensive background in grocery and design, helped express the vision of the brand in the packaging design. The bold colors have made Laiki Crackers immediately recognizable on a store shelf.
The group joined the Specialty Food Association in November 2014 and entered
the prestigious Sofi Award competition the following spring. "Our goal was
primarily to get the judges' feedback. We knew they wouldn't see the
packaging or anything other than the crackers themselves, so we were anxious
to hear what they thought. Then we won the Gold Sofi Award for Best Cracker
-- the first time a rice cracker has won the award! That was a huge boost for
Another big boost was being praised by the anchor on NBC television's
"Today" show. "It was amazing to see the orders start pouring in from the
East Coast to the West Coast, as the show aired in the different time
"It's very gratifying to be making a healthy, nutritious product that people
love to eat!"