Sufia Hossain was just about to finish her lunch when we met.
"It's okay, please take a seat. This is very common for me, I eat in between meetings," she said, as she placed down the sandwich on the cafe table in Gulshan. She was wrapping up her Bangladesh trip on that April afternoon weekday and leaving for home in New Jersey in three days.
Everything was fast-paced from that point onward, from how she spoke to the tales of her career transition and business growth. Time is of the essence, and no one seems to know that better than Sufia.
Sufia – a Bangladeshi-American millennial – is the CEO of Silly Chilly Hotsauce, which she founded in 2016 in Hoboken, New Jersey. Now the gluten-free, locally-made sauce is sold in over 240 stores in New York and New Jersey, with monthly production volumes averaging between 10,000 to 40,000 bottles, based on demand and supply chains.
Currently, there are three flavours of her product: Habanero, Serrano & Chipotle, Fresh Mango & Sweet Peppers. A 5 Oz (ounce) bottle is priced between $10-12.
Along came a feeling: Fashion to food
Born in Dhaka and raised in Queens, New York, Sufia pursued a career in retail and fashion. But along came a feeling of discontent; it stayed and grew.
"It started with being unhappy [in the corporate world]," recalled Sufia. In 2016, when Sufia visited a village in Shanghai, that feeling of discontent took root. At the time, she was in Shanghai on a six-month student exchange programme as a student at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology.
"I remember visiting a small village where the drinking water was contaminated with dye [from garment factories] and caused cancer," she said, "that was the final push for me."
She did not quit her full-time job as a merchandiser at Gap just yet, but started to invest in something that made her happy. "Making hotsauce," she said. She immersed herself in Youtube tutorials, workshops and experiments with flavours to make the perfect sauce in her apartment kitchen.
"It took months," she said. And for months and months, Sufia worked full time in fashion and on weekends went to Farmer's Market to sample her product.
"I remember how, at first, I was rejected by so many [farmer's markets] because I didn't have a logo or a website, or anything really," she said, "just jars of hotsauce."
It was a farmer's market in Brooklyn, organised at a garage, that was the first to accept Sufia's application. "I was asked to make a banner, which I did," she recalled, "I still remember, it was raining, it was so, so cold that day."
Sufia's friends came to support her on those weekends. And she quickly learned how showing up with her product isn't enough, she needed to interact, connect and network. She also sampled her products at her old workplace [Gap] and her first official customers were her colleagues.
Within a year, Sufia hired a commercial kitchen to produce the hotsauce, which was locally sourced from farms in New Jersey. "I also hired those formerly incarcerated to work on staff," she said.
Sufia also worked with New Jersey's Rutgers University. "I was a buyer of their products," she said, "they have an entrepreneur farming programme, where they grew organic peppers."
Silly name, smart business
The social entrepreneur described her business approach as uncommon. "I tend to jump all in," she said, "and then learn it well. I do not wait for the 'opportune' time per se."
Prior to the hotsauce business, Sufia launched a retail start-up, which did not pan out. But with this business idea, she credits having a lot of love for the craft, and "marinating all gut-feelings' ' in hard work and persistence.
"I didn't quite follow the path to grow [a] food business in the United States," she said, "it's like [having] an internship with my own company." Always learning, and eager to learn.
At first, the business had close to no money. "It started as a $2,000 business, when I started out. I broke even from my first sale," said Sufia. The bigger clients tend to place orders in bulk and after six years in operations, it is doing comfortably well and looking for avenues to expand.
The pandemic threw a curveball at Sufia's hotsauce business. Unlike most other businesses, Silly Chilly Hotsauce sales grew by 400% during the pandemic, attesting to the heightened demand for consumer packaged goods at the time.
That was also the same time the entrepreneur decided that she wants to move the production unit and operations to Bangladesh, a decision that her entire family and a lot of friends did not support or understand.
A backstory, following roots and branding Bangladesh
"I have a lot of people who contributed to my life and made this life possible," explained Sufia.
One of those people is one of her paternal uncles who immigrated to the United States in the 1980s. Her uncle and aunt were pharmacists who eventually applied for Sufia's family immigration in the 1990s.
Raised in Queens, Sufia moved to New Jersey when her career was at a crossroads. "It felt like the most obvious choice, really," she said, "I have seen so, so many peers and people do exactly that; move from New York City to New Jersey for affordable living and start a new venture."
Now with the success she already has had, mixed with her love for travelling and an acute desire to brand Bangladesh for all that it has to offer, Sufia started to work on the idea of moving part of her business to her home country.
"I have done the research, networked, made short trips to Dhaka, connected with venture capitalists," she said, "and it's a feasible plan now."
In fact, Sufia also has a team based in Dhaka dedicated to doing market research. On the side, additionally, she also hired a team to make a travel documentary featuring, you guessed it, Bangladesh. "I intend to pitch it to Netflix," she said.
How different is it in Bangladesh? "Very," Sufia replied. From a lot of male ego to problematic patriarchal notions deeply embedded in the society, business in Bangladesh comes with its own set of challenges.
For instance, "finding an apartment to rent as a single woman," Sufia said, "is such a troublesome affair. I got rejected by landlords after they found out I do not have a male relative [spouse or parent]. And they could care less about what I do for a living and how well I can afford the tenancy."
After weeks of looking, Sufia found an apartment to rent in Dhaka. In January this year, Sufia came to Dhaka to initiate the next phase of her business. "I intend to do this over seven phases and some years. A lot of things are new for me here," she explained.
Since her family moved to New York City, Sufia only sporadically visited Bangladesh with them. And those trips were "extremely guarded and [of] curated experiences," she said.
Life was very different overseas for her. "I started working at the age of 13," she said. Mostly odd jobs like that in McDonald's, etc; but steadily she climbed ladders. By her late teens, she was doing unpaid internships in retail.
"I was building my soft skills," she said. Those skills, Sufia swears by, are crucial for anyone who aspires to be an entrepreneur. "There can't be any ego, do jobs - unpaid or paid. Gain skills and experiences."
So why come back? "I want to do here what I did in the US," she said, "create jobs and grow my business." Sufia believes there is a lot of potential here in the market, if explored.
"Right now we have the RMG industry, why not do the same for other sectors? Take orders from foreign companies and deliver orders in bulk [at a scale that's done in the RMG sector]," she explained.
With her production unit and operations here (which is in the offing), Sufia - who is looking for potential manufacturers based in Bangladesh - intends to expand Silly Chilly Hotsauce beyond borders, and sell her sauce in Bangladesh too.
In between this massive transition in business, Sufia is currently in the US looking for a new co-packer for the American market and production date. At the moment, production is on halt according to the Silly Chilly HotSauce's website.
"If everything goes well, I will be in Dhaka [next] by the end of June," she wrote over text message.