Business Women Who Lead

Dear Snackers Founder, Shifa Begmohamed, is bringing a Popular East Asian Snack to Canadian Shelves

Dear Snackers

Grabbing an afternoon snack—or two or three—is nothing to be ashamed of. With Dear Snackers, it’s encouraged.

Makhanas, also known as fox nuts, are popped pieces of delight that are high in fibre, rich in iron and protein, and low in calories. Made from water lily seeds that are roasted until popped, similar to popcorn, the gluten-free and vegan-friendly snack can be enjoyed by many.

When Dear Snackers founder, Shifa Begmohamed, came across the popular East Asian snack during a trip to India, she was hooked. Now, she’s bringing the snack to Canada to help consumers fuel their mid-day slump without the guilt.

I want to establish Dear Snackers as a brand that fits right in the middle of snack options currently out there: healthy but flavourful,” said Begmohamed.

In addition to creating a feel-good snack option, Begmohamed wanted to create a brand with ethics and practices that consumers could feel good about supporting.

The company sources their makhana directly from female farmers in India. By eliminating the middleman, Begmohamed is proud to pay a higher living wage which helps the women support their families and communities.

“I want my brand to contribute to help make global change and be a part of the larger conversations taking place,” she said.

With the company still in its first year, Begmohamed is looking forward to making Dear Snackers a household name. Move over chips and popcorn, it’s makhana’s time to shine.

For this week’s Women Who Lead spotlight, Bay Street Bull sat down with Shifa Begmohamed, founder of Dear Snackers, to talk about bringing something new to the snack aisle and the importance of being bold.

Q&A

Tell us your story, how were you introduced to this super food product and when did you make the decision to monetize it in Canada?

In 2017, I worked as a Flight Attendant for Air Canada. One of my favourite things to do during my layovers was to wander local markets and try foreign foods. This is exactly what happened on a layover to India, my native country. I instantly fell in love with the makhanas and stocked up my suitcase to bring some home with me. 

When I ran out of my stash, I tried to find the product online and in Canadian health and grocery stores, but couldn’t find the right flavours or quality of product. I began doing research and learned about how sustainable the harvesting process is. This, along with its many health benefits and ties to new dietary considerations (vegan, gluten-free, etc), drew me towards pursuing its introduction to Canada.

Dear Snackers officially launched in November 2019 and has sold over 20,000 units in its first eight months!

Dear Snackers is a unique name, how did you come up with it and how do you approach marketing in a market as product dense as the snack industry? 

I was really lucky early on to be connected to Steve Persico, one of the Head Creative Directors at Leo Burnett. Steve took me on as a passion project and helped me develop the name Dear Snackers based on my vision: an accessible and bright brand that wouldn’t be pigeonholed by the preconceived notions of health foods.
And it’s that vision that really guides my direction for marketing: I want to establish Dear Snackers as a brand that fits right in the middle of snack options currently out there: healthy but flavourful.

As a woman in business what is a hard lesson you had to learn that you wish you knew before starting out?

Cultivating a bold and brazen attitude is very important. If you don’t ask for things, or the mentorship you need, you’ll never get it. 

Careers have no linear path. In your journey was there a pivotal moment that you feel changed your course for the better? Explain that to us and how it continues to inform you and an entrepreneur.

In 2016, a dear friend of mine faced a sudden and unexpected death. This really got me thinking about my long-term goals. I realized my true calling is to give voice to the environment, that every injustice needs to be spoken for. Our broken food systems are one way for me to contribute, so every step in the production of Dear Snackers is lined with sustainable practises. 

Dear Snackers works directly with female farmers in India. What is important to you about using ethically sourced seeds in your product?

For us, ethically-sourced products means two things: Firstly, women are fighting to bridge the gender income disparity around the world, and I believe those in developing nations should not get left behind. Secondly, we ensure that no pesticides or fertilizers are used in our cultivation process. Pesticides and fertilizers degrade the quality of arable farm land, seep into our water tables, and are eventually ingested into our bodies through the foods we eat. 

My hope is that my business can help set a precedence for companies around the world as we continue to push these ever important movements forward.

How do you hope your product changes the market of healthy food snacks and the standard for ethical sourcing?

On the snack side, I really hope we can satisfy Canadian cravings and prove that healthy snacks don’t have to sacrifice flavour. On the side of ethics, I want my brand to contribute to help make global change and be a part of the larger conversations taking place.

Take the coffee industry for example: we’re now seeing the rise of artisanal roasting and brewing, with the emphasis on purchasing quality beans directly from farmers. This is the upside to ethical sourcing that I hope to exemplify in the snack industry. By sourcing our seeds directly from farmers, we have transparency to the quality we purchase, and by eliminating the brokers who play middleman, we are able to pay our farmers equitable living wages and directly impact their quality of life.

What do you see as the biggest shortcoming in the food industry and how do you think industry leaders should go about creating change in the market 

For decades we’ve seen a huge push from the meat and dairy industries across the media that normalize these eating habits. However, through research and advocacy groups it has become common knowledge that the livestock industry is one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gases.

I believe industry leaders should champion a mentality of conscious consumption and help raise awareness of the impact of our everyday decisions. I also think it would be great if we as a society would view vegetarianism and veganism as their own dietary choices, rather than an alternative to one that is meat based. I think there’s been great strides in this movement and hope we continue to move in this direction.

Women are often discouraged to pursue major changes in career. How did you navigate changing your career path to start Dear Snackers and what is some advice you would give another woman looking to do the same?

If you don’t go after your ideas, someone else will. Take a good hard look at your current situation – are you feeling content with what you’re doing? Always remember that anything good you do will be hard, and there are days you’ll feel disenchanted. But this is all part of the journey! 

Take yourself outside your everyday routine – maybe an overnight trip, or a week away – wherever your mind can ruminate. If you’ve already got an idea, great, think about that. Otherwise, ask yourself, and be honest. Am I feeling fulfilled by my work? What is holding me back from pursuing this idea that my gut tells me is the right thing? 

On a more personal level how do you define success for yourself? 

Success for me is being able to do what I love while also setting myself up for the number of goals I still have – and there are a lot! 

Right now, my priority is to build up the Dear Snacker’s brand and community with a strong foundation around our core ethics. In the future, I’d like to buy my Mom her dream retirement home in St. Maarten that she so deserves, go off to Stanford to get my MBA, and keep the momentum going!

How would you like your journey to inspire others?

I hope my journey inspires others to take on their goals and not to wait for someone to tell you that your idea is good. If you’re not pursuing your ideas, best believe someone else will. There’s this great book, Grit, by Angela Duckworth that I recommend, as it made realize that grit is paramount to accomplishing your goals. You can start off terrible at something, but with enough grit and passion, you absolutely can turn nothing into something. If you weren’t born gritty, it’s possible to grow grit from the inside out, I did it.