Week 18 | Courtney Gillespie on starting Life's Grape

For Week 18 of Female Founders Weekly, we interviewed Courtney Gillespie. Courtney attended Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, graduating in 2016 with a Bachelors degree in Wine and Viticulture then again in 2017 with her Masters in Business Administration (MBA).After graduation, she began working at River Ranch Raisins, her family’s processing facility and wholesale business, as their full time Director of Business Development. In 2018, Courtney began working with her mother, Basia, on creating a retail product, Life’s Grape, featuring their signature Selma Pete grapes. She became President and COO of Life’s Grape and is currently working with her mom to build the business and revamp the raisin.

THE INSPIRATION: How did you get the idea for Life’s Grape?

Our family has been growing raisin grapes for over 35 years. We began growing a new type of grape called the Selma Pete nearly a decade ago. This new grape led our family to vertically integrate by purchasing a processing facility just down the road from our vineyards and began selling raisins on the wholesale bulk market around the world. The Selma Pete grape changed the way our own family ate raisins. We no longer were just adding them to cookies, we were snacking on them in-between meals. That’s when the idea of Life’s Grape was started by our family and when we decided that we wanted to change the perception of raisins and revive a stagnant industry. We grow and process our own grapes, why couldn't we brand them and sell them on the shelf. It was time for a high quality option to be available to consumers! My mom and I took on the challenge of building the brand. 

THE PITCH: What is Life’s Grape?

Life’s Grape is a California-based, multi-generational, family-owned business that grows, processes, and packages all of their own grapes. Life’s Grape’s mission is to revamp the raisin and create flavorful, nutritious and high-quality snacks featuring their signature Selma Pete vine-dried grapes. Traditional raisins are laid down to dry in between the rows and often become sunburnt from direct sunlight, resulting in a baked raisin that has tough skins and an overly sweet, caramelized flavor profile. Instead, by using Selma Pete vine-dried grapes, Life’s Grape offers sweeter, meatier and juicer all-natural snack with no contamination from herbicides or fertilizer because they never meet the soil. Our Classics are delicious and can stand alone as the perfect snack. Next we went ahead and upgraded the milk chocolate covered raisin- we coated our Classics in decadent, high quality Dark Chocolate, skipped the waxy coating and instead dusted them in a rich cocoa powder. We recently launched our newest creation, something that seemed so obvious, Peanut Butter coated Vine-Dried Grapes. Hello PBJ goodness! Life’s Grape is all about thinking outside the box and revamping the raisin.

FROM IDEA TO REALITY: Practically, how did you get started?

Having no experience when it came to building a brand and not knowing where to begin, we began asking around for advice. Our first step was hiring a consultant to help us do our market research, design packaging, create a website, and get a general marketing plan in order. Since we were doing this on our own, we wanted to make sure we did it right. 

WORK EXPERIENCE: Did you rely on any previous business experience to help you get going?

My knowledge of the grapes came from my Bachelors Degree in Viticulture. All the business expertise I had up to the beginning of Life's Grape was from my MBA. Although not physical experience, I learned most of what I know from watching my entrepreneurial grandparents and parents over the years. 

FUNDING: Did you raise capital or did you bootstrap?

We have not been receiving funding or investments- we've been bootstrapping our way from day 1.

CHALLENGES & MOTIVATION: What have been your biggest hurdles and what motivates you to keep going?

Our biggest challenge has been what we set out to achieve- changing the perception of raisins. Over the years, raisins have been replaced with other snack alternatives, which has caused a whole generation of consumers to overlook the category. We know it won’t be easy, but we know it’s possible. The reason we keep pushing forward is because when we hear someone say, “I don’t like raisins, but I love these!” we know we achieved our goal. Our grapes have changed our perception, they can change people’s perceptions, we just need to spread the word faster. 

SUPPORT NETWORK: Who do you lean on the most for support?

My family and close friends. My family knows we are all in this together and want to succeed so whenever times get tough it's all hands on deck. When it comes to making time for me, my friends are there to help level me out and get me to take a moment to relax when I over work myself. 

WORK-LIFE BALANCE: How do you manage work-life balance and what do you do when you’re not working?

I have always worked with the mindset of work smarter and not harder and strive to achieve this daily. Being productive doesn’t have to be held to a schedule, but managing work-life balance is something that I struggle with. It can be hard sometimes to turn my brain off and be present at the end of the day because my “workday” never truly ends. I get inspired constantly and have to make sure I don’t forget the idea so, thank you to Notes. To achieve this balance, I do allow myself, to take breaks during the day for walks, going to lunch and various other activities to clear my head and get some personal stuff done. It seems strange to be out and about during the day, but I have found that is when I am able to enjoy myself the most!  

CELEBRATING THE WINS: What has been your proudest achievement so far?

My proudest achievement so far is how far we have progressed toward our goal. In the beginning, it seemed like it would take years before we would be able to get into retail locations, but with some help we have been growing steadily on e-commerce, reaching over 400 store locations, won a few awards, had amazing press articles written all within a year and a half. Despite the fact that many people are hesitant to try the product because of past experiences, we have still intrigued them enough to give them a try and now have a loyal following. Our goal of making the raisin sexy again is not out of reach anymore!

ADVICE FOR FUTURE FOUNDERS: What’s your best piece of advice to other women starting a business?

Do not be afraid to ask for help. It may seem like not knowing the answers conveys weakness, however, putting your ego aside and asking the questions will get you three steps ahead. You will make plenty of mistakes along the way, but understanding the mistake, asking questions and learning how to grow from them is the secret to success.


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