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12 Under 35: Juan Giraldo and Nico Estrella of Waku

Specialty Food Association

Nico Estrella (left) and Juan Giraldo were childhood friends in Quito, Ecuador. Both came from families of entrepreneurs that fueled their desires to build a business.

“We wanted to start a company in the U.S. because that would be the most beneficial to the people of Ecuador,” says Giraldo, 33. He attended Babson to study in its acclaimed Entrepreneurship program. Meanwhile, the 30-year-old Estrella was pursuing his dream of being a professional soccer player.

In 2018, the friends launched Waku, a prebiotic herbal tea with no added sugar. Giraldo is CEO; Estrella is CMO. Giraldo explains, “Ready-to-drink tea is a $7 billion category and most are loaded with sugar. We knew there was a market for a thirst-quenching, low-calorie beverage.”

It was also an opportunity to support the people of Ecuador. Thirty percent of Ecuadorians are farmers; most cultivating one to 25 acres. Poverty, especially childhood malnutrition, is rampant.

The partners had three objectives:

• Have a positive impact on Ecuador.

• Find an industry where Ecuador has a competitive advantage.

• Bring Ecuador to the world.

Waku buys its herbs and spices from family farms in the Andes Mountains, paying fair trade prices. Most sales have been online during the pandemic. Waku is now ramping up retail sales, primarily in the Northeast.

Giraldo’s advice: “Dream big and don’t hesitate to take that first step. You cannot see what comes next without moving forward.”

Related: 12 Under 35: Yin Chang and Moonlynn Tsai of Heart of Dinner Foundation12 Under 35: Jona Beliu, Gabrielle Lenart, Vanessa Parish, and Sunny Levine of The Queer Food Foundation

Image: Waku