Camila Alves spoke only three sentences in English when at 15 she arrived in the United States to live with her aunt in Los Angeles. She worked in restaurants and as a house cleaner while she learned the language and saved money. At 19, she traveled to New York City in search of a modeling agent.
“I literally went to every agency in the city, and they all said no until I was on the street with my portfolio under my arm, crying, thinking it was all over and not going to happen for me,” Alves, now 35, told Austin Woman magazine. “I was thinking I might have to go back to Brazil. The last agency I went to was Major Models.” She finally got a yes.
In 2006 she met actor Matthew McConaughey at a bar. Not long after that, she moved in with him, and in 2012 the couple married.
When they’re not on location, they make their home in Austin, Texas. Early in their relationship, Alves and McConaughey decided that when he goes, they all go. At first that meant just the two of them living in his cozy Airstream trailer in Malibu, California. Today, it means occasionally living cramped in that same beloved Airstream with their three kids, 9-year-old Levi, 7-year-old Vida and 4-year-old Livingston.
Raised in a Brazilian farming family, Alves loves cooking and experimenting with fresh foods, so she cooks daily no matter where they’re living. When their first child was born, she did her best to make baby food for Levi. But the process was difficult and time-consuming. She says a light bulb went on in her head: If she was struggling with feeding her baby fresh, healthy food, other parents probably were, too, and there was a potential business there.
“I have to work. I have worked my entire life,” Alves says in Austin Woman. “Otherwise, I would go crazy. In my mind, I have always been a businesswoman. I love marketing ideas and developing products. I love to hear stories of how businesses got started and how they grew, how they operate and connect.”
When she turned her attention to bringing fresh, healthy baby food to the market, Alves knew she needed help learning how to run a food business. After a series of phone calls, she received the solid advice to find someone who was already doing something similar and partner with them to learn about the industry firsthand.
Mixing It Up
In 2014 Alves met Agatha Achindu through a mutual friend. Also growing up in a farming family but from Cameroon, Achindu instantly felt a rapport with Alves. They bonded over their shared love of cooking and their passion for bringing organic foods to babies and toddlers.
Achindu started making homemade baby food for her son, JZ, because she wanted him to have the same kind of fresh, brightly colored, full-flavored foods she grew up eating on the farm.
“I saw a lot of organic baby foods, largely advertised as having no additives, no fillers, no hormones, no pesticides, no added sugar or salt,” Achindu recalls. “These would look slightly different than the conventional baby foods. However something was fundamentally wrong with what I saw.”
Achindu says the foods were all a brown-gray color and barely distinguishable from each other. Even though the ingredients on a jar of peas listed only peas and water, the lengthy expiration date told a disturbing story. “The food had no vitality or color because it was being cooked twice, heated twice and processed twice,” Achindu says. “Parents were feeding their babies food that was 2 years old.”
As neighbors and friends started benefiting from Achindu’s homemade baby food, she founded Yummy Spoonfuls in 2006 to meet the exploding demand for her recipes. The products quickly garnered media attention and a loyal celebrity following. But Achindu wanted to bring this fresh food to parents everywhere, and for that kind of expansion, she needed a partner.
That’s where Alves came in. They talked for two hours and knew immediately they were kindred spirits.
YUMMY SPOONFULS VIA BUSINESS WIRE
“She’s from Africa. I’m from Brazil. We’re the daughters of farmers,” Alves says of their instant bond. They share the experience of growing up around farm equipment, picking fresh fruits and vegetables, and understanding where good food comes from. “And we both had the same mission of not being willing to compromise the quality of the product we put out.”
The new partnership resulted in a wider-reaching business that now ships to Target stores across the U.S. and looks to expand further into additional product lines.
“I can only describe having a partnership with a friend and someone I admire as a blessing,” Achindu says of Alves. “We know when we need to drive down and focus but our common values, such as a sense of humor, always make the journey worth it.”
Making a Mess
Both Alves and Achindu find deep satisfaction in seeing their homemade baby foods in the hands of parents regardless of their income levels or time constraints. But the process of essentially creating a new category of baby food, just like creating a new recipe, has been messy and challenging.
The partners were determined not to use the overcooked food widely accepted by other companies. Alves says she’s shocked at how much attention has been given to what adults eat and how little to what babies and toddlers consume in their most formative years. When she and Achindu set out to find production and packaging facilities, they were shocked again.
The existing practices appalled Alves and Achindu. The partners couldn’t find a facility to meet the quality standards that no other baby food company was requiring.
“There was no road map,” Alves says.
She remembers the turning point when they thought they might not be able to fulfill their vision. She and McConaughey were in Dallas volunteering at a children’s charity event. Alves and Achindu needed to be on a final call with the packaging facility to meet their shipping deadline with Target.
“I sneak out into the emergency staircase to take this call,” Alves remembers. “Matthew’s on the stage giving his speech. They told us exactly the opposite of what they’d been telling us for months. We had been back and forth to the location, we met with everybody, we had a food scientist there, we had done a lot of work. And they turned around on that call and said they couldn’t do the work for us.”
She joined Matthew as he walked off the stage, and they got into a golf cart headed toward the next scheduled event nearby. Alves sat in the back of the golf cart and cried.
Later that day, she talked to Achindu and remembers saying, “Maybe this is God trying to tell us not to do this.” Her partner had similar doubts.
Since 2008 Alves had run a successful handbag design business, Muxo, with her mother, Fatima Araujo. When she made the transition to Yummy Spoonfuls, she was no stranger to sacrifice and struggle for a dream.
In a last-ditch effort to see if they could make it work, they contacted an adult food packaging facility they discovered early in the company’s development, but which didn’t have the right equipment for baby food. But this time they said, “If we purchase the equipment and get it to you, can you get this done?” The facility owners said yes.
“That was the sign we needed to keep moving forward,” Alves says.
The partners have spent many days trying to figure things out as they go, and making plenty of messes.
“One day we worked from 5 a.m. to 1 a.m. the next day. We walked out of the facility covered in peas head to toe,” Alves says with a laugh. “Then we come back the very next day, and we get a call that our sweet potatoes have been recalled. And we’re like, what else can go wrong?”
Ready to Serve
Alves says being a business owner is full of fearful moments. But she knows that, in the end, it’s all worth it.
“I’m really a dreamer and a believer in what the possibilities are,” Alves says. “I’m not a person who likes to hear that it’s impossible, or no, it’s not going to happen, and we’ve got to settle for this or that. That’s not me.”
Alves stays busy with work on Yummy Spoonfuls and her lifestyle website, Women of Today. She and McConaughey also run the Just Keep Livin Foundation that provides after-school and fitness programs for underserved high school students in four states and the District of Columbia.
Alves, who became an American citizen in 2015, loves to talk with other entrepreneurs about overcoming challenges and encourage them to keep going.
“I’m not a person who likes to hear that it’s impossible, or no, it’s not going to happen, and we’ve got to settle for this or that. That’s not me.”
“People are scared,” Alves says. “Usually it’s fear of the unknown.” She recommends surrounding yourself with people who aren’t as afraid, people who recognize your passion and believe in your vision. “You’re going to hear a lot of no’s, and you’re going to get a lot of ‘That’s impossible.’ So you need people to help you ask, ‘How do you make impossible possible?’ That’s the main thing. Sometimes failure doesn’t mean you’re done. We’ve all been through it. We’re still going through it.”
Related: 12 Empowering Lessons About Failure
This article originally appeared in the December 2017 issue of SUCCESS magazine.