Regina Trillo is a Chicago-based attorney and founder of Nemi Holisticks, a crunchy and flavorful plant-based snack inspired by her Mexican roots. Today, I sat down with Regina and talked with her about the journey she took to create her brand.
What made you think of Nemi Holisticks? How did your founder journey begin?
I grew up in Mexico City and I moved to Chicago ten years ago. The first thing I did was go to the grocery store and look for Mexican food and products. I vividly remember going into the ethnic aisle and really not feeling represented at all. I remember seeing all these big brands that were portraying Mexico in a very stereotypical way. A lot of sombreros on the packaging, a lot of stereotyping around indigenous-looking women cooking or making tortillas on the front of the packaging. I then started looking at their ingredient list and I could barely understand what was in there. Because these were big companies, they were unlikely to innovate in the marketplace. They were really not showcasing Mexico as I know it and that stuck with me.
I went to the produce section and I saw nopales at a distance. I got so excited because nopales (which are prickly pear pads similar to cacti) are a staple crop in Mexico. As you know, you find them everywhere in Mexico, en el mercado (grocery market) and every household. We start eating it from a really, really young age. It’s an acquired taste because it’s slimy and it can be a little bit bitter—so it’s not necessarily everyone’s go-to vegetable.
To me, nopales represented Mexico. As I went to grab it, I noticed it had spikes. And I said, “Nobody’s gonna buy a vegetable that has spikes.” It’s scary looking, it’s intimidating, especially if people don’t know how to cook it or clean it.
But it’s a fiber-rich vegetable. It’s the most sustainable Mexican plant because it doesn’t need a lot of water to survive, it doesn’t need any pesticides, it thrives in hot climates, and it also has a cultural significance for Mexicans. Nopales represent resilience so you find them on the Mexican flag. The eagle eating the serpent is actually standing on top of a nopalera (a nopal plant). It really dates back to the Aztecs.
I started learning more about all the stereotypes surrounding Latinx culture in the United States and Chicago, even though I think Chicago is a great place to be a Latina. I started understanding the power that I had to do something about it. That’s when Nemi started coming to life. (Nemi means “to live” in the Aztec language.)
I didn’t conceive of making a brand without that Mexican inspiration—of not only using Mexican ingredients and Mexican-inspired flavors but also because of the work that I was doing in immigration law. A lot of my clients were former farmers that had to leave their country because of advantageous practices and violence. That helped me really understand: If I start a business, what is the mission going to be and what are the values for the business? With that came three main things: Mexican-inspired, transparency with the farmers, and inclusivity.
For me, inclusivity meant working the best I could with women of color. Even though it’s a small business, I do understand and realize the opportunity that I have as a business owner and as a Latina founder to create something other than a snack. I’m partnering with a local Chicago non-profit called Justice of the Pies, and we provide a donation from our monthly sales. It’s an amazing starting point and it triggers the conversations that we’re having.
Like the conversation that I had with retail partners about placement in the ethnic aisle versus the snack aisle. I really take that as the mission of the business: to elevate Mexican cultura. Nemi is going against this notion that if something is labelled as authentic, then that means it’s going to be cheap and have low-quality ingredients. That’s what I found in the ethnic aisle when I moved here, but we’re past that stage.
How did you find communities and people to support you on your Latinx founder journey?
As you know, having a business is a lonely path, especially if you’re a solo founder. There are so many things to figure out and so many things to know. I came into the business without any institutional knowledge, minus my story. That is what I was bringing in: a unique and authentic story.
But I didn’t know anything so I started connecting in different ways. I came in significantly shier than I am now. I didn’t know what questions to ask. I started doing a lot of reading, watching TedTalks. Google became my go to.
I learned about this food and beverage incubator based in Chicago called The Hatchery. It’s a non-profit funded by the city. That was pretty much my first go to to understand the scene and a little bit about the business. They provide a lot of workshops about how to start a food business and everything that comes with that. You learn about finance, marketing, retail, selling.
Even though Nemi is a one-woman show on paper, in practice it hasn’t been at all. Through connecting with fellow CPG founders—a lot of them women, a lot of them Latinas—we share so many resources. In CPG, we’re all about lifting each other up: How can I help? How can I share what I’ve learned and give back to you? From day one, that’s what I’ve received.
When I met you, I really wanted to connect with you. Not only because you were making tequila, but I really wanted to learn what you were doing and how I could help you. I think we all have a very similar mindset.
It’s so important that you tell the story behind Nemi. How do you convey that and ensure your story is out there as a female founder?
When I came in, I didn’t know how. I created DIY packaging, a DIY website. I knew that it wasn’t great, I knew that it needed a ton of improvement, but I knew that I wanted to start and I needed something to start with.
I did the packaging with my sister. There was a ton of text on the packaging, the colors were OK but not very vibrant. I was just asking customers a lot of questions through email marketing and marketing I was doing at the time in 2019 when I launched. A lot of demos, a lot of asking around.
I started collecting the data—that was my real estate. I didn’t have access to IRI reports or consumer reports, but I had access to my consumer. I needed to find a way to ask them and start a relationship with them. To us, customer validation is the most important thing. With that, I started learning: it’s not easy to open the bag, they don’t know what it is, people don’t know what flavor they’re getting, people don’t necessarily know that it’s Mexican, they don’t know what nopales are. There was a lot of questioning and questioning. It took about a year and a half until I got into a position where I wanted to be.
When your customer takes a look at the packaging, the first thing they’re going to look at is color and the second thing is graphics. The third and least important thing is going to be text. I knew the packaging was not communicating the story well so how could I convey it in a way that was fun and digestible? Color. To me, Mexico represents color, food, flowers, architecture. Look at the houses that we build. They’re bright pink, bright orange, bright yellow. That was the vibrancy and modern look that I wanted to reflect through the packaging.
For the rebrand, I talked to about 7-8 designers. It was important for me to work with someone who understood that messaging and where I wanted to take Nemi 2.0. I ended up working with a team of two female Mexican designers. When we talked about it, they got it. We had an alignment of not wanting to showcase stereotypes. We needed to showcase the nopal, the colors, the ingredients. That took 9 months. It took sharing the mockups with more than 150 people, including consumers, mentors, people in the industry.
To listen to the rest of my interview with Regina Trillo, click the link here.