ALI ALMASI

FOUNDER OF SAFFRON STARTUP: ALI ALMASI

Founder and Manager, Almas Foods International, LLC (Bethlehem, PA) 

M.Eng., Technical Entrepreneurship, Lehigh University, 2016

B.Sc., Information Technology, University of Tabriz, Iran, 2011

 

When Iranian Ali Almasi left his native country to enroll in Lehigh’s M.Eng. in Technical Entrepreneurship (TE) program, he had dreams and determination. Now he has a highly-rated saffron product designated “Amazon’s Choice.”

 

You grew up in Iran and earned your bachelor’s degree there in 2011. What did you do in the years immediately following?

Well, a number of things, but the most significant involved working for an IT startup called Asr-e Ertebatat Tark (AET) in my hometown of Tabriz. During the years I was with AET, we grew from just a handful of employees to 15. My responsibilities involved everything from customer acquisition to technical work, including the installation of all our wireless networks.  It was a great learning experience, but I eventually realized that it was time to go to the United States.

Why did you decide to come to this country?

I was ready to start a new chapter in my life. Coming to the United States was the obvious (and correct) choice for me because I wanted to pursue a graduate degree in a country where modern technology is firmly rooted and successful businesses abound. I knew I’d regret it if I had the chance and didn’t make it happen. So, thanks to my always supportive parents, to whom I owe my life and can't be grateful enough, here I am!

Why did you choose Lehigh's TE program in particular?

I found a Forbes list of top entrepreneurial schools in the U.S. – thank goodness Forbes has a “top” list for everything! – and did a lot of research. Then I called select universities on that list. The first person I spoke with in Lehigh’s TE Office was Jodie Johnson [Assistant Director of the TE program] who was so very helpful and enthusiastic! After a conversation with Professor Ochs [John Ochs, Founder of the TE program], I knew this was the right place for me. Lehigh's M.Eng. in TE is a very highly rated, one-year program with impressive faculty and a great location that’s close to New York City and even closer to Philadelphia. All in all, it was a great fit. So, I started my journey.

Once I enrolled in TE, opportunities I’d never considered before appeared right in front of my eyes. I chose to launch a saffron business, but TE gave me the tools and know-how to strike out as an entrepreneur in virtually any field…and for that I am very appreciative.
In what ways did TE benefit you the most?

When I entered the program, I had the drive to become an entrepreneur but was lacking confidence. TE gave me the self-assurance I needed and removed any excuse for not following the entrepreneurship path. Additionally, I benefitted from the fact that this program is a gateway to the entrepreneurial ecosystem of the Lehigh Valley, the east coast, and, in my opinion, this entire country.

How did your mindset evolve as a result of your year in TE?

My mindset changed from holding myself mostly responsible for my life to totally responsible; from imagining a big-dream company to moving toward it with daily, prioritized to-do lists; from following the suggested deadlines to defining my own deadlines; and from fear of failure to learning from failures. As a result, I now believe in myself more than ever, and that makes me very happy.

What skills did you develop in TE?

Perhaps most importantly, I learned how to create a product or a service that meets the needs of customers. But there are many other skills I developed as well, such as the business skills needed to start the company; the design skills I use to create packaging, labels, and brochures; and the presentation skills so essential to explaining and marketing a product or a service. Professors Lehman and de Vinck [Michael Lehman and Marc de Vinck, Professors of Practice in TE], especially, taught me a lot in this regard.

Did you interact with or benefit from the broader entrepreneurship ecosystem in the Lehigh Valley?

Yes, I did – in various ways – and I still am. I’ve interacted quite a bit with other local food-industry entrepreneurs, such as the owners of Goosey Gander, Jenny’s Kuali, and Nuts About Ice Cream.  I’ve also benefitted from SoBeCoWorks, a collaborative work space. Most recently, I joined the Southside Bethlehem Keystone Innovation Zone (KIZ), which supports startups, and moved our office to their Partnership for Innovation (Pi) Innovation Center here in Bethlehem.

What did you do immediately after receiving your M.Eng. in TE?

I started my own company, Almas Foods International, LLC.  We’ve created a variety of products integrating saffron in innovative ways under the brand name Zaffrus. Prior to that, I spent a few months in the Philadelphia area gaining experience in sales, working on communications skills, and preparing for launch.

What is saffron, exactly?

Saffron is a very healthy spice made from the stigmas – known as threads – of a flower called the saffron crocus. All the flowers must be picked and dried by hand, contributing to saffron’s reputation as being quite precious and costly given how many are needed to produce a pound of saffron. Here’s a way to envision it: if you plant an entire football field with saffron flowers, the yield will be about one and a half to two pounds. And all the harvesting is done once a year in a period lasting 15 to 25 days! Often called “red gold,” saffron threads are most frequently used in rice dishes, teas, and desserts.

Tell me about your products.

Zaffrus products include saffron threads of various grades, teas, powder, vinegar, honey, and face cream. My products are sold on my own Zaffrus website, on amazon.com, and at various other retail locations. 

How does it feel to own your own business?

It’s fun and challenging. I enjoy developing products, marketing distribution, and managing the team. I also like being in charge, calling the shots, and setting my own hours. On the other hand, when you’re 100% in charge, there’s no one else to blame for any failures! This is all good, though, because I love to be challenged.

Where do you hope to take the company?

My ultimate goal in this industry is to change the game a bit!  By that, I mean increasing food awareness and offering solutions that meet the demand for healthy, delicious, real, whole food for a high-paced modern society. Eventually, I hope to use resulting financial resources to change the future of the food in order to encourage a healthier lifestyle and help save the planet for the next generations.

How have you collaborated with other TE students and alumni?

I collaborated with other TE students on projects during my TE year. Then, once I joined SoBeCoWorks, I became close friends with Briana Gardell [TE ’15, CEO/Founder of Mezzimatic, LLC and inventor of Goblies]. We’ve helped and supported each other with everything from design issues to feedback acquisition. I still feel quite connected to the TE program, and I’m still in touch with alumni from my cohort, as well as those from earlier ones.

How did TE change your life?

I’ve been working on myself and learning more every day since I first set foot on the Lehigh campus. The TE environment allowed me to figure out who I am and where I want to go.  And, as a result, I’m simply not the same person I was when I left Iran. I’m much more confident and better equipped to build my future.

How would you sum up the value of your TE degree?

TE gave me the insights to launch a successful business, the skills to move it forward, and a road map to pursue my passion! It enabled me to embark on this amazing career journey. TE was probably the best investment of my lifetime because I will carry the benefits of this experience with me forever.

 

- March 2019