Years of Service: 2008 to 2013
Highest Rank: CPT
MOS: 12A Engineer Officer
For Kimberly Jung, NaVOBA’s 2016 Asian American Vetrepreneur® of the Year, and her business partner Emily Miller, friends who graduated West Point together, then deployed to the Middle East, the seeds that eventually spawned their company, Rumi Spice, were planted years before the company was founded.
“While deployed in Afghanistan, Kim and I were platoon leaders in different places, but we had similar takeaways,” Miller recalls. “We would go out and have a successful mission, but we were confronted by the same issues again and again. There was always another roadside bomb, another bad guy to catch. We felt like we were only addressing symptoms of a much larger problem. Our military does strive to promote stability in countries like Afghanistan, but we noticed that it’s not always in line with what the communities want or need in the long term.”
The Lightbulb Moment
Fast-forward to 2014. The pair had been honorably discharged in 2013, and then had enrolled in Harvard Business School. Keith Alaniz, who was on deployment in Afghanistan, was chatting with the pair via Skype in early 2014 when the idea for the company was
“He told us about a farmer named Haji Yosef who was trying to sell saffron to various aid organizations. The organizations were helping farmers produce more and better crops, and Yosef, who is very entrepreneurial, was trying to sell his crop to these organizations,” Miller explains. “Of course, the organizations weren’t in a position to purchase from any of the farmers—that wasn’t their role. That’s when we realized that we could bridge that gap and create a viable business by connecting the Afghan farmers’ crops with the international marketplace.
By purchasing saffron from the farmers, then selling it to outside markets, they could give Afghans an opportunity to create sustainable incomes and support their families without resorting to selling opium poppies, the country’s other cash crop. Economic empowerment, they believed, could lay a foundation for peace. Thus, Rumi Spice was born.
Now, Rumi Spice not only employs Afghan men, but has also hired dozens of Afghan women to harvest the delicate saffron threads by hand. The goal of Rumi Spice is to enable Afghanistan to stand on its own two feet, so to speak, without needing to rely on aid from other countries and outside organizations. This is evident in the very structure of the company. Despite its social mission to “cultivate peace,” Rumi Spice is not a non-profit organization.
A Path to Peace
“Going forward, we’d like to become the premier Afghan-goods company, sourcing amazing artisanal goods out of Afghanistan and promoting trade and peace from Afghanistan to the rest of the world,” Jung says. “We’d also love to extend this model to other post-conflict countries.”
It’s thus far a promising start to a worthy goal. To quote Rumi, “Where there is ruin, there is hope for a treasure.”
Additional Sites/Facilities: Herat, Afghanistan
Company Website: rumispice.com
Number of Employees: 4 full time, 120+ part time
Military/Veteran Employees 3
Year Founded: 2014