In 2014, K.C. Kye sat in on a CEO Next Business Institute roundtable with a business idea: a traditional Korean hot sauce to spice up the midwestern cuisine that he was already bored with. He saw he had some work to do before meeting the criteria to participate in the CEO Next program and decided to take steps to get there.
He was particularly interested in joining the program for the peer and cohort learning.
“The cohort is a non-judgmental, safe space for helpful suggestions from other local business owners,” he said.
Kye is now the Founder and CEO of K-Mama Sauce, a business producing and selling Korean style hot sauce.
CEO Next Business Institute is a program administered by the Edward Lowe Foundation that supports second-stage companies through advanced business and market research, peer and cohort learning, and expert forums.
A New Jersey native, Kye came to Minnesota in 2010 for a career in ministry. He later developed a taste for the public sector, serving as a recycling coordinator for Anoka County. He soon realized he wanted to invest his energy in creating a business.
In a Minnesota landscape where authentic Korean food was expensive and hard to find, Kye saw opportunity in creating and marketing his own Korean sauce. So, he turned to the best Korean hot sauce manufacturer he knew: his mother.
“Every Minnesota mom knows how to make a hot dish, but there’s variances…” Kye said. “Korean moms all have a version of this sauce. And K-Mama sauce happens to be my mom’s version of that sauce."
The sauce originally sold at local Minnesota farmers markets, and then became staple condiments at local restaurant chains. It’s now being sold at Target and Walmart.
Authenticity and advice
Kye says he’s happy about how CEO Next helped cultivate and encourage growth in his business while maintaining brand authenticity.
“I always tell people I’m a Jersey boy selling Korean hot sauce in Minnesota,” Kye said. “I love the look on their faces,” he adds. “They’re usually laughing.”
Kye believes one of the most valuable components of the program was getting to learn and share about the unique challenges of being a CEO with other CEOs in the cohort.
“Every CEO faces their own battles… there is a weight, a responsibility,” he reflected. “You’re potentially taking care of the livelihood of X amount of people, and of course you want to do well for your own company and yourself and your family, but really when you start to be responsible for other people’s livelihood… it feels like every decision is making an impact.”
When asked if Kye had one piece of advice for other local business owners, he replied: “Think about the resources you already have around you: social, financial, and educational. Also, do everything you can to get into CEO Next.”
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