Growing Small Businesses Globally Export Entrepreneur Spotlight - Andrea Shuman and Martin Lemke

Andrea Shuman and Martin Lemke never set out to own a ghee company. In 2009, the business partners shared an ayurvedic practice in San Francisco, where they offered massage therapy and classes that taught people how to make their own ghee, or clarified butter, in keeping with the ancient Indian tradition of Ayurveda.

Their California customers loved the ghee. And when Shuman opened an ayurvedic business in Portland in 2011, her new clients loved it, too. Shuman had a healthy entrepreneurial streak, so when her customers started asking for more of the golden ghee, she listened. 

Now, seven years after their first venture, Shuman and Lemke are business partners once more and their new company, Ahara Rasa Ghee, is going strong, buoyed by a growing interest in dairy-free diets.

Ghee is essentially pure fat, made by heating butter until the water evaporates and milk sugars and proteins separate. This lactose and casein is then strained out, creating a shelf-stable, dairy-free oil well-suited for cooking, drizzling or spreading. (Unlike some companies, Ahara Rasa Ghee has been tested lactose- and casein-free, thanks to the high-quality butter they use and their proprietary quadruple filtration process.)

But ghee’s popularity doesn’t stop with those skipping dairy; ghee is gaining popularity with people on paleo and ketogenic diets, and gourmet chefs are using it, too.

Shuman said they really started to see business pick up in 2016, after Lemke helped reboot the company.

“We were ayurvedic practitioners and massage therapists figuring out how to be manufactures and make deals with grocery stores,” she laughed.

Ahara Rasa Ghee now offers seven flavors, including Lemon-Garlic, Vanilla Dream and Ethiopian Niter Kibbeh (ghee with aromatic spices).

The ghee is made with live-cultured butter from pastured cows, and it’s packaged in an industrial kitchen in Portland’s central eastside.

Shuman and Lemke started by cold-calling distributors for grocery stores, first in the Portland region, then near Seattle. Now, stores throughout the West — including New Seasons, Market of Choice and Natural Grocers — carry Ahara Rasa Ghee. The ghee is also available on Amazon, and will soon be in Northwest Whole Foods stores and on Walmart.com.

“Our business has increased 2,000 percent since 2015,” Shuman said.

Focused on growing their business domestically, exporting hadn’t really occurred to Shuman or Lemke.

Then, in 2016, a Tokyo company that specializes in importing Portland brands approached them. They wanted a ghee brand, and Shuman and Lemke jumped at the chance to grow their business. Before they knew it, their product was featured in Japanese Vogue and a Japanese morning show.

“Japan fads hit fast,” Shuman said. “We had huge orders we could barely keep up with.”

“It kicked our ass but it got us in fighting shape,” Lemke added. “We have great kitchen capacity here. You never know what your next step is going to be unless you push yourself.

"It really expanded how I thought of our company. We thought of Ahara Rasa Ghee as a regional company. Japanese people loved the ‘Made in Portland’ tag.”

Expanding sales to Japan helped Shuman and Lemke realize that localism is actually globally translatable.

It also gave them a wake-up call in terms of exporting. While the Tokyo company handled nearly all of the logistics when it came to getting their product to Japan and initiated the process, they knew they had a lot to learn if they wanted to export ghee to other markets.

“We didn’t want to say no to people,” Lemke said. “How do we say yes in an intelligent way? How do we create our export not as an appendage to the business but also something central to the business?”

And that’s where Greater Portland Inc’s Growing Small Businesses Globally export training scholarship came in. With the help of expert advisers, Shuman and Lemke found more tools to help them develop an exporting plan.

“I didn’t realize how many resources there are in Oregon for exporting,” Shuman said.

Lemke said the 30-hour, eight-week class on global trade management from the Small Business Development Center was especially helpful because it gave him a chance to compare notes with other business owners trying to sell internationally.

The in-depth class also opened his eyes to potential pitfalls in the exporting process.

“Had Japan not totally taken care of everything, we could have opened ourselves up to hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines from customs,” he said. “All from one form you have to fill out.”

Lemke was surprised to find how many small businesses have robust exporting operations. That realization changed his outlook.

“You don’t have to be a 150-employee company to make all this happen,” he said. “We could run a relatively savvy export business, and it doesn’t mean we have to be rich enough to have a lawyer on retainer.

“In business you’re always thinking, ‘Do I really have enough time to do this?’ With the amount of resources available in Oregon, and with the ease of exporting, if you’re already in distribution, you can get into international distribution.”

While exporting may seem daunting, Lemke emphasized that it’s an essential part of growing any business, but a plan is key. “It’s so much more doable because of all the resources available,” he said. “It’s not like you’re going at it alone.”

Lloyd Purdy, Vice President of Competitiveness at Greater Portland Inc, commended Lemke and Shuman for taking the time to be thoughtful about growing their business.

“It can be hard to prioritize exporting when you have so much going on domestically,” he said. “But by carving out time for this training, Martin and Andrea are investing in the future of their business, and that’s really going to pay big dividends.”

For Shuman and Lemke, their eyes are on Canada, and they’re working on updated packaging for Ahara Rasa to appeal to their current customers and new markets alike.

Greater Portland Inc is working with the region’s export partners — including the U.S. Commercial Service, the Small Business Administration, the Small Business Development Center and Business Oregon — to deliver the essential education business owners need before they embark upon their first international sales experience.

Through an export advising passport, created for this program, each participating entrepreneur advances through a self-guided curriculum using this array of export advising services to prepare for international sales.