TE 36: Octavia Costea: Founder of Spreads & Beyond

**Babson Entrepreneurship Forum Special**

Octavia Costea is the founder of Spreads & Beyond, a producer of 100% pure fruit spreads made without any added sugars, using an old Romanian family recipe. Octavia learned the original recipes from her mother, but, found the fruits she had access to in the USA weren’t quite as sweet, so she had to modify the recipes to come up with the three recipes she produces today.

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In this episode you will learn:

  • How Octavia moved to a new country at age 19. 
  • How she worked her way through college. 
  • How to find a need & solve it.  
  • How to pivot in your business. 

Links & Resources:

COMING TO AMERICA

Octavia Cosso was born in Romania, moving to the US more than 14 years ago, at the age of 19. Since that time, she’s waited tables, earned a degree in Nuclear Medicine Technology and Health Service Leadership. She has run a business as a health care consultant for five years before attending Babson College, pursuing her MBA and building her fruit spread business, Spreads and Beyond at the same time.

Octavia says she moved from Moldova to New York City at the age of 19, to mentor children in a camp. “I decided to stay here,” she says, and ended up losing credits she had earned in law school back home in Romania.
“I started again,” she explains, “eventually, I went back there and finished my last year and got my diploma.”
She says her family was scared for her and very uncomfortable about the move across the Atlantic Ocean. “They didn’t know I wasn’t going to go back… it just happened. I was very young, didn’t think very much about it.”

From New York, Octavia move to Chicago, where the camp was. That’s where she stayed for a few weeks before returning to NYC where a “friend of a friend, of a friend” helped her stay for a few months while she started rebuilding her life in the United States.

“I had to start from the bottom,” she says, “the classical immigrant story. I worked in a restaurant. I hated it, and I knew I didn’t want to do that.”

Starting as a hostess, she moved up to waiting tables to make more money. “That wasn’t my call in life, I can tell you that much,” she says. “I enjoyed it, The customer’s didn’t,” she explains.

From there, she decided to return to school, where she learned that law wasn’t for her, so, she decided to utilize her health technological background to major in Nuclear Medicine Technology.

Completing an Associates degree at Malloy College in New York, Octavia was licensed to inject radioactive material into patients. Working in the field, she completed her undergrad degree in the field.

After graduating, she worked for several different private practices before creating her own consulting practice in 2008, working for private practices for five years.

In 2013, she moved to the Boston area to attend Babson and begin working toward completion of her Master’s Degree in Business Administration. While pursuing that degree, she has also been pursuing success in the food industry with her company Spreads and Beyond.

FIND & SOLVE A PROBLEM

In classic entrepreneurial style, while serving medical patients, working in cardiology, Octavia says she would notice a lot of patients with cardiac problems also had problems with Diabetes. “Most of them were overweight. I kept asking them , figuring out what the issue was and they were eating all of this stuff… from bread to anything sweet – had white sugar.”

While becoming more aware of what she was eating, Octavia started looking for foods that made people happy and was natural. Trying to eat more wisely, she started trying to cook foods, “I didn’t grow up with food that was in bags,” she says, “processed foods. I was thinking ‘how can I make a change, how can I make an impact?’”

Over time, Octavia eventually realized one of the secrets of her Romanian heritage, “this is great,” she says, “people with Diabetes have all these products that don’t taste good , so they’re very limited.” So, she developed the recipe and packaging for her products.

SUGAR IS THE PROBLEM

Explaining that the main health issue is being overweight, Octavia explains that Diabetes may occur as a result of their weight. Then, the effect of Diabetes (Type 2) can be “cardiac problems from blood pressure to blocked arteries, and coronary artery disease.”

Saying she believes that much can be done to combat the effects of Diabetes and being overweight through education. She explains, “I think the earlier they get education on what they eat, and the earlier they get exposed to good food and understand where it comes from, and understand that soup doesn’t come from a can, it’s doing to be easier in the future.”

The second problem she sees is the aggressive marketing of products as being healthy that really aren’t. “There’s no transparency,” she says, and then recommends that those who wish to eat healthy should check out all of the ingredients instead of just the first things on the label.

Cosso says to look for what she calls “hidden sugars,” and ingredients with names that you can’t pronounce. “When you read something you can’t understand, I don’t think you should put it in your body.” she explains.

SPREADING OUT A PLAN

But, recognizing the answer is only part of the solution, says Octavia. “I think it took about six months… to actually move forward and get the courage that I can do it. After that,” she explains, “once I started looking for resources, it was much easier.”

Her first step was to come up with a recipe. She started with her mother’s recipe from Romania. “it didn’t work her,” she says. The first failure forced her back to the drawing table. “the next step was to look for resources. I didn’t have a network in the food industry. So, I reached out to local clubs in Long Island where entrepreneurs meet.”

As she was starting this process, she says she quickly realized how much she didn’t know about business, as well. That realization helped her see the need for the MBA from Babson. “That’s how I got to business school [at Babson],” she explains, “I knew I needed to get the better understanding of the business side of this.”

Her family, still in Romania, expressed their support for Octavia’s educational efforts, “in their mind, they were like ‘what is she doing?’ Like any parent, you don’t really want your child to take chances, and what if she doesn’t succeed? You really worry about that,” she explains. “But,” she says, “in the long run, any failure, it’s a lesson learned. And you grow as a person. I think they would be supportive regardless whatever happens after this.”

EXPANDING KNOWLEDGE

Cosso says she has learned a lot about the business side of her industry as the work has continued. “I learned about the value branding brings to your product. You have to be transparent and authentic, and I think people see the passion in you. So, combining all the knowledge that I learned from Babson via classes or just meeting people, I actually made a recipe come to life, and I have a product,” she says.

Reporting what she feels is “huge growth” as a result of her time at Babson, Octavia says her vision for the company “is to have foods made… without any added sugar, only with fresh ingredients.”

She says she’s not sure what her next product will be, since she’s currently focussing on rolling out her latest product (three spreads – strawberry preserves, blueberry-orange peel preserves, and mango star-anise chutney) to a large area of customers, while hoping for responses on what the customers would want next.

She says she thinks her customer base is aware of the ingredients of the spreads, “I have returning customers,” she says, “and I get the feedback, they love it.”

OVERCOMING OBSTACLES 

Octavia says she doesn’t fear the obstacles in her life – moving to New York, going back to college, attending Babson, creating her new business. “But, when I procrastinate, and I see that I’m not moving forward, that’s when fear actually comes in, because you don’t want to fail.”

She says her solution is “to make progress every day. It’s not easy, but, if you set goals and you just do it, you jut have to do it.”

Saying that it is her love for what she’s doing with Spreads & Beyond that keeps her motivated, she says, “I think it’s just a matter of being disciplined, work hard, and just keep doing. And surrounding yourself with people that believe in you.” That, she says, is key.

CHANGING DIRECTIONS

As a young woman who has gone through a series of transitions and course directions in her life, Octavia Cosso is familiar with a life of pivoting.

In the course of her business venture, Octavia says she’s learned that the things she thought would be the selling points for her three spreads weren’t the same as her customers. That required some re-tooling of her marketing plan.

“I had to go in a different direction with the marketing,” she explains, “it’s the same authentic product.” But, she learned to reframe the marketing to include her Romania story.

“I really didn’t think it had much value, because it wasn’t my first thing. I was concerned about people’s health. That’s how it started,” she says, “so, right now, I’m just testing” to learn the importance to the customers.

Octavia says she’s learned that if the customer doesn’t have the same sense of value on the reason for the product, “you just have to package that value so the consumer sees it.”

LEAVING A LEGACY

As for the future of Octavia’s business and her life, she says she doesn’t think of it as a legacy. “What I think about is, ‘can I make a difference in one person’s life?’ And,” she concludes, “if I can impact somebody’s life in a big way, or in a small way, and they can make a small change, that’s what matters to me.”

“And,” she says, “if those people can do the same for their children, you can call it a legacy if you want.”