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A kernel of an idea turns into a second career

It was a surprising test result that got Jean Tsai thinking seriously about snacks.

A brand manager at American Express and a self-described 'lifelong snacker,' Tsai exercised regularly and maintained a healthy weight. So she was shocked when a blood test in 2009 showed that she had high cholesterol.

With her health at stake, Tsai started paying more attention to her diet, and even started a blog called Mindful Eats, which focused on eating healthy foods and exercising. And while the Dartmouth MBA had a concept in mind, she lacked the experience she thought she needed to turn her interest in healthy snack food into a viable business.

"I'd always wanted to do something with organic popcorn, since right after business school," she said. "I just never felt like I had quite the experience or skill set to do that. I was always waiting to check off all the boxes."

Jean Tsai left a career in finance to start PopKarma, an organic popcorn company based in New York City.
Bob Briscoe
Jean Tsai left a career in finance to start PopKarma, an organic popcorn company based in New York City.

So she worked various jobs in finance, gaining experience in the fields on her 'to-do' list: management consulting at Booz Allen, strategic planning at Morgan Stanley, and eventually consumer finance at American Express. At AmEx, one of her clients was a small dairy startup based in New York. After helping the company develop its business plan, in 2010 she left American Express to become its CEO. After a few years of real world experience in the food industry, she finally felt ready to strike out on her own.

In 2012, with her savings, a Kickstarter campaign, and a small business loan, she founded PopKarma, an organic popcorn company. "My friends in the corporate world thought it was a great idea," Tsia said. "My friends that had started their own companies thought that I was crazy, because you have to be crazy to do that."

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She leased a small storefront on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and asked a chef friend to consult on flavors. The goal was to develop sophisticated flavors that would still have mass appeal. PopKarma's globally-inspired offerings include a Japanese-inspired Kyoto Mix (seaweed and miso), Middle Eastern Za'atar, and an Indian Masala, though the traditional Butter, Cheddar and Caramel flavors remain bestsellers.

In their Orchard Street shop, Tsai and her small staff make between 30 and 200 gallons of popcorn per day, depending on the number of orders placed by corporate and online customers. The kernels are sustainably grown and sourced from Nebraska, and the flavors are created on site from organic ingredients.

Though Tsai's finance days are in the past, her corporate ambition remains the driving force behind PopKarma. "I always feel like there's the next thing goal to get to," she said. Ultimately, she said she envisions PopKarma as an organic snack food company, with offerings beyond popcorn. A second retail location, at Fulton Center, is planned for later this spring.