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Bears in Business: Jamba Dunn’s Plant-Based Kombucha Is Cultivating Change

May 25, 2021

Originally from Southern California, Jamba Dunn ’97 transferred to Berkeley hoping to study sociology, which led to an interest in Egyptology and Near East studies. He’s worked in Silicon Valley and for companies like Rosetta Stone. He moved to Boulder, Colorado for a master’s degree program at Naropa University. There, his passion for gardening, herbs, and making the perfect cup of tea—plus a small challenge from his daughter to create a kombucha she would love—led to the creation of Rowdy Mermaid, the first plant-based kombucha on the market. Dunn’s daughter’s nickname gave the kombucha its moniker.

We spoke with Dunn for our Bears in Business series, where Cal alumni connect their time at Cal with their business ventures. 

Cal Alumni Association (CAA): Where are you from? How did you choose Cal? 

Jamba Dunn: I’m originally from Huntington Beach. I never thought about going to college when I was younger, I was a punk and spent a lot of time in the punk world in LA. I realized I needed to make a change in my life and started taking classes at a JC. I was studying sociology and was interested in Professor Neil Smelser’s thoughts on collective behavior. I later moved away from that and wrote a criticism of the poem “I am a Cowboy in the Boat of Ra” by Ishmael Reed, which my junior college sought to publish in a textbook along with Reed’s poem. In order to not come off as ignorant, I began reading up on Egyptology, and went down a rabbit hole, eventually asking that the piece not be published as Reed was correct and my criticism was inaccurate.

I ended up choosing to study Egyptology at Berkeley, and my studies led me to an interest in horology and architecture in the ancient Near East. But the only way to study these fields, which crossed into collective behavior questions, was to write my own degree in Interdisciplinary Studies (ISF), create the courses and syllabi, then go out to find professors to teach the classes. Reed was a professor at Berkeley and I ran into him at an ATM on Telegraph—I tried talking to him, but the situation was awkward. He just wanted to get his $20 or so from the ATM, not listen to some kid, but overall a sweet guy.

CAA: Did your experiences at Cal shape your postgrad goals? 

JD: Absolutely. My experience at Cal was a very broad and far-reaching analysis of Near Eastern culture spanning 2,000 years. I didn’t realize at the time that all of this research I was ingesting was on how social movements and technology informed political changes. That led me to work in the think-tank world, which also looks at large scale trends.

CAA: Does your Cal education and experience influence your business decisions today? 

JD: Yes, not so much in terms of the content I learned at Cal, but in terms of what the education taught me; how to research, how to learn, how to collect vast information and put it together or translate it into a digestible form. Specifically, the ability to learn new things. As an entrepreneur, you can throw me into anything, and I can learn it. I can communicate with people who are operating machinery or running multimillion-dollar sales plans. I learned how to problem solve, and I would say my education at Cal completely set me up for that.

CAA: What made you move to the Boulder area? Why kombucha—and why the name Rowdy Mermaid?

JD: At Berkeley, I got to study and meet lots of amazing professors, like Ron Lowensohn, who worked in the English department. I became a bit obsessed with author Richard Brautigan when I was at Cal, and one of his books was dedicated to Lowensohn. I would go to [Lowensohn’s] office hours to chat about Brautigan and another author, Allen Ginsberg, who were friends of his. Ginsberg and I became penpals, and I was invited to study with him at Naropa, and that’s how I was introduced to Boulder. Unfortunately, I was only able to arrive after he passed, but was still able to study and eventually teach at Naropa.

When I moved to Boulder, one thing that I got that I couldn’t get in the Bay Area was a beautiful garden (not to mention seeing the snow-capped mountains!). I immediately started gardening, and while I was doing my studies at Naropa, that gardening led me to my passion with herbs. I found that I could grow herbs very well, and was interested in the smells and tastes, so we started growing more herbs so we could make teas. I used to joke that my favorite things in the world were to read, grow herbs, and make teas, and wouldn’t that be amazing to one day do something like that. At the time I didn’t know anything about the food and beverage industry—all we knew was what we were growing and making was insular, and we were just enjoying being in Boulder.

Side story: Napora was founded by Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa. In one of his writings he basically says, “Don’t try to conquer the world, just try to walk straight and make a good cup of tea.” I used to think about that a lot, because when leaving grad school, and even leaving Berkeley, you have all these big thoughts about what you are going to be doing in the world. I think gardening was humbling and brought me down to earth. The idea of making a good cup of tea was a silly goal, but one I kept in the back of my mind. After building software for companies like Rosetta Stone, I found my best life was gardening and making teas.

My three-year-old daughter was obsessed with gardening at the time and asked me, because I was already making some in my garage, if I could make her a kombucha with her favorite plants. That put me on the road to making the first plant-based kombucha. We used to call my daughter “The Rowdy Mermaid,” and that’s why the company is called Rowdy Mermaid.

CAA: Have you always seen yourself as an entrepreneur, or did your daughter spark this idea? What was your “Aha!” moment?

JD: Short answer: Absolutely not. Long answer is, I come from a long line of entrepreneurs and I saw it as a way of life to avoid. I wanted stability, but having worked in corporate America, and seeing people laid off a month before their retirement, or entire departments being laid off to show good margins to shareholders, I realized this wasn’t for me. If I wanted to feel supported or taken care of, I had to do it myself. It was during one of the layoff periods at Rosetta Stone that I decided to start my own company, but it took me a while to see myself as an entrepreneur (even if it is genetic) until the company was well into success.

The “Aha!” moment wasn’t really one. I was actively trying not to become an entrepreneur, I was not seeing it in the same way other people were. I was at Rosetta Stone, and on the side I was making kombucha and it was the same feeling I had when I first moved to Boulder—I was just in love with the idea of making things, and being engaged. I didn’t see it as a business opportunity, but a problem I wanted to solve.

CAA: What sets Rowdy Mermaid apart from other kombucha companies? 

JD: Many things. We were plant-based from the beginning. I also made low-acid, low-sugar kombucha, and the first caffeine-free kombucha, because I was making this specifically for my daughter. We immediately invested into science. Having a research-based background, I wanted to take a research-based approach. We hired Ph.D.s to do a deep dive and learn how to be one of the first scientifically controlled low-alcohol kombuchas. We looked at different ingredients to boost effectiveness and functionality of kombucha. We brought so many things to the kombucha category: plant-infused functions, low sucrose, scientifically controlled alcohol, caffeine-free, Nordic-influenced flavor profiles (wood, mushroom, foraged ingredients) regenerative-sourced teas, organic yeast strains, and highly controlled cultures—just to name a few! We also wanted to have a positive impact on the environment.

CAA: Berkeley and Boulder are two universities, and cities, that care about climate and sustainability. How is Rowdy Mermaid making an effort to be sustainable?

JD: Great question. We source sustainably, and we are getting to the size where we can make an impact on our supply chains. We are using that power to drive more sustainable ingredients. We are creating a repeatable product culture that uses less sugar to produce, and in 2019 we switched to cans from glass. We were the first company to do so completely—this actually increased our velocities by 40%. Lessening the amount of the glass also lessened the impact silica dioxide harvesting has on the environment. The switch from glass to cans also decreased the weight of pallets we were using and the amount of cardboard and shipping materials needed, which lessened the amount of fuel usage. We are working on ways for lessening waste in the office and facilities. We’ve also been discussing how to offset plastic use.

CAA: Can you tell us a bit more about your connection to HeForShe and Women’s Empowerment Principles, and how this translates into your work and hiring culture?

JD: This is really important to us. Equality and social justice are also important to us as a company. We are over 60% woman-led as an organization, which I think is amazing. This was a change that happened organically; there was no mandate to hire women for these positions, they were just the best candidates, and I love that. We established a gender equality and corporate leadership mandate to ensure there is equal pay for both men and women here. We have zero tolerance for sexual harassment.

HeForShe is a solidarity movement for the advancement of gender equality initiated by the United Nations. Again, one of the ways to put that into effect here is that we seek to establish fair pay and practices in our company and across our supply chains. Examples are our teas and herbs, which come from regenerative, woman-owned and operated gardens in Bangladesh. We have implemented marketing practices that empower women. We also support battered women and children’s shelters here in Colorado. We know that while there is always more to do, we can and will do more, as it’s codified into our mission as a company.

CAA: What have been the three most valuable lessons you’ve learned as a business owner? 

JD: I would say don’t follow in your parents footsteps, but I botched that one. But there are so many lessons that you learn as a business owner.

One: Don’t gather nuts. Meaning don’t overthink your decisions: act! Overanalyzing isn’t a good idea, and a level of ignorance is a good thing when going into entrepreneurship. I say, “If you knew everything you were going to face, you wouldn’t do it.” It’s better to put yourself out there.

Two: Problem solving is your greatest asset. Learn to face problems creatively and as a team, never as something that’s going to overwhelm, but think creatively.

Three: Relationships are at the heart of all business. Ask: is it good for the community? That’s how we make decisions. It’s never about the money, ever. You have to be willing to turn down business if it doesn’t fit into your core values which gives rise to number four.

Four: It’s important to stand for something. You have to. Long ago, the feeling was to kind of not have a strong stance but to flow from opinion to opinion. Investors and strategics don’t buy into a company, they buy into ideals, missions, and values. Employees are the same—they want to work for a company with values. It’s extremely important for us, and we saw this in 2020 when we shut down due to COVID. We didn’t know what to do, and there was no way to forecast, so we went back to our mission and values—what do they tell us about what we should be doing right now?—and it led us to where we are today. We are growing almost 100% from where we were.

CAA: What advice would you give current Cal students graduating into uncertain times? 

JD: Be resilient. Be a problem solver. Be ready for change—that’s one of the biggest things we had to understand last year. You have to be a problem solver. Second: your first, second, or even third jobs are not forever, but you have to treat every interaction as an opportunity to learn and grow and with honor. You still have to give it your all. Third: in every problem there is an opportunity. Even if you can’t see it at first, sit with it. You will begin to see that there is an opportunity.

CAA: Anything else you want to add? 

JD: Go Bears!

CAA: Go Bears!

Learn more about Jamba Dunn and Rowdy Mermaid on their website, Rowdy Mermaid kombucha can be found at your local Whole Foods.