Improving Brain Health – Ep.73

International Empowerment – Ep.72
December 14, 2022
Celebrating Differences – Ep.74
December 28, 2022

Founder of BrainPOP Sierra Hooshiari shares how recovering from a traumatic injury inspired her mission to launch a soda brand promoting brain health.

Melyssa Barrett:  Welcome to The Jali Podcast. I’m your host, Melyssa Barrett. This podcast is for those who are interested in the conversation around diversity, inclusion, and equity. Each week I’ll be interviewing a guest who has something special to share or is actively part of building solutions in this space. Let’s get started.

Sierra Hooshiari is the founder of NewAge drinks. She launched the BrainPOP Smart Soda brand this summer at the Alice and Olivia flagship store in New York City after receiving a government grant from the New Jersey Entrepreneurship Commission. BrainPOP participated in 12 shows at New York Fashion Week this year and received positive reviews for promoting brain nutrition and the Drink to Think tagline. Sierra first explored entrepreneurship as an undergrad at Cornell University. She’s won a number of awards and appeared on various talk shows to share her story on how her recovery from a severe brain injury and coma inspired BrainPOP. Sierra’s passion for entrepreneurship can be seen in her role in every part of the production process, from formulation and design to canning and distribution. She wants her story to inspire others to turn adversity into triumph.

So joining me this week is Sierra Hooshiari, and she is bi coastal. But today we are having the pleasure of being in the Mission 415 Art gallery and we are excited. Some of you remember Lisa Brewer who did a podcast earlier, this is her wonderful art gallery. But this week we’re going to chat with Sierra, who is an entrepreneur, and she’s going to talk a little bit about her story, how you came to deliver this wonderful new product. This is my favorite, by the way, called BrainPOP Mojito Madness. Remember that. One of the things I wanted to start with, Sierra, thank you so much for being here on The Jolly Podcast.

Sierra Hooshiari:  Thank you for having me.

Melyssa Barrett:  Yes, I’m excited and so glad to have met you. And I just wanted to start out by asking you a little bit about yourself, your background, how did you even get to where you are, and then you can share maybe some exciting news later.

Sierra Hooshiari:  Well, I felt inspired to launch BrainPOP when I felt like there wasn’t a drink on the market that I could relate to as a professional Millennial. And I received a government grant, which helped me start this up during the pandemic.

Melyssa Barrett:  Fantastic. Yeah, so you started this during the pandemic?

Sierra Hooshiari:  Yes.

Melyssa Barrett:  So what was the idea? You were just sitting at home and saying, “Hey, I need to create this drink?”

Sierra Hooshiari:  Well, that’s a great question. I always have had an entrepreneurial spirit and I love launching and innovating and I feel like every job I’ve had, even the corporate roles, always had some amount of innovation and entrepreneurship involved. But BrainPOP and NewAgeDrinks, which is the company name, was more a manifestation of the story of my brain injury, which I suffered from when I was a sophomore in college.

Melyssa Barrett:  Oh, wow. So do you want to tell us a little bit about… I mean, the fact that it’s called BrainPOP, I’m thinking there’s that connection there that really helped you to say, “There’s not something here for me, so let me do something different.”

Sierra Hooshiari:  Yes. I feel like products are getting cleaner and a little bit more educative and connecting with the public consumer early adopter base in new ways. So there’s always room in the functional beverage market for innovation and in the CPG market for innovation. I think the pandemic really highlighted that because there was a little bit of a contraction economically, and the focus was more on the pharmacy like CVS or Walgreens and CPG, consumer package goods industry and healthcare, the hospital. So that kind of inspired innovation.

But on the side of the can we have this little QR code that takes you to a really entertaining little survey. My little sister who’s now 18, helped inspire the survey and she made it very simple because this is on track to be the number one physician beverage of choice. She said to me, she said, “Sissy, doctors don’t want to spend time, and healthcare providers, nurses and so on, don’t want to spend time taking a survey. We really wanted to know what they thought about the product and the flavors, and we wanted a way for them to interact with us as a brand. So hopefully the survey will be entertaining.

Melyssa Barrett:  Oh, really. You’re just keeping it all in the family. So shout out to your sister. What’s her name?

Sierra Hooshiari:  Nicole.

Melyssa Barrett:  Nicole. Shout out to Nicole. Awesome. So then, if I remember correctly, this is, I mean you were talking about the cleanliness of it in terms of just clean living and in terms of the ingredients and the organic, because I know there’s… It’s not like an energy drink, but it really gives you some energy because of the types of ingredients that are in it?

Sierra Hooshiari:  Yes, that’s correct. So the name BrainPOP was inspired by brain nutrition, brain health and functional ingredients. There are four flavors: Coconut Delight, DragonBerry Warrior, Mango Colada, and Mojito Madness. They all have the same functional ingredients in them, which is a botanical caffeine blend made from green tea extract, green coffee bean and guarana. And there is a hydration component of l-creatine and different minerals like magnesium and nutrients like vitamin D, taurine, choline, so on and so forth. And our hypothesis is that these nutrients work together cooperatively to have a very smooth caffeine edge. So they’re partial energy drinks. They’re definitely a brain boost, but we’re focusing more on, with our tagline right here, Drink to Think, and this idea that brain nutrition and mental health are so important. We’ve learned this during the pandemic more than ever, so we sort of wanted to keep that.

Melyssa Barrett:  And I think there are a lot of people that I know that wanted to Drink to Think, but they might not be drinking this great wonderful product. During the pandemic, we saw a lot of people drinking lots of wine and other things as well. So it’s wonderful to hear that there’s such clean living here. And like I said, Mojito Madness was my favorite, although I loved DragonBerry Warrior. I tried them all because they were awesome, and Mango is like my thing. There’s all of the fruit that I love. So then in terms of BrainPOP, when you say Drink to Think, what are some of the benefits that people get when they drink this?

Sierra Hooshiari:  Well, hopefully they get a little pop-up inspiration for their own life with some kind of positivity. There are little doodles and emojis here that are intended to inspire that. The colors are fun and engaging and sometimes you can even dress to match the can. I’ve sort of dressed to match your beverage flavor of choice today. There’s a little bit of something for everyone. So you can use them as a pre-workout, post-workout drink, midday slump boost drink. Morning, I drink them in the morning and I get a little buzz. You can a use them as a mocktail or a cocktail mixer in an evening setting as well.

Melyssa Barrett:  Yes, yes. Okay, this is fabulous. So awesome. I know now that you’re this entrepreneur, female entrepreneur, you got a grant that kicked you off into high gear and now you are distributing on Amazon and in other stores as well. I know you’re going to make your way across the country and across the globe. Did you anticipate that you were going to be in this position? I know you said you’ve always been kind of entrepreneurial. What are some of the other things that you did to come into this role?

Sierra Hooshiari:  Well, I think the story of the brain injury and the recovery really sort of fueled the mission because this wasn’t just another project that I was trying to commercialize or trying to execute for somebody else. It has a much deeper purpose. It’s almost like my baby.

Melyssa Barrett:  Do you want to talk about what was the injury?

Sierra Hooshiari:  I was working overseas in a Doctor’s Without Border kind of capacity one summer, it was a semester of college. And I was hit by an intoxicated driver and I was in a coma-

Melyssa Barrett:  Oh, my gosh.

Sierra Hooshiari:  … for four days.

Melyssa Barrett:  Wow. You were where at the time?

Sierra Hooshiari:  I was in South America.

Melyssa Barrett:  So they took you somewhere and, I mean, I guess you were lucky you were with doctors?

Sierra Hooshiari:  I was. I received great medical care. This was in Costa Rica and we were serving Nicaraguan refugees. I was treated and, at that time, there wasn’t as much knowledge on post-concussion syndrome and the kind of hematoma that I suffered from the brain injury, like some symptoms that surface with post-concussion syndrome and autoimmune illness. There was a lot less awareness around that. I was lucky. I was fortunate I had some medical knowledge. I was a pre-med student in undergrad and I learned how to treat myself and learned how to communicate and advocate for myself along the way. I was my own case study project, I guess.

Melyssa Barrett:  Wow, that’s incredible, what an amazing story. You are an amazing story.

Sierra Hooshiari:  I appreciate that. Thank you.

Melyssa Barrett:  My gosh. So then what happened after Costa Rica? I mean, you came back here and, I mean, there’s obviously been lots going on in between for you to be able, and thank God you had the knowledge that you have. I think there’s a lot of people that don’t have that knowledge. So I mean, are there things that you would tell people in terms of your experience and what that process was like for you?

Sierra Hooshiari:  Well, the recovery took a very long time and I didn’t fully recover. I went back to school. I was an undergrad at Cornell and I went back and I had to relearn everything from step one. I had to learn how to write, I had to learn how to add. I had gone from doing multi-variable calculus, linear algebra, to not really being able to remember much of anything. And every step of the way, as devastating as it was on the one hand, on the other hand, it was incredibly fascinating and it was just an opportunity to learn how to have more empathy and be a disciple of life, which is what any kind of event like that can be. I mean, I think in that moment I realized I had a choice. While the event was not within my control, the outcome and the healing process and the recovery partially was in my control, and I would be able to entertain that to the degree of patience and willingness I had. So it was almost a testament to being open-minded and trial and error.

Melyssa Barrett:  Yeah. We were here earlier and you were like, “We’re going to manifest this.” I mean, you have this kind of energy about you that really just brings people in and helps celebrate life every day. My dad used to have a saying that was, “Every day is a day to celebrate.” And you remind me of that because it’s like you’re going to make the most of every day that you have, which is awesome.

Sierra Hooshiari:  Thank you. I appreciate that. I was able to graduate and I graduated with honors. It was incredibly difficult, I won’t underestimate that. But I learned a lot along the way and I learned how to ask for help, which was definitely something I probably wasn’t as comfortable with before.

Melyssa Barrett:  Yeah, I think there’s probably a lot of people, including myself, that… It’s hard to ask for help.

So then how did you go from all of that to then deciding that you wanted to create the BrainPOP?

Sierra Hooshiari:  Well, ask and it is given. So I asked the universe to help me understand why this had happened to me and I would be open-minded to learning from it. And every step along the way, there was some sort of cooperative component that landed me in the direction of launching this product.

Melyssa Barrett:  I love it.

Sierra Hooshiari:  Right now we are in Lisa Brewer’s beautiful, delightful gallery, MISSION Art 415, and I’ve known her for nearly a decade. I’ve seen how she’s dedicated her heart and soul to this community in the mission district to keep the arts alive, even through the pandemic. She launched the Carlos Santana Familia mural right down the street. And being around positive people who are role models is always very beneficial and helpful, so I can’t underestimate that in any way.

Melyssa Barrett:  Yeah, well, you definitely are one of those people that I can tell, it’ll be amazing to see what you’re doing in 20 years or 30 years from now. Do you have aspirations for BrainPOP in terms of what you want it to look like, or is this just the first in a line of products?

Sierra Hooshiari:  That’s a great question. I think in every step of the way, the public, the consumers, are early adopters, many of who are physicians and healthcare workers, will interact with BrainPOP and help create that story.

Melyssa Barrett:  Yeah, so your background being premed, obviously you’re very conscious about what’s in it and you talked about it being physician recommended in terms of the ingredients and what it does for your body, and all of those things. So how can people take their nutrition more seriously, and how did your background in the medical industry really help to develop this?

Sierra Hooshiari:  Well, I always read articles and journals on med and the beauty of this product is that it’s very simple and I think that one of the things that I wanted to promote with this first launch phase of BrainPOP is accessibility and availability. So the price point is intended to be competitive and affordable to everyone, and we’re in the process of working with EBT to allow BrainPOP to be affordable to even people who want to learn more about brain health and brain nutrition, but might not be able to afford it. If you’re using an EBT card, you’ll get a partial discount, but-

Melyssa Barrett:  Oh, awesome.

Sierra Hooshiari:   … the formula is incredibly, I would argue that it’s simple. It wasn’t really about what’s in it, but it’s sort of taking things out.

Melyssa Barrett:  What’s not in it.

Sierra Hooshiari:  And even the packaging is simple and that was the point, to allow people to have a little bit of space within to interact with it and promote it or have feelings about it in their own way, shape, and form. I think what you need is an individual experience.

Melyssa Barrett:  Yeah. Well, and it’s so lovely that we’re in this creative space because I feel like it is so creative when you talk about the colors and just kind of bringing some fun to make sure that you can make it through the day and give yourself that little extra, but really not have to rely on coffee or another type of liquid or libation to do so. I loved it. I mean, the flavor, the taste is great. I thought it was fabulous. And I was glad that I got to try it before we actually did this podcast because I think people will really enjoy it. There’s such a variety of flavors that I think everybody’s going to enjoy some version of BrainPOP. My daughter’s really into coconut, so she’s like, “Oh, I got to have the Coconut Delight.” But like I said, my favorite was the Mojito Madness. So what else is going on with you and BrainPOP?

Sierra Hooshiari:  We have a billboard.

Melyssa Barrett:  There she goes.

Sierra Hooshiari:  We have a billboard on the East Coast that is going to be launched later this month. It is in Times Square and there is a special raffle for those who locate it, take a picture with it, post on it.

Melyssa Barrett:  I love it. So you can’t say where it is then?

Sierra Hooshiari:  Well, not exactly.

Melyssa Barrett:  What state it’s in?

Sierra Hooshiari:  It’s in New York City, on the East Coast.

Melyssa Barrett:  In New York-

Sierra Hooshiari:  Times Square.

Melyssa Barrett:  Okay. Times Square, somewhere.

Sierra Hooshiari:  Yes.

Melyssa Barrett:  Okay. Find and take a picture.

Sierra Hooshiari:  It’s like a Where is Waldo moment?

Melyssa Barrett:  Yes, exactly. That’s awesome.

Sierra Hooshiari:  And Evelyn Sato, who is incredibly beautiful person. She completed a degree in psychology, to be a psychologist, a trained psychologist, and now she is a supermodel. She will be promoting and advertising in the billboard.

Melyssa Barrett:  Oh, fantastic. I love it.

Sierra Hooshiari:  She’s a dear friend.

Melyssa Barrett:  Oh, wonderful, wonderful. I love the way you’re making sure that you have family and friends involved really supporting you, and I know they want to support you because this is amazing.

Sierra Hooshiari:  Thank you. I appreciate it. And it’s more than anything truly a movement, which is why it seemed relevant and appropriate to be a part of the Lilac Mural Project portfolio with Lisa Brewer on the West Coast. And Lisa has a portfolio of mural projects. She’s actively working on each with a different social impact mission and value proposition. The BrainPOP mural is going to be with this light bulb and the tagline Drink to Think. We’re also going to be debuting a larger version of the mural on National Doctor’s Day in 2023, so stay tuned.

Melyssa Barrett:  Fantastic. Oh, I love it. I love it. This is awesome. It feels like it’s just the beginning. So the movement is not only about making sure that people have access to the product, but really also are inspired throughout with art and creativity and innovation, which you have blended all with the creation of this. So that’s exciting.

Sierra Hooshiari:  One sip at a time.

Melyssa Barrett:  One sip at a time.

Sierra Hooshiari:  The true value proposition is that great things happen in small steps. One sip at a time. Cheers.

Melyssa Barrett:  Cheers. BrainPOP.

Lisa Brewer:  Thank you. It’s a pleasure being here today with Sierra and Melyssa. I’m Lisa. I’m the founder of MISSION Art 415 with my husband Randolph Bowes. We want to talk about the BrainPOP mural. It is to celebrate National Doctor’s Day, which is actually March the 30th, 2023, to honor the physicians that actually made a difference in Sierra’s life, for all the good that they do. In conjunction with that mural, which will be a BrainPOP mural in honor of the doctors’ day, we are bringing in the San Francisco Fire Department to actually shine a light on the first responders who deal with trauma and mental illness and wellness, and all the tragedy that they see and all the good that they do.

So it’s going to be a three-part collaboration with the doctors, with the mental wellness, with BrainPOP and the first responders. So I just wanted to interject that. Stay tuned because we will be posting on social media. It is an open invitation to join us and we would love to see you in the spring.

Melyssa Barrett:  Awesome.

Lisa Brewer:  Thank you.

Melyssa Barrett:  Thank you. That’s awesome. What a great promo. She mentioned that you had some doctors that were instrumental. Do you want to celebrate them?

Sierra Hooshiari:  Well, also, I participated and worked on the pandemic response team during the pandemic, and I saw the inner workings of the hospital system and UCSF on a whole new level. As Lisa reiterated and mentioned, I think more than ever it’s time to honor physicians, healthcare workers, and first responders, especially on the West Coast. Our first responders deal with many natural disasters like wildfires, and so on and so forth. So I’m very grateful that we get to show appreciation and gratitude as a larger, greater community for them.

Melyssa Barrett:  Definitely. Yeah, and it’s interesting because I think a lot of times we think about people that are doing such wonderful things, but at the same time, the pandemic really showed us that the first responders, the people that are making those actions every day are so important and critical, and I don’t know that we appreciate them enough. So it’s wonderful to see that you all are honoring doctors and first responders, and all the great work that they do. So thank you for appreciating them and we appreciate you.

Sierra Hooshiari:  Thank you for having me on the show.

Melyssa Barrett:  Thank you so much. You want to say something specifically about where people could find BrainPOP?

Sierra Hooshiari:  I also can talk about this side panel nutrition label, which is right above the QR code. We wanted to simplify nutrition for people because part of the mission behind BrainPOP and NewAgeDrinks is to demystify brain nutrition and make it accessible to everyone. So it’s simplified with little emojis here, like BrainPOP Boost, the hydration component, the vitamin D3 component, and amino acid, and vitamin component. But more importantly, you can find BrainPOP on Amazon. We have an Amazon store on Instagram, we have a Shopify store, and in some select regions in shops, in 2023 Whole Foods. We’re getting very close to getting into Whole Foods and Equinox community through Juice Press.

Melyssa Barrett:  Fantastic.

Sierra Hooshiari:  We’re also in some local venues, bar, nightlife scenes and delis, bodegas, on the East Coast.

Melyssa Barrett:  Oh, nice. Okay. Now, and we should mention, we didn’t mention calories, but there’s virtually very little calories in this thing, which is awesome. I mean, 30 calories sounds like, “Oh my gosh, I could have several of these.” So I love it.

Sierra Hooshiari:  And only seven grams of sugar. So hopefully it’s keto friendly, glycemic friendly, and so on.

Melyssa Barrett:  Yeah, no, you really have taken… So how long did it take to actually put this together once you received the grant and were able to move forward? Did it take you a couple of years or-

Sierra Hooshiari:  Not very long. I worked cooperatively with so many people and helping hands along the way. We did the formulation at Cornell Food Ventures and then our production run at the Brooklyn Cannery. So it was all local in New York and New Jersey. And I worked with different intern programs, different universities and students.

Melyssa Barrett:  I love it. This is Woman Entrepreneur Week, who runs the world, girls. I love it.

This is awesome. Thank you so much for being here, for doing The Jolly Podcast. I am so super excited to showcase BrainPOP and I really do hope that everybody runs out and gets this, whether it’s for the holidays or any other time. They are really wonderful to drink.

Sierra Hooshiari:  Thank you. And thank you for having me today, Melyssa.

Melyssa Barrett:  Thank you.

Thanks for joining me on The Jali Podcast. Please subscribe so you won’t miss an episode. See you next week.