This blog is the first in a series for Black History Month to celebrate and share the stories of Black American manufacturing leaders.
Toyin Kolawole is the founder and CEO of Iya Foods, a nourishment-focused food company inspired by her African roots and located in Illinois. Toyin grew up in Lagos, Nigeria, assisting with her family’s numerous entrepreneurial ventures, which included a small convenience drug store and a fast food business.
Food, family and faith define Toyin’s life. Growing up in Nigeria as the eldest daughter in a family of five children, she was the assistant mom, helping to cook, clean and support her mother in the various small businesses she started to make ends meet, including a small eatery.
In Nigeria, entrepreneurship is a necessity, so she grew up an entrepreneur, studying accounting and business management at university. Her first job was as a private equity analyst and one of the businesses the family invested in was a food manufacturing facility.
Toyin moved to the United States in 2003 for her MBA in Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University. After completing her degree, Toyin’s first job in the U.S. was as a management consultant for food and beverage manufacturers.
Iya means “my loving mother” in Yoruba, a Nigerian language spoken by nearly 50 million people. As a mother of two boys, Toyin would often tap into her African heritage for nourishing African ingredients to make everyday American foods.
Toyin brought her childhood entrepreneurial life, education, career experience and home recipes together to found Iya Foods. Sharing these experiences with the world is at the very core of Iya Foods – its mission is “to share love through food.”
Iya Foods, a client of the Illinois Manufacturing Excellence Center (IMEC, the Illinois MEP Center), focuses on making good food with good ingredients. The products are created for ingredient-conscious consumers who are focused on overall well-being. As consumer demand for bold and exciting flavors grows, Iya continues to meet this demand by innovating with ingredients and technology. Since Iya’s founding, it has focused on creating everyday foods with alternative, sustainable ingredients that are good for consumers and the planet.
“Manufacturing adds tangible value that truly makes people’s lives better. People have to eat, people need medicine, people need cars to get around. Manufacturing is unified in its purpose of producing items people want so they can be their best selves,” says Toyin.
Toyin’s advice for someone interested in a career in manufacturing is to focus on the customer in every aspect. She believes this customer-centric focus will always lead to the right answers, such as which equipment to get or the right process flow.
Toyin continues her efforts to make Iya Foods a success. The company recently expanded to a new 40,000-square-foot facility in Naperville, Illinois, with fully automated and cost-effective co-manufacturing capabilities. Iya Foods also added an R&D product innovation kitchen with specialty expertise in gluten-free products. It now has an extensive list of private label offerings created and tested in this space. Iya Foods develops new and exciting products while supporting a broad range of client needs, food safety, and quality standards that its customers have come to expect.
Toyin’s story is just one of many from across the MEP National Network that highlights the profound impact Black Americans have on the manufacturing industry. While February is Black History Month, their achievements and contributions to their communities and the country overall are seen year-round.