In July 2013, after 13 years of climbing IBM’s corporate ladder, Arshad Bahl did what many would consider unthinkable: He respectfully declined an offer to become an executive within the company. He decided instead to focus on growing his fledgling health bar startup, Amrita Health Foods, nurturing the entrepreneurial roots that took hold while exploring emerging markets for IBM. “I have always been a person who seeks out innovation and areas to make a positive societal impact,” says Bahl.
Bahl’s company grew as organically as the ingredients in his health bars. It started eight years ago when his then 2-year-old son was diagnosed with autism, and the gastrointestinal problems that so often afflict children on the spectrum. His pediatrician recommended treating the gastrointestinal problems first, so they took him off gluten, soy, and dairy. “Within three to four months, he started feeling better,” Bahl says. “His mood got a lot better; he could sit through speech sessions a lot longer.”
The more they stuck to clean, whole-foods-based nutrition, Bahl says, the better his son’s condition became. But then his son entered school, and “it wasn’t very easy for him to be taking rice and chicken to eat,” Bahl explains. The health bars they packed him for lunch contained soy and gluten, so Bahl began to make his own bars instead. Because the school had a nut-free policy, he made them with chia and sunflower seeds, mixed with different fruits, using his son and two younger children as taste-test subjects. “The kids dictated the taste and texture,” says Bahl.
Bahl didn’t think about selling the bars until about two years ago. An avid cyclist, he started giving the bars to cycling friends, who not only enjoyed the taste, but also found them effective snacks. From there, Bahl set up a stand at Hartsdale’s farmers’ market—and the bars became an instant hit. One happy customer from the farmers’ market was a representative from Whole Foods in White Plains, and that, Bahl says, “was the genesis of retail.”
It took him nearly four months to create all the packaging necessary for retail, which he funded through his own personal savings. But eventually, one Whole Foods called another to tell them about the product, and so on, until Amrita was in 16 local stores. Today, Amrita’s seed-based, soy-, gluten-, and dairy-free nutrition bars (which come in mango coconut, cranberry raisin, apricot strawberry, apple cinnamon, pineapple chia, and chocolate maca flavors) are available in 250 stores, with the goal to be in 400 stores by the end of the year.
Looking back now, it doesn’t look like such a gamble to turn down the comforts of an executive position at IBM. But, says Bahl, who expects to close the year at $400,000 in revenue, “There’s always that fear of the unknown, especially after 13 years of being at the same company. I had to have the faith that I can persevere.”