Koel Thomae was always a smart, engaged student as a child. But, like most high school teens in Australia, Thomae had to start plotting out her career path in the 10th grade.
“It’s a lot of pressure for a 15-year-old to be thinking about what she wants to do for the rest of her life. So I picked something practical and decided on accounting,” she said during an interview for Yahoo Finance’s Breakout Breakfast series Thursday.
Today, at 45, Thomae is the co-founder of Noosa, a creamy, whole milk yogurt brand established in 2009 that topped $220 million in sales last year. The yogurt is available in 25,000 stores across America, including Whole Foods, Target, and Kroger. But, it took a combination of courage, serendipity, and most of all unhappiness, for Thomae to become an entrepreneur.
“I was so miserable, I didn’t see myself as an accountant, but I was already two years into a degree.” she said. “I was not passionate about what i was doing at all.”
Things got so bad that Thomae stopped attending classes and ultimately ended up on academic probation. While the average mother would chastise her child for ripping up the rule book, Thomae’s mom encouraged her to clear her head and bought her a plane ticket to any destination of her choice.
“I never had a parent who said ‘This is what you need to be doing.’ The question was always, ‘Are you happy? If not, do something different.’ That kind of support was so critical for me,” she said.
Thomae ended up picking Boulder, Colorado, drawn by the picturesque scenes of white water rafting along the Colorado River and lived there for a year before returning to Australia to finish her degree (in marketing). Still fascinated by Colorado, she moved back to Boulder and took odd jobs at restaurants and a nonprofit children’s theater before landing a job at an IT company.
She thought that being in beautiful Boulder had forever squelched the feeling of being trapped. But, much to her chagrin, that sinking feeling revisited her a few months into the job.
“I was sitting in a cubicle, having my soul sucked out of me. It took me back to my university experience — feeling so bored and unhappy. It forced me to make a dramatic shift and change. I went on a hike and thought about what I was passionate about. Here I was living in this mecca of natural food. It took a while, nearly 12 months, for me to make that breakthrough. I needed to work in the food industry,” she said.
The aha! moment
In May 2004, she finally landed a gig as an operations coordinator at Izze Beverage Company, then an 18-month old startup. While still working at Izze, she took a trip back to Australia to introduce her boyfriend (now husband) to her family. Her mom had moved to a small town called Noosa, a beach town along the Sunshine Coast. One day at a local corner shop, Thomae spotted a clear tub filled with yogurt and a vibrant pop of passion fruit puree.
“I was immediately intrigued. I picked it up and a few minutes later I was having my first taste. It was like one of those just ‘stop you in your tracks’ taste moments,” she explained.
She soon discovered that a small, Australian family-owned company was behind the yogurt and after several nudges from her mother, she gave them a call simply to tell them that the yogurt was delicious.
Soon, Thomae returned to Colorado to work at Izze, which was acquired by Pepsi (PEP) in 2006. But, she simply “could not get that taste out of my mind,” so, motivated by her desire to find something delicious that she could enjoy every day, she started doing market research to figure out what was going on in the category.
On a subsequent trip back to Australia, she set up a meeting with the family responsible for her obsession and learned that the family had no desire to scale the business beyond the Australian town. After a three-hour lunch and several beers, she ended up with a loose license to the yogurt recipe. Thomae returned to Colorado and quit her job at Izze. After a grueling search for a dairy partner, she connected with a fourth-generation dairy farmer Robert Graves, whom she had cold-called after seeing his flyer at a local coffee shop, and in 2009 created Noosa.
While, Thomae and Graves sold Noosa to Boston-based private equity firm Advent International in 2014, they remain deeply involved in the day-to-day of the business. “I think about that university moment, that cubicle moment and remember it’s never too late to pivot. It doesn’t matter what life stage you’re in. If you’re desperately unhappy, stop what you’re doing right away and get out of that place. Because then you are more likely to find your passion.” For Thomae, it was to replicate the taste she simply couldn’t shake.
Melody Hahm is a senior writer at Yahoo Finance, covering entrepreneurship, technology and real estate. Follow her on Twitter @melodyhahm.