With her coffee start-up, a single mom in Michigan inspires other women to be strong, black and bold—and to trust the tingly feelings.

Maliesha Pullano
Emily Berger

Maliesha Pullano launched Mamaleelu Cold Brew in 2014 with a $10,000 grant—and a fierce drive to provide for two kids. She sells bottles of coffee concentrate and the cutest ready-to-drink mini cans at markets and stores in Kalamazoo, Lansing and Grand Rapids (full list at mamaleelucoldbrew.com). Now she faces her “biggest challenge yet”: scaling up as a black small-business owner in the very white world of coffee. Interview with Timothy Meinch

TM How did you get by pre-Mamaleelu?

MP I was doing anything I could. Mostly creative stuff to sell at a farmers market. Handmade tutus, samosas, foraging for plants I made into tea, and I started making handheld decoupage mirrors.

TM But no coffee. How did that happen?

MP In 2013, I was struggling to pay rent. I had a five-day notice on my door, a 6-month-old daughter and a son in 12th grade. I heard about an incubator kitchen offering a grant in my town of Kalamazoo. Right before the deadline, I brainstormed with friends. One said, “What about some kind of coffee infusion?” I got the tingles right away and I knew. This is it. It was before cold brew was a big thing.

TM Wait, the tingles?

MP Yes. I got the same feeling in 2001 when I decided to study abroad in Spain with my 4-year-old boy. (No one at my college had ever done that.) A friend told me about a single mom who studied abroad. Because she did that, and somebody told her story, I believed I could do that. And I did it. Now I always follow the tingly feeling.

TM And it worked. How did you master cold brew just days before the deadline?

MP I researched online, and there weren’t many articles about cold brew then. The first time I tasted it was making batches for the grant panel. I took them samples, like I was an expert, and they loved it.

TM How are you faring as a business now that the $10,000 grant is all spent?

MP It’s still really hard. It’s just me, making each gallon by hand. I’ve gone from making $13,000 a year, with food assistance, to maybe triple that—not including expenses. I’m realizing that’s still not a lot of money. But the thing that always kept me alive in life was the hope that I could do more than my circumstances said I could. Now my son has graduated from college.

TM What’s your outlook on the future?

MP I view my life as an experiment, with weird synchronicities and juxtapositions. I dropped out of high school. But I later got my GED and went to college. I’ve been homeless, and I also lived in Spain. I’ve been on the verge of catastrophe, and I was featured on the website Thrillist. The biggest question in my experiment is, “Can someone like me, someone who didn’t have economic means—no money, no assets, in fact, negative assets—make this work?” It’s still a hypothesis.

TM I love your coffee’s tagline: Strong. Black. Bold. Why did you pick that?

MP I want to plant the seeds that specialty coffee is not just for wealthy people or white people. But the trope of the strong black woman can be a double-edged sword. I want to lean into every little crevice in between those words. I’m strong but scared and tired. I’m black and grateful but vulnerable. I’m humble but bold. We can be all these things.

This conversation was edited for length.

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