Some might say Sweet Briar College, with its pink-and-green color scheme and Vixen mascot, is sugary enough, but Micaela Weiss ’09 is trying to make the all-woman’s college and the world a little sweeter still.
Soon, the 22-year-old business management major from Portsmouth, Va., will begin marketing Free and Sweet, an all-natural sweetener she developed that’s derived from thestevia plant, a shrub that grows in South America. The product will be packaged in pink and green with a daisy flower logo — an homage to Daisy Williams, daughter of the College’s founder.
It all started several years ago when Weiss was just trying to be a good big sister.
On Weiss’ 16th birthday in October 2003, she and her family were out to dinner when her younger sister, Natasha, suddenly fell ill. Thinking it was a migraine, they took Natasha home. They couldn’t have been more wrong.
“For the next six months, she would fight for her life and go undiagnosed repeatedly,” Weiss recalled. “Halloween night, we thought for sure we were going to lose her. The doctors had prepared us that she probably was not going to live. She could not walk [or] eat, and could barely speak. She was on so many medications she was hallucinating.
“That night my father, who is a physician, had flown to New Orleans for an important conference. My mom and I sat Natasha up to watch Charlie Brown’s ‘It’s the Great Pumpkin,’ as was tradition, when my sister turned purple and swelled twice her body size.”
Throughout the night, Weiss and her mother kept vigil, moving Natasha to and from the garage, hoping the colder temperature would reduce the swelling and slow her heart rate. Believing his daughter was dying, her father telephoned, saying, “Be strong. She is going to a better place.”
But Natasha didn’t die that night or any night following. After massive amounts of intravenous antibiotics, many nights in the hospital and lots of prayer, Natasha, who Weiss calls her “best friend” and “ying to my yang,” survived. She is now a sophomore at Sweet Briar studying engineering.
However, the disease, which Weiss and her family suspects was the deadly dengue fever carried by mosquitoes brought in with a recent hurricane, left Natasha with rheumatoid arthritis and new food allergies, including one to artificial sweeteners.
“Talk about tough,” Weiss said. “You almost die your freshmen year [of high school] and now you cannot eat anything fake as far as sugar. Moreover, you cannot exercise because you are constantly in pain and now have rheumatoid arthritis.
“I started doing some research and came across stevia, an all-natural [sweetener] with no calories, no carbohydrates and no fat. It was a complete shot in the dark but I ordered some in from China for her to try. It was a success. She had no problems with it whatsoever.”
Over the next two years, Weiss experimented and added natural fibers to the powdered stevia to make it fit into a one-gram sweetener packet. Otherwise, she said, “it is just so sweet that either a sugar packet would have only a tiny amount of stevia or, at one gram of stevia [per package], a person would have to save the packet for future use.”
She also tested it on friends and other family members, with rave reviews. “Plenty of my own friends have dietary problems and they had no adverse effects, and all the research shows diabetics can use it,” Weiss said.
During her junior year at Sweet Briar, she decided to produce and market the product herself. Weiss, who said she’s “in charge of everything from Web site to ordering to insurance and sales,” is in the process of getting a patent. She has formed a limited liability company, Free and Sweet will soon be a registered trademark, and she’s hoping the product will be certified both organic and kosher in the next six months.
She also worked on the Free and Sweet business plan this year for senior seminar. It was a timely project, according to associate professor Tom Scott, who taught the class. “As the business department begins to move toward its vision of creating entrepreneurial women, Micaela’s budding business provided an excellent opportunity to jump start this process,” he said.
For the first batch of 100,000 packets, Weiss mixed the Free and Sweet at her dad’s Virginia Beach doctor’s office and then shipped it in bulk to a manufacturing company in Washington State for packaging. The manufacturer, First Priority, is packaging the Free and Sweet and will mail it back to Weiss for distribution.
Her plan is to eventually have everything, from mixing the raw products to shipping, done in Washington State. Although the immediate plan is to market one-gram packets in 50-count boxes, her three-year plan includes offering the product in one-pound bags for cooking and baking.
Weiss recently launched a Web site and is accepting pre-orders for shipment in mid-February. She plans to market the product to hair salons and spas where coffee is served, and health food stores and other places that serve people with special dietary needs. Sweet Briar College, with its catering and dining services, also is on her target list.
A taste test on campus is tentatively planned for mid-February.
“The company is just getting started officially and although it has been a challenge, it has become a great learning lesson,” she said. “The reason I bring all of this up is that Coca-Cola and Pepsi have synthesized stevia and have created a new product. They are beginning to produce it in their soft drinks, as well as in separate individual packages.”
Another stevia product, Truvia, also recently started advertising on television, but Weiss isn’t worried about the competition. “There is, of course, room in the market for more than one company and I just want people to know they have options,” she said.
“Stevia could change the way Americans eat, because now they have a healthy and safe alternative to artificial sweeteners. Free and Sweet is based on family, and although we are the little guys we have big hearts.”