Janett Liriano: Bringing Good Business Home


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Janett Liriano is known as a transformational CEO. But her business acumen stems from an unexpected place: her time in the theater department at New York City's famed LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and the Performing Arts.

“Theater kids, especially techies like me, can run the world," Liriano said. "Marrying the egos of actors and directors with the budget, timelines and technical issues influenced how I look at problems, with a 'we can fix it' attitude."

Liriano and her sister Erika co-founded Inaru, a premium chocolate company that operates on a profit-sharing model with cacao farmers in the Dominican Republic. But the chocolate startup isn't her first entrepreneurial endeavor.

Liriano, whose parents emigrated from the Dominican Republic to Queens before she was born, was drawn to engineering and technology in part because her father was an engineer in his home country. After studying lighting design in college and working in the hospitality industry, she led successful startups in the biopharma and textile industries.

“I tell everyone that everything you do is useful because you have no idea how it might connect to what you do later," Liriano said. She is a founding member of the United Nations Decade of Women Initiative, was recognized in 2019 as a “Forbes 30 under 30 for Manufacturing and Industry," and the only woman of color to raise over $1 million in venture funding twice.

Liriano recently joined City National Bank's David Cameron, EVP of Personal & Business Banking, for a conversation about her mission to improve the chocolate industry in the Dominican Republic and her collaborative approach to business.


Sister Act Leads to Profitable Business

The Liriano sisters share a passion for business and value how their personality differences complement each other. While Janett Liriano focuses on growth, her sister brings a detail-oriented approach to business that helps balance her strengths and mitigates risk.

While they often talked about starting a business together, their “Aha!" moment came four years ago. That's when their father asked the sisters when they would be successful enough to do what they really wanted to do.

The pair's search for something they were passionate about led them to the cacao farms of their ancestral homeland.

Erika Liriano spent three months in the Dominican Republic analyzing the chocolate business and realized how much value was being lost that could help the farmers and the local economy.

The sisters learned that the Dominican Republic and Ecuador produce the majority of organic cacao but lose out on value because farmers sell the beans to chocolate producers in other countries.

They decided to build a factory to produce their own chocolate bars and other products while entering into a profit-sharing agreement with the cacao farmers.

“The idea is that commodity prices have to be low because of the added value that producers provide, but the farmers are at the most risk," Liriano said. “They're the poorest and the most at-risk of environmental impacts and labor shortages."

Liriano said the model of creating a viable business while sharing the profits with the producers is similar to the existing model between vineyard owners and wineries. She points out that you rarely see a poor vineyard owner.

“I'm glad my dad called us out like that because now we get to be Wilhelmina Wonka making chocolate and sharing the profits with these amazing farmers," Liriano said.


Turning Competitors into Collaborators

Inaru recently partnered with the Leon Jimenes family, among the oldest and most successful families in the Dominican Republic, known for their beer and cigar companies. After meeting the family members, Liriano was excited to find that they are extremely entrepreneurial and share her values about how to help farmers and others in the country.

One of the big challenges for Inaru and any other early-stage business owners is raising capital. Liriano, who knows that underrepresented communities receive a disproportionately low share of investment funding, leans into data and asks potential funders what would make them comfortable.

“It's an attitude I have: 'I'm trying to help you make money, so what does it take to get past what's challenging you?'" Liriano said. “They're missing out on deals."

Liriano's positivity extends to businesses that others might consider competitors. Instead, she views competitors as future collaborators and wants to work toward a healthier cacao industry overall, not just for her company.

The profit-sharing model isn't philanthropic. Instead, it's the fastest way to secure the supply chain in the cacao industry because it's a direct investment in the farmers, Liriano said. She's very proud that Inaru has been able to prove that it's possible to have a financially viable business and a purpose-driven business at the same time.

“We feel like we've come full circle," Liriano said. “Our parents left the Dominican Republic to provide educational opportunities for their children. Now my sister and I have returned to create wealth for others. We're marrying legacy and innovation and respecting what both can do."

As for other entrepreneurs, Liriano encourages “moving deeply and building things" rather than “moving fast and breaking things."

You can catch the rest of the conversation between Janett Liriano and David Cameron by listening to the full podcast above.

This article is for general information and education only. It is provided as a courtesy to the clients and friends of City National Bank (City National). City National does not warrant that it is accurate or complete. Opinions expressed and estimates or projections given are those of the authors or persons quoted as of the date of the article with no obligation to update or notify of inaccuracy or change. This article may not be reproduced, distributed or further published by any person without the written consent of City National. Please cite source when quoting.

This podcast is for general information and education only. It is provided as a courtesy to the clients and friends of City National Bank (City National). City National does not warrant that it is accurate or complete. Opinions expressed and estimates given are those of the speakers as of the date of the podcast with no obligation to update or notify of inaccuracy or change. This podcast may not be reproduced or distributed by any person without the written consent of City National. Please cite source when quoting.