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Meet the Founders

Meet the Founder: Jennifer Boggiss of Heilala Vanilla

Jennifer Boggiss of Heilala Vanilla

The island of Vava’u in the Kingdom of Tonga, renowned for its stunning natural beauty and unique island culture, faced near destruction from Cyclone Waka in 2002.

Heilala has grown from its humble aid project beginnings but remains rooted in its humanitarian mission. Under Jennifer’s leadership, Heilala became a B Corp certified company for its commitment to social and environmental responsibility. 

Recently, we caught up with Jennifer to learn more about her journey and hear her advice for fellow entrepreneurs.


Heilala Product Lineup

1. Why did you start Heilala?

Starting Heilala was a personal and impactful journey rooted in the experiences of my father, John. One year he celebrated his birthday by sailing to Vava’u — a chain of Polynesian islands in the Kingdom of Tonga — on a boat he built himself. He fell in love with the place and its people. Inspired to help after the devastation of Cyclone Waka, he returned with friends from his Rotary Club to aid in the recovery.

To thank him for his efforts, a local family gifted my dad a piece of land, envisioning it as a source of employment for the village. Having discovered wild vanilla orchids on a prior trip to Tonga, John embarked on research and visited established vanilla farms in Réunion Island, Tahiti, and Madagascar. Fueled by his passion and commitment to the community, he collaborated with fellow growers to cultivate vanilla vines.

At the time, I was working as an accountant when my dad entrusted me with the first harvest, a modest 99 pounds of vanilla beans. He said, "You need to find a home for it to ensure we can continue supporting the community." 

We didn't want to be part of the global commodities vanilla market, but we were driven by a profound desire to make a positive impact on the lives of the people in Tonga. With that, Heilala was born. Our brand represents a commitment to quality, sustainability, and supporting local communities — a vision that continues to steer our journey at Heilala.

2. What obstacles did you face along the way?

Starting a business in the South Pacific brought a great deal of obstacles. We had to secure our supply chain, build our brand, and establish our sales strategy all at once. Challenges ranged from cultural differences to aligning the supply with the growing demand. 

Now, 15 years later, we are a successful company backed by a robust supply chain and a talented team that spans operations, finance, sales, and marketing. 

Obstacles and challenges are an inherent part of the business-building journey. But you can overcome all the hurdles when you have a strong purpose that unites the whole team.

The business has undergone significant transformation over the years, evolving from three employees to a team of 25. This kind of growth requires continuous personal development, skill enhancement, and an evolving leadership style to adapt to the changing landscape.

Jennifer Boggiss of Heilala Vanilla

3. What lessons do you have for other entrepreneurs?

Be brave enough to have the courage to face problems head-on. Figure out what isn't working and take a proactive approach to solving your problems. 

I had a safe, secure career as an accountant but looking at spreadsheets and forecasts just wasn’t doing it for me anymore. Find something that gets you excited to get out of bed in the morning – Heilala was exactly that for me. 

There are always mighty high hurdles and tough situations in the journey of building a business and a brand. To get through tough times need a strong why statement and a purpose to anchor you and give you the grit to keep going when you need it the most.

We’ve found that there’s immense power in being a purpose-driven brand. Our dedication to sustainability, community support, and ethical practices have fostered strong relationships with home bakers, retail partners, and chefs alike. Today, our products are featured on the menus of top restaurants across America — a testament to the profound impact of authentic storytelling and connections.

4. What’s on the horizon for Heilala Vanilla?

While “vanilla” is often associated with something that is bland or ordinary, there’s something decadent and delicious about our magical pods. We are constantly innovating to ensure that vanilla remains top of mind for everyone. 

Recognizing the increasing demand for vanilla products beyond traditional extracts and paste among home cooks, we embarked on an initiative to develop new flavors infused with pure vanilla. This includes Cocoa, Berry, Coffee, Pumpkin Spice, Butterscotch, and Apple Pie — all beloved baking flavors enhanced with pure vanilla.

We are also on the brink of launching more alcohol-free vanillas. Our Alcohol-Free Vanilla Paste is a truly unique product — a pure extraction of the bean’s 200+ flavor compounds. Crafted through a meticulous glycerine extraction process, this product retains the cherished buttery, bourbon-like vanilla flavor that defines Heilala. This new product offering enables us to cater to everyone in our diverse baking community. 

bound vanilla plant

5. How do you keep work/life balance? What drives/inspires you?

I find solace and rejuvenation in our vacation home, located on the North Island of New Zealand. I seize every opportunity to escape the noise, immerse myself in nature, bask in the sunshine, breathe in fresh lake air, practice yoga, cook, and unwind with my family. 

I also love to travel. Taking part in different culinary and cultural experiences inspires me to innovate even more at Heilala.

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