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- As immigrants, Kwamena and Penelope Cudjoe had to learn about retirement saving on their own.
- When Kwamena heard about an employer-sponsored retirement account, he began contributing.
- Little did he know, that money would one day help him and his wife start a company in retirement.
- Use Blooom to analyze your 401(k) today and see how you can grow your retirement savings »
Kwamena Cudjoe immigrated to the US from Ghana in the 1970s; he was later joined by his wife, Penelope Cudjoe. Kwamena spent most of his career working as a university professor and then as an international relations officer for the federal government.
When he first started working in the US, he didn’t know much about the types of retirement plans he could get through his employer. As an immigrant, many of the financial systems in the US were far different from those of his home country. He had to learn about concepts related to retirement planning and insurance policies by trial and error and from his colleagues.
“Making contributions to your own pension fund, I didn’t understand it. I didn’t have an idea that this is what is happening. Some colleagues, friends, professors started educating me, giving me some ideas on how to contribute to that,” Kwamena told Insider.
Kwamena eventually heard about a tax-advantaged retirement account called a Thrift Savings Plan (TSP) that was offered through his employer. The account is similar to a 401(k) but for federal employees and uniformed service personnel. He thought it would be a great way for him to save money so that he could build a home in Ghana someday. The first year, he began by contributing 7% of his salary to the fund. By the third year, he was maxing out his contributions.
What he didn’t realize was that one day, in 2015, that fund would help him and his wife turn their love of cooking West African food into a company in their retirement years. Today, they own Amac Foods, which sells packaged jollof rice. The brand can be found on Amazon and at some Whole Foods locations.
“My whole idea of contributing to the TSP was to save enough to go and build a house in Ghana. Now that I’m here, my thinking was if I build a business and the business becomes successful, I can build the house I want in Ghana,” Kwamena said.
Below, the couple shares how they handled money during retirement and how Kwamena’s TSP helped them start a new journey into entrepreneurship.
A retirement fund meant having access to cash
The couple didn’t want to take out any loans from a bank or owe a supplier any money. Having a lump sum of cash that Kwamena considered his own made him feel comfortable enough to take the initial steps to fund the business.
By the same token, the couple knew they were taking a risk with their own money, so they had to scale their business slowly and steadily without over spending.
They started with $3,000 from their savings account
The first step was a test phase, and it had to be completed using a budget they could afford to spend out of pocket. They located a manufacturer who could produce their recipe and package their product at a reasonable price. Once they were confident with the supplier, they proceeded to withdraw $3,000 from their savings account, according to documents viewed by Insider.
They started with 500 pounds of rice for each recipe, which was the minimum the supplier would accept. Altogether, they had three recipes totaling 1,500 pounds. They allocated the remainder of the money for printing posters, flyers, and advertising materials for the product launch.
Then, they looked for free ways to market their product. The couple took their rice to local farmer’s markets, community events, and African grocery stores in the Washington, DC area. Within three months, they had sold their first batch.
Once they got the hang of it, they were comfortable enough to dig into their retirement fund
When the demand for their rice began to pick up, they needed to make a big order that required more funds. Kwamena was able to withdraw over $30,000 from his TSP, according to financial records viewed by Insider. The money allowed them to produce 10,000 pounds of their jollof rice recipe.
They were now also able to spend on taste tests, which they set up at individual stores. They printed more flyers and could pay for the cost of transportation from the factory, as well as deliveries of their product to stores.
Because they both had Social Security, and Penelope also had a 401(k) from her years of employment, the couple felt comfortable using some of Kwamena’s funds as start-up money.
“I am happy that I did it. Just contribute [to your retirement fund] because that will force you to have the discipline to save. That, I will always advise any immigrant or any native person,” Kwamena said.
They grew their brand by tapping into free resources
There were opportunities along the way where they could have paid additional money to advertise their product or get it into more grocery stores, but they decided against it. Kwamena and Penelope continued to push their product through word of mouth and local stores.
They eventually came across Market 7, a support resource for Black-owned businesses in the Washington, DC area. The organization assisted them with getting their product in front of Whole Foods, free of charge. This opportunity helped them land a deal to supply their jollof rice to some of the chain’s locations.
“We are working like we are young. We are working like we just started life. So there’s no age for anybody to see their dreams,” Penelope said. “We had a family of six kids; that was part of the reason why we had to put a stop or [didn’t] have money to spend. It’s one of the reasons why we couldn’t go ahead with the dream, kids and college and everything. In retirement, we are empty nested; this is our baby.”
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