Hannah Mendoza knew that December would be a big month for her startup. To get ready, the cofounder and CEO of Clevr Blends, a four-person company that makes instant oat-milk lattes, upgraded to a bigger production facility, hired four people to her fulfillment staff, and warned her ingredient suppliers they might be seeing higher demand soon.
But nothing could truly prepare Mendoza and the Clevr team for what it would be like when Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, invested in their company.
“We knew this was going to be a big moment for us, but we didn’t predict it was going to be as big as it was,” says Mendoza in one of her first interviews since Fortune reported the duchess’s investment late last year. “We were on a really strong growth trajectory, especially for a bootstrapped brand, and it really put fuel on the fire.”
Clevr, which sells $28 bags of coffee, chai, matcha, and turmeric-flavored powdered instant lattes, had been steadily serving a customer base of wellness fans eager to replace a traditional caffeine boost with adaptogen-infused beverages. After the duchess’s investment, the brand suddenly began reaching new audiences, like “schoolteachers, shift workers, and busy moms” who learned about the product via Meghan. The company had to adjust its usually speedy next-day shipping to a temporary monthlong waitlist.
The business is now in a unique position. The company has one of the most powerful—but quiet—brand ambassadors in the world. Meghan isn’t supporting the company in a traditional way, by making media appearances or participating in social media advertising; Clevr hasn’t once mentioned the duchess directly on its Instagram account or website. (The closest the duchess has come to social media marketing is sharing Clevr gift baskets with Oprah Winfrey and Spanx founder Sara Blakely, who let their own followers know the lattes were from Meghan.) Instead, simply having Meghan—who can sell out an item of clothing just by wearing it once—as an investor is enough to change the company’s trajectory.
“We’re very grass-roots, where we started from, and I never in a million years would have thought things like this would be happening,” says Mendoza.
From coffee bar to CPG
Clevr started as a pop-up coffee bar that traveled up and down the California coast in 2017. With cofounder and COO Roger Coppola, Mendoza served up lattes made with popular wellness ingredients like adaptogens (plant-based additions said to support bodily homeostasis and reduce stress). But Mendoza, who grew up in the U.K. and moved to California when she was 18, wanted to get Clevr’s drinks to more than just the Californians already seeking them out, who had an abundance of wellness options at their fingertips. “How do we make this feel more accessible to folks that might only have 30 seconds in the morning?” Mendoza remembers asking.
In her Santa Barbara home kitchen, Mendoza started to fiddle with ingredients like lion’s mane (a mushroom said to support memory function); ashwagandha (a root said to reduce stress); and reishi (a mushroom said to calm the nervous system). For a year, she refined the combinations of coffee, chai, matcha, herbs, and mushrooms until she had formulated at-home versions of the drinks she’d been selling from a traveling coffee bar. The current version of the business launched in 2019.
Mendoza, 29, got interested in consumer packaged goods when she worked for Imlak’esh Organics, a Santa Barbara–based company selling “superfoods” like goji berries and spirulina powder. Her passion—and her location—turned out to be the perfect combination. The Duchess of Sussex has long been interested in wellness; before she married Prince Harry, the Duke of Sussex, and joined the royal family, she often wrote about wellness topics on a now-shuttered blog called The Tig. And after stepping back from their official roles as working members of the royal family in early 2020, Harry and Los Angeles native Meghan moved to Montecito, right next door to Mendoza and Clevr in Southern California.
Somehow, a bag of Clevr’s golden latte, or turmeric, flavor got in front of Meghan. She tried the product, loved it, and reached out to the company to see how she could get involved. “There was a genuine connection with the brand and with the product, and that’s always how the best relationships start,” says Mendoza.
Mendoza and a spokesperson for Meghan both declined to share more information about the duchess’s backing of the company; the size of her investment is still undisclosed. When she announced her investment, Meghan emphasized her interest in both the product and in supporting female-founded businesses, which received only 2.2% of venture capital funding in 2020. (Mixed-gender founding teams like Clevr’s got 12% of VC dollars.)
“This investment is in support of a passionate female entrepreneur who prioritizes building community alongside her business,” the duchess said in a statement at the time. “I’m proud to invest in Hannah’s commitment to sourcing ethical ingredients and creating a product that I personally love and [that] has a holistic approach to wellness. I believe in her, and I believe in her company.”
Investor, adviser, and mentor
Although the details of Meghan’s involvement with Clevr are relatively sparse, Mendoza says that the duchess has become an important adviser and mentor.
“Having the duchess as a mentor and an adviser has been amazing,” says Mendoza. “She’s so smart, she’s so passionate, and she has such a good heart. Having her as an adviser has been one of the most incredible things to come out of all of this.”
This is new territory for both Meghan and for Clevr. While this is the duchess’s first startup investment to be made public, it was also the first time Clevr took on investor backing of any kind. “Having other folks that are now really invested in what we’re doing means that we’re just getting so many more outside opinions from people who have really strong experiences,” Mendoza says. “We’re able to go beyond the echo chamber of our core team and have other folks saying, ‘Why are you not doing that?’ or ‘Let’s look at this with this lens.'”
With Meghan’s support, Clevr is pursuing a bolder vision, trading packing orders at 2 a.m. for strategizing potential retail launches (right now, the lattes are sold only direct-to-consumer and on shelves at California’s Erewhon Market), new flavors, and international growth. At this inflection point, too, the brand decided to implement a long-desired giveback program, donating 1% of revenue to food-justice causes. “As a young and somewhat utopian founder, I wanted to do all these things. From the very moment we launched, I wanted to have the most transparent sourcing, have an incredible giveback program,” Mendoza says. “Sometimes, patience is necessary. And we were finally at a point where it could start to make a difference.”
Since she grew up in the U.K., Mendoza had a better idea than some California founders might of what it would mean for the duchess to support her company—and how it would differ from any other kind of celebrity endorsement. Meghan’s investment received wide coverage in the U.K. press, including a tongue-in-cheek piece in the Guardian asking if the “superlattes” were “a lot of Californian nonsense.” Says Mendoza, “I felt the same way about California when I was growing up, and then I ended up moving here—so don’t knock it ’til you try it.”
With her investment in Clevr, Meghan has hinted that she’s interested in backing other female-founded businesses in the future as she continues to build her work in the private sector (the Sussexes’ other ventures include deals with Netflix and Spotify). For now, her interest in Clevr has exploded the possibilities available to this company.
“I’m just really grateful,” Mendoza says, “to be part of this narrative of savvy female investors investing in female founders.”
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