Meet Harinee Sampath, the PTMBA grad taking the yogurt world by storm

Shannon Beeman
September 11, 2015

After earning a master’s in mechanical engineering and working as an IT consultant for most of her career, Harinee Sampath, PTMBA ’15, would have had a clear career trajectory—if she been content with her work. “I started out as a software engineer, but I always thought that wasn’t really me,” she said. “So I moved to business analysis and project management, and I kept wondering where my place was. I didn’t want to just be an engineer.” Gradually, Harinee discovered her entrepreneurial predisposition. “I’d gotten some experience at tech startups and I really loved the pace and the small company culture,” she explained. “I really liked the possibilities of being able to start small and grow something.”

But it wasn’t until Harinee enrolled in the Ross School of Business and took a managerial communications class that her entrepreneurial leanings took form. Part of the final requirements for the course is developing a pitch for a company—and South Asian Flavors was born.

South Asian Flavors’ product is called Raita, a savory yogurt made with spices and vegetables suited for everything from a dip to a sauce for grilled meat and a sandwich spread. Raita is also all natural, with no added preservatives. “I’ve tried to emulate as much as possible the flavors and recipes we’ve been making at home for generations in India,” Harinee said.

South Asian Flavors evolved from a school project to a potential company. Harinee further developed the concept in Jim Price’s New Venture Creation class, where she developed a business plan, and conducted research on the concept based on models from Fed Feinberg’s Marketing Engineering class, including taste tests and focus groups. Harinee has also earned a Dare to Dream integration grant, the Marketing Award at the Michigan Business Challenge, the Samuel Valenti Award for Exceptional Entrepreneurial Development and was named a Zell Scholar, all on the merit of her work with the company.

Deciding on a concept and conducting market research was only the beginning of the hurdles Harinee had to face as the leader of a food start up. Currently, South Indian Flavors is operating out of a small commercial kitchen until it’s ready to scale and go commercial. It’s not a perfect situation—the kitchen is a six hour round trip from Harinee’s home—but, as far as Harinee is concerned, these challenges are all part of being an entrepreneur.

Also challenging are the realities of having a perishable, refrigerated product. Even though the spices added to Raita help naturally extend its shelf life, refrigerated shelf space is at a premium in grocery stores. “Stores are going to try it once or twice, but I’ll have to make sure there’s a demand for it,” Harinee said. “My research assures me there is a demand for bold flavors and all the signs are pointing in the right direction, but it’s our responsibility to educate consumers as to why this is different from all the other specialty foods.”

Despite any challenges and setbacks, Harinee’s enthusiasm hasn’t waned. “What keeps me going is the vision I have for this,” she said. “I come from a family that’s not entrepreneurial. They’ve always valued financial security, a steady paycheck, a pension. For me, though, it’s the most exciting option because it’s the most challenging one. This is what I’m truly enjoying, and I get to do a little bit of everything, using all of my skills.”

Long term, Harinee hopes South Indian Flavors and Raita will do for yogurt what Sabra has done for hummus, and Chobani has done for Greek yogurt—to make a formerly niche food a mainstream product. Once Harinee can show market traction, she will consider seeking additional funding to help her scale.

For now, Harinee is focused on closing out her first successful production run after a series of sell-out appearances at the Royal Oaks Farmers Market and Dixboro Farmers Market. If you’re interested in checking out Raita for yourself, you can also find it at Produce Station, People’s Food Coop and Argus Farm Stop in Ann Arbor, and Holiday Market in Royal Oak and Canton. For more information on South Indian Flavors, you can check out their website here.