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Hard work, hope gave these young area entrepreneurs the sweet taste of success

They wanted it, they went for it and they got it.

Faith Kelley and Neil Wood are the two young entrepreneurs behind the new spring water company Civil Water. The aluminum-bottled and environmentally friendly beverage is popping up on shelves around the area, including at Kindness Cafe, Rebecca’s Natural Foods, Market Street Market and Crozet Market, as well as Farm Fresh in Richmond.

The company is based in Charlottesville but the water is bottled in Tiger, Georgia, from Appalachian Mountain spring water. No chemicals are added and no spring-imbued minerals are removed. It contains a pH of a near-neutral 6.6.

Although there are many brands of spring water on the market, the pair thought they could slice out a market niche.

“Water is convenient. It’s an essential product,” said Wood, who attended Charlottesville High School and grew up in the city. “If you take into account how many people buy plastic bottles on a regular basis and you think about what the next step in the process is for that bottle, aluminum makes sense.”

Wood, 22, and Kelley, 20, met at Piedmont Virginia Community College through friends. They found a shared interest in starting a business and in doing something good for society. That’s not always an easy combination.

“We were both interested in becoming entrepreneurs and we were looking for ideas and found that we had a mutual interest in doing something with sustainability,” said Kelley, who grew up in Esmont and attended Monticello High School. “We had Just Water as an inspiration.”

Just Water is a similar product started by Jaden Smith, an actor, rapper, singer, songwriter and son of Will Smith. Just Water uses plant-based plastics that are easier to recycle and degrade far faster than petroleum-based plastics.

The Just Water bottles, however, weren’t going to work for Civil Water.

“The price was much higher than it was for aluminum,” Kelley said.

The company’s path forward may get an unintentional boost from Gov. Ralph Northam’s March 23 executive order limiting single-use plastics by state agencies. The order gives agencies, including state-supported colleges, 120 days to stop buying, selling, or distributing disposable plastic bags; single-use plastic and polystyrene food service containers; plastic straws and cutlery; and single-use plastic water bottles that are not intended for medical, public health, or public safety use.

The order gives agencies 180 days to develop a reduction plan to get rid of all non-medical-use plastics and calls for total elimination of single-use plastics by 2025.

Wood said the order fits in with their rationale for creating Civil Water.

“Aluminum is the No. 1 most recycled material, so in 60 days it can be back in all sorts of different forms,” he said. “So we’re offering an essential product with less harm to the environment. That makes environmental sense.”

The going was not easy. Kelley and Wood found investment bankers less than cooperative when they pitched their proposed product in hopes of securing a startup business loan.

“We are young, and the banks really haven’t progressed as much as the rest of the world, and it makes it hard for young people to get business loans, especially since we don’t have any collateral,” said Kelley. “So we self-funded and launched the product at the end of March. And we’ve been growing since.”

Youth was not the only hurdle. Being African Americans also created a sense of reticence among investors.

“I spoke with a lot of people before we actually started selling but we didn’t get caught up in everyone’s opinions. We knew what we had to do so we just said let’s do it,” said Wood.

“Being Black means you’re kind of treated different when you go this route. You’re not accepted necessarily at face value and they want to see what you can do with it,” he said. “That’s been a motivation for us. Now that we’ve done it, we can finally get that respect and move ahead and go forward.”

“It would have been a lot easier if we were in our 30s to get this going … financial wise,” Kelley said. “People have ideas about people of color, but it became easier after we showed them we’re very professional. Then we ran into a really great company that could bottle and package our water for us. We found it would be easier and quicker to self-fund it and move on from there.”

Kelley and Wood gave up most of their little pleasures, putting their expendable income into a Civil Water fund that finally totaled $15,000.

“It was basically a lot of little sacrifices. I have things I like to buy, but it’s about putting those things on the back burner for something that has a better purpose, in this case not just for myself but for people across the nation,” Wood said. “When you realize how much money you like to spend on those things, you go, ‘wow.’”

After all the work to get the product out of the ground and on the shelves, actually receiving it felt great.

“When we got our final product sent to us, it was about five days before we launched and it got delivered to the front door with our name on the box,” Kelley recalled. “It was the moment when it felt like, ‘wow, we really did it.’ The other day I went into the grocery store to actually buy a bottle of our water. Later, I thought how amazing of a full circle it was to go into a store, grab a bottle of my water off the shelf and purchase it. It’s great to not only prove people wrong but to actually do it and look back with no regrets.”

Getting the water to the market, from idea to delivery, gives the pair a sense of pride. But, they say, anyone could do it, if they are dedicated to the cause. They also hope they can encourage future generations of Black entrepreneurs.

“I sometimes feel like a pioneer,” Wood said. “People want to take a chance on whatever idea they have, but the uncertainty and lack of security will often keep them from doing that. We just went ahead and took a shot at it and we’re doing pretty good.”

“[Starting a business] is not really for people who give up easily,” said Kelley. “If you give up, you’re not going to go anywhere. Most of the time we are our own worst doubters. If other people doubt us, it’s up to us to show what we can do. We are responsible for where we go in life.”

Wood said there’s nothing wrong with failing.

“Just go ahead and fail because that’s when you get closer to success. It’s the way you learn,” Wood said. “We had a few times where we had to do the trial-and-error thing before we could get to where it’s operating like a well-oiled machine.”


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