Maria Williams’s intergenerational legacy to better the world one person at a time began in Colombia years ago. The Sweet Melao co-founder and CEO spent her childhood watching her grandparents manage their grocery store, a welcome community hub that nurtured beyond providing pantry staples and fresh food. “It is a very small community… they became a beacon, one of the centers for people to meet. I remember people always calling, ‘Let’s go to the hangout,’” said Maria with a smile. “My grandma was always so generous, always helping people, and giving back to the community. They became pillars of society.” The Navy veteran added that her grandfather was so compassionate that whenever he would see a funeral pass by, even if he didn’t know the family, he would stop his current task to join the procession. He wanted to ensure a peaceful putting to rest, and to be there for families during their hardest moments. He chose to do that because he knew what it meant to care for the community.
Maria was 10 when her grandfather passed away. During that time of grief, though, she was able to bear witness to his incredible impact. Mourners lined up through the streets for blocks to remember and honor a great man who cultivated a community by thinking of others first. “Up to this day, that memory is etched in my brain. It made me realize the importance of contributing to people,” she said solemnly. “It’s great when you contribute to the economy through your business, but it’s more important what you do for people. That’s definitely a value that I got from my grandparents — that entrepreneurial spirit, but with a purpose.”
Her entrepreneurial spirit began to show through when her young niece was born and struggling to eat. Remembering how she and her sister Angela grew up enjoying melao from sugar-cane stalks without any digestive issues due to it being so mild, they had the idea to give her the juice after boiling it down. The melao was so gentle that the sisters (along with Maria’s Army veteran husband) began to brainstorm turning a Colombian childhood snack into a common household product. Maria and Angela teamed up to launch Sweet Melao, which sells melao syrup, sweetened granola, jaleas (smooth jams), and more.
Though naturally sweet, Sweet Melao’s website touts that “in recent years, Melao sweetener has gained popularity as a natural alternative to refined sugar due to its lower glycemic index and higher nutrient content.” Currently sourcing from a town close to the north side of Colombia near Bogota, Sweet Melao partners with the women —especially single mothers— from the community.
Because of a great product and mission, Sweet Melao was recently chosen as a Semi-Finalist for the Second Service Foundation Military Entrepreneur Challenge pitch competition. As one of nine, Maria was selected as a Top Three Finalist to pitch immediately to a live audience. She took home a $1,000 grant, and the respect and admiration of an entire room.
“We are working with a community in Columbia —a very small community close to where we grew up— to prevent kids from joining gangs and all that,” Maria explained with pride and hope in her voice when asked how she would use the grant. “We are working on establishing a chicken farm there, so that’s one of the ideas to see how we can use some of that money to continue helping these initiatives.” Maria and Angela chose to give purpose to their entrepreneurial spirits to continue a legacy of caring for the community, just as their grandparents showed them.