American Essence featured Zolli Candy CEO Alina Morse on the cover of the November 2022 issue.
Photo by Adhiraj Chakrabarti for American Essence
17-Year-Old Entrepreneur Turns Mission of Improving Children’s Oral Health into Reality with Million-Dollar Sugar-Free Candy Company
BY KRISTA THOMAS
It has been said that the world always looks brighter from behind a smile.
And that adage has been shaping Alina Morse’s thriving business decisions since she invented Zolli Candy at the age of 9 years old. Now, at 17, Morse not only creates new products for her extensive line of alternative candies, available through various retailers throughout the country, but gives back through the Million Smiles Initiative, the nonprofit arm of Morse’s candy empire.
“From the start, it was important to find a cause,” said Morse. “In running a business, there are rough days, so finding that aspect that drives you and makes you feel good about why you put in all the hours for the business is important.”
Tooth decay is the biggest epidemic facing kids in America, according to the United States Surgeon General. This gave Morse a shock. “It is a preventable disease. … Why wouldn’t there be other initiatives to combat this problem?” she said. “This fact drove me to create not only a delicious healthy candy alternative, but to find a way to give back and educate people.” What makes Zolli Candy a healthy alternative? According to the company website, a proprietary blend of naturally-sourced sugar replacements—such as isomalt, which is derived from sugar beets—makes it 100 percent sugar-free. The company’s non-GMO blend is not only tooth-friendly but also food-allergy-friendly and vegan.
Morse spent hours upon hours working through sugar-free recipes to come up with just the right concoction. Although a messy process, Morse eventually worked out the recipe that millions have since been introduced to through the Million Smiles Initiative. By giving away free candy all across America, it was an opportunity to talk about the root problems of oral hygiene. Over 250,000 lollipops have been donated since the company’s inception.
Zolli Candy’s retail sales in 2021 totaled over $10 million. (Adhiraj Chakrabarti for American Essence)
She believes that while her products are great, an education can fuel generations of change. A determined Morse now translates this passion and leads others her age—in schools—to rally around the importance of oral health care. Her business has led to important discussions on the topic, garnering extensive speaking engagements including a TED Talk, “Why I Eat Candy To Avoid Cavities”; appearing on various shows and venues like South by Southwest; and making the cover of Entrepreneur magazine.
“I do virtual public speaking with organizations to inspire kids and give them resources to start their own company. I’m a huge advocate for kids but specifically young girls and women. So few women are in the candy business. It’s been tough to pave that road and find the mentors so I try to act as an advocate,” she said. She has shared sage advice with experienced entrepreneurs and those new to their craft. Seasoned entrepreneurs who have been around the block should take the time to listen to those with more youthful perspectives. “The thing that makes young entrepreneurs a commodity is that they are curious and tenacious. Find opportunities to connect so as to never lose that childlike curiosity.”
A Young CEO
Young inventors, Morse claims, will experience success if the company is built on the merits of a fantastic team.
“The CEO title does not mean you can do every job. And you’re never going to grow and reach success unless you find people to delegate to—people you can trust. Always look for people who you can learn from, trust, delegate—and, in turn, you can form a great team of people with a mutual understanding of goals.”
As Morse understands from her own million-dollar venture, start-up businesses require considerable work and time. However, finding dedicated people who believe in the company’s mission is the first key ingredient to success. As she reiterates, “Business is a team sport!”
Today, ZolliCandy encompasses many trademarked candies including Zollipops®, Zolli® Drops, and Zaffi® Taffy. But what started it all was a delicious formula—a vegan, all-natural, sugar-free lollipop. She learned important lessons by purchasing ingredients, melting and cooling the non-sugary confection, and making a huge mess.
Alina Morse wanted to create sugar-free candy that children could eat without worrying about cavities. (Adhiraj Chakrabarti for American Essence)