Last Wednesday, Ajoa Mintah, UW chemical engineering alum, sat down with the Women in Engineering committee to discuss her journey as the founder of Four All Ice Cream. While she did not initially plan to start her own business after graduating, she wanted to try something different after years of working in various roles from automotive engineering to consulting. “I got promoted but only to a certain level; there was no room to grow [at those companies],” she said.
Mintah then decided to start Four All, a small ice cream business with hand-crafted, all-natural, and locally-sourced ingredients. From staples like Vanilla Bean to more niche options like Mom’s Banana Bread and Grapefruit Elderflower which get shuffled year-round, Four All carries four general flavour profiles: Childhood, Vegan, Foodie, and Classic. There is the Four All Scoop Shop location uptown, the Four All Factory in Kitchener, as well as select Four All ice cream options available for purchase at local KW bakeries, grocery stores, and theatres. “Ice cream was a solution that would let me continue to be an engineer because I was gonna design processes as a chemical engineer. So I was gonna build a factory that would make ice cream, the best ice cream I could possibly make.”
Mintah moved back to the Waterloo region from Toronto, feeling drawn to the tight-knit community and entrepreneurial culture. The choice was also a practical one: 10 minutes in any direction, there was a farm, and there was a strong agriculture program at the University of Guelph. Equipped with a specialization in food processing and a strong knowledge of chemistry and cookbooks, Mintah felt ready to get to work on making ice cream. However, she was quickly overcome with unexpected hurdles, especially in the early stages of becoming a small business owner. “I entered a realm I knew nothing about. I had the idea of [making] ice cream, and that was it.”
There were legal and licensing factors to consider. She listed off a few: in Canada, only licensed dairy plants can sell ice cream wholesale, and ice cream cannot legally contain less than 10 per cent milk fat or it’s no longer considered ice cream. Only a certain amount of solid is allowed. After reading about an ice cream business in Guelph that was forced to shut down due to improper licensing, she decided to really double down on what exactly her vision for Four All was. “I have to respect the science first, and it has to taste good.”
While Mintah initially thought it would take three months to create Four All’s ice cream recipes, perfecting her formula ended up taking a full year. She credits her chemistry background for making her ice cream work on a compositional level when it came to factors like freezing properly and having the right texture.
Students at the event felt inspired after hearing about Mintah’s path as a small business owner. Aknan Ali, a 3A chemical engineering student, highlighted the importance of seeing alumni who opted for less clear-cut career paths and still enjoyed success. “It’s really interesting to see where your degree can take you even if it’s not in the traditional sense of ‘I’m going to go into this industry because that’s what every other chemical engineer did before me.”
Throughout all this, Mintah emphasized the impact that her Waterloo education had in teaching her resilience and perseverance. “What helped me was breaking down a big problem into small problems, and solving small problems step-by-step to get to an end goal. I had this sense of ‘Of course I can do it, of course I can figure it out.’ I don’t know how to get to the end, but it’s solvable.”
Samantha Grieco, a 2B computer engineering student, also felt that Mintah’s story was an insightful one to learn from. “I’m not a really entrepreneurial person like I don’t see that for myself but it was still really interesting hearing about her journey and the different struggles she had trying to get to this point.”
Sarah Chun, another 2B computer engineering student, said that it was inspiring to see that Mintah was a Waterloo chem eng grad. “My friends and I love Four All, and it’s a local business that we’ve gone to since we first came to Waterloo, and it’s really exciting for the actual founder to come. I go there, like, two to three times a week.”
And as for Mintah herself, she’s still expanding her horizons. Between coaching other entrepreneurs on their business journeys and planning a new Four All location, she’s still learning something new everyday on the job. “I chose to be an entrepreneur, and my job is to get up everyday and figure it out.”