Monica Lee is always looking for the next opportunity.
As general manager of Route 66 International Inc., a Hackensack-based seaweed company, Lee has helped guide the company as it worked to expand its customer base, its production capacity and its global reach.
The firm, founded in 2016, started with what sounded like an overwhelming task - taking on the Chinese seaweed market. Korean seaweed, Lee said, is known for its good taste, but it wasn’t as well known around the globe.
So, Route 66 started to import Korean seaweed for sale to American restaurants. It was a good start, but Lee soon recognized there was another opportunity here. She wasn’t aware of any seaweed factories operating in the U.S., so Route 66 decided that was the next step.
In 2019, the firm purchased a building. Following extensive renovations and equipment purchase, the factory was ready to open its doors in January 2020. The facility imports A-grade Korean seaweed, which is then roasted and packaged here in New Jersey.
Starting operations the year a global pandemic hit certainly wasn’t ideal, but despite that added challenge sales have been strong and today the company, which has 11 full-time employees, sells its packaged seaweed to more than 800 restaurants in 40 states.
While Lee started her career as a kindergarten teacher in South Korea, her focus today is on business.
“Being a woman, to me, I look at it as an advantage, not a disadvantage,” Lee said as the country celebrates Women’s History Month this March.
“I focus on what I can do better as a woman and I’m not afraid to ask for help,” Lee said. “I don’t have any experience on the business side, so I looked for support and resources. I received help from the state (including the New Jersey Business Action Center’s Office of Export Promotion) and that gave me a lot of insight and strength.”
As she learned more, she pursued new opportunities including exporting. With the help of the NJBAC and the Small Business Administration, Lee has made connections with potential customers in places like Germany and is pursuing those leads.
She encourages women in business to take advantage of the many resources available as they pursue their goals.
“Try to get the support of the state and the advocates here to help. Getting the right advice and working with reliable sources is key,” she said.
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