How This American Designer Built a Million-Dollar Business Producing Premium Olive Oil From a Tiny Italian Village

If you ask Skyler Mapes what she thinks about most of the olive oils on supermarket shelves billed as “high quality,” she will laugh. “The olive oil industry is huge. It’s a universe.”

She’s an unlikely olive oil advocate, and she will be the first to tell you that. But love causes your career (Skyler is a trained designer who studied architecture) to take all sorts of pivots. Skyler and her partner, Giuseppe Morisani, are changing people’s perception of olive oil one bottle at a time. Their labor of love, EXAU Olive Oil, is a six-figure operation and growing by the day.

Skyler never thought that she would create and import high-quality Italian olive oil. Little Skyler had a very different version of her adult self. She says, “Hell no, I did not want to do that. I wanted to live in a New York City apartment and have a cactus. That’s it. That was my plan. Maybe a vine plant. And now I have hundreds of olive trees so I really went in the opposite direction.”

Skyler met her husband while visiting Rome for the weekend. At the time she was living in Barcelona interning at a well-known architecture firm, EMBT. She says, “I studied architecture. I have a degree in architecture. I was on the architecture path. I wanted to build skyscrapers. I wanted to work on multimillion-dollar homes and I was doing all of those things. I got to work on projects with insane tech companies.”

Skyler is an Oakland native so the Bay Area was home. She explains, “I had access to the architecture and the structural engineering firms that were working on enormous headquarters with billion-dollar budgets. I was living the dream, but I wasn’t really happy.”

Bureaucracy Over Creativity

Skyler thinks that the discontent stemmed from wading through so much bureaucracy. She says “You become part lawyer. It feels like 70 percent of your job is just contracts and permits and dealing with the city. Only a small percentage is solving design problems. And I did not want to become part lawyer. I respect the work that lawyers do and that’s why I let them do it.” Skyler was navigating through a huge disconnect and she was admittedly “frustrated and uptight.”

Skyler felt her creative energy simply not being met. She was stifled and uninspired. “Architecture is incredible and you can spend a lifetime creating beautiful structures.” But, most people do not get recognition (sans Gehry or Hadid), and they’ve all worked very hard and navigated an industry that’s “hella old, hella white, and you need a ton of money to get to the place that you want to go, or have the right connections, both help.”

Market Research and an Unexpected Career Shift

Giuseppe is from Calabria, Italy, and was visiting Skyler in the Bay Area when he walked into a gourmet market. He knows olive oil and walking through the store left him so confused. He couldn’t understand why all of the olive oil on shelves was from Tuscany and Sicily. There was nothing from Calabria and many other parts of Italy and it didn’t make sense. 

Skyler explains, “You have extra-virgin, virgin, regular olive oil, which are all different oils and have different parameters that differ based on whose association you’re following. And then in addition to that, you have different qualities of each of those types of oils within each type of oil. So you have the premium version of the specialty extra-virgin olive oils. And then you have bulk regular extra-virgin oil. There are a lot of layers to the industry overall.”

Giuseppe’s family has been producing high-end extra virgin olive oil for almost a hundred years. It was not a professional operation, and the oil was mostly shared amongst family and friends and gifted to others. Historically, olive oil was extremely important in Calabrian daily life. Calabria was one of the poorest regions in Italy and the oil would be used to preserve and cure foods. Long before refrigerators, villagers had to use the oil to preserve everything otherwise they would risk it spoiling. Skyler says “they needed oil to survive. Oil is life.”

Olive Oil tastes better on everything.

Crazy in Love or Just Plain Crazy

Giuseppe approached Skyler about figuring out a way to import Calabrian oil to America and Skyler’s first reaction was “hell no.” Skyler didn’t know the first thing about consumer packaged goods and harvesting olive oil was a completely foreign concept. But something piqued Skyler’s interest, or maybe it was just how people do crazy things for the ones they love. 

Skyler landed on an experiment. Her good friend owns a winery. When Skyler explained Giuseppe’s proposal, her friend said “you should do it.” Up until this point, Skyler had her life mapped out and spreadsheeted. But, her friend, the “free spirit,” came up with a proposition. “Come work with me. And if you hate this, you’ll probably hate making olive oil. But then at least you won’t have to go all the way to Italy to figure out you don’t like it. What do you have to lose?”

The next thing Skyler knew, she was knee-deep in a wine cellar with forklifts galore. Her friend was convincing and the experiment had commenced. Skyler’s parents thought that the career move was curious, but they were assured because the “free spirit” was someone they had known forever. Because their families were close friends, everyone was onboard. Skyler was thankful for this friendship. 

Skyler and Giuseppe toasting love and hard work

She says “I felt safe and I knew that if I needed help or direction, I could ask her and she would tell it to me straight. She wouldn’t BS me. She gave me a safe environment to experiment.” Skyler worked harvest 2016 and liked it. So, she decided to give harvest 2017 a try while freelancing to save money. In September 2017, both Skyler and Giuseppe moved to Calabria with $15,000 and a dream.

Even though Giuseppe had grown up around olive oil, this was a completely different scale. “When you’re harvesting for your family, you only need a couple of hundred liters, but if you’re harvesting commercially, you have to scale. This was a whole other bag of chips.” Skyler and Giuseppe figured out how to scale but did not have the money to pay a middleman to import the oil and bring it into the states.

Figuring Out Import and Export on the Fly

Ever the quick thinkers, Skyler and Giuseppe had just the solution. They imported the olive oil to themselves. Yes, that’s right. The couple would go to the mill and tell people what they were doing. The Italians would say, “I’m sorry, what are you doing? Who are you selling it to?” Giuseppe and Skyler would answer back, “We’re importing it to ourselves.” And the Italians would shake their heads and state the obvious, “But you’re here in Italy!” Giuseppe and Skyler would send the oil and then hop on a plane to be there to receive it. Seriously.

Skyler and Giuseppe not only cut out the distributor, but they also cut out the importer, the wholesaler, and the retailer. Skyler used her design skills to make the labels. She and Giuseppe were doing absolutely everything themselves to save money. The labels used to be printed and hand-cut by a very small local printer, and Skyler would be dismayed when the labels arrived crooked. She asked for reprints several times until they got it just right. Skyler still has nightmares about the crooked labels.

Once they received all of the bottles stateside, the duo had to figure out how to move the product. She says, “I’m not even kidding. We got to the US and booked our first event right away.” It wasn’t all luck, though. Skyler established connections with people in the gourmet food world and nurtured those relationships internationally. The first event was a food show in Oakland and it was three days long. They quickly parlayed that success into several other in-person pop-up events.

EXAU’s olive oils are the main attraction.

Skyler grew up going to lots of street fairs in Oakland. She has such a charismatic personality, it’s clear why people remember her and in turn, her product. She assured Giuseppe with a mixture of crazy confidence and a huge smile: “People will find out who we are. They will follow us on social media. We’ll start selling a little bit online, and it’s going to be fine. We’re going to start super small. We’ll have a launch party at my parents’ house. So that’s what we did. And then the people who couldn’t come to the house from my mom’s work were upset. My mom works at a hospital and they asked if I could come to the hospital.”

If this sounds like an elevated Girl Scouts situation, that’s because it was. Skyler went to her mom’s workplace and got busy setting up sample bottles in the ICU hospital break room. When the nurses couldn’t leave to put the bottles in their cars, they handed Skyler and Giuseppe car keys and cash. The partners ran around the hospital parking lot stocking cars with olive oil. 

Skyler estimates that they sold roughly $1,000 that day alone. Each bottle is $28 so this was no small feat. Skyler worked full-time for the first two years of the business, selling olive oil on the side, and she started getting into corporate gift sets. The corporate gifts were going to very high-net-worth individuals. This led to events at The Battery, an exclusive club in San Francisco. This is all the power of word-of-mouth connections sprinkled with old-fashioned hustle and a superior product.

A Subscription-Based Model

In December 2019, Skyler and Giuseppe launched the olive oil club. It’s a subscription-based olive oil club that sends different bottles based on new harvests. The couple couldn’t believe how many people signed up. They were working from a tiny email list, which at best was 1,000 people, and yet, 10 percent signed up. 

Skyler explains, “We wanted to scale it without compromising quality. It had to stay concentrated.” Skyler attributes their success to a combination of things: “I’m American. I’m a Black woman. People don’t see someone like me doing this in a luxury space like wine or olive oil. It’s very rare. But especially with the olive oil industry. There aren’t a lot of women producers in general, but especially women of color – that’s unheard of.”

The happy couple in their olive grove

Skyler and Giuseppe also credit the power of Calabria. She says, “A lot of Italian Americans had become almost ashamed of their Calabrian heritage because it was one of the poorest regions and had ties to many negative things in Italy. So people were kind of trying to stay quiet about their heritage, which is BS because the people are amazing and they have incredible products. And so it was that. It was educating people about what olive oil is and what it isn’t, and then sharing good food.” It all paid off in spades. 

Right before the pandemic hit, the couple was in Austin, Texas, waiting for their newest and largest shipment to date. They worked events and stayed in the United States through the Spring. Italy was hit hard, and family warned them to stay put. But they had just accepted an insane import of oil and then a lockdown was announced.

Pandemic Pivot

Skyler and Giuseppe looked at one another and wondered if they were doomed. But, that unease lasted five seconds: If people were stuck at home, they were cooking. So, EXAU started sharing recipes with their customers. When the Black Lives Matter movement started gaining traction online, Skyler and Giuseppe were extremely vocal. When people wanted to support black-owned businesses, Skyler began sharing her struggles within the industry and people responded fast. Sales skyrocketed and each purchase became a mini investment in EXAU, helping the brand to firmly root itself in the seat of Black excellency. 

Skyler says, “We created recipes and helped people figure out what to do inside their homes. We spoke at virtual events, we did Instagram lives, everything.”

It exploded after that. EXAU appeared in influencer newsletters, written up in gourmet food magazines, and highlighted all over the internet. EXAU may have under 10,000 followers on social media, but “they roll so deep.” Customers are like family. They send emails with recipes and wishes before the holidays. “People like to talk to us because we are real human beings behind a brand. We’re not robots.” There’s a real connection between the product and the makers.

The entire harvest is shown in pictures on the brand’s Instagram page. There is total transparency with pictures of the process from start to finish. People can see the trees, the olives going into the mills, everything. And that’s by design. There are no secrets. 

Harvesting in progress

Viva Italia

Skyler is getting used to the slower pace of life now that Calabria is home full-time. This Oakland girl is now living in a town of roughly 1,200 people, a town composed mostly of elderly Italians and vacationers with second homes. It’s packed in the summer months, but then September comes around and it’s quiet as can be, and Skyler and Giuseppe can get work done.

This feature needs to end with the most quintessentially Italian story ever. Skyler was dropping oil off at an elderly villager’s house. He invited her in and then proceeded to give her a thorough tour, including showing her pictures of family and telling her all about his children. One never visits home. Then he made Skyler a coffee and offered her gelato. They’re now friends. There are no strangers in Calabria.

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Andrew Gazdecki
Andrew Gazdecki
Andrew is an award-winning serial entrepreneur with three exits. He’s the founder and CEO of MicroAcquire, the world’s most founder-friendly startup marketplace, and its rebellious child, Bootstrappers, which gives voice to the entrepreneurial underdog. When not building businesses, he writes for Forbes, Entrepreneur, and now, Bootstrappers.

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