At the Union Square Greenmarket, a hot sauce star is born

By Faye Penn

Sufia Hossain would still be working in fashion merchandising if not for the Union Square Greenmarket pepper selection.

“I loved their colors, their shapes,” she says of the chili, cayenne, habanero and bell peppers that caught her eye. “I thought they were so cute! Some women buy shoes; I bought peppers.”

But there was a slight problem: what to do with them. 

Hossain looked online for recipes. Her first attempt, a barbeque sauce, was “awful.” But there was something “meditative” when she attempted her first batch of hot sauce. “I liked washing the peppers, removing their stems and cutting them, cooking them,” she says.

Today, Hossain is founder of Silly Chilly Hot Sauce. She’s also among a powerful force of women entrepreneurs in New York City whose more than 350,000 businesses pump $50 billion a year into the local economy while providing jobs for more than 190,000 people.

In fact, it was a New York City-backed loan of $7,000 and its program, WE Fund: Crowd, that enabled Hossain to grow her hot sauce startup into a robust company that currently sells to more than 120 stores—and counting.

Hemlines to hot sauce

Hossain is the first to admit that pivoting from fashion to food seems “so random.” Nonetheless, she says, “I gave up my social life, my happy hour life, to get peppers and make hot sauce. I’d buy peppers after work, on weekends. It was an obsession.”

WE Fund: Crowd creates such a strong sense of partnership because it allows anyone to get money to women who are trying to build businesses.

After seven months, Hossain finally made a hot sauce that was good enough to sell at farmers’ markets.

It was a naïve plan. “I no clients, no social media presence, nothing! They didn’t want me,” she admits. “Eventually, I met a guy running a weekend tag sale from his garage who let me sell.

And . . . people loved Silly Chilly. In 2017, she took the leap, quitting her job to run Silly Chilly Hot Sauce full-time.

But in order to expand her startup, Hossain needed money.

The hunt for funding

Women entrepreneurs don’t seek financing as much as men (25% vs. 34%, one SCORE report found). What’s more, while women-owned businesses account for 30% of businesses, they receive just 4.4% of the total dollars loaned to small-business—about $1 out of every $23. The result: many women entrepreneurs rely on personal credit cards, some with hefty interest rates, to cover costs.

But Hossain got lucky when a friend told her about New York City’s women-focused crowdfunding program, WE Fund: Crowd. It would let her borrow up to $10,000 with no interest, no fees and no minimum credit score.  What’s more, the City would act as her first lender, putting up 10% of her loan, up to $1,000. Under the program, anyone else could help, too, lending as little as $25 though the WE Fund: Crowd portal run by program partner

“Since launch, WE Fund: Crowd has mobilized over $1 million in loans so women in New York City can start and grow great companies,” said Executive Director Faye Penn. “That moves the needle in ways that impact everyone. When entrepreneurs like Sufia Hossain are successful, they provide jobs in New York and help grow its economy.”

WE Fund: Crowd lets women entrepreneurs in NYC apply for loans up to $10,000 with no interest, no fees and no minimum credit score.

The $7,000 loan Hossain obtained enabled her to hire seasonal employees and scale up production enough to get her sauce into more than 120 stores across New York and New Jersey, including the business-to-business vendor W.B. Mason.

“It can be really tough, the bootstrapping and worrying about cash flow and getting into stores, so WE Fund: Crowd’s zero-percent rate really interested me,” says Hossain. “When I went for the [WE Fund: Crowd] loan, I was in a few stores. Now we’re selling all over, and I was just in California because we’re about to expand to Los Angeles.”

What’s more: Silly Chilly Hot Sauce buys chemical-free organic ingredients directly from farmers, not brokers whose fees eat into growers’ revenue.  “We’re empowering growers,” Hossain says. “We’re a business with a purpose.”