Female Founder Series Featuring Skyler Mapes, Co-Founder of EXAU

by Coral Chung / Dec 01, 2020

About Skyler, Co-Founder of EXAU Olive Oil

Before getting into the olive oil industry, Skyler was working in architecture and high-end design. In 2014, she met Giuseppe while doing a summer architecture internship in Rome. Giuseppe is a nutritionist and 3rd generation olive oil producer from Calabria, Italy. Skyler is a 3rd generation Californian with a passion for design and winemaking. EXAU was the perfect opportunity to bring both worlds together. 

The result is a globally-recognized brand awarded for producing 'One of the World's Best Olive Oils'. Over the past 1.5 years EXAU has tripled online sales, launched an online membership program that sold out twice, and their products have been picked up by more than 6 grocery stores. Their elevating olive oils can be found in the kitchens of some of the world's best restaurants.

Coral Chung, SENREVE CEO and Co-Founder, recently had the chance to speak with Skyler to learn more about her founder journey and her experiences being Black female entrepreneur in a primarily male-dominated industry.

How did you get into olive oil, and what inspired you to start EXAU with your husband?

Firstly, EXAU was 100% not my idea. It was my Giuseppe's idea since his family has been producing olive oil in Calabria for almost 100 years. Calabria is basically the entire ball of the toe of Italy with endless coastlines and rolling hills. The mountains are beautiful, the coastlines are stunning with crystal clear waters, and there are a lot of olive trees and vineyards. 

Skyler and Giuseppe posing in front of olive treesSkyler and Giuseppe met in 2014 while Skyler was interning in Rome

As far as starting the company, I did not think that I would ever end up in the agriculture industry. I always thought that my career was going to be in architecture — designing multi-million dollar homes and restaurants — and that my world was going to be high-end design. But that’s just not how things worked out. Falling into the olive oil industry was by accident.

It was partly because I grew up hanging out at wineries. My parents had so many wine memberships and because I’m from Oakland, California, we spent lots of time in Sonoma and Napa. We would drive past the vineyards and learn how they made wine, which I thought was a really cool and beautiful process. If I was ever going to be in the agriculture world, I thought it would be with wine. I never thought it would ever be with olive oil because it was such a foreign thing to me. I didn’t have any interest in it and I didn’t know how it was made. But then I met my husband Giuseppe in 2014 through a summer architecture internship in Rome.

Who are some people in your life that you felt like were mentors that you really valued? How have those powerful mentor relationships helped you in breaking the norm?

I was very fortunate, and still am, to have a strong network of women, but I had to search for them really hard. Professionally within the design space, I had a boss who was my mentor. She was really supportive and I could be honest and transparent with her about the things I wanted for my career.

Before getting into the olive oil industry and while I was still doing architecture work, I was also working at a winery in Alameda called Rock Wall. Between 2015 - 2017, when we were still doing a lot of research for EXAU, my friend Shauna invited me to work in the cellar of the winery with her. Working under her was amazing and Shauna was always really supportive. She was the one who told me to go for it with EXAU, and helped build my confidence.

One of the things that is difficult about starting a company is the confidence. With EXAU, we knew we had something that was really good, but it was really hard to be confident that someone would buy it because we'd just never done it before. Shauna was someone who really helped me figure that out because the scale of her business was so much bigger than ours.

Skyler in a vendor standTaking the first step with a new business requires a great deal of confidence 

I also have a close friend who is a mentor to me and has worked with larger companies in more corporate settings. She helps and guides me with business and design decisions. I can always run ideas past her and she has so much perspective. She has much more experience than I do, so she can see the growth and the opportunities to scale. For me, I’m trying to just put one foot in front of the other, but she can see so far ahead.

What is it like to be the only Black woman, who is American, and doing all these things in an industry that’s really traditional?

In Italy, as well as globally, the olive oil making industry is dominated by men. There are a handful of female olive oil producers in Italy and I don’t know of any that are Black or of color. 

During the harvesting process every Fall, I go to the press and there’s always a group of older Italian gentlemen who stare at me. Even though they’ve seen me before and know who I am, they simply cannot put two and two together. They would see me with Giuseppe who they know is Italian, but not understand what I was doing there. They start talking to him, trying to figure me out. It's never in a rude way, they’re just confused. When they find out I’m American, they wonder what an American is doing there, since they believe that Americans don’t know anything about Calabria. Eventually, they learn that I’m also an olive oil producer, I’m an American, and I’m in Calabria to harvest. It's turned into this story that we have to tell at the beginning of every single harvest regarding why we’re there.

After a few times of seeing me, they now characterize me as the “woman olive oil producer”. I’m wearing my dirty work clothes and I spend just as much time, if not more, than they are at the press. I also know the people that work there, which confuses them on how I know all these workers. It’s as if I need to prove to them that I’m serious and hardworking, and until then, they’ll be skeptical of me.

Skyler on top of a truck full of olivesSkyler taking a break during Fall in Calabria to pose with the freshly harvested olives

The interesting thing is, back in the day, when the men were away fighting in the wars, the women were the ones who had to make the food and get all of this done. The gentlemen even have this documented in black and white pictures that I’ve seen. So, nowadays when the men see me at the press, they call me an “old-fashioned woman”. They say I’m an “old-style woman”, and that they don’t see women like me anymore.

What have your challenges been and how have you been able to overcome them, being that one Black female in the room?

I don’t know what “no” means in business. If I call a grocery store right now and I’m not able to get the buyer on the phone, I will get Giuseppe on the phone to ask for the buyer. The reality is that they will take his call because it’s an Italian olive oil company and he has an Italian accent. If they don’t want to respond to my email, I’ll just use my husband’s email. They can say “no” to me as many times as they want, but I will get in the room somehow.

I had to get used to not caring about hearing,“no”. When someone tells me, "no”, I don’t care because I’m going to find a way to do whatever it is by working with my contacts and other companies in my network. Even if the buyers won’t take my calls, I know more about olive oil and the products on their shelves than they do. I can’t figure out why this happens, but it might just be because they don’t like that someone else knows more about their products than they do.

The food industry is very old-school. They don’t change very often because people are always going to have to buy food, therefore, they feel no need to update their existing ways. I respect traditions and believe that there are certain things that should be kept traditional, but it shouldn’t be in a business plan.

What are some of the thoughts you’ve had and what would you encourage others to think about in continuing to support the dialogue around racism in America and the Black Lives Matter movement?

I was watching a Sophia Roe’s IGTV, and she talked about how we can paint BLM on sidewalks, rename streets, replace signs, and every police officer can wear a BLM shirt. But all of that is not going to create the deep rooted change that we need. Those are all things that live on the surface and we need things that are going to have real change that affect people and our culture, not just something that looks like we’re supportive.

That also applies to us at EXAU and applies to education within the olive oil industry. We need to make sure that people who come from less privileged backgrounds, especially BIPOC and a girl like myself, are able to learn about olive oil or wine. We need to equip them with the tools needed to enter the industry, whether that’s through an apprenticeship program where someone comes and works with us during Fall harvest, or a scholarship fund to expose them to the industry.

Skyler walking through olive treesFor EXAU, education means providing tools and opportunities to those who come from less privileged backgrounds

Olive oil and wine are premium food products that people with lower incomes don’t have access to. If they don’t have access to those certain types of food, there’s no way for them to get educated about those foods. We have to get to the root of the problem, which is getting these food products to the people, especially those who are BIPOC. Then from there, we must educate further. For example, by teaching a young Black girl through an apprenticeship program. This readies her to go out and help educate others, as she shares the knowledge with her community.

Shifting gears a bit to learn more about olive oil, how can you tell that it’s an amazing, high quality olive oil product?

There’s over 650 varietals of olives globally, and at least 400 grow in Italy. EXAU has about 5 different varietals that we grow, and they’re mostly Southern Italian varietals. If you’re picking up a bottle of olive oil at the grocery store, the first thing to make sure is that it’s in a dark bottle or a stainless steel container, so that the oil is preserved. On the back of the bottle, look for a harvest date and a bottled date. A harvest date is essential because it shows when the olive oil was produced, and the bottled date is an extra sign of quality.

When actually tasting the olive oil, get a little cup (like a shot glass), pour a tiny bit, cover it with your hand, and heat the oil by turning it around in your hand. Then, cup your hand to your mouth and smell it. It depends on the varietal, but oftentimes it’ll smell like fresh grassy or floral notes. Different varietals will have different tasting notes, so just see what notes you pick up.

Olive oil being poured into a cupPour olive oil out into a cup, warm it in your hand, and then smell the fresh grassy and floral notes

Olive oil tasting is very similar to wine tasting. As you take a sip, suck through your teeth so it sprays onto the back of your throat. This tests how dry it makes your mouth, and if you get that "pepperiness" on the back of your throat, those are the polyphenols which are the antioxidants that you want. It’s one of the reasons why olive oil is such a healthy, antioxidant-high food and helps keep you young.

Is there some kind of grading for olive oil that determines if it’s a really high caliber olive oil product?

Olive oil has different levels. Starting from the bottom, we have lampante oil which is made of olives that are taken straight after falling off the tree. These olives are more brown because they’re super ripe. By the time it is taken to the press, a long amount of time has passed since it has fallen from the tree, so the acidity level is going to be very high. That’s not even considered virgin olive oil, it’s just regular olive oil.

The next step up from that is virgin oil, which has an acidity level higher than 0.8%. Highest up is extra virgin olive oil (EVOO). According to International Olive Council regulations, the acidity level for EVOO is below 0.8% and it has a peroxide value of below 20, which is measured by taking it to a chemist. The olives must be picked from the tree, gathered into the net, and then pressed immediately.

At EXAU, we make extra virgin olive oil. We press within 6 hours and harvest early. Our name, EXAU comes from Ex Albis Ulivis which is Latin for “white olive”, meaning the olive is still green when picked. It’s still young, so you get a lower percent of oil from the green olive than if it were purple, but it is higher quality. None of these oils are better than the other. I truly believe that everyone has their own type of oil that they love. We love extra virgin olive oil, and that’s what we’re good at making.

Green olives next to purple olivesSide-by-side comparison of green olives that are used in extra virgin olive oil and purple olives that are used in lampante oil

Is there something distinctive about the EXAU palette that is different from the olive oil most Americans are used to?

Yes, in the U.S. we’re getting a lot of low quality oil. For mass consumption, the olive oils here fall flat. They don’t have these complexities that you find in other olive oils, such as the fruit and floral notes that I mentioned earlier. It also comes down to how people view the product. In Italy, they view olive oil as the base for most of their foods so if your olive oil isn’t good, then the food you’re making is not going to be good.

What are some of your favorite olive oil recipes?

We consume it with absolutely everything. I love our Turi with Pasta Aglio e Olio (pasta with garlic and olive oil) because it’s just so simple that you can taste the oil. Oftentimes people will say that since you’re cooking with olive oil, the flavors will go away. That is absolutely false information. The flavors stay there and come through if you use a high quality olive oil.

EXAU Turi Olive OilEXAU's Turi Extra Virgin Olive Oil goes great on Pasta Aglio e Olio and Pasta Pomodoro

I also love using our olive oil as a finishing oil for Pasta Pomodoro. For this, the Turi’s really good, and so is the Lina because it has those nodes of tomato leaf. It rounds things out, finishing the dish, which is what a high quality olive oil should do. For Tagliatelle Alla Bolognese, I like finishing it with the Avus  it’s perfect.

If you’re using it for baking, I’d use the Lina. I make olive oil brownies, and after they come out of the oven, I sprinkle with sea salt. Lina’s my go-to baking oil.

Hungry for more information or your own bottle of olive oil? We are so excited to be featuring EXAU through Selected by SENREVE. What are your favorite olive oil recipes? Do you have any other questions for Skyler? We'd love to hear from you in our comment section below.