The kernel of success

24th July 2003, Comments 0 comments

Meet Paula Da Silva, a Portuguese expat entrepreneur who brought American movie popcorn to the Netherlands.

Hot American popcorn was unknown in the Netherlands until Paula Da Silva started Popcorn USA in 1989.

Now popcorn is almost as much a favourite here as it is in the United States. Not bad for a woman who had three obstacles in her way: being female, a foreigner and having no entrepreneurial experience, but Paula is nothing if not feisty.

"When I believe in something, I really go for it," Paula says. "I never take 'no' for an answer."

While studying in the US in 1976, Portuguese-born Paula Da Silva had her first taste of American popcorn. It was love at first bite, but she didn't suspect that her favourite snack food would lead to a future career in the Netherlands.

Now the head of Popcorn USA, her company is still growing. Paula's face breaks into a wide grin.

"We're bursting at the seams. Our present quarters are too small and we'll need to expand again," she gleefully announces.

It helps if you love your product

A petite, vibrant woman, Paula's laughter and energy are infectious. Popcorn USA has grown from humble beginnings in Utrecht to her current offices in Woerden where she oversees a staff of eight. The company supplies popcorn ingredients and machines to cinemas and other enterprises in return for a percentage of the takings.

Paula still loves her product. There's a popcorn machine in her office and one in her home.

"Not one day goes by without me eating popcorn - not even after 13 years," she says. Small and svelte, Paula adds, "I'm living proof that it's healthy."

Back during her US stay, Paula had the good fortune to live with a host family in which the father was the director of the World Trade Center in Chicago. He advised Paula years later when she established Popcorn USA, helping her to find the best sources for her supplies.

Paula moved to Holland in 1979 where she attained a master's degree in English. While teaching English and Portuguese at the Rijksuniversiteit in Utrecht, she maintained contact with her friends in Chicago. They encouraged her to introduce American popcorn in Europe.

It was a far cry from teaching, but Paula has always loved a challenge.

"All beginnings are tough," Paula says. "Looking back now, I think what were supposed to be obstacles worked to my advantage. I had a foreign accent and a weird concept - I was a little woman from Portugal with American popcorn - people paid more attention."

But will the Dutch eat 'chicken feed'?

No one in Holland was enthusiastic about popcorn. The Dutch sometimes ate it pre-packaged and sweetened, but most people dismissed it as 'chicken feed'. But Paula's big break came when she got an order from a cinema in Heerlen.

The nearby American army base enthusiastically welcomed the familiar treat. Eventually, other cinemas followed suit. Nowadays, Paula's company supplies 60 cinemas in the Netherlands and is expanding to include sports arenas, amusement parks and video stores. She exports to wholesalers in Belgium, Italy, France and Iceland. Her father and sister run the Portuguese business and Paula is a major shareholder.

The care of her son (now six) motivated her even more to succeed.

"The last few years have been very difficult in my life - being a single mom and learning a business of this calibre is not easy."

Paula's family lives in Portugal and she gets to visit them several times a year.

"I underestimated the value of family," she says, regretting that she has no traditional support network at hand. "We're on our own. - my kid and me - with just some help from a nanny."

Attending gala openings of films, travelling to glamorous venues like Las Vegas and mixing with celebrities is not as much fun as it sounds.

"Because I have to work so hard, I don't have a social life. Even when I go to the movies, I'm working. I take my mobile phone with me everywhere, even to the beach. I've always got to have access to a computer and fax."

Expansion was inevitable

This is a very important year for Popcorn USA. The business is moving into new markets. Paula is now supplying soft drink cups and nachos and a series of movie-related collectibles. "I have more new products to market and bigger adventures planned," she says.

In her red, white and blue office, the wall behind her desk displays her impressive sales excellence awards. That's what visitors see when facing her. The opposite wall sports original paintings of female torsos. While customers are confronted with her achievements, Paula has a constant image of strong female presences to inspire her.

When asked about future plans, she reveals an impish smile.

"My business goal this year is to have all the major gas stations in Holland selling my popcorn." Paula's smile broadens.

"But first, we'll supply orange popcorn throughout the Netherlands on Queen's Day."

March 2002

Subject: Expat profiles

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