When Kavita Shukla was 8, she designed a cage cleaner for her pet rabbit, Monet. Removing the cage's tray to empty bunny pellets and food scraps was difficult and messy, and the third-grader was determined to improve on its design.
"I came up with this accordion-like device with a shovel and pipe cleaners," she says, laughing at the memory.
"It's so funny to think of that now," reflects Shukla, who is now 29 and the creative mind behind FreshPaper. Hailed worldwide as a revolutionary product that slows spoilage of fresh fruits and vegetables, her invention is being promoted as having the potential to impact global food waste.
Beginning with a science fair project at Burleigh Manor Middle School, Shukla spent years researching and developing what many describe as "a dryer sheet for produce." She was awarded a patent for FreshPaper in 2002 while a 17-year-old senior at Centennial High School, and that's when "things really started taking off," she says.
Shukla co-founded Fenugreen with Swaroop Samant in Massachusetts in 2010 in order to market FreshPaper, a spice-infused sheet that extends the shelf life of produce by two to four times. The product, which is recyclable and compostable, was met with critical acclaim in 2012.
Glowing reviews appeared in The Washington Post, The New York Times, Newsweek, and Forbes magazine, among other publications. Television appearances followed on "The Today Show" and "Dr. Oz."
Fenugreen's website lists 22 awards and honors that have been bestowed on Shukla and what she terms her simple-yet-powerful invention. She has received awards on behalf of Fenugreen that were previously given to such powerhouse companies as Apple and Tesla, and has shared the stage with such notables as Hillary Clinton and Oprah Winfrey.
For Fenugreen, riding a tidal wave of success means "all of our goals can be that much more audacious," Shukla says.
With that in mind, she hopes this year to maximize FreshPaper's impact on India, Africa and other nations. Her company also is working to create different versions of FreshPaper, including one for other perishables such as meats, seafood and cheese.
"Who would've thought when I was growing up in Ellicott City that all this would be happening," says the 2006 Harvard University graduate in economics, whose product is now sold to retailers, consumers and farmers in 35 countries. "But that's how life is."
The roots of Shukla's success can be traced to a close call she experienced more than 15 years ago.
As a middle school student visiting her grandmother in Bhopal, India, she accidentally swallowed contaminated tap water while brushing her teeth. Her grandmother concocted a generations-old home remedy for her to drink that contained maple-scented fenugreek seeds and other spices. Shukla didn't get sick.
She couldn't help but wonder how the mixture's ingredients worked to prevent bacterial and fungal growth, and whether the science behind it might have far-reaching implications.
Back at home, she got a preliminary answer to that question by dipping strawberries into her grandmother's remedy and finding the quick-to-spoil fruit stayed fresh longer than without the spice bath.
"My parents taught my older sister and me to be open-minded and curious," Shukla says of their upbringing by a mother who's a chemist and father who is a biochemist, both of whom were born in India.
"From a very young age I was tinkering and inventing crazy things, and they were not only tolerant, they encouraged me," she says.
After hitting upon FreshPaper's formula, Shukla channeled all her energy to bringing her low-tech, sustainable and accessible product to market with the ultimate aim of "getting it to the people who need it the most."
According to statistics she researched from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, 1.6 billion people have no access to refrigeration and 25 percent of the world's food supply is lost to spoilage.
"There were many days when I felt I was facing insurmountable obstacles," she says. "There was a difficult phase when I was trying to establish a career as an entrepreneur and working to stay sane while doing it."
Fortune smiled again on Shukla in 2012 when she contacted organizers of TEDx Manhattan, an annual Technology, Education, Design event in New York with a theme of "Changing the Way We Eat." She wanted only to attend; they invited her to give a talk.
"I never expected to be asked to speak onstage, and I was actually pretty scared," she says. "But those were the four minutes that changed everything."
While hundreds of people listened from the audience, thousands more were streaming the event online. When she stepped backstage afterward, her smartphone was clogged with messages, she recalls.
"Every day I wake up and can't believe this is really happening," Shukla says. "It's overwhelming, but remarkably exciting. But I do take the responsibility [to help with global food waste] very seriously."
To that end, Fenugreen, whose motto is "Fresh for All," offers a "Buy a Pack, Give a Pack" program and is establishing initiatives to benefit American food banks and aid small-scale farmers in the developing world, she says.
Jo Natale, director of media relations for Wegmans Food Markets, says the Rochester, N.Y.-based grocer supports products that reduce food waste and those that promote consumption of fresh produce, and FreshPaper achieves both of those goals.
"We thought it was the perfect fit for us because it's the type of thing our customers look for," she says. "Customers do the testing; if they like it, they'll buy it again."
Currently it is sold at the Columbia Wegmans and another dozen of the chain's 83 stores. "We plan to distribute it to more stores in June" when seasonal produce becomes more readily available, Natale says.
Fenugreen recently opened a Mid-Atlantic distribution warehouse in Columbia, though details of the operation are confidential, Shukla says. Eight-sheet packs of FreshPaper currently sell at select Wegmans stores for $5.99, and at all Whole Foods Market locations and Breezy Willow Farm in West Friendship for $4.99.
"Some people think we were an overnight success," Shukla says. "We started really small and really simple. You never know where that might take you."
Off the Clock with Kavita Shukla
In her spare time: "I go outside, take a walk in the park, or spend time with friends and family."
Inspiration: Her teachers, especially Ed Rohde, a retired Centennial High School science teacher, whom she describes as being "like a member of the family." "They all encouraged me at a young age and made a difference in my life."
Little-known fact: She was born in Kiel, Germany, which is a small town on the Baltic Sea.