In many ways, Alina Morse is your typical 14-year-old. A high school freshman, she loves cheerleading and hanging out with her friends, and is always on her phone.
But she has a good reason for all that phone time. Unlike a typical 14-year-old, Alina is also running her own sweets empire, Zolli Candy, which makes treats that are actually good for your teeth.
Zolli Candy is sold in about 25,000 major retailers across the country, including Walmart and Walgreens, and the company's first product, the Zollipop, is the No. 3 best-selling lollipop on Amazon. They taste like normal sweets but are sugar-free since they’re made with low-calorie substitutes like xylitol and erythritol.
And business is booming. Inc. ranked Alina’s business, of which she is CEO, as one of 2019’s fastest-growing private companies, earning an estimated $2.2 million in profits last year.
Still, Alina insists she’s not all that different from your average teen.
“I am just a tenacious person that loved candy,” she told InsideEdition.com.
Queen of Candy
Alina came up with the idea for healthy candy when she was just 7 years old. She had accompanied her dad, Tom Morse, on a trip to the bank. A teller offered Alina a lollipop and her dad said no, warning of the perils of sugar.
“Why can’t we make a lollipop that’s good for you?” Alina asked her dad.
He didn’t have an answer.
So when she got back to the family home in Wolverine Lake, Michigan, Alina turned to YouTube to learn how to make candy. She went to work at her family’s kitchen table, replacing the unhealthy ingredients with good ones.
Alina also found an ally in various local dentists and hygienists, who she said were “crucial” to Zolli Candy’s success.
“They suggested erythritol and xylitol [instead of sugar],” Alina said. “After researching them, I included those ingredients in the Zolli formula.”
After two years of testing, Alina used $3,750 of her savings (plus a match from her family) to have Zolli Candy’s first product, the Zollipop, manufactured professionally. Aged just 9, Alina pitched it to a regional Whole Foods, which agreed to sell it.
The rest is history.
“We just didn't think it was going to be this big,” Alina’s mom, Sue Morse, told InsideEdition.com of Zolli Candy’s success. “We just thought,’OK, sure, we'll support it.’”
Now, there are 10 people on staff at Zolli Candy’s headquarters in Commerce Township, Michigan, plus dozens of others around the country who assist in the company’s day-to-day operations. Alina even has her own publicist, Klint Briney of BRANDed Management, who began working with her when she was 9.
“I was certainly surprised when her dad called and said he had this candy company that this 9-year-old was running,” Briney told InsideEdition.com.
Balancing Business and Homework
Despite running her own business and doing all that involves — attending sales meetings and trade shows, and even giving a TEDx Talk — Alina goes to school full time.
“It's unique that she still goes to school, but she's a CEO of the company,” Zolli Candy operations manager Larry Haybarth, who has been with the company for two years, told InsideEdition.com.
“She is much better at time management than I would ever be at that age,” he added.
This fall brings new challenges as Alina heads to high school. She will be taking mostly standard ninth-grade classes, save for marketing, where she’s been bumped up a year because of her real-world experience.
She does her homework wherever she can, whether it’s at home, on her fluffy chair in her Zolli Candy office or at the airport when she’s traveling for work. Balancing school and Zolli Candy can be tough, but Alina says she is supported by her staff as well as her family.
“Her day is like every kid in America: She gets up, she goes to school, she works hard in her classes,” said Tom.
“It's sometimes hard because she doesn't have time to play with me,” chimed in Alina’s sister, Lola Morse, 9. “Then other times it's cool because you get to see your sister in the newspaper or in a magazine.”
One of the biggest obstacles Alina faces? Proving to other business professionals that she’s serious.
“It's difficult occasionally when I walk into a meeting and people kind of give you the ‘who's she?’ kind of look, because I'm a kid running a company and people tend to be pretty skeptical about that,” Alina said. “It does kind of shock some people.”
But they soon realize their doubts are unfounded.
“I’m like, ‘Give me 10 minutes.’ I'll talk and [they’ll] realize I know my stuff.”
Making Kids Smile
When Alina created Zolli Candy, she did so with the intention of making a tasty treat that also helps kids improve their dental hygiene.
“I just kind of liked the idea of selling something to help people,” Alina said.
Because of that, 10% of Zolli Candy’s profits go to supporting oral health education in schools. Alina also organized the Million Smiles Initiative, in which free Zollipops are given out in schools to teach kids about the importance of caring for your teeth.
Alina’s ultimate goal? To see Zolli Candy become the No. 1 best-selling treat in the U.S.
“Alina empowers and inspires a lot of people,” her proud dad said. “She really teaches that kids can do anything and she's living proof.”
Added Sue, “Alina always recites Tom’s advice to her: Work hard, try, believe and never give up.”
For now, all that’s holding Alina back is a lack of driver’s license.
“Sometimes I feel like a soccer dad driving her to things since she obviously can’t drive yet,” her publicist, Briney, joked.