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How a 13-year-old CEO turned her dream into a sweet $6 million candy empire

She currently employs seven people.
/ Source: TODAY

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When she was only 7 years old, Alina Morse was incredibly ambitious — but she had one major problem.

“I was tired of my parents saying ‘no,’” Morse told TODAY Food. “I thought, ‘Why can’t I make a healthy candy that’s good for my teeth so that my parents can’t say no to it?’”

When she turned 9, Morse began “plant testing, research and more plant testing” to turn her sweet dream into a reality. She spent many months experimenting in her kitchen and also watched different candy-making videos on YouTube. Now, at 13, she’s the CEO of a $6 million candy company that she cleverly named Zollipops. The “z” comes from the calorie-free sugar substitute, xylitol (pronounced zy-li-tol), which is used in the lollipop base.

The company, rooted in Morse’s hometown of Wolverine Lake, Michigan, produces the second best-selling lollipop on Amazon. The sugar-free, gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan and non-GMO candy beats out classics like Tootsie Pops, Dum Dums and Charms Blow Pops. Morse also makes “Zolli Drops” and “Zaffi Taffy” in seven flavors, including peppermint and pineapple.

Zollipops: the Clean Teeth Pop, $6, Amazon

Zaffi Taffy: the Clean Teeth Taffy, $5, Amazon

According to its young founder, Zollipops is more than just a candy company.

“We’re a specialty, functional candy. We’re not comparable to Dum Dums. Sure, we’re a candy, but we’re not Dum Dums!” Morse told TODAY, before joking, “Don’t be a dumdum, have a Zollipop!”

While overseeing her company and manufacturing what she's dubbed the world's first “healthy, sugar-free and functional candy” for big retailers like Whole Foods and Kroger, Morse still goes to middle school, dances and tries to enjoy a full night's sleep.

“Dance is one of my many passions but I’d much rather do business," the 8th grader told TODAY.

“It’s definitely a balancing act,” the entrepreneur told TODAY. “I’ve learned to stick to a schedule ... or a rough outline of a schedule.”

In the morning, Morse's dad, Tom Morse, once a consultant at Deloitte and now his daughter's manager, drives her to school. On the way, the duo talk about the business — like upcoming trade shows, a pending deal with ShopRite stores and new offerings like “Zolligrams,” a Valentine’s Day card made to hold Zollipops. She then goes to her classes, where most teachers reportedly embrace her moonlighting gig as a “great learning experience.”

After school, she heads to dance practice, does homework and then meets with her seven employees —including her mom and designated “stylist and schedule organizer.”

“And then I get up and do it all over again!” the teenager said. “It’s just the way I’m wired.”

Besides running a multimillion dollar business, Morse says that she’s just like anyone else her age. She just happened to find her passion for dental health, candy and entrepreneurship early in life, and was fortunate enough to have resources that enabled her to succeed with the help of her dental hygienist.

Compared to adults in the business world, Alina says she asks more questions. “I’m more tenacious, I’m a little less careful. I kind of just go all in because I don’t have the so called ‘baggage’ that adults have in the business world. I don’t have doubt," the CEO told TODAY.

Morse developed the Zollipop ingredient list through a collaboration with a food scientist and her own dentist — so who says every trip to the dentist has to be scary? She personally taste-tested each iteration of the recipe before settling on a unique combination of erythritol, xylitol, citric acid, stevia and beetroot juice, and turmeric for color. Many studies, including a few found in the International Journal of Dentistry, credit these sugar-free confections with a reduction in plaque and oral bacteria among kids.

Once she had the winning formula, Morse used $3,750 (saved from birthday and holiday presents over the years) to start her company — with a matching investment from her dad. Together, the duo traveled to different manufacturing plants throughout Michigan to get the candy made and packaged. In her first year of business, she sold 70,000 Zollipops. The first major retailer to stock the candy was Whole Foods, and ever since, Zollipops' sales have doubled each year for four years.

The eighth grader also realizes her potential to make a change in the business world, and not just the candy world. Zollipops donates 10 percent of its profits to One Million Smiles, an oral health education program focused on fighting the tooth decay epidemic. Morse also calls herself “an advocate for young women in business" and became the youngest person ever to appear on the cover of Entrepreneur magazine in 2018. She even met with former first lady Michelle Obama.

Morse is also pretty excited about starting high school soon, but she has her sights set on making Zollipops a household name.

“I feel like I was born to do this. I just feel right at home,” she said. “I’m really, really blessed. It was originally just an idea that I didn’t think could happen.”

Today, Zollipops line store shelves at Whole Foods, Walmart, Kroger, Target and more. And if you don’t see them in the candy aisle, they might be sitting next to the toothpaste and floss.