Tonya Papanikolov has always been fascinated by mushrooms. “Call me crazy, but during a sacred ceremony, I asked a mushroom spirit if I could commercialize the idea of sharing fungi with the world and if we could do it together,” she shared with me over Zoom. On our call, Papanikolov radiates calm energy, instantly making you feel like you’ve known her forever and speaking every sentence with intention.
Papanikolov’s first experience trying functional mushrooms started in 2011. While she was attending the Institute of Holistic Nutrition (after a coveted internship at high-end luxury Canadian retailer Holt Renfrew), she started taking therapeutic doses of Reishi with her practitioner. Her preliminary goals were to treat stress, post-birth control pill acne, digestive issues, and immune dysregulation. Feeling frequent anxiety and brain fog was common for Papanikolov until she shifted her focus from traditional Western medicine to holistic, mind-body practices and functional mushrooms. “My all-time favorite mushroom is Reishi—it’s the first functional mushroom I tried and is this beautiful zen mushroom referred to as the mushroom of immortality,” says Papankolov. “How I perceived stress started to change, and my peace and calm radically shifted. I had never felt this way before.”
Before Papanikolov knew it, she fell down the rabbit hole and absorbed any information she could on fungi and their uses and benefits to level up her wellness routine. While many might not know it, “mushrooms are a lifeform that we are very closely connected to and are a common ancestor of ours from millions of years ago.” What mushrooms do and how they exist in nature became a “beautiful mirror” for Papanikolov. “The evolution of mushrooms and their interconnectedness in our ecosystem was a wonderful metaphor for me to understand the oneness of this planet.” This is where the idea of Rainbo was born—we’ll all go back to fungi, as Papanikolov puts it.
Rainbo, a curated line of functional, fruiting-body mushroom tinctures, has stolen the hearts of wellness gurus and everyday consumers (like me) across North America. What is a “fruiting-body” mushroom you might ask? It is the stem and cap of a mushroom – think of the word toad-stool, or of the mushroom emoji! Fruiting-body mushroom supplements have immense health benefits, and Rainbo is one of the first of its kind that works as a daily multivitamin to support the mind and body. You can easily mix Rainbo into juice, coffee, tea, or water. Rainbo boasts a B-Corp Certification, and Climate-Neutral Certification; it’s carried in over 230 retailers worldwide, with hit ratings and a cult-like community following.
Rainbo’s product range is nothing short of comprehensive and includes her various best-selling mushroom tinctures (each one offers totally unique benefits), Forest Juice®, and mushroom body salve. “Personally, my wellness routine wouldn’t be anywhere without my daily dose of Chaga,” says Papanikolov. The brand also recently launched a new range of merch, from the Team Rainbo Crewneck to the Rainbo Dad Hats.
Functional mushrooms are types of fungi with immense health benefits that do not have hallucinogenic effects. Their benefits surpass those of traditional culinary mushrooms like button or cremini mushrooms, and can greatly enhance our cognitive performance, energy levels, gut health, stress, and immunity. Common functional mushrooms include Reishi, Chaga, as well as the fun-named Lions Mane and Turkey Tail.
Papanikolov says she started Rainbo in a “pocket of time,” when she wanted to create something that came from intention. Since she was a child, Papankolov has always been guided by purpose. At just five years old, she was telling her parents that she wanted to make an impact on others. “That’s where this feels like it all started, even though the journey to creating Rainbo was not a linear one. Credit it to being a Libra, Cancer, Taurus and a Projector, but for so long, my soul has been after a feeling of alignment”. Whether or not you believe in cosmic karma, Papanikolov’s dedication to purpose-driven work throughout her young adult life has propelled her career and business exponentially.
As a first-time founder, Papanikolov has had consistent, undeniable moments in her entrepreneurial journey that made her think “This feels meant to be” and helped her get through even the hardest of times of starting her own business. From something as simple as having a tough day and seeing a rainbow in the sky, to buying her brand’s URL at an incredibly nominal fee from its original owner (this rarely happens, by the way), her dedication to Rainbo being a success never wavered.
But, it hasn’t always been easy. “You always hear about how hard it can be to start your own business, but until you’re in it, and your name’s on the line, you don’t realize how important it is to be particular in what you want,” says Papanikolov. “I had zero experience with manufacturing, and starting the production of Rainbo has been a huge learning curve.”
For years, the functional and psychedelic mushroom space has been relatively untouched, and now, there seem to be mushrooms in everything. It’s the superfood that popped off just at the right time, and only the best will survive in such a competitive industry.
Shortly after ironing out Rainbo’s launch, Papanikolov’s business exploded—even during the pandemic. The growing interest in functional mushrooms sparked mass education and engagement on the wonders of sustainably cultivated fungi. With brands like Rainbo leading the charge in the fungi space, a noticeable shift has occurred, and the popularity of functional and psychedelic mushrooms is hard to ignore.
Her mission today is to upgrade humanity with fungi through education, celebration, and distribution. And thus, Papanikolov has quickly become one of the foundational mothers of accessible functional mushrooms—and there’s no sign of her slowing down.
And now, onto Rapid Fire. Who are you inspired by?
What's on your vision board/manifestation board for the next five years?
“Marry the LOML (this summer!), steward land, start a farm, grow mushrooms, start a family, be in vibrant health, see my wildest dreams come true, complete my Masters of Science, write a book, create more transformative products, grow the team and business, be in service and unfold deeper into love.”
Any exciting upcoming launches you can share?
“There is a product. I can’t say anything about it yet, but it’s been almost three years in research and development. It’s been a total labor of love, and I’m so excited for it to launch in Q4 2023. Our line of tinctures will also be launched in alcohol-free versions as this has been highly requested by our community. We have a vision and a mission of getting 100 million people to take mushrooms—that’s a lot of people. It’s a big, hairy audacious goal, but it’s really exciting to see people really responding to mushrooms at this time.”
How do you unwind?
How many unread emails do you have?
What do you look for in an employee?
“Passion, hard work, entrepreneurial spirit, and chemistry.”
Best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
“Do it your way. There is no formula. The only ‘right formula’ is the one you decide on, create a process around and make work for you.”
What does the term “girlboss” mean to you?
“Alignment, self-authority, and service.”
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