My entrepreneurial spirit and commitment to education, were nurtured by my parents. I grew up in a small town in Fayetteville, North Carolina to an African American father and a Korean mother. While my father earned his GED in the military, my mother had to drop out of school due to the Korean war. But both highly valued education and hard work, and that set the stage for me. My father became an entrepreneur after his time in the army, and what I saw in him sparked an interest in me.
After attending the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I spent fifteen years in consumer products companies. Most recently, I led the sales group in the emerging brands division at Coca-Cola.
During my time at Coca-Cola, I became pregnant with my daughter, Vivienne. Prior to her first birthday, she exhibited eczema and other signs that led our allergist to suspect she may suffer from food allergies, and thankfully, he prescribed an EpiPen, “just in case”. Thank goodness for the recommendation because when she was nearly a year old, she took a bite of a snack that contained corn and peanuts. Vivienne’s lips began to swell, she had difficulty breathing and began to turn blue. Since we had the EpiPen we were able to avert a dire situation. All of us, including her doctor, assumed she had a peanut allergy. Subsequent testing turned out negative for peanuts, so the doctor attributed it to a random illness. It was only after doggedly pursuing this, that we discovered it was the corn she was allergic to, as well as many other foods. Thankfully, she’s now happy and thriving.
Food is at the core of our lives and makes people happy. Many social gatherings and celebrations involve a meal. It should not make us scared, yet, I knew I would have to be vigilant in ensuring my daughter would not go through another frightening episode. I started doing a lot of research. The problem was finding food that was tasty, as well as nutritionally sound. The foods that tasted good were filled with sugar, starch, gums and stabilizers, and I felt horrible feeding that to my child. When I did find food that was nutritionally sound, she wouldn’t eat it because of the taste. I also found, from an emotional perspective, people on restricted diets, whether vegan, gluten free, or out of medical necessity like my daughter, have feelings of isolation and anxiety related to food.
I began to dream about creating a food company. In the summer of 2016, I took the first steps to creating Partake Foods, a company born out of the frustrations with finding foods that were nutritionally sound, allergy friendly, and tasted good. I started by going to Whole Foods, spending hundreds of dollars buying products to begin my research. Thinking I could figure out the formulas to make cookies on my own, I spent a lot of time in my kitchen. I soon realized it was hard to create a product that fit the criteria I had established. I needed help.
Good luck struck when, searching through LinkedIn, I found someone who could provide the missing piece. Her credentials looked great; Ivy League educated and a professionally trained chef with experience developing allergy-friendly products. She was at a point in her career where she was working freelance and was willing to work with someone who contacted her out of the blue! I’m happy to say that it worked out so well that she’s now an equity member of Partake Foods. During the really hard days, serendipitous things like this would happen, and reminded me why I’m doing this.
One challenge was finding a commercial kitchen where we could make products in an allergy free environment. At the time, there was only one independently owned facility in the country, and they don’t work with start-ups. I knew I couldn’t start the business without them, since we didn’t have the capital to build our own facility. But I persisted in explaining how important our mission was and how serious we were about it. They decided to take a chance!
Within a year, we had all our ducks in a row, including perfecting the recipes to create cookies that tasted good. Partake Foods launched in 2017 with three flavors of cookies. I felt confident enough to leave my job at Coca-Cola and commit myself full-time. It was difficult to give up the perceived security, but my entire former team was eliminated this year so perhaps I was lucky to get ahead of it!
Today, our success is exceeding expectations, even though it’s still a company of one person – me! Our products are in Whole Foods, Wegmans and a few hundred other stores across the country. Our goal is to be in 2,000 stores by the end of year.
Early on, I decided not to be too reliant on outside capital, which is why we remain small and self-reliant. However, I did try to raise venture capital money last year and it was very frustrating. Having read quite a bit about how difficult it is for women to raise money this way I learned firsthand how true it is. Among the questions asked, in a room full of men, was who would watch my daughter if the company took off. I was being asked about issues that would not be asked of men. I’m sure there are great partners out there, but I didn’t come across them, so perhaps we’re growing a bit more slowly, but I decided to venture on my own path.
My daughter has been one of my greatest inspirations. She’s a tiny little person but this all started because I wanted to help her. She’s only in her first year of pre-school, but we’re already discovering there are many opportunities for her to be left out. . . snack time, birthday parties, holiday celebrations. If I can do something to help her feel included and happy, then that’s what I do. An incredibly fulfilling moment for me recently was when I was in store with her. She spotted our cookies on the shelf and ran down the aisle to point it out! That made me so happy.
Along the way my skin got a lot thicker, very quickly. Everyone has an opinion on how you should be doing things in your business even though they’ve never done it and they have no skin in the game. So I put my head down, ignore the noise and focus on what’s important. If you follow what everyone else says, you’ll be driving down a windy road all day and not getting where you really need to go.
Had anyone told me a few years ago that this is what I would be doing at this stage of my life, I would have thought they were crazy. But it hits you like a ton of bricks when it’s right. When others ask my advice about making a pivotal life change, I tell them to follow their passion. I know this seems a simple answer, but I think it happens for many people. The trick is to recognize the opportunity and be on the lookout for when the stars align.