Ludi Leiva is Supermaker's Director of Content as well as a writer, editor, and illustrator.
Preventing agricultural waste
"I saw 25% of heads of romaine lettuce being harvested and 75% being wasted for as far as the eye could see. I remember thinking: If I don’t pursue this, who’s going to?"
Welcome to The Leap, where women and nonbinary entrepreneurs open up about what it took to get to where they are now. In 2018, women founders received just 2.2% of the $130 billion in venture money invested in the United States. Given these odds, it’s time to get real about what it’s really like to be a woman founder. From raising capital to imposter syndrome, we explore what it takes for women to enter the world of entrepreneurship.
Today, we chat with Christine Moseley, co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of Full Harvest, the first B2B marketplace for ugly or imperfect produce. After realizing that tens of billions of pounds of produce go to waste every year (just because they’re not perfectly shaped for grocery stores), Moseley decided to leverage technology to start addressing these huge food waste problems.
Did you go to college? If so, what did you study?
I originally thought I was going to be a doctor. I was pre-med and realized when I had to dissect an animal that I was too squeamish, so I switched. Both my parents are entrepreneurs and I was always considering to explore that, so I ended up studying business as well as psychology and Spanish.
After realizing that my calling since a young age was to become an entrepreneur long term, I ended up getting my MBA from Wharton where my majors were entrepreneurship and marketing.
What were you doing before work before starting your company? Tell us about your career path before becoming an entrepreneur.
I was helping scale one of the first green juices in the country called Organic Avenue. I was head of business development and strategic projects, but it was almost like I was interim COO—I was doing pretty much everything operationally or sales related. I ran all their major projects.
I loved what they were doing in terms of healthy food but I was frustrated that they were selling $13 green juices; it didn’t feel like that was affordable to most people. They were paying top dollar for perfect produce just to immediately process it—that’s what was causing the cost of the products to be so high.
I became very passionate about how to democratize healthy food and make it more affordable. I wanted to find out how to make a $4 or $5 green juice. So I ended up moving to California four and a half years ago to figure out a company to innovate the supply chain to bring down the cost of healthy food products.
Where did you first get the idea for Full Harvest?
I spent a few months researching, not knowing what I was going to find. I talked to a ton of people, interviewed people, went to conferences, and watched documentaries. I was watching a documentary about agriculture and saw all of these dump trucks taking tomatoes and dumping them into a field to go to waste. I had also just read this report that had shocking statistics around food waste and how it contributed to climate change. I was really upset and remember thinking: “Wait a minute, why isn’t all of this produce going to the Organic Avenues of the world?” It was an aha moment.
I called my mom and was like, “I had my million dollar idea!” I went out to one of the largest farms in the country to see if these stats were actually true and that was another part of the aha moment. I saw 25% of heads of romaine lettuce being harvested and 75% being wasted for as far as the eye could see. I was just walking by these romaine leaves stepping on perfectly edible food that was immediately going back into the ground. It just confirmed how broken the system was, it was really heartbreaking. I remember thinking: If I don’t pursue this, who’s going to?
I went about eight months into the wrong direction of trying to create a food line made of ugly produce but I could not find a supplier in order to create this product, so I ended up pivoting and deciding that I needed to become the supplier. So that’s when I decided to make a tech platform connecting growers to food and beverage companies where I could make a much bigger impact faster.
What did the transition from your previous career to launching this company look like?
I literally moved to California with a suitcase to start a company that would try to figure out how to bring healthy food costs down. The reality of that situation was that I came out with only a little bit of money in the bank and had to live off of a very small amount—technically below the poverty line—for two and a half years without a paycheck. I lived in a house with multiple roommates and for a year I worked 100-hour weeks. I got free support from certain people or cheap consultants and was super scrappy.
Finally, after hustling, I found a farm and a buyer that were willing to take a leap of faith with me. So I launched with one farm and one buyer. I’ll never forget holding my breath to see if the order was going to be accepted. But they were really happy and surprised at how nice the produce was. Then I got two buyers, and three buyers, and it just grew from there.
Letting go of a steady paycheck is terrifying for most people, did you have a financial safety net or a back-up plan?
Not at all, no. And it was extremely difficult. I was living off of $20,000 a year in San Francisco for two and a half years. It was painful and I had to make a lot of sacrifices. But I’m the type of personality that was fine with that. I don’t need a lot. But it’s not for everyone.
How have your conceptions of financial stability changed since starting this venture?
I’m unusual in that I actually like traveling and going to nice dinners and nice things, but I also am fine not having those things. I think if you really care about that stability and having those things then [entrepreneurship] is probably not for you. But for me, I’ve always been driven more by passion and solving problems. I’ve been a very big risk-taker and I gained confidence early on that I’d figure it out somehow. I didn’t get money from my family or have a husband to pay for stuff. I just knew I was a hard worker and was smart enough that whatever happened I’d figure it out.
I have MBA loans and if this all doesn’t work out I’ll probably (in my late 30s) end up really far behind my colleagues. But I also could end up with way more money than them soon. Even if, worst case scenario, it doesn’t work out and I don’t have a lot of savings, with my experience I know I’ll end up being able to get a really good high-paying job.
I’ve always invested in experiences and education, not necessarily doing something just for the sake of money. Anybody who does things for the sake of money, it ends up biting them in the butt. I just need to do something impactful that helps the world. That helps me sleep at night. And so I don’t have as much money as other people and that’s the cost [of] making a big impact and hopefully inspiring other people.
What’s been your plan to profitability—how have you been raising capital?
I put my own money in it at first and bootstrapped. Then, right before I didn’t know how I was going to pay my rent check, I got my first angel. Then I ended up raising $2 million and then another $1 million between angels and VCs. Then I raised a Series A which was all institutional capital. We’ll raise our series C next year.
What’s it been like being a woman entrepreneur?
I have a strong role model; my mother was the breadwinner and started a company 30 years ago in the financial advisory space. So I haven’t really questioned a lot of things and I also don’t like to put women in a silo or bucket. I try to go into every situation as if everybody is gender neutral. I don’t really think about it and that’s worked well for me.
The only difference was that, early on [investors] asked me a lot more hard questions. I think Harvard Business Review did a study that confirmed that a lot of women are asked more negative, protectionary questions instead of proactive questions like “How are you going to not screw this up?” versus easy lay-up questions. I think subconsciously I dealt with some stuff there. But, in general, I’m passionate and confident and go through it as if there’s no difference.
Have you ever dealt with imposter syndrome?
For sure, the struggle is real. I think it’s hard when, externally, my friends and family that I haven’t seen for awhile are like “Oh you’re killing it! You’re doing amazing.” And they have no idea how much stress and ups and downs and every day not knowing what’s going to happen there is.
We just got some big press and it was great, but then of course you’re like: “Oh, I still don’t know how things are going to shake out over the next couple years.” So, in some ways, it puts more pressure because you feel like you really have to perform to make it real. And you have to try to not have that pressure trickle down to your team.
I try to be kind to myself. It’s not a thing you’re used to but you just have to try to celebrate the wins and take time to acknowledge when you’ve achieved something big and let that sink in. That’s helped, a bit. But all of my friends who are founders, we all feel it.
What’s currently your biggest business challenge?
I studied business and started my first entrepreneurial endeavor when I was 17, but at the end of the day, I still joke to my friends that no one, even at Wharton Business School, teaches you the things that are really important to run a business, like how to hire, how to manage, how to maintain your stress levels, how to inspire, how to lead. Those were the soft skills that really actually are the most important.
Finding the right talent has been the biggest challenge. It’s gotten a lot better recently but we’re doing something no one’s done before and disrupting two old school industries, both on agriculture and food. And we’re in San Francisco which is high cost of living and not necessarily a mecca for food and beverage companies. So to find people who understand food and agriculture, who want to live in San Francisco, that are willing to work for a high-growth tech company was challenging.
It’s gotten better now that there’s a lot of focus on food tech and ag-tech, and people are realizing the impact that it can have, like Blue Apron and Beyond Meat. So, it’s getting better day by day, but that has been a big challenge in the last few years.
What’s been your company’s biggest victory so far?
We’ve pulled over ten million pounds of produce that would have gone to waste, which is a big milestone for us. And we’re working on some really exciting co-branding opportunities with some really large food and beverage companies which has always been a dream of mine. So, that’s really exciting.
What do you do to stay grounded?
I didn’t prioritize [self care] enough until this last year. For anybody else going through this, I highly recommend not starting a venture unless you know who your support network is going to be, like a small group of entrepreneurs that you can all agree that you're going to be there for each other for support. I wish I had done that sooner because it’s really tough and it’s really lonely. You need to at least have a few people you can call on for questions or to get advice. But now, I’ve worked hard on having a handful of entrepreneurs that I can call.
I have a really good CEO coach, I have a great trainer, I have a great therapist. I try to listen to my body and take breaks throughout the day or get massages when I need to. It’s a marathon and you have to prioritize it or else you’ll burn out. They’ve done studies where 30 to 50% of CEOs time is spent either learning how to be better or self-care and managing everything. It’s a full-time job outside of our full-time job.
What are some resources that have helped you on your journey?
One of the most important books I’ve read is called The Power of Habit. It’s all about psychology and how you change habits and institutional behaviors. It was really helpful when I put together my strategy to launch my business.
There had been decades and decades of habits within the food and agriculture world that are broken and wrong—how do I execute in a way that will incentivize people to change what they’re doing? That book really helped me think through that.
What’s your advice to someone who is considering taking “the leap”?
Make sure you have your support network planned. You don’t have to set it up day one, but have a plan for how you’re going to support yourself emotionally, physically, and mentally. Without that you could burn out pretty fast.
And make sure you have a safety net. I didn’t have a lot of money but I had a 401(k) and I made a conscious decision that if everything went sideways I would use that to live off of or further the business if I needed to. You need to have that [safety net] to be more fearless and just keep going.
Ludi Leiva is Supermaker's Director of Content as well as a writer, editor, and illustrator.