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Building an allergy-friendly brand
The founder of allergy-friendly brand Partake Foods dishes on her experience leaving Coca Cola to enter the startup world.
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.
Over the past few years, vegan and gluten-free food brands have taken over supermarkets and restaurants alike. These days, you can even find foods catering to dietary restrictions in some of the most unlikely of places (see KFC’s recent vegan chicken nugget roll-out). And yet, despite the plethora of food brands and products catering towards these niche food markets, there are still surprisingly few that offer products that are free from several different food categories at the same time (for example, many vegan products contain gluten and other common allergens like soybeans and peanuts—and the same goes for gluten free foods).
Enter Partake Foods. After discovering her daughter had several food allergies, Denise Woodward dove headfirst into the world of allergy-free foods. But she quickly grew frustrated by the lack of snack and meal options that met her daughter’s dietary restrictions—and were also healthy and delicious. So she left her director position at Coca-Cola to start a company dedicated to making nutritious, tasty, and allergy-friendly products. Denise took her brand from an abstract idea to a product on the shelves of Whole Foods; here she talks us through what the process has been like, her experiences being a Black woman entrepreneur, and her secret for battling imposter syndrome.
What did you go to school for?
I graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where I majored in Interpersonal and Organizational Communication and minored in African-American studies. I changed my major several times from Biology (I originally wanted to be an orthodontist!) to Journalism. When I realized that I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do, I switched to communications since I felt that strong communication skills were a necessary tool regardless of the industry. I also have an MBA from Arizona State University, which I got while working full-time.
What were you doing before work before starting your company?
My first job out of school was at Philip Morris as a Territory Sales Manager, where I was responsible for selling their portfolio of products across inner city grocery and convenience stores. The job was definitely not glamorous, but it gave me a great foundation of sales training and an intro into the consumer packaged goods space. The idea of selling tobacco products wore on my conscience, and I wasn’t as passionate about sales anymore, so I moved to FedEx.
At FedEx, I worked on supply chain solutions for enterprise customers. While there, I quickly realized that, while I did love CPG, I needed to work on a brand that I admired. I joined Coca-Cola in 2008 and ended up holding a variety of roles, most recently as the Director of National Sales for their Venturing and Emerging Brands division.
Where did you first get the idea for Partake Foods?
I have a four year old daughter, Vivienne, and right around her first birthday, she had a very severe allergic reaction to corn. After that, we learned that she’s allergic to tree nuts, eggs, corn, and bananas. I was frustrated with the lack of snack and meal options that met her dietary restrictions, my nutritional standards, and still tasted good.
As I complained about this, Vivienne’s nanny, Martha (who now has a small equity stake in the company) pushed me to do something about it and start a company dedicated to making delicious, nutritious, allergy-friendly products.
What did the transition from your previous career to launching this company look like?
After first getting the idea for Partake in June 2016, I entered a local pitch competition. And we won $10,000. That win really validated the idea for Partake (at the time, the working name was Vivi’s Life, because my mission was—and still is—to make my daughter Vivi’s life easier). I spent the next year waking up at 5 a.m., going to bed at midnight, and working seven days a week to make Partake a reality. We launched in August 2017 with three SKUs of cookies, and it was then that I left my full time job at Coca-Cola.
Letting go of a steady paycheck is terrifying for most people, did you have a financial safety net when you started your company? And how have your conceptions of financial stability changed since becoming a founder?
Thankfully, my husband, Jeremy has been Partake’s number one fan from day one. Because of this, he was supportive of me taking the leap to start Partake. So, while we went from a two income household to one, we still had income coming in.
Even so, we definitely underestimated the cost of launching a food company. An experienced product developer told me it would take $250,000 to launch a scalable food business, and while we did it for less than that, it was far more than we had initially expected and could comfortably afford, so we had to make some sacrifices and big bets, like emptying my 401K and selling my engagement ring.
What’s been your plan to profitability—have you been raising capital? How are you financing your brand?
To support our expanded retail distribution and growing our team, we raised a $1 million seed round in June 2019, which was led by Marcy Venture Partners. Prior to that, we’d raised a small friends and family round, cobbling together checks from friends, coworkers, and friends of friends. I still watch every penny that comes in or goes out of the business, so while we have more resources now, one of the tenets of our mission is to ‘do more with less.’
What’s it been like being a Black woman entrepreneur?
For me, the hardest part of being a Black woman entrepreneur is often being in situations where no one in the room looks like me or not having a wide network of entrepreneurs who have been there, done this, and come out on the other side that I can go to for help. But that fuels me to do everything I can do get more Black women in the room by championing and mentoring. Because of the push for diversity from so many large retailers, I think being a Black woman has also afforded me many opportunities.
Have you ever dealt with imposter syndrome?
All. The. Time. I’m definitely a perfectionist who grew up with a Korean “tiger mom” so I always set the bar at an unattainable level and am guilty of not celebrating the small wins because I’ve already moved on to the next obstacle. To combat this, I write down wins in a journal a friend gave me, so that when I’m experiencing those feelings of self-doubt, I have a tangible reminder that, while I will definitely make mistakes along the way, I’ve achieved a lot on this journey so far.
What’s currently your biggest business challenge?
Scaling the team. I feel great about the product, business is growing, and we have wonderful investor partners on board, but as we grow, I want to ensure that we’re maintaining the culture of the company and bringing on team members that we can trust and that live and believe in our mission.
What’s been your company’s biggest victory so far?
Seeing our products on the shelves of Whole Foods was an unbelievable feeling—we went from self-distributing (a.k.a. me hand-delivering cookies out of my car for nine months to one region of Whole Foods). We’re adding another region next month, and additional regions later this year.
What does your self-care routine look like right now?
This is a work in progress, but I have found that the entrepreneurial journey has had a massive negative effect on my mental and personal health, so I’m hoping to grab the reins in 2020, focusing on both my physical and mental health.
When it comes to my physical health, I signed up for a half marathon, and attempt to get in at least one pilates class per week. As for mental health, I just learned the practice of Transcendental Meditation, which has been a game changer for me. When it comes to overall happiness, I’m prioritizing scheduling (and actually keeping) dates with my husband, daughter, friends and family.
What are some resources that have helped you on your journey?
I’m a podcast junkie! I really like Unfinished Biz with Robin and Wayne, which is like a How I Built This for the consumer products industry. My nightstand is stacked high with books that are on my list to tackle, and they primarily focus on scaling a CPG company (Ramping the Brand), leadership (Radical Candor, Bob Iger’s The Ride of a Lifetime) or parenting (No Drama Discipline and How to Talk so Kids will Listen).
What’s your advice to someone who is considering taking “the leap”?
I lean on this quote from Arthur Ashe: “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” In other words, if you have an idea that you are passionate about, go for it. “Go for it” can look very different based on the circumstances; it could mean sharing the idea with friends, creating a prototype and ensuring product-market fit, or leaving a job to devote all of your time and resources to it. Whatever it is, be ready to work hard. Think about the hardest you’ve ever worked and multiply that by ten—especially in the early days when it’s just you.