Carta Conversations: Denise Woodard, CEO of Partake Foods

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Carta + Partake Foods

On February 24th, Mita Mallick – Carta’s head of Inclusion, Equity, and Impact –  sat down with Denise Woodard – founder and CEO of Partake Foods – for a wide-ranging discussion about her journey as an entrepreneur, fundraising highs and lows, and the challenges of being a female founder of color in today’s startup world.

Upbringing and entrepreneurial roots

Mita: Thanks so much for being here, Denise.

Denise: Thanks for having me.

Mita: Let’s start at the beginning. Tell us a little bit about your background growing up in North Carolina, the influence your parents had on your journey into entrepreneurship, and what Denise was like as a little child?

Denise: I grew up in Fayetteville, North Carolina. I’m the daughter of an African-American entrepreneur and a Korean immigrant. My parents met while my dad was serving in the US Army. Once he left the army, we settled in Fayetteville and he became a truck driver with dreams of being an entrepreneur. His goal was to buy his own truck, which he successfully did. He now runs a small trucking business in Fayetteville.

Neither of my parents graduated high school. My dad got his GED while he was in the army, and my mom was forced to drop out of school because of the Korean War. So they placed a really high value on education and the safety of corporate America. I went to the “good state school” – the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill – got a secure corporate job, maxed out my 401k and had no intention of leaving until I had the opportunity to work at Coca-Cola. I spent nearly a decade there.

My parents were not fans of the idea of me being an entrepreneur, based on their experience with entrepreneurship. They felt it was a whole lot of work, and it didn’t feel as safe and secure as a career in corporate America.

Why Denise started Partake Foods

Mita: What was the tension like, as you were thinking about the journey to start Partake Foods? What was the journey from corporate America like, and how did the conversation go with your family?

Denise: I spent nearly a decade at Coca-Cola, and probably six years in, my husband Jeremy and I started thinking about having a family. We didn’t feel so good about selling high-fructose corn sugar water. But I really liked the company, loved the people I was working with, and loved the brand experience that I was getting.

I had the opportunity to move over to our emerging brands division, where I got to work on brands that I was super passionate about, like Honest Tea. That gave me a taste of entrepreneurship again, and a taste of building a scalable business.

I’d always had side hustles. None of them were scalable, but I got to see how people were able to face problems, create solutions, and turn those solutions into scalable businesses that impacted their communities positively and brought social change to the world.

But I had no idea how to do that, so I had no intention of leaving.

And then my daughter came along.

I’d always had side hustles. None of them were scalable, but I got to see how people were able to face problems, create solutions, and turn those solutions into scalable businesses that impacted their communities positively and brought social change to the world.

Right around her first birthday, we had a big scare with food allergies, and it turns out she’s allergic to most tree nuts, corn (which is a really tricky one), bananas and eggs. The idea for Partake Foods was born shortly after her birthday in the summer of 2016, when our nanny Martha was like, “Your daughter has the most boring diet ever. You don’t give her anything fun. All you give her is lean protein and vegetables.”

I started to tell Martha all of the woes — I’m not vegan or gluten-free, I don’t have any dietary restrictions, and I’d always just assumed that those products would be generally healthier.

But as I started to turn them over, I realized they often have a lot more sugar, and gums, and starches, and weird stuff that I didn’t want to give my daughter.

At the same time, there were some brands that I felt fit my daughter nutritionally, but they tasted exactly like I’d expect a really healthy, allergy-friendly product to taste. And kids are the most honest critics. She would literally just refuse to eat them.

But most of all, I started to see firsthand how many social events – for both kids and adults – involved food. Whether it’s birthday parties, or happy hours, or holiday celebrations. While I was thankful for the brands that provided a safe solution for kids like my daughter, they weren’t particularly “cool.”

So I thought, “She’s already going to feel self-conscious about her allergies. Now I’m going to send her to school with this lame snack, and then people will think she’s weird.”

We kept our cookies at a climate-controlled storage unit in Jersey City. I’d drive there every morning and fill up my car, then go around to all the natural food stores. In the evenings, I’d do demos.

I told Martha all of these things and she said, “You should start a food company.”

Pretty serendipitously, the next weekend we were in line at the zoo. I was telling my husband, “You won’t believe what Martha said.” And this gentlemen in front of us turned around and said, “You should enter this small business pitch competition here in Jersey City called the Rising Tide Challenge.”

That was on a Saturday afternoon. The deadline to enter was at Monday at midnight.

I incorporated a business that I called Vivi’s Life (because I really didn’t know much beyond the fact that I wanted to make Vivi’s life easier), and we won the competition. Which came with some seed capital. But more importantly, it came with some local press, which forced me to tell my employer what I was doing.

He gave me an ultimatum: “It’s really nice that you have this idea, but once you have a product, you have to hit the road.”

That gave me the kick in the butt that I needed to leave corporate America. I spent the next year moonlighting, and when we actually had a product in August 2017, I left Coca Cola to start selling cookies.

My parents were not supportive right away.

Today, they’re my biggest cheerleaders. But at the time they were like, “Why would you ever leave your job? I had to learn that they were saying that out of love, and that I also needed to tune it out, because it was going to distract me and take me off the path.

The challenges of starting a business

Mita: In Forbes, you talk about the early grind in the beginning. Could you share what was going through your mind in those first years? What kept you continuing to hustle?

Denise: We kept our cookies at a climate-controlled storage unit in Jersey City. I’d drive there every morning and fill up my car, then go around to all the natural food stores. In the evenings, I’d do demos. My husband works in finance, and he joined me to do demos after his job. We dragged our daughter to trade shows on the weekends, and it was a family labor of love. I think that was the thing that kept me going. I knew that I had started this company for my daughter.

I started this company to let [my daughter] see that when you have a problem and an opportunity to impact others positively and create a solution, you go out and do that.

I’ve even heard her articulate pitches for our business. I started this company to solve this problem, and to give her a glimpse into entrepreneurship, but also to let her see that when you have a problem and an opportunity to impact others positively and create a solution, you go out and do that.

So for me to quit would be a slap in the face. I could never look her in the eye and have her ask me, “What happened to that business that you started for me?” I would never want to say, “Oh, it got really hard. I decided to do something different.” It would be one thing if the business failed on its own, but for me to just quit because it was hard was not acceptable.

The fundraising journey

Mita: I know that when you were seeking seed funding, you were rejected 86 times, and it was on the 87th time that you finally received funding. The fastest growing group of entrepreneurs in this country are black women, and they received less than 1% of the funding. So you have defied the odds. You’ve just raised your series A, $7.5 million. Congratulations.

Denise: Thank you.

I knew that as a woman of color, it was going to be really hard for me to raise money.

Mita: Can you tell us about this fundraising journey? What advice would you give those who are seeking funding, and what do you have to say to potential investors as you’ve gone through this?

Denise: I guess it depends on your circumstances. But for me, I knew that as a woman of color, it was going to be really hard for me to raise money. That’s why we started really small; it was important for me to understand all aspects of the business — I knew I was going to have to run all of them, because we wouldn’t have the money to hire people. It was important for me to watch every single penny that went out the door, because I knew that we weren’t going to be able to rely on venture capital. What if I couldn’t raise the money?

That’s why I needed to build a business that could sustain itself, and those were some of the lessons that I learned in terms of what I’d tell investors. It’s been interesting, because at first, the friends and family round was way harder to close than the Series A.

I feel so grateful that for the Series A, we were able to bring together partners that were mission-aligned. Our cap table’s over 50% black. We were able to have first-time fund managers who are black or brown, or people of color, or women, invest in our business. Hopefully if our business does well, that’ll be a feather in their cap as they go out and raise their next fund.

I needed to build a business that could sustain itself, and those were some of the lessons that I learned in terms of what I’d tell investors. It’s been interesting, because at first, the friends and family round was way harder to close than the Series A.

We were able to bring in individuals who care about causes that are near and dear to our heart, like childhood food insecurity and increasing diversity in the natural food space. We pulled together a group that I feel really excited to work with.

In the early fundraising days, it’s really easy to say, “Don’t take their money.” But when you don’t have any money, you take what you can. For me to avoid taking the “dumb money,” I built as sustainable of a business as I could, so that we could say no if necessary. Thankfully, somehow the universe conspired to bring together a pretty awesome group of people that are backing our brand.

MitaCan you describe how you felt after the 86th “no” you received when pitching Partake?

Denise: I was down. Fundraising, for me, was a pretty soul-crushing experience. You’re expected to keep up the positive business metrics that would make someone want to invest in you, while still going out all day long and pitching people, going through diligence with people who have no intention of ever investing in your business, and answering mindless questions. Managing the two was a challenge.

I was in my kitchen making spaghetti for my daughter, and I started feeling heart palpitations. In my hand, the Apple watch told me my heart rate was 170. I had chest pains and I called 911. I went to the doctor and did a battery of tests, and they said, “You had a panic attack.” That’s how I felt around the 86th “no.”

For me to avoid taking the “dumb money,” I built as sustainable of a business as I could, so that we could say no if necessary. Thankfully, somehow the universe conspired to bring together a pretty awesome group of people that are backing our brand.

It was much better after Marcy said “yes.” After that, most of those people who said “no” came back. And I said, “Too late, I have a chip on my shoulder now.” So it got much better.

Mita: What was it like on the 87th time, when you finally heard “yes?”

Denise: Amazing. I’m such a big believer that everything happens for a reason. I couldn’t have dreamed of having a better partner than Marcy has been for us. She’s been so supportive and kind, and has helped us bring together the right partners for our business.

The journey of the 86 “no’s” definitely made me tougher. It was a lesson in people, for sure. I’m still kind of in awe — if somebody said our story out loud, “They have Marcy, Jay-Z and Rihanna as investors, and there’s thousands of stares, all after this woman started selling cookies out of her car” —  I’d think, no way. That’s such a cool story.

But I’m still so deep in the weeds that I’m living it every day. It still blows my mind that anybody besides my mom and my husband and my daughter even know we exist. So yeah, it felt really, really, really good. It felt even better after we closed the Series A ,and we were able to choose what partners felt right for our business.

I went to the doctor and did a battery of tests, and they said, “You had a panic attack.” That’s how I felt around the 86th “no.”

Building a community and being a mentor

Mita: Over 50% of Partake Food’s funding comes from black investors, such as Jay-Z’s MVP Fund and Marcy Venture Partners (which we know is home to a number of Grammy Award winning artists, including Rihanna). Why have you been so intentional about where you’re getting the funding from?

Denise: The name Partake was a nod to people with food allergies being able to partake. But as a black woman, a first time founder, and a first-generation college graduate, I realized there were a lot more people who need an opportunity to Partake. A lot of other people have gravitated toward our brand outside of those with food allergies.

To see the positive social impact we’ve had  is what makes me most excited.

It still blows my mind that anybody besides my mom and my husband and my daughter even know we exist.

We launched a fellowship program last year in conjunction with five HBCs (historically black colleges and universities). We’re going to triple the number of schools we’re working with. We’ve been able to feed thousands of families through our partnership with the Food Equality Initiative, which is a group that provides allergy-friendly foods to families managing food insecurities.

I want investors who are aligned with us investing in our passion, investing back into the community, and investing into underserved and underrepresented folks. The idea that we have all these first-time fund managers…if they can get into hot deals, hopefully that builds their track record and they can continue to invest in other women, and other black and brown people.

Mita: What have the conversations been like with the young participants that you’re advising and mentoring? What do you hope to see in five years?

Denise: I call them my babies. They make me so happy. They also make me feel so old!

To see, like…some of them have gotten entry-level positions with PepsiCo, which is a big natural foods distributor. One sent us a note that she just secured a PR internship that changed her life. Even if it’s just five people, if we can have any positive impact toward providing these students with access to the social capital that I didn’t have coming up in my career, then that’s game-changing to me.

To see the positive social impact we’ve had  is what makes me most excited.

In five years, my hope for the program is that it builds an alumni network, because in my experience, people of color often lack mentors, advisors, and advocates they need to thrive in corporate America – or even just business in general. If they can continue to stay in touch and build an alumni network as they work through their careers, then hopefully they’ll feel they have a safety net in Partake. They’ll be able to come back to us, but also to the community of their cohort fellows.

Creating strong customer relationships

Mita: When you think about those days at Coca-Cola, what did you learn in sales? From that experience, what do you teach your teams about building strong customer relationships?

Denise: Of the three things I took from my sales experiences at Coke, one is to be solution oriented. Particularly when it comes to the customer, even at Partake I’m so quick to tell them all the reasons why our brand is great. But really sit back and listen to the struggles your customers are having, and think about how your product can hopefully solve that. And if it can’t, then work to create solutions with that customer, because even if you don’t have a solution that day, the fact that you’re truly invested in growing their business can create a longer, more fruitful relationship.

At Coke, I also learned the importance of brand. I meet a lot of emerging consumer entrepreneurs who think of brand as a logo, or packaging on shelf. But I think of it as every single interaction that a customer has with your company, whether it’s a customer service response, or an interaction at a trade show, or how somebody responds to your comment on social media. Make sure that your organization is aligned on what your company stands for, how you treat the customer. and the value of customer service.

I want investors who are aligned with us investing in our passion, investing back into the community, and investing into underserved and underrepresented folks.

A lot of this stuff didn’t even come from Coke, it came  from my five-year-old. It’s the golden rule of treating your customers, your employees, and your teammates the way that you want to be treated. You value them with respect and with kindness. It’s not really rocket science. It’s just good people skills.

Taking customer feedback

Mita: Do you have any recent customer stories that caused you to pivot, or think about a product in a different way?

Denise: When we launched the brand, the proposition was always been around being allergen free, and we’d snuck in some fruits and vegetables. As a mom, I thought that was really important to me.

But as we went out and did lots of demos, my husband and I would have these competitions. I’d lead with all the features and benefits. He’d say, “You just want to taste a good cookie.” And he would beat me every single time.

Even if it’s just five people, if we can have any positive impact toward providing these students with access to the social capital that I didn’t have coming up in my career, then that’s game-changing to me.

This was a really inexpensive way for us to realize that our customers cared a lot more about taste than they cared about sneaking sweet potatoes or carrots into cookies. It allowed us to pivot. We took that part of the ingredient story out and invested more in organic. We were able to get our product to a slightly more accessible price point, so more people could enjoy it. All of that came from simply listening to customers at grocery stores while we were doing demos.

Building a business during a difficult time in America

Mita: Can you share a bit about how COVID has impacted your business, and the things that you’ve been doing differently as a result?

Denise: At the start of COVID, you could find Partake in about 350 stores. We knew that 2020 was going to be a large year for us, because we were going to market and expanding with Whole Foods. At the end of this quarter, we’ll be in about 6,000 stores. We had a period of massive growth during the pandemic, but a lot of our marketing strategy hinges on in-person interaction, whether it’s demos or local trade shows. We had to pivot all of that to digital.

Then, there was the hiring piece. When we started 2020, I was the only full-time employee. We’ll be a team of 10 by the end of this quarter, and most of us have never met each other. Being able to create a sense of culture and get through the “storming, norming, and performing,” all while we’re not together, has definitely been a challenge.

Really sit back and listen to the struggles your customers are having, and think about how your product can hopefully solve that.

It was also just a really heavy, bittersweet time because the pandemic happened. From a business perspective, we saw pantry-loading, and then we saw things slow down. And then George Floyd was murdered. Then, there was a desire to support POC-owned brands, and that created an influx of inbound like I could have never imagined.

I reckoned with a lot of guilt around that, because our business was in a good spot, and yet this really unfortunate circumstance happened where a man lost his life and all this overdue conversation was happening. It felt like a lot, especially during a time when our country was really hurting.

We asked: How do we use the benefits that have been coming to us in order to put more good into the world? We doubled down on our efforts with the Food Equality Initiative, re-focused on Blessings In A Backpack to feed the growing number of food insecure families in our country, and launched the Fellowship Program. We were still tiny – we were, like, three full-time people – and we asked, “Do we have the bandwidth to do this?” But we cared so much about it, and really just decided that we had to make it happen. We leaned in on learning how we could bring some positivity to the world.

I meet a lot of emerging consumer entrepreneurs who think of brand as a logo, or packaging on shelf. But I think of it as every single interaction that a customer has with your company, whether it’s a customer service response, or an interaction at a trade show, or how somebody responds to your comment on social media.

Mita: If you could go back to talk to yourself when you were first selling cookies out of your car, what would you wish you could tell yourself?

Denise: I’d wish that I could tell myself not to “wish it all away.”

When I was going to natural food stores, I spent so much time thinking, “I can’t wait until we get into Whole Foods.” And once we got into whole foods I’d say, “I can’t wait until we launch nationally.” We closed some friends and family funding, and I said, “I can’t wait till we raise a Series A.” Rather than savoring those moments ,because now I can’t go back, and we actually have a team and resources. I can’t deliver cookies out of my car anymore, because it would mess up our inventory system. If I could go back, I’d really try to enjoy all of those moments that felt painful at the time. The destination is the journey.

Branching out into new products

Mita: Have you thought about branching out into other types of foods, or other types of desserts that go along with the same philosophy?

Denise: Definitely. One of the other reasons we went with the name Partake is because I didn’t want to be pigeonholed to one product. We just launched baking mix and brownie mix. In the next 30 to 60 days, we have a couple more products in that line coming out. After that, we’ll be going further into the snack aisle with products that are not cookies.

A lot of this stuff didn’t even come from Coca Cola, it came  from my five-year-old.

I look at brands like Annie’s Organic, and how they’ve been able to play across every aisle of the grocery store. That’s my dream for Partake one day.

The “hustle” of being an entrepreneur

Mita: You clearly have hustling in your blood. For people who haven’t started yet, do you recommend starting off small and then breaking off into something larger?

Denise: I think it really depends on your definition of success, and how fast you’re trying to get there. I knew we would face a hurdle with raising money, so I don’t think it would have been possible for me to start bigger. I don’t think I could have convinced anyone to give me money to start a business.

But then I look at friends who raised pre-seed rounds that are as big as our series A, before they even had a product. So I think it really depends on how fast you’re trying to build the business, what type of access to capital you have, and what tools you need to get started. Some businesses are just more capital intensive to begin with. I think it depends on each person’s individual journey.

As we went out and did lots of demos, my husband and I would have these competitions. I’d lead with all the features and benefits. He’d say, “You just want to taste a good cookie.” And he would beat me every single time.

Taking the leap into entrepreneurship

Mita: What took you mentally from the suggestion to apply for that initial grant, all the way to actually going for it and submitting your application?

Denise: It was my husband.

Entrepreneurship really is a family experience. Everybody needs to be onboard. My husband was like, “It’s such a good idea!” It felt pretty serendipitous, because I spent my time at Coke on the big trademark stuff, but now suddenly I was working with these entrepreneurs. They were regular people who were just really passionate about something, and they were using that passion and hard work and determination to build scalable businesses.

When I was going to natural food stores, I spent so much time thinking, “I can’t wait until we get into Whole Foods.” And once we got into whole foods I’d say, “I can’t wait until we launch nationally.” If I could go back, I’d really try to enjoy all of those moments that felt painful at the time.

Building a successful team

Mita: You mentioned that your team is now 10 people who have not met in person. What is your philosophy for hiring and team building?

Denise: We’re still learning as we go. We have a weekly “water cooler” meeting where we just sit around and talk about the Netflix show Bling Empire, and get to know each other on a more personal level. We have bi-weekly all hands meetings, which are team building events. We did a coffee tasting with some folks in Ecuador recently, which was really cool.

These things have translated to being really helpful with our day-to-day work. Just make an effort to have your team get to know each other, and really celebrate each other.

I’ve really let our functional team leads hire. I’ve let them start to build out their teams, because they know what they need more than I know what they need. Let your team have the freedom to build their part of the organization in the way that makes the most sense.

On creating work/life balance

Mita: How do you find work-life balance with your exploding business and a six-year-old at home?

Denise: It’s more like work/life integration. Right now I’m sitting in my daughter’s bedroom with a stack of children’s books propping up my laptop, with sweat pants on the bottom and a fancy shirt on the top. That sums up my life. Things get done, and it’s a little messy, but as long as my daughter knows that she is loved and safe and is happy, and our business is thriving, and our employees are happy, then I’ll consider it a win. I’m just figuring it out as I go. I’m making a point to ensure everyone, including myself, is getting some love.

Mita: We can’t thank you enough, Denise. We are huge, huge fans.

Denise: Thank you so much for having me.

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