YUMI, Baby Food of the Future
Many months ago now, I got a mysterious-sounding email in my inbox: an invitation to a private dinner party at the home of Angela Sutherland in the Hollywood Hills. I had yet to meet Angela, but the dinner sounded like it was bound to be interesting, and I readily accepted the invitation. The night was just as magical as I had imagined. Angela lives on a beautiful estate in Hollywood, and we dined outdoors beside a long pool overlooking all of Hollywood below.
And at this dinner I had the good fortune to sit next to Evelyn Rusli, a former journalist for the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, who told me all about the new baby food company she was launching with Angela -- YUMI. I so enjoyed learning about the way these two women are revolutionizing the baby food industry, and I'm excited to share their story with you.
(At the very bottom you'll find a promo code for a percentage off your first order from YUMI.)
What did each of you do professionally before launching Yumi? How did that propel you toward, and prepare you for, running Yumi?
Angela: I worked in private equity leading turnarounds for a range of companies. I traveled the country, working on everything from seafood distribution to industrial brushes. The experience gave me hands-on operational experience and fanned a deep passion for helping companies grow and thrive.
Evelyn: I was a journalist at the Wall Street Journal and, before that, at the New York Times, covering innovation and startups. I spent nearly a decade interviewing founders of all stripes and researching what works and doesn’t work when building a business. In many ways, this front row seat provided a fascinating education. It was also psychological preparation. From day one, I knew how hard this would be and the kind of sacrifices it would require. To be honest, I don’t think anything can quite prepare you for entrepreneurship, but it did help.
What was the state of the baby food industry before Yumi entered it, and what does Yumi seek to do differently?
Angela: There’s a huge disconnect between what babies need and what the baby food companies offer. Researchers and doctors have identified a period called “the First 1000 Days,” which is the period spanning from in utero to age 2. It is the most important period in a person’s life, nutritionally speaking. And yet most baby food products on the market are still high in fruit sugar, low in nutrition, and older than the babies eating them. We are excited that with Yumi we have the opportunity to not only help babies enter this world healthier, but even more broadly, to change the conversation on infant and child nutrition.
Where did you meet, and how did you decide to go into business together?
Evelyn: Angela and I have known each other for several years as friends. My fiance, Daniel, who is also an entrepreneur introduced us. I distinctly remember our first meeting, because right before I met Angela and her husband, Daniel pulled me aside and said, “Be nice to Angela, she’s one of the smartest people I know and one day you two are going to start a company.” I thought the statement was absurd, because A) I consider myself a generally nice person and B) because it was such a bold claim. I was a journalist at that point and had never told Daniel that entrepreneurship was the next step. But he knew.
Angela: A couple years later, I was pregnant with my first daughter and discovered just how broken the baby food market is. I could not find nutritionally sound options that were also fresh and low in fructose. I shared my research and insight with Evelyn, and told her how frustrated I felt as a working mom. It felt like I only had two options: become a dietitian overnight and cook every meal or feel like I was compromising at the grocery store. I told her a new company should exist to solve for this, and without skipping a beat she heartily agreed. From the outside looking in, it’s kind of nutty -- how we decided so quickly to eschew careers we had spent more than a decade building. But I think that’s a reflection of how strongly we felt about Yumi’s mission from day one. We just looked at each other and knew, why of course we will quit our jobs to do this crazy thing.
What has been the biggest hurdle or unexpected challenge in starting Yumi?
Evelyn: There are so many challenges in building a business. One of the biggest challenges is in building a team. Fortunately, we each have a strong co-founder. We work together exceptionally well, we possess complementary skills, and we’re both incredibly passionate about our shared mission. But running a company is hard, and management is especially hard work. We’ve had to learn how to select people able to thrive in the chaotic and unpredictable nature of a startup environment. We are also constantly navigating how to get the best out of each employee, given that each person is unique, and therefore possesses a different work style and levers that motivate them. The perpetual avalanche of stress that comes with running a business hard, too, but it’s also incredibly rewarding and by far the most fun we’ve ever had in a job.
What has been your personal highlight of the past year?
Evelyn: Getting engaged. We joke that Angela “married” me first, but I’m excited to build a different kind of family with Daniel.
Angela: My son, Ronan, was born a little over a year ago. He, and my daughter Elodie, are definitely highlights in my life.
Angela: Securing financing and officially launching the company this past spring. That moment when you go from zero to one, and actually have a product in the world, is so special. I still get giddy when I read an email from a customer or see a picture of a smiling baby eating our food on Instagram. Does that ever get old?
I know you used some really fun and unique methods (dinner parties, etc.) to get out the word about Yumi right before the launch. Can you share the details with our readers? Why did you decide to take that approach?
Evelyn: It takes a village, as they say.
Real movements start with real people and creating a genuine community. We’re also big believers in the idea that gatherings -- putting interesting, ambitious people together -- unlocks unexpected magic for everyone. Men have long had many forums to network, whether the boardroom or the golf course, so we, as women, felt a responsibility to create these forums for other women and pay it forward. So we decided to take advantage of Angela’s stunning estate in the Hollywood Hills to host a series of dinner parties with like-minded women across multiple industries -- tech, entertainment, and health & wellness, media, retail. We’ve had dinner with over 250 female leaders in the past year.
Our gatherings are not about marketing Yumi per se, but rather about getting great people together and helping women support women. In the early days of a startup, I think it’s really important that people understand what you stand for. You want them to know the product, but if you’re not communicating the values of the company, the product doesn’t stand for much.
Let’s talk investment money. Revolutionizing an industry like baby food must require a great deal of capital. Have you taken funding? If so, what was the fundraising process like for you?
ANGELA: Yes, we’re so lucky to have an amazing group of investors. We have venture capital firms like August Capital, NEA, and Brand Foundry in our corner, in addition to some of the brightest minds in tech like Matt Mullenweg, the force behind Wordpress and Ali Partovi, who co-founded Code.org and was one of the earliest backers of Dropbox and Facebook. I don’t think any founder truly enjoys the fundraising process, as it takes time away from the act of building, but we were pretty lucky in finding a passionate group of investors who truly understood our mission and vision. That said, we definitely heard our share of “nos” and male VCs who tried to convince us that moms would never buy our product -- because they love spending hours every day in the kitchen. Yes, that really happened.
What new and exciting things can we expect to see from Yumi in the year to come?
Angela: I can’t believe it’s already 2018. It’s going to be a busy year as we plan to roll out our operations into new markets domestically, as well as launch a line of snacks. It’s important to us to not only to reach new families across the US, but also grow with our current customers and expand our offerings to support parents as their kids grow from babies to toddlers. And, as always, we are constantly recipe-testing with our team of chefs and nutritionists and will be expanding beyond our portfolio of 50 flavors.
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photographs courtesy of YUMI