Zoe Feldman has three passions: Food, diversity and inclusion.
As the new head of the Chobani Incubator program, she’s able to work on all of them. The program, which works with early stage food startups to help them build their business — and gives them a $25,000 grant to put into their brands — will give her the opportunity to work with some of the brightest prospects for the future of food.
The incubator's next eight-member class, announced today, is mostly made up of companies with leaders who are women and minorities — two groups that are underrepresented in the food space. In the latest incubator class, 75% have an underrepresented minority founder and 63% have a female founder or co-founder.
This year's incubator class includes Afia Foods, Cocina 54, The Meat Hook, Mason Dixie Biscuit Co., Cannonborough Beverage Company, Edesia Nutrition / MeWe, Seal the Seasons and Thaifusions.
It was Feldman's idea to differentiate the incubator class in this way, but it wasn’t difficult. Of all of the applicants, according to Chobani, 57% had a female founder or co-founder and 41% had an underrepresented minority founder or co-founder.
"When you don't have people in the boardroom who are representative of other cultures or ethnicities, races, geographies, life experience, class, … even military status. ...When you don't have folks to whom you can look for in that station, I think oftentimes people feel like the other, and they feel like they're being shut out of an industry that is ... a rich tapestry of a lot of different types of folks, experiences," Feldman told Food Dive.
Feldman has worked with the CPG industry her entire career, both with brands at PepsiCo and on the venture capital side with funders and accelerators Cleveland Avenue and Almanac Investments. And she knows the statistics. According to Pitchbook, companies with female founders only got about 2% of venture capital funds in 2018. According to 2015 statistics from CB Insights, only 1% of funded startup founders were black.
"When you don't have folks to whom you can look for in that station, I think oftentimes people feel like the other, and they feel like they're being shut out of an industry that is ... a rich tapestry of a lot of different types of folks, experiences."
Director, Chobani Incubator
While a big part of this problem is the lack of representation of females and minorities among funders, another part is not knowing how to talk to funders, how to ask the right questions and how to have the right degree of confidence. Feldman said a big part of the help she will provide is coaching through these common issues and providing valuable feedback.
She also hopes to share the basic playbook of how the CPG industry works. Chobani Incubator participants get access to professionals at Chobani throughout the four-month program, as well as mentoring from leaders at other companies.
"It's about that baseline, you know? Making sure that everybody has the tools and the ability and the vernacular to be able to go and have those conversations with funders, with retailers, with sales folks, with, you know, whomever," Feldman said.
Mason Dixie Biscuit CEO Ayeshah Abuelhiga told Food Dive she's excited for the opportunity to work with the Chobani Incubator. Her company, which is based in the Washington, D.C. area, makes frozen biscuits. The company's products are sold in 2,600 grocery stores nationwide, and it's seen about 171% growth in each four-week period, she said.
Abuelhiga isn't the stereotypical food business CEO, especially for a business making Southern fare, since she is a half Korean and half Palestinian woman. She said she's never been challenged because of her background, but it was difficult to get funding at the beginning because she is a woman. The industry, she said, is ripe for more women and minorities heading companies.
"All of these brands that are breaking down barriers, offering innovative products, and need the stage to talk about it. We do. You need that stage," Abuelhiga told Food Dive. "So this is an awesome opportunity. I love that Chobani took a leap of faith on this one in and controlled the selection process to be groundbreaking that way."
Abuelhiga said what she is the most excited for is meeting Chobani founder Hamdi Ulukaya. A Turkish immigrant who started the company in 2005 with a Small Business Administration loan — and a lot of advice against getting into the yogurt space — who was able to transform the entire industry. Chobani is now the leader in the $9 billion yogurt industry, and often is the trendsetter which other yogurt companies try to emulate.
Feldman said Ulukaya shares her personal business philosophy. Feldman looks forward to working with the businesses in the incubator class to bring their unique flavors, cuisines and stories to the world through food.
The companies in the incubator program bring new experiences and ideas to the food business. In addition to Mason Dixie Biscuit, the rest of the companies in this year's class are:
- Edesia Nutrition’s founder, Navyn Salem, has been making Plumpy’Nut, a peanut-based high calorie food for more than 8 million malnourished children worldwide since 2010 — and she’s now launching a product for the U.S. market.
- Afia Foods, founded by Syrian native Farrah Moussallati Sibai — and with employees who are Sibai’s family members who fled the Syrian civil war — uses authentic recipes to make frozen Middle Eastern favorites.
- Cocina 54, with Argentine immigrants Cecilia Panichelli and Federico Carrillo at the helm, makes frozen empanadas.
- The Meat Hook is a Brooklyn, New York-based butcher with grassfed meat from small, local farms.
- Cannonborough Beverage Company was founded in 2012 by friends Matt Fendley, Mick Matricciano and Brandon Wogamon. They create craft sodas from fresh and natural ingredients.
- Seal the Seasons freezes local produce at the peak of freshness for sale other times of the year.
- Thaifusions, founded by Max Bortwick and parents Toi and Tom, makes sauces and curries based on family recipes from Thailand.
Feldman said the food business is on the road to more diversity and inclusion — though it's not there just yet.
"I feel like my team is taking a really solid, necessary first step, and my hope and goal is that other folks in the industry will see the example that Chobani is setting and want to start having those conversations in a meaningful way and commit to moving forward with, you know, helping to support underrepresented founders," Feldman said.