Allergy friendly food that tastes great.

Denise Woodard is the Founder and CEO of Partake Foods, a food and snack brand that offers delicious, allergy-friendly snacks and baking mixes that everyone can enjoy and feel confident sharing. Denise started Partake after her daughter was diagnosed with multiple food allergies, and she wanted more options that met their allergy needs, and tasted good.

My only regret is that I didn’t quit sooner, because it was the best decision I could have made.

Denise WoodardFounder, Partake Foods

Transcription

Katie Hankinson (00:00):

Welcome to building while flying a Sasha group podcast, where we interview business leaders about how they tackle challenges, stay resilient and navigate ever-changing skies.

Maribel Lara (00:12):

Denise is the founder and CEO of Partake foods, a natural food company that was inspired by her daughter’s experience with food allergies launched in 2017 partake first product delicious better for you. Allergy friendly cookies can now be found in more than 8,000 retailers. Denise is the first black woman to raise more than a million dollars publicly for a CPG food startup. To date, the company has raised over 7.5 million from investors, including Rihanna circle up growth partners and Marcy venture partners. Prior to launching partake. Denise spent a decade in consumer package goods at various fortune 100 companies.

Maribel Lara (00:58):

Hi Denise.

Denise Woodard (00:59):

Hi Maribel. So nice to be here in person.

Maribel Lara (01:01):

So nice to meet you. So Denise Woodward, founder, and CEO of partake foods. I’m so excited to meet you. Um, I have read all of these fabulous things about you, uh, and heard raving things from Julia, our producer. Um, and so I’m excited for our listeners to get to meet you. Um, I’m gonna jump around because that’s what I do. And I feel like there’s no being an entrepreneur, right? There’s no standard way that things happen. That’s

Denise Woodard (01:28):

Very windy

Maribel Lara (01:28):

Rose, right? So this won’t be any different whatsoever. So thank you so much for covering out time to be with us. I know that you’re super busy. Um, I wanna start, like, let’s start broadly and assume we’ve got some listeners who aren’t familiar with you, or aren’t familiar with partake foods. What should they know about you and what should they know about partake foods?

Denise Woodard (01:48):

Sure. So I’m Denise Wood, the founder and CEO of partake foods. Um, originally from North Carolina spent my career in corporate America, nearly a decade at Coca-Cola leading sales for their venturing and emerging brands group. Um, I was inspired to start partake. I had the idea for the company in the summer of 2016 when my daughter was diagnosed with multiple food allergies. And I was so frustrated with the lack of options that I could find for her, um, that met our needs from a taste perspective and a nutritional perspective. And that I felt like she would be able to share confidently with her friends. Um, and so I decided to do something about it and that’s how partake foods was born.

Maribel Lara (02:25):

All right. I’m gonna ask you a question about that later. Um, let’s start with, uh, so as I was doing my research right, as we did our research, one of the things that stood out for me is an interview you did with Inc earlier this year, and I’m gonna read the headline because, um, to me, it, it says a lot. So she was rejected by 86 investors before hearing a single yes. And it was from Jay-Z. So we’re gonna break that up cuz just the first part of that I feel like tells me so much about you before we had even met, right? Like I consider myself a pretty strong person, but I think, well before 86, like I would’ve been in a hole somewhere and not sure that I would’ve been able to push forward, but you found resilience, fortitude call it what you will. Where did you find that? Like where did that come from?

Denise Woodard (03:18):

I think a few places. So as a black and Asian woman, I feel like I’ve been underestimated probably my entire life. Neither one of my parents graduated from high school. I grew up in a small town. I went on to college to get a master’s degree and to have a successful career in corporate America. But along the way, I had doubters every single at every single corner. I remember the guidance counselor in high school told me to go to the local community college, which totally fine path, but was not the right path for me. Right. Um, so I think there was that I had a chip on my shoulder from there and then I had a bigger north star, which I would encourage of any entrepreneur cuz this road is hard and lonely and long. And so if you’re doing it to get famous or to get rich, mm-hmm, <affirmative>, you’re probably not gonna be able to sustain yourself on the journey. And for me, my north star was my daughter and wanting to do something better for her. And even though she’s young, I knew that she was watching me and I couldn’t imagine looking her in the eye and saying, mommy, quit because I was gonna make something better for you. But then it got hard and people told me no. And so those were the things that kept me going.

Maribel Lara (04:22):

I love it. So everyone take notes, have a north star remind yourself of what it is, cuz in moments like that, it’s easy to forget. Um, I was also nodding my head as you. I was like, yeah, that sounds familiar. Yep. Guidance, counselor story. I got that one. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. Um, and so I’m sure a lot of people are gonna be nodding their heads along with you. So now the second part of that, so you get a yes. It’s not from like someone that people have never heard of. Right. Like I think we can all agree. Jay-Z knows a thing or two about making money and running business. What did that feel like?

Denise Woodard (04:57):

It felt like a fresh start in validation and a chance to be able to grow a business and scale the business. Um, prior to that, we had primarily bootstrap the business. I still have a wedding band, but I sold my engagement ring. I emptied my 401k. I maxed out every single credit card that I had. And when Marcy venture partners, which is the venture capital firm that Jay Z co-founded said, yes, we had $4,000 in the business bank account. Um, but because of that greater north star and because of the feedback we were hearing from customers, like I truly believed in what we were doing and then hearing that yes really gave me the validation that someone, a group of people who were really smart and had looked at hundreds of businesses, thought we were onto something and believed in me. And I think that allowed me to dream a bigger dream than I had before.

Maribel Lara (05:44):

What do you think that Marcy ventures saw that others didn’t see and there was probably stuff they couldn’t look past, right. To see what like truly mattered. What do you think they saw?

Denise Woodard (05:54):

Well, I think they like the product a lot. I think they like the cookies, but I think they also wanted to get to know me as a person and understand what drove me. And I think seeing that resilience and seeing that grit and the willingness to do whatever it takes to make the business succeed. I think they were really at that early stage in the business betting on me and trying to understand why I had this vision for the company. And it was to create something better for my daughter. It was to create more diversity and access in the food industry, which I think were things that they really believed were important.

Maribel Lara (06:23):

Yeah. Um, you have a great what I would consider a great story about turning a frustration into an opportunity. So, um, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, we saw this like nationwide call to action and move by many businesses to support more black founders, black businesses. Um, and there’s a little sting to that because you started to hear from folks that you were like, I was knocking on your door. I was sending you emails and now you’re interested, but I feel like you turned that into an opportunity. So talk to us a little about, about that.

Denise Woodard (07:01):

Sure. Thanks. So in 2019, our business, we were, I was one employee. We were in 350 stores, but we knew 2020 was gonna be a big year. We were gonna go into target nationally and expand our distribution to about 5,000 stores. And we had just gotten on target store shelves the week, the first week in may and then George Floyd got murdered. And to your point, we started to get inbound. Like I could have never imagined from brand partners and influencers and potential investors and retailers and all these people. And so it’s hard to sift through the noise there. I think we leaned even harder into the partnerships that were already there. Like for target, for example, we met them in the bathroom line of a trade show in 2017 with Ziploc bag samples and they were having black own business fairs back in 2017 and 2018 before it was in Vogue to think about DEI mm-hmm <affirmative>.

Denise Woodard (07:48):

So we lean deeper into those partnerships and for the other ones, we said, well, if this gives us an opportunity to amplify our business, that we can then turn into something to support other underrepresented underestimated companies and founders and communities, then by all means let’s do it. And one of the things that was born out of that was our black futures and food and beverage fellowship program. We launched that in this fall of 2020, when we were just a team of three, I was really frustrated with the lack of diversity that I was seeing in the food industry, as we were looking to scale our company and had had that same experience in my corporate career when I looked around the room and there was no one who looked like me or had similar experiences and I thought, well, what can we do about that?

Denise Woodard (08:26):

And so we partnered with several HBCUs to start a fellowship program. It’s eight weeks of the nuts and bolts of the CPG and food industry. And it culminates with the virtual career day, which I hope is in person at some point, um, where we’ve been able to bring partners like Shani and Mars and beyond amazing and Pepsi code to the table to help hire our students, our fellows for job and internship opportunities. And so it was a very unfortunate circumstance and this totally overdue conversation, but then I felt a responsibility to try to do something good with that.

Maribel Lara (08:56):

Yeah. You know, I think that’s the reality of like the working world, right? Like when we come from places of, um, you know, if you’ve been an activist in any way, shape or form, if you’re consider yourself a person who like is adamant about what’s right. Um, it can be hard to swallow the fact that like things aren’t perfect, like there’s so much gray in our world. Um, I made the shift from education to the corporate world and felt like a sellout when I did that originally. Um, and so there was a lot of conversation that I have there and I feel like that happens a lot in business too. And I think it’s a really powerful example of like, look, it wasn’t a perfect situation, but here’s how we make good mm-hmm <affirmative> out of things that can feel a little imperfect

Denise Woodard (09:40):

For sure. And I think to your point, like whether you’re an education or the public sector or the private sector, like if you are an activist and if you are someone who doesn’t feel comfortable with things that are inequitable, like you can make a change from whatever seat you’re

Maribel Lara (09:52):

In. Yeah. And man, it’s nice when we have like power. Right. Mm-hmm <affirmative> I, I often joke. I’m just like I made this decision. Right. I felt like I was part of the revolution. I was like, but now I wanna help fund the revolution. Mm-hmm <affirmative> and that means being part of corporate America. Yeah. And making change from within mm-hmm <affirmative> so, um, really great example. Uh, so let’s talk about Sesame street.

Denise Woodard (10:14):

<laugh> big bird and cookie monster.

Maribel Lara (10:17):

Yes. Tell the people,

Denise Woodard (10:19):

Uh, we just launched a new co-branded line with Sesame street. We have a cookie monster chocolate chip cookie mix and an Elmo confetti cookie mix. It’s probably the first time my daughter thinks I have actually done something cool. <laugh> we’re super excited about it. It’s just add water and oil and you have delicious warm cookies that are vegan and gluten free and safe to share with nearly anybody. Um, and they’re delicious.

Maribel Lara (10:41):

Ugh. So you’ve got tremendous accolades, right? Like money from Marcy ventures. Right. Uh Jay-Z’s um, company, um, uh, having worked at Coca-Cola now this partnership with Sesame street, I wanna talk about like entrepreneurship. So I understand you’re north star. Um, did you always want to be an entrepreneur or did this idea move you to want to be an entrepreneur or was it a little of

Denise Woodard (11:10):

Both? I was gonna say it’s a combination of both my dad’s an entrepreneur. He was in the army for a while and then became an over the road truck driver. And over time he was able to save enough money to buy one truck and then another truck and start a small trucking company in my hometown. And through that, I saw how much hard work and work ethic and determination that it takes to start a company. I think oftentimes entrepreneurship is glamorized and 99.9% of it is heads down in the weeds, serving your people, trying to, trying to move the business forward. Um, so I knew how hard it was and I really loved the career I had in corporate America. So I would only leave if I had an idea that I felt could impact millions of people and that I could really scale. I always had a side hustle though. Don’t get me wrong. I had an eBay business that was making like six figures at some point in my career at Coke. I was a ticket broker at some period. So I always had something. Yeah. But I never had anything worth leaving my career and kind of risking at all for, until partake came

Maribel Lara (12:05):

Along. Amazing. Um, that is not something I have in my DNA. I’m too scared to do it. I was built to support entrepreneurs. Right. Uh, and then there are those that were built to, to be entrepreneurs. So let’s keep talking about building. Um, this podcast is called building while flying. In what ways would you say partake foods is established and in what ways would you say you’re still building?

Denise Woodard (12:30):

Holy Mo that’s a good question. So I think the ways that we’re established, you can find our cookies in nearly 10,000 stores now. So we have a lot of distribution. We have a super experienced team that I’m so grateful for. We have super, but we have a contract manufacturing partner that’s super buttoned up that we’re scaling with. So I think there’s a lot of fundamentals to the business that are, are we feel really good about, but the ways that we’re still kind of building while flying processes and procedures and all of those things that I kind of was like, oh yeah, that stuff from corporate America. I see why it’s really important as you scale the business. So we’re starting to implement that. We’re starting to implement feedback systems. Like I wanna make sure our employees, um, know what success looks like. I wanna make sure that they’re getting the support and the career development that they need. And so investing in learning and training and development for the team. So I think there’s definitely a lot of places that we have to grow. Um, but I’m really proud of how far we’ve come.

Maribel Lara (13:26):

Yeah. I feel like processes is one of those areas you’re never done, right? Because the processes you need change as you get bigger, they change as you introduce like new areas of business. Um, so it’s never ending. There’s always a need for a new process.

Denise Woodard (13:43):

It doesn’t get boring. I’ll tell you that.

Maribel Lara (13:45):

Um, thank you so much. This was a wonderful conversation. I’m really excited that people are get to gonna get to know you and get to know partake.

Denise Woodard (13:53):

I appreciate it. Thank you for the opportunity. It was such a nice conversation. Love

Maribel Lara (13:57):

It.

Katie Hankinson (13:59):

Thanks for joining us for building while flying today. I hope you learned as much as we did. We’ll meet you right back here next time for another flight.

Mickey Cloud (14:10):

If you’d like to hear more about how business owners and brands are navigating these times tune into the next episode. And if you’re so kind, please rate and review us, plus we’d love feedback. So let us know what you think, what you’d like us to dig into next on building while flying across brands, businesses, marketing, and more

Katie Hankinson (14:25):

Original music by Fulton street music group.

Welcome to Building While Flying!

This weekly podcast is brought to you by Sasha Group. We’re the consultancy meets agency arm of the VaynerX family of companies. We help ambitious companies build strong brands that flex with the times through strategy, branding media and marketing.

In ever-changing times, businesses and brands have to shift and adapt. And across all sectors, there is an air of experimentation. Business owners are trying new things out in the wild;  building the plane while flying.

Our pilots, Katie Hankinson and Mickey Cloud, will be talking to a diverse range of business leaders and founders. They’ll explore how these guests tackle various challenges while staying resilient and committed to growth. Through these real-life examples of strategies put into practice, we hope to inspire you to experiment and develop your own strategies as we all navigate these uncertain times together.

Far Beyond Cookies: Fellowships, Fundraising, and more. 

Denise Woodard is the Founder and CEO of Partake Foods, a food and snack brand that offers delicious, allergy-friendly snacks and baking mixes that everyone can enjoy and feel confident sharing. Denise started Partake after her daughter was diagnosed with multiple food allergies, and she wanted more options that met their allergy needs, and tasted good.

In addition to offering delicious snacks and mixes, Partake fights food insecurity through partnerships and education, and offers an annual fellowship program that mentors HBCU students and helps with job and internship placement. 

In this episode of Building While Flying, Denise joins Maribel Lara to talk about her journey from the corporate world to entrepreneur and founder. Denise shares the challenges she faced along the way, and offers guidance for aspiring entrepreneurs.

Other in-flight topics:

  • How Partake Foods was born
  • Pitching and working with investors
  • Leaning into strategic partnerships
  • Expanding their retail presence
  • Representation in the food industry
  • …and more!

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