Black Korean Female Founder Overcomes VC Bias To Disrupt CPG Industry

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Denise Woodard, founder and CEO at Partake Foods with her daughter

Partake Foods, allergy-friendly snack

Partake Foods was founded by Denise Woodard, a Black Korean-American who has successfully overcome funding and team-building challenges to provide delicious and nutritious snacks for those with food allergies.

With a strong mission-and-values alignment, strategic partnerships, and intentional communication within the team, Partake has become a leading brand in the CPG industry while its founder has become a role model for other women of color wanting to launch and scale their businesses.

By prioritizing the needs of its customers and employees, Partake continues to pave the way for a more inclusive and equitable future in the food and beverage industry. So it’s not just about delicious snacks but also about creating positive change in the world.

Success Proves Need For Allergy-Friendly Snacks

The consumer packaged goods sector is a large and growing market. It was worth $ 2.1 trillion in 2022 and is forecast to grow to $2.4 trillion by 2028.

The CPG market offers a significant opportunity for female founders to leverage their unique perspectives and experiences. These entrepreneurs thrive in the sector due to their deep understanding of consumer needs and, often, their mission-driven approach. It is one of the most popular sectors for female founders seeking venture capital.*

During the summer of 2016, Denise Woodard’s daughter was diagnosed with severe food allergies. “At the time, my now 8-year-old daughter was 1 and had been recently diagnosed with allergies to tree nuts, eggs, corn, and bananas,” she sighed. “I was anxious, scared, and frustrated with the existing options. I felt there were some gaps from a taste and nutritional perspective.”

Frustrated with the limited options available for her daughter’s dietary needs, Woodard saw an opportunity to create a brand that would cater to those with allergies and appeal to a wider audience. While juggling her corporate job as director of national sales for Venturing & Emerging Brands at the Coca-Cola KO Company, Woodard laid the foundation for Partake Foods to launch the next year. She left Coca-Cola in August 2017 to officially launch her startup.

Partake has evolved since its inception, expanding its product line to include graham crackers, pancake and waffle mixes, and expanding its distribution from 50 stores to over 12,000 stores nationwide, including Amazon AMZN , Kroger, Target TGT , Walmart, and Whole Foods Market WFM .

The company has partnered with well-known brands such as:

  • For Ben & Jerry’s, Partake provides a gluten-free, allergy-free oatmeal raisin cookie used in Oatmeal Dream Pie ice cream.
  • DoubleTree by Hilton is known for providing warm chocolate chip cookies at check-in. It now offers a Partake Doubletree collaboration for those with food allergies.
  • American Airlines provides Partake cookies in its first-class cabins.

The company launched a nonprofit, Black Futures Fellowship, to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion in the CPG food and beverage industry by matching HBCU students with paid internships and job opportunities at CPG food and beverage companies. It has become more serious about its efforts to eradicate food insecurity.

Short-Sighted VCs Didn’t See the Potential

Denise Woodard, founder and CEO at Partake Foods

Partake Foods, allergy-friendly snack

“[Entrepreneurship is like] I’m playing a game of dodgeball,” exclaimed Woodard. “And I think just when we dodge one obstacle, another seems to pop up. But we continue to persevere. The biggest obstacle has been funding.”

Black women represent 13.9% of all women in the U.S. and a slightly greater⎯14.8%of all women-owned businesses*. In 2021, they received less than .34% of venture capital.

So, it has been challenging to continue raising money to fund the business’s growth. “I’m really proud of our group of investors because I think they align with me and the company from a mission and values perspective, but I’ve been told ‘no’ a lot along the way. So funding has been a big challenge.”

The way Woodard overcame funding challenges was to continue to partner with people who believe in her and want to continue to support Partake’s growth. She takes providing metrics very seriously. Investors can’t deny your success if you run a good business, show growth, and focus on margins and profitability.

“We’ve raised over $20 million of outside capital,” exclaimed Woodard. Investors include Black Star Fund, Bobby Wagner, CAST US Fund, CircleUp Growth Partners, Fearless Fund, FF2032, Jay-Z’s Marcy Venture Partners, John Foraker, Kevin Johnson’s Black Capital, and Rihanna.

She’s always networking. “You never know where your next investor introduction will come from,” she said.

Partake is a minority-owned business certified by the National Minority Supplier Development Council (NMSDC). The NMSDC Growth Initiative Certification permits certified minority business enterprises (MBEs) to secure equity capital from institutional investors. As a certified M/WBE, Partake has increased access to contracts with government agencies and large corporations, greater visibility and exposure to potential customers and partners, as well as access to networking opportunities and resources.

“I’ve been very deliberate in how I’ve raised capital and who I’ve raised capital from, as well as in the composition of our board of directors,” said Woodard. “Our investor base is predominantly people of color.”

Building out a team is always challenging. Partake now has 17 remote employees. “One of the reasons that people are here is because they believe in what we stand for as a company,” said Woodard “So making sure that we’re continually living our values, as an organization, with our internal and external stakeholders is critical. As is keeping the team engaged and motivated.”

From benefits to hiring practices to listening to employees, Partake prioritizes communication and connection among its employees. The company holds in-person meetings twice a year and offers optional 15-minute coffee chats weekly for employees to discuss personal and professional matters.

Additionally, the leadership team has daily 15-minute huddles to stay informed and connected with each other. “By being deliberate about constant communication, we ensure that everyone is up to date and has the opportunity to connect personally and professionally,” Woodard said. This approach effectively addresses the need for connection and prevents work from becoming solely transactional.

How are you overcoming entrepreneurial obstacles?

*The author of this author co-produced the research report.

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