The saying goes, “If you want something done right, do it yourself.” Angela Sutherland and Evelyn Rusli are the epitome of the proverb. As the co-founders of Yumi, the homemade delivery baby food company, they’re challenging the standards of the “Big Baby Food” industry.
It was so important to Angela and Evelyn to fix the static baby food industry that they each left successful careers in other fields to start Yumi. Read on for their story.
Let’s start at the beginning. What whitespace did you see in the baby food market?
Angela: When I was pregnant with my first child, I did what a lot of new parents do — I went down the long, long rabbit hole of Google research. In that process, I came across studies on “The First 1000 Days,” a period of time identified by researchers and doctors as the most important in a person’s life for nutrition. I grew up in Michigan and was largely raised on the idea that adults are the ones who have to worry about their diet — that adults shouldn’t have the cupcakes because of their diet, but kids can eat anything they want because they have their whole life to worry about nutrition. It turns out the exact opposite is true.
Later, when my daughter was ready to begin solid foods, I was completely shocked to realize just how deficient all of the store bought options were. The big baby food industry is dominated by products that are older than the babies eating them, high in fruit-based sugars, and low in nutrition! I was in disbelief that over the last 100 years, baby food has changed very little and was not giving kids what they need. I felt compelled to do something about it.
Describe the journey from when you first had the idea for Yumi to actually making it a reality.
Angela: As I was uncovering all this research, I was sharing it with my friends, including Evelyn who I’ve known for years. She was working for the Wall Street Journal at the time. As a journalist, she naturally started digging-in and read all the clinical studies I had collected. We went on a trip with my family to Arizona, and while our husbands were ATV-ing, we kept circling on this idea of building a new baby food company to solve all these gaps. Within a few weeks, we both gave our two weeks notice and decided “OK, we’re doing this.” At the time, I was the breadwinner in the family, so I spoke with my husband about it and explained that I would need to take a roughly 100% pay cut but it was for a really, really good cause. He was my biggest cheerleader from day one.
How did you each find the confidence to give up your previous ventures and pursue a new career?
Evelyn: It’s not easy to walk away from a career you’ve been building and nurturing for more than a decade. There are internal and external pressures to stay on that path. When I was 18 and decided to be a journalist, I had a PLAN, and that plan was going perfectly. But accomplishing a plan you hatched at 18 doesn’t necessarily equal fulfillment. I felt myself increasingly drawn to entrepreneurship; I was enamored by its almost obsessive nature. Everyday, you apply your blood, sweat, and literal tears in the hope that you can change the world in a very particular way. I loved the mission of Yumi from day one.
Angela: Our backgrounds are sort of the perfect complement. I was the math major, she was the English major — she is the words to my numbers. Meanwhile, in my former life as a director of a private equity firm, I was very familiar with the nuts and bolts of operations and what it takes to build thriving, sustainable businesses. I enjoy nerding out on unit economics. Evelyn, meanwhile, is a natural storyteller. She pulls threads together and helps distill complex concepts into more digestible forms. We both saw Yumi as more than a product off the shelf. To succeed, Yumi would have to be a highly scalable business, but it would also have to be a movement, a movement that inspires other families to demand changes in Big Baby Food.
What’s a typical day in your lives like?
Evelyn: One of the amazing things about being an entrepreneur is just how fundamentally — often unpredictably — different each day is from the next. On one day, we could be in the test kitchens working with chefs and nutritionists to develop new recipes. On another day, we could be on the road meeting with potential partners, which includes everything from marketing to packaging to prospective investors. We try to create some boundaries within the chaos, and we both intentionally set aside time to think about big picture strategy and what’s coming around the corner.
One of the hardest things about building a startup is the constant context switching. It can be mentally and physically taxing. But let’s be real — it’s also a lot of fun.
What is it like working together when you both have very different backgrounds/experiences?
Evelyn: We simply can’t stand each other, it’s really becoming a challenge. Obviously, I kid, she was literally the officiant at my wedding. I’m the godmother to her son. Her family is my family and vice versa. That said, we’re very different in terms of skills and how we approach problems, which certainly leads to arguments about decisions. However, that’s exactly why we wanted to be partners. You need someone who is going to challenge your ideas and push you to see a problem from a different angle. That friction is healthy for a startup.
Angela: For all our differences, I do think our partnership works because we are similar in the areas that matter. Our fundamental values are the same, which is why we’re so passionate about Yumi’s mission. We’re also crazy hard workers, perhaps to a fault. I’ve never doubted for a second that Evelyn isn’t doing everything she can to make this a success. We completely trust each other’s judgment.
Baby food is a contentious industry. How did you choose ingredients and suppliers? What about pricing?
Angela: For us, quality is everything. It is our #1 priority to give babies the highest quality ingredients, sourced from the best organic farms in the country. When you look at consumer trends and the preferences of the modern day parent, it’s clear that this generation has a very different attitude towards food than previous generations. Today’s parents have a much deeper understanding of food, and how it affects their health and wellness. They care about organic, they expect freshness, and they also look for brand transparency.
The legacy brands are out of touch. Last year, Consumer Reports revealed that grocery store baby food brands tested positive for an array of heavy metals. That same week, we put up a map online to show our customers how we pick our farms based on the government’s soil readings. We avoid areas that test high for heavy metals, and we avoid certain ingredients like brown rice, which often tests high for arsenic.
Our pricing reflects the multitude of differentiators that we offer to consumers: high quality ingredients, customized content, shipping straight to your doorstep, and sustainable packaging. As we scale, we will be able to pass along savings to our families, but our consistent growth month-over-month indicates that we’re already filling a huge demand in the market.
Looking back, what’s one thing you would have done differently when you first started out?
Evelyn: We’ve both grown so much from this process, but I think one thing we would have done differently in the beginning would be our approach to hiring. We would have hired more people out of the gate. We would have put more effort into recruiting. At the end of the day, success or failure is determined by the people you have on that bus.
Where do you see the baby food industry going in the future? How do you see it evolving?
Angela: Hopefully, out of the dark ages. If the baby food industry is still dominated by two-year-old room temperature chicken stew in a jar, I’ll be shocked.
We’re trying to shed an intense light on the Big Baby Food industry. There’s simply no excuse for the low level of innovation, freshness or quality. Most baby foods, including some newcomers, are still laden with fruit-based sugars and are incredibly low in nutrition. We hope that by showcasing the importance of early childhood nutrition that we’ll not only elevate the dialogue on baby food today but will also push the entire industry to improve. Babies deserve it.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
Evelyn: Someone once told me that “all businesses are inherently people-based.” In the same way that we apply the saying “It takes a village” when it comes to motherhood, I have seen that the same goes for businesses — they are nourished by people and our extended networks. Since starting Yumi, I’ve lost track of the number of times a friend has helped me work through a problem, provided valuable insights, or served as a resource in some way. So many people have helped in the making of Yumi. These interactions are a constant reminder to stay humble and to not be afraid to ask for help.
What’s next for Yumi?
Angela: We’re so excited to launch a new line of snacks and finger foods this spring. It has always been our mission to grow with our customer and to provide offerings for kids as they transition from babies to toddlers. In America, the number one veggie for a toddler is the french fry. That’s absurd. Families deserve healthier options across the 1,000 days. Whether it’s purees, snacks, finger foods, or beyond, we have a lot of work to do.