Zoe Wong ’13, Co-founder of Revive Foods, Gives Produce a Second Chance
Below are comments from Zoe Wong ’13, Co-Founder of Revive Foods:
Can you speak a little about your business and why you started it? How does Revive Foods fulfill its mission?
I’ve been passionate about social entrepreneurship since I was first introduced to it during my freshmen year at Cornell. I always knew I wanted to start something but at the time, I didn’t have the right inspiration or clarity around what social issue area I wanted to pursue. It wasn’t until I moved to San Francisco when a lot of pieces started coming together for me. Growing up in Hong Kong where 90% of produce is imported, I had very little appreciation of fruits and vegetables because it was never fresh and often tasted bland. In SF, I was suddenly introduced to the amazing abundance, variety and quality of California produce and was blown away. I also learned how much of this food goes to waste (40% of all edible food is wasted in the US!) – I was both furious and inspired to do something about this issue. From a young age, my parents taught me to always cherish and not waste food, as they both came from modest backgrounds with only just enough food to get by. I didn’t realize it until recently that food waste was an issue I’ve always felt strongly about, and am now confident that this is an issue I want to dedicate my time solving through social entrepreneurship. At Revive Foods, we recover surplus produce to create delicious, healthier and more affordable food products – starting with jam.
What aspect about Revive Foods makes you “come alive?”
Revive has tremendous potential to reduce food waste by diverting perfectly edible produce from being thrown into compost and landfills. With our projections, we expect to recover over 2.5 million pounds of produce a year by 2020. Beyond our mission to reduce food waste, we are also passionate about healthy eating. We’re starting with making healthier alternatives to commercial jams, but also have many other delicious food products in mind that we hope will provide healthier options for folks across the country and world.
As a recent graduate building a business, what are the greatest challenges you faced and what would you have changed to overcome those challenges more easily?
The greatest challenge has definitely been lacking real world experience in building a business. There’s only so much you can learn in a classroom and from reading articles/books. At the end of the day, entrepreneurship (whether driven by a social mission or not) comes down to getting your hands dirty and dealing with real people, opportunities and challenges. I sought out mentors with certain areas of expertise that I knew I was missing and developed close relationships with them. My mentors have provided me with invaluable advice on various business decisions and challenges I had to make and overcome. Maybe I would have made fewer mistakes or maybe have been able to move forward quicker if I had previous startup or industry experience. But I wouldn’t do anything differently – starting a business for the first time and learning about an entirely new industry on the go has been the most educational, challenging and exciting experience yet!
What are the most important lessons you’ve learned from creating your business so far? Are there any lessons especially important in social entrepreneurship?
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned so far in building a business is the importance of humility. In building any business, you are bound to make mistakes – it is so important to always remain humble, be quick to accept your mistakes and apologize, and learn and grow from your experience. As a for-profit social enterprise, there will always be tension between maximizing impact and maximizing profits, but it is important to remember why you started your business in the first place. I’ve learned to always let our mission guide our decisions or at the very least to not let a decision compromise our mission.
What experiences/skills/knowledge were you able to leverage in building your business?
Even though I was Sociology major in A&S, I took a range of entrepreneurship and social entrepreneurship classes at Cornell through AEM and the Johnson School. I also did a range of extracurriculars and internships related to social enterprise and impact investing that have contributed to my knowledge of the space. In building Revive, I have leveraged (and continue to leverage) my experiences in and out of the classroom during my time at Cornell, e.g. creating business plans including financial projections and managing multiple, diverse stakeholders.
How did you fund the production of Revive Foods? Do you have any tips in striking a deal with potential investors?
My cofounder and I are currently bootstrapping with our savings. We also have $5,000 we won at a recent food business competition at UT Austin. No tips on striking a deal with investors yet as we are just about to start raising our seed round… maybe ask me in 6 months!
Can you speak a little about your upcoming opportunity at Young Women Social Entrepreneurs? What did you hope to gain from the experience?
The YWSE event I spoke at happened last month – it was a fantastic speaking opportunity for me to share my story with 20-30 women who are all passionate about social change. I met a lot of great people who are interested in helping our business in various capacities, and gained a lot of valuable advice and suggestions for our business.
Where do you see your business in the next 3-5 years?
In 3-5 years, we hope to have expanded our fruit recovery partnerships across California and the West Coast, and be selling our jams nationally. By then, we also hope to have introduced our next line of food products.
What words of wisdom do you have for students aspiring to be social entrepreneurs?
It is important to be passionate about the problem your business is trying to solve – this is what’s going to get you through the low moments of entrepreneurship and keep you motivated to succeed.