Holding The Door Wide Open with Denise Woodard

June 9, 2022

(highlights from Episode #6 of the Gutsiest Brands podcast)

There is so much to unpack in our latest Gutsiest Brands podcast where GutCheck’s Chief Revenue Officer, Jess Gaedeke, sits down with Denise Woodard, Founder and CEO of Partake Foods. They talk food allergies, grassroots campaigns for change, inclusivity, and Denise’s connections to Jay-Z, Rihanna, and Beyoncé. 

Denise herself is a powerhouse of a woman! She launched Partake Foods in 2017 with nothing but friends and family investments. She then became the first Black woman to raise over $1MM in funding for a food and beverage company. She is a champion of inclusivity that extends way past simple food allergies. She partners with HBCUs to expand access to opportunities in her sector, and she partners nationally with No Kid Hungry to support food stability and equality. In between all of that, she had time to share her journey and her best advice with us… 

Takeaway #1 Listen to Dad (aka Learn from Entrepreneurs)

Denise’s father worked as a driver for a trucking company. He eventually purchased his own truck, then a fleet of trucks, and now runs his own shipping company. Denise says her dad taught her that “If you had a problem, you didn’t sit around and complain about it. You tried to do something to solve it. And I feel like my entrepreneurial venture really came from that same premise.” Denise was facing a problem with her one-year-old daughter who was diagnosed with allergies to eggs, corn, tree nuts, and bananas. She says, “I dreamed of a brand that made products that tasted good, that had ingredients [my daughter] could understand, but was cool enough that people who didn’t have to eat it out of medical necessity would choose to eat it.” And oh boy did she succeed! 

Takeaway #2 Inclusivity Is Key, Always and Everywhere! 

“Through my experiences growing the business and fundraising as a woman, as a person of color, and as a first-time founder, I started to realize that there’s a whole bunch more people who need the opportunity to partake. And that’s where this bigger idea of championing inclusivity outside of just thinking about food allergies came from.” From choosing investors who align with her brand mission, hiring diverse and underserved workers, to supporting foodinsecure families, Denise certainly walks the walk when it comes to creating an inclusive environment. “I think it’s good business and I think it’s the right thing to do to, to really focus heavily on diversity and inclusion.” 

Takeaway #3 Pick Investors Who Align with Your Vision 

When Denise started Partake, she was attracting her most die-hard investors right off the bat—”It was my old colleagues, my husband’s old colleagues; I remember someone’s great aunt was so into the idea and probably became the biggest investor in [the first] round.” Raising over $400K from friends and family, Denise was able to test and prove her concept for Partake. By the time more formal funding came around, Denise was ready. “We found phenomenal partners and that opened my eyes to how important it is to have the right investors around the table with you to let you guide the business in the way that is the right way for the business to grow. I think that’s where a lot of headache happens when there’s a misalignment of expectations. And I’m very transparent from day one.”

Takeaway #4 – Invest in the Changes You Want to See 

When Denise worked in corporate America, she was frustrated by the lack of diversity in management roles. She vowed that she would not have that problem in her own company, but then she came up against a new problem. “When I went to hire, I needed folks who either had executive big CPG experience or had been at a fast growth startup. And the applicant pool that fit those criteria was pretty homogenous and I was frustrated.” Did Denise wait for someone else to fix that problem? Absolutely not. Instead, “we launched the Black Futures and Food and Beverage Fellowship in September of 2020, alongside five historically Black colleges and universities. We run an eight-week curriculum where we go through the nuts and bolts of the food industry and then it culminates with…a career day where we’ve helped our fellows find job or internship opportunities.” By providing access to these opportunities, Denise is making change happen at a grassroots level, which is where all change has to begin.

Takeaway #5 – Data, Data, and More Data 

When Denise started Partake Foods, she kept her finger on the pulse of her consumers and their feedback. “Data’s definitely been important to me from day one. When I stopped selling cookies out of my car, the first retailers we went into were Whole Foods and Wegmans. We specifically sought out those retailers because they had data portals and I could see the numbers on how I was performing, and I could see what was performing well and what wasn’t performing well. And then I could utilize that to make decisions.” Data has allowed Denise to narrow her flavors and offerings, target just the right retailers, and know where to invest more or less to receive maximum ROI. “It’s so valuable. And until you’ve had the data, I don’t think you realize how valuable it is. Armed with data you can take on a lot.”  

Denise‘s Best Advice?

After the murder of George Floyd in 2020, Denise saw a shift in the recognition of inequities that exist in the world of retail, venture capital, and education. She encourages us to seize this opportunity for change. “I’m trying to hold the door open as wide as I can and help as many other founders through the door as possible, as quickly as possible. I don’t think it’s a lack of hard work or good ideas or good products. I think that there’s just so many other things that exist in our society that make it really hard for women entrepreneurs, for Black women entrepreneurs to succeed and to excel.” Like Denise, we should all aim to hold the door wider for everyone. 

Keep Learning 

Catch up on Jess and Denise’s full interview by listening to the Gutsiest Brands podcast. You will also find incredible interviews with other female founders and investors, as well as leading innovation and brand strategists from the likes of Colgate Palmolive and Microsoft. If you are interested in how your brand can uncover the deep customer insights that can enable you to lead with empathy, pioneer new paths, stand behind bold ideas, and lean into ‘the power of AND’, we’d love to help. Drop us a note!

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