Build a Healthier Generation with Angela Sutherland

November 29, 2022
James Whittaker

Check out this episode on the Win the Day Podcast

The most difficult thing is the decision to act; the rest is merely tenacity.”

Amelia Earhart

If you’re a parent, you’ll know how difficult it can be to get healthy food for your children, especially with so much deception in the food industry.

But what you may not know is that scientists consider nutrition in the first 1,000 days of a child’s life to be the most important environmental factor in human development.

Pregnant with her second child — and unhappy with the food options available for her first baby — Angela Sutherland and her co-founder, Evelyn Rusli, set out to do something about it. In 2015, they launched Yumi with a mission to build a healthier generation.

Today, Yumi has become one of the fastest-growing kids nutrition companies with more than 10 million meals delivered.

They’ve raised more than $70 million in funding and their investors include the founders of Uber, Harry’s, and Warby Parker, as well as such celebrities as Snoop Dogg and Gabrielle Union. Focused on empowering women, Yumi’s Series B funding round also brought in 70 new women investors and women-led firms. Public fans of Yumi include Jessica Alba, Gigi Hadid, and Molly Sims.

Prior to her entrepreneurial journey, Angela was a director at a private equity firm and an investment banker at Goldman Sachs. Her mother was a refugee of the Vietnam War, moving to America in 1975. 

In this episode:

  • Balancing kids with career
  • Toughest moments along the way
  • The best lessons from Angela’s entrepreneurial journey, and
  • How she built Yumi into the powerhouse it is today.

Let’s WIN THE DAY with Angela Sutherland!

James Whittaker:
Angela, great to see you! What an amazing journey you've had. 

You were born in the US but your mum was a refugee of the Vietnam War. How open was she with you about the struggles that she had to overcome? And are there any specific lessons or stories she shared with you that you remember today?

Angela Sutherland:
That's a great question. Who I am today is absolutely because of what she went through. She was probably the strongest person I have ever met. One of the things that we talked about was just how much you can overcome – so how much the world can throw at you and you don't let that stop you from life. 

We really actually never got into details of the war until I was maybe in my 20s. I think it was something we never really talked about because it was too close, too soon, too painful. But one of the things that she instilled in me was how much you can do with your life and how you should never let anything get you down and hold you back. 

Never let anything get you down and hold you back.

I carry that forward today, the sense of unbridled optimism: “It's okay. Shake it off. The world's going to be great. Everything's going to be okay.” Feeling that way allows me to get through really tough decisions and really tough times. Because if you let the world weigh you down, it will. 

There's a lot of things in this world that are unfair or scary. That’s why you need to be optimistic that the world is better and will be better, and that mindset allowed me to push further in my career and take bigger risks.

So that's the lesson that she imparted to me.

Your mum went on to eventually have a lot of success in her own right, owning the largest minority owned auto supplier in the US. Was she a business mentor to you specifically or was it more of a traditional mother-daughter relationship?

She wasn't a business mentor per se.

The company really started right after she passed away. But my whole life was surrounded by business. From as young as I can remember, around the dinner table, I'd listen to conversations about streamlining supply chains. So, by proxy, you're around it all the time. You hear it all the time. A great mentorship can come from seeing struggle and success.
When we talk about mentorship or when I talk about it broadly, I actually think the best mentors – or people that you should look for as mentors – are not necessarily the ones that can teach you the most specifically about an assignment or your job, but rather can teach you the most about yourself. You need to find someone who believes in you and allows you to believe in yourself.

A great mentorship can come from seeing struggle and success.

That relationship can build confidence and resilience because you feel like, “Hey, this mentor believes in me. This older smart person believes in me. And if that's true, I should probably believe in myself too.”

To me, that’s what good mentorship is. So in that sense, she has absolutely been a mentor to me because she always gave me that.

What are you focused on as your kids get older to make sure that they're strong, resilient, and resourceful?

My kids right now are six and eight and so it's actually a really good time to have conversations at dinnertime around a variety of concepts. We talk about resilience and optimism. We talk about not letting something bother you.

You can see it in early ages when kids get very frustrated. They can't finish an assignment. They get something wrong and they get very angry. And it's just about taking a deep breath, thinking about what to do, and focusing on how you can fix it.

There's no such thing as a problem, it's just a way to find a solution. Nothing should stop you here.

We talk about how there's no such thing as a problem, it's just a way to find a solution. Nothing should stop you here. Or it's little things, like there's no losing – there's winning and learning. There's little things that we try to talk about so that way they see that life is a long journey. 

There's no moment in time. So today you might not have done as well as you thought, but you can learn from that and then you can still win.

Yeah, that love of learning is such an important thing to instill. 

What about your time in private equity and investment banking? Did you reach a point where you just said, enough is enough, I need to get out of here and do my own thing or did you just feel like that it was a natural evolution for you to go and tread your own path?

I actually loved both of those experiences. So it wouldn't be because I hated it that I had to get out of it!

I was on the side where you're actually the interim CRO or CFO to multiple companies. So I was already on the operations side. I always wanted to start something, take over something, operate. 

it just became a natural evolution because a problem presented itself that I was really passionate about. And I think that's a good path. Either you could be frustrated with what your life is and do something, but for me I was very excited about an opportunity.

Was there anything you saw in the companies that you worked with where you were like, "If I ever have my own company, I would never ever do this"!?

Certainly. I was doing distress debt, so we were turning around companies – and there were a lot of learnings there. 

For me, it broke down that all companies are inherently the same. Learning that was a really great gift because a lot of people think they have one singular expertise, “I'm really good at this job. I'm in this field. I'd be scared to switch sectors.”

Private equity is across all sectors. All companies are inherently the same: they need to make money, there are a lot of expenses, they can lose money. The age old problem is how do you reduce expenses and make more money? It’s the problem across every single industry.

So your skill set probably will apply in any other sector. Again, that was a gift because it made me less scared to start something. Because people often ask, "Did you have any experience in food?" I was like, "Not particularly."

But it didn't matter because it was a problem that I'd seen before and I could solve.

What was the problem that you wanted to solve with Yumi? And why did it fall on your shoulders to do it?

I'm a big nerd and so I do a lot of late night research into clinical trials and weird studies. 

When I was pregnant and when I had a baby, I started realizing that a lot of the work for parenting fell on the shoulders of a mother. There are decisions around anything that they consumed, what they were doing, what they're going to learn – all of these were problems that fell on a mother. 

Plus, I was working really long hours, I was in private equity and what to feed my baby fell on me. So I started doing research around this. And I've always been fascinated with long term sectors, and one of them has always been healthcare. With metabolic disease, aging population, that entire sector I think is interesting and will change. Also with food, obviously I eat! But I've always been interested in how the agricultural system will change and what's going to happen there.

When I started researching around childhood nutrition, I was gobsmacked that early childhood nutrition is a period that is actually epigenetic, meaning it alters the expression of your genes. So people are like, “Oh, they're born this way.” Actually nutrition in this period can alter that.

Early childhood nutrition is a period that is actually epigenetic, meaning it alters the expression of your genes.

An easy example of that is if you don't get enough vitamin D or calcium, you get rickets. You're born, you can't grow as much. There are tons of examples around that, but it's actually true across all vitamins and minerals. So if you don't get enough iron, your brain doesn't have enough to make neural development, so it can stunt your IQ. 

Knowing this really started opening my eyes to growing disparities between affluent cultures, between places in the world where people live. But if you don't have access to the right nutrition, it can actually change your trajectory.

When it comes to feeding your kid, a lot of people don't have a choice. They have to buy commercially made food. They don't have the time or the resources to make everything at home. 

If you take a step back on who that affects, it often affects working parents, it affects people that aren't as affluent. So for me, making a commercially available option for baby food was both a calling on I think the greater health and potential for children, but also on parenting. It's like can you offer a better solution for parents so they don't feel bad that they have to work all the time, they don't feel guilty for making these choices. 

And the first thousand days there, it's not the thousand days from when they're born, it's actually the thousand days that you are talking about in that example is in utero?

Yes, in utero.

And if you think about it, that makes so much sense. That is why your doctor prescribes prenatal vitamins. It is the actual nutrition that you're getting. And if you don't get enough, you don't take prenatal vitamins, your baby leeches it from your body. 

This is always really fascinating to me, but if you're not getting enough calcium, your baby will actually take it from a mother's bones.

Wow.

So it's so important. And that's why it's important to know all of these things, like how much your baby needs it. They're growing at an exponential rate. Of course they're going to need an exponential amount of these things to make that happen.

There are products that have been sitting on the shelf for five years, with 30 grams of sugar per serving. Parents have the best of intentions but the food industry is so misleading and deceptive. Words like ‘natural’ mean nothing.

That's right. And I think what's really a shame is that as a parent you make a thousand decisions. You make so many decisions in a day and you would love to be able to say I just trust this to be good. But because of all the deceptive marketing, because there's hidden things and you don't know what's right, you just end up going with something that other people have used or looks seemingly healthy enough.

If you're not getting enough calcium, your baby will actually take it from a mother's bones.

So at Yumi we focused on making a brand that was better, that did all of the tests, and was very transparent. And so that as we launch new things, people know and believe that our brand is better for you.

To me, that’s what’s been missing in this space.

We have a lot of Win the Day podcast listeners who are mums and either have, or want to have, their own business. And you mentioned a lot of the research that you’ve done.

How does someone go about finding studies and what are the best things to look up? 

I don't think everyone that starts a business has to go deep into clinical research.

I look at PubMed a lot. It depends what you're into. I was doing scientific research, which is not every business. I think that from a research perspective, if you're going to try to start a company though there's a lot out there on business plans and how do you start to make a deck, how do you start to formulate the concept of this company. 

One of the best things is actually putting it on paper. Can you pitch a friend? Can you pitch a parent? Because those are the hard ones because those are embarrassing! But if you can convince people, actual people, there's no reason why that doesn't translate to convincing the nation.

So it starts with the little things.

Did you have a hard time convincing friends? I feel like it would've been an absolute slam dunk. If I was in that room I would've said take my money!

The funny thing is how hesitant a lot of people are in general. People are very risk averse by nature. 

Yes, I have very supportive friends and family, but I also have people who were like “this exists already” or “good luck.” And I think that's actually a really good lesson too, is that you're going to have a lot of nos and a lot of people in this world that are going to be just more risk averse than you are. And I think you shouldn't let that stop you.

You have to believe in what you're doing and if you believe it enough and you're optimistic enough, you'll work past all of that.

Yeah. And sometimes the people who care about you most can say no. It's only when they see the momentum that you've been able to build externally that they come back on board and say “wow, it's interesting!”

Yes. Exactly. 

They think they're doing you a service by being so pessimistic. They think that they're protecting you in some ways. So I wouldn't even take that to heart. It is just how people are.

How difficult was the decision to start your business while being pregnant with your second child and obviously having to deal with the chaos of an existing toddler in the house!?

It was very difficult to make a leap during a time of change already. I already knew there was going to be a lot of work.

It also gave me strength to do it because after the first one you realize how fundamentally different your life is. And it already is different and it already is chaotic. So adding in some more chaos I felt was a cherry on top.

How has your mindset evolved since becoming a parent? Is there anything that you've taken from parenting that you’ve applied to business?

Being a parent adds a lot to my perspective around life and business. I think that it makes me much more of a long term thinker. I always joke about the longest long game is a child! Because you think you're doing these things and you're like, "Okay, I'm going to sleep train or not sleep train." You have no idea the effect of that until they're 18. I have no idea if this messed you up at all!

So it takes you out of the momentary gain to think more long term, which I think is very helpful. In the same way, it’s why I started the company, and it throws you into chaos. I'm very type A still, but I used to be very type A, organized, plans, and you realize with children you cannot do that. There's no plan that goes exactly to plan with children. So I think it makes you a little bit more flexible.

Everyone has a plan until the toddler turns up!

That's right.

Was there a business milestone that you hit where you were like, "Wow. This is just awesome. It's like a dream come true"?

Along the way there's always been a bunch of milestones that make me really proud. 

Even the first moment of quitting my job was a big moment. It was like, wow, I can't believe we're doing this. It was very exciting. And then the first time we raised money was again like, wow, we're doing this.

But really when we started hitting escape velocity. So when we started feeding 2%, 3%, 4% of babies born in America, you start realizing the impact that you have and how many people's lives are changing and how real this thing is. 

Then when we got into retail, it was actually this other pinch me moment this is nationwide. You can find it in every Target. This is the dream.

How did you balance exclusivity with Target versus distribution with a whole bunch of other stores?

We thought for a long time about who we should go with.

But for a couple reasons, we chose Target. One, 95% of our customers were actually also shopping at Target.

The mums love Target!

Yeah, mums love Target. So already, you have a great overlap of customer base. But on top of that everyone shops at Target. So you can be very, very wealthy, you can be taking food stamps and they accept it across the board. 

So you're getting broad exposure and it goes back to our mission of wanting to feed more people. We want to have health and nutrition available to more people. So it was a great overlap on the purpose that we wanted. 

When we started feeding 2%, 3%, 4% of babies born in America, you start realizing the impact and how many people's lives are changing.

And then I guess the third reason, which is not to diminish how good of a reason it is, but they're great partners. They're excellent partners to launch with. They work with a lot of startup companies and that allowed us to really see what it could look like at retail.

Have you been able to expand internationally or is that something on the horizon?

International is on the horizon. There’s so much demand for this worldwide.

I guess having Target as your partner gives you strong distribution channels all over the world. It’s got be a huge advantage when you do want to take that leap.

Yeah. Absolutely.

Again, that's a big consideration.Your partners need to be able to take you somewhere else.

You've had some incredible founders invest in your company, the likes of Warby Parker, Harry's, Uber. Even artists like Snoop Dog are involved.

How does it feel to have these people supporting you and your mission?

That's another milestone. It was pinch me moments every time. 

It gives you this confidence that what you're building is worthwhile. One, it's worthwhile from an investment perspective, but these are people and it's their personal money. And so when people part with personal money you know that they really believe in it. So it became this amazing, I guess, badge of honor to have these founders of very successful companies and brands and consumer goods take a look at it and say, "I love that. That needs to exist. I want to do that."

And a big part of what you wanted to do with your mission was to get more women to support you on the mission, which you’ve done so well.

Can you tell us a little bit about that decision and how important that is to you?

Absolutely.

We had someone who came to work with us for a period of time that I absolutely love, Sarah Marie Martin. She came from Goldman Sachs and she came in, looked at our cap table and she said, "It's a shame you have this product that's meant primarily for women and it's mostly men in your cap table. We should fix this."

She brought that to our attention and we went out specifically to then raise money from women. 

She brought that to our attention and we went out specifically to then raise money from women. Because women are often left out on the investment side. Women either don't have access to certain investments or they're more risk averse sometimes. But they're often left out and that's a huge asset class to be left out.

And so we're like, this should be something for women. Give access specifically to women. And so we went out and raised from women and amazing women joined in that.

Is there a particularly challenging day that you've had along this journey where you were like, "Oh my God. Is this journey even worth it? Are we going to be able to get unstuck?"

That's usually not my mindset. I generally don't think that there's anything that you can't get out of. So there's no quagmire that is too sticky. My general mindset is we'll figure this out.

Have there been times where that has gone on a long time? Absolutely. This is a very big one. But I think that my mindset is always we will find a way out of them.

I messaged a few friends of mine who are mums who have their own business and this was the common question that came back:

“Was there a specific moment when you felt a lot of doubt or overwhelm and how did you maintain that perseverance and that resilience?”

Yeah. I think most of the doubt comes before you make the leap. So there's so much self-doubt, there's so much, ‘what about’ kind of questions. Should I do something else? Is this the right thing? Just so many questions will come. 

But after you make the leap, there is no turning back. There is no, should I have done something else? You can't ask that question. You are here and you are going to make it work. And so I'd say the doubt happened much before that.

After you make the leap, there is no turning back. 

I have a really amazing co-founder, Evelyn. She compliments me in all the other ways. I'm a math person, she's an English person. But one of the things that she's very great at and I admire very much is that when she makes a decision, she goes for it and it helped me get out of that doubt.

So her being so certain about it helped me become certain of it. I think that’s true across a lot of co-founders. Finding someone who also believes in it can help you. Whether that's a partner, an actual co-founder or that's a spouse or somebody that's like, let's do this, you can do this, and then you make the jump.

Then, once you make the jump, you're already there.

If you were a professor and you were teaching a class on Business 101, you had to write a few key lessons or principles on the board, what would you write?

I've touched on it a lot, but I'd say that the number one thing is optimism. Attitude is everything. 

Doubt will seep in. This negativity can seep in. That negativity breeds more negativity. So I really think the number one thing you can do is believe in what you’re doing. Be optimistic, believe in it. It will work. And if you do, you'll find a solution.

So there's this level of perseverance, which comes from optimism, and it's the number one thing you should adopt in your life. A little bit of grit, keep going and it'll get everyone further than you ever imagined you would.

The second thing is to learn a little bit of the jargon. The fact that I used to work at Goldman Sachs and I used to be an investment banker and then was in private equity means that I had this jargon. I knew how to pitch and I knew what people were looking for and the metrics they were going to look at. So when I help people create their business plans, people that have never done that before, I try to give that a little bit into the deck and they've always said that that's the most helpful part.

The number one thing you can do is believe in what you’re doing. Be optimistic, believe in it. And if you do, you'll find a solution.

So reading other decks or seeing other things out there I think is very helpful. You learn the way that the system works and what you're supposed to say. And so I think jargon learning is important.

Then the third thing is to surround yourself with really good people. And it maybe feeds into the first one, but attitude is everything. So find people who are excited to work with it, work with you, work on the project, are passionate about something, because that becomes the momentum builder.

The early days, it's not like you're going to go poach someone who works at a huge tech company. The point is actually can you build momentum? Can you catapult yourself from stage one to two? Even the stage zero to one. 

Find people who are excited and motivated and everyone can work together and push you along, it’s such a big part of it. And to think that you should do it alone is a mistake because it's very hard to always self-motivate every day. In the same way it's hard to work out every day. Getting people to help build with you is such a big part of company building.

You mentioned you got the technical side and the jargon from your career. 

Where did the optimism, grit, and the growth mindset come from? Were there any specific books that helped shape that mindset for you?

Yeah, I've read all the growth mindset books. I actually started reading that only after I had kids though because it was for my children. But the obvious books are Grit [by Angela Duckworth] and Shoe Dog [by Phil Knight].

For me, it was more a collection, a compendium of advice and a compendium of books that led to this belief. But I'd say that pretty much every executive book out there will probably touch on similar topics. The overwhelming advice though was get through it, persevere.

How do you balance success with who you are as an individual, with success in the home, with success in the business? How do you balance all those things day to day and figure out what to prioritize on any given day?

That's a good question. I'm going to take that in a different way, which is how do I forgive myself sometimes with not being successful in certain ways? 

I was at a conference where Jeff Bezos said that he looks for what he's giving energy to. So sometimes in his life what's giving him the most energy is his family. And so he'll end work a little bit early, go home and spend time with his family or take his kids to school in the morning because that's giving the most energy. 
Then sometimes it's work that's giving him the most energy and he goes to work and he will work until 9:00 - 10:00 PM. because if he focused on energy more, it actually made him better in both settings.

If my kids can see me energized, happy, and excited, they're going to forgive me for not always being there when they get home or not doing everything for them at all times. 

So if he was at work and that was giving the most energy, then when he was with his kids, he was very present and excited because he was so excited about life. And if it was with his kids and he would go to work and he'd be giving it his all because he just had all this great time with his kids. 

To answer that question, I take that advice and I think for me it was about what do I want to give work and what do I want to give my kids? And if my kids can see me energized, happy, and excited every day, then they're going to forgive me for not always being there when they get home or not doing everything for them at all times. 

Same thing with work. If I can be more present at work – and be excited and be the leader that people want me to be –, that's going to pay more dividends than me just showing up and being in a bad mood or being not completely present.

Something I've written about before is you can't be productive without being present. A lot of stress and heartache seems to come when you're on your phone doing work stuff when you've got kids there or you're trying to focus on work stuff while kids are running around – all of the different derivatives of that. 

Intersecting worlds lead to bad outcomes.

I absolutely agree with that and I think that the pandemic really changed that for a lot of people. And it changed it for me too. Just anecdotally, I think it's really interesting because I really believe that's true. Having the ability to compartmentalize allows you to be present. 

When things get really muddled is when you have a lack of real presence and real present moment thinking.

On your best day, what's an affirmation that you would write on a flashcard that you could show yourself on your worst day?

One of my college advisors told me that showing up is 90% of life. And sometimes on your worst day you think, “I don't even want to go. I'd rather just not do something.” But if you just show up, good things will come out of that. 

So you never know. It’s advice that I still need to this day. On my worst day I still have those thoughts, but showing up is 90% of life.

Just show up.

Exactly.

That's what I say every time I go and do a fitness class. The goal isn't to do a great workout. The goal is to show up. They're going to kick your ass when you get there!

That's right. Just show up and big things will happen.

Final question, what's one thing you do to Win the Day?

Every day I try to be as optimistic as I can about the day itself, what I'm accomplishing and the goals that we're trying to set.

The Win the Day mentality. I love it! Angela, thanks so much for coming on the show.

Thank you so much for having me.


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