Create & Cultivate 100: Food: Tina Sharkey

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Tina Sharkey wants to sell you all your pantry staples—for a price that’s actually fair.

Tina wanted to shake up the food, health, cleaning, and office supply categories with products that were clean, organic, vegan, non-GMO, and gluten-free. And so she launched Brandless with her cofounder, Ido Leffler, in 2017. Brandless offers staples like peanut butter, bath tissue, granola, body wash, and other non-perishables and daily necessities—but with better and fairer pricing. We’re huge fans of Tina’s business ethos (including her commitment to fighting hunger with business profits), and we know you will be too.

What was the inspiration behind Brandless, and what aspects do you think have really resonated with people to achieve the level of success it has reached?

When my co-founder Ido Leffler and I began working on Brandless in 2015, it was during a heightened time of division in our country. We saw people rejecting establishment and institutions all across different ages and demographics. We also noticed this rejection applying to the legacy brands they had grown up with. In fact, 77 percent of millennials were saying they didn’t want to buy the brands that their parents used. With Brandless, we saw an opportunity to create a new kind of brand that is rooted in truth, trust and transparency. One that puts people first.

For us, that meant building Brandless as a community and movement alongside people who share our belief that everyone deserves better. We are constantly connecting and having conversations with our community, and listening to what matters most to them to curate our assortment. For some, that may mean they want organic or vegan food, while for others that means they only use beauty products that are clean and cruelty-free. We’re in two-way conversations with them every day. After all, people are people and they just want to be heard and treated fairly.

The price point at Brandless is very affordable. Why does that business model work for you?

Brandless is built on the premise that everyone deserves better and better doesn’t need to cost more. We are removing the inefficiencies in how traditional goods are created, bought and sold, and are inventing a new system that cuts out a lot of those inefficiencies (a.k.a the middleman) and ships directly to the community of people who buy and use our products. We want to create a world where people aren’t forced to choose between what matters to them and what they can afford.

How did you come to the decision to take the leap from VC to the food industry and why?

I went into venture capital because I wanted to leverage my experience as an active angel investor and social media community and platform builder to help give unfair advantages to entrepreneurs. It was also a great cross-training experience for my personal and professional development. I’ve had the opportunity to sit on multiple boards of companies across different stages and sectors, and to mentor and coach so many talented founders and teams.

With a new vantage point, I was inspired to think bigger about new opportunities. When we started Brandless, it was through the lens of both profit AND purpose (aka social entrepreneurship). We had the intention of creating a new system and a new kind of community-informed brand that would fundamentally impact our modern society and make a positive change in the world.

If you could have a meal with someone, living or deceased, who would it be and why?

I would like to have a meal with Michelle Obama. I respect the way she has been able to gracefully balance both internal and external focus and success. She seems to successfully shift her focus and energy between her inwardly focused role as an anchor to her family, and her externally focused role -- using her platform to promote kindness, inclusivity, positive societal change and personal empowerment.

I’d especially love to get her perspective when it comes to mastering the four Ps: Prioritization (ranking and ordering so many important roles), Productivity (getting so much done personally and professionally), Privilege (having a rarified platform she can use for good) and Poise (handling this all with grace under pressure, especially under the public eye).

We wanted to create a new system and a new kind of community-informed brand that would fundamentally impact our modern society and make a positive change in the world.

What about your job makes you feel the most fulfilled?

I feel most fulfilled when I can facilitate opportunities for people on our team and in my life to manifest their passions, interests and intentions. I think of myself as a player-coach. I love when I can support behind the scenes and leverage my experience and network to mentor my teammates and help them cut corners, accelerate projects and connect dots they may not have seen.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

To take feedback seriously, but not personally.

What’s been the biggest surprise or highlight of your career to date?

I was invited by Steph Curry shortly after the Brandless launch in summer 2017 to give a private talk at a summit with an extraordinary group of athletes interested in learning more about investing in, building and operating early stage companies. My eldest son Jacob was interning at the summit before he entered USC that fall. My talk was centered on Brandless’ mission to build a new kind of company. One that puts people first, practices tangible acts of kindness every day and believes that everyone deserves better. In the middle of my remarks, Steph stood up and asked if they could invest because they wanted to fuel a company like ours with such a powerful purpose. I was in shock; caught completely by surprise, especially given that I was not raising additional investment dollars at that time. I remember looking up and across the room in what felt like super slow motion to make eye contact with Jacob as he waved his hands motioning that I should accept Steph’s offer. Sharing that surreal real-time moment and my speechless, tearful reaction in front of every All Star who was eager to endorse Brandless in the same room at the same time with Jacob was priceless. It was one of the most poignant moments of my career.

Where does your passion/drive come from?

My favorite quote is by Hillel who said, “If I’m not for myself, who will be for me? If I’m only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?” I use that as my filter on life and it drives my intention for leaving this world a better place than it was before I came. This also inspires my passion for building communities based on shared affinities, values and aspirations, where I can help facilitate the creation of pathways for people to walk their walk, meet their goals and collectively improve this world we all inhabit.

What keeps you up at night?

That 40 million people go hungry in this country every day, and that’s just simply NOT okay.

Whose career really inspires you?

I am surrounded by role models. My dear friend Aileen Lee inspires me because she makes all kinds of awesome things happen every day, everywhere. After cutting her teeth in banking, going back to get her MBA at Harvard, then working at the heels of Mickey Drexler—one of the brightest minds in retail, she found her way to Sand Hill Road and became a partner at the storied VC Kleiner Perkins. From there, she founded one of the first female-led venture firms—Cowboy Ventures, where they now invest in some of the best early stage companies and founders in the industry. Aileen also coined the word and the research behind what defines a “unicorn” company. Most recently, she has galvanized an extraordinary group of female investors to fuel AllRaise.org, a movement dedicated to increasing diversity in venture and founders. In addition to her day job, which includes running a fund and firm, investing in great founders and companies and sitting on Boards to guide young companies, Aileen is an engaged wife and mom of three, softball coach, school board member, convener of constant friends and strangers and a champion of fun wherever and whenever. I could go on and on about the many ways she inspires.

Take feedback seriously, not personally.

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What has been your biggest opportunity or biggest challenge as a business owner?

Scaling the Brandless platform as quickly as possible to keep up with the extraordinary demand.

What are the common challenges you've seen among female business owners?

The relentless pursuit of perfection. Women want to be great at everything all at once while prioritizing family, friendship, personal care, work (not possible). Additionally, we sometimes can overthink the small stuff and don’t ask for help. Remember, you can have it all, just not at the same time. Perfect can be the enemy of progress. Try making small improvements every day.

When you hit a bump or hurdle in your career, how do you find a new road + switch gears to find success?

There were times in my career where I felt I had hit a plateau in my current position or I felt ready for the next challenge and began to look elsewhere. A big lesson for me is that sometimes, before you look for “greener pastures,” you can create new opportunities and get re-engaged on your home turf.

While leading BabyCenter globally at Johnson and Johnson, I felt that J&J could benefit from a public face to speak on maternal health. I advocated for the company to dedicate funds toward tackling these specific issues and soon became the spokesperson for an entirely new initiative. We created the Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action (MAMA) with the U.S. State Department to serve women in need of more resources across the world, and it was announced by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Instead of looking outside, I created a new opportunity within the larger J&J global platform. By seeing an opportunity, advocating for myself and the issue I believed in, and recognizing the value both my team and I could lend and leverage, I was able to catalyze a real and tangible impact within the larger organization.

Sometimes, it’s not others who will create that opportunity for you, but YOU who need to create it for yourself and for others.

VIEW THE FULL CREATE & CULTIVATE 100 FOOD LIST HERE.