This Founder Sold Her Engagement Ring and Drained Her 401k to Start Her Business—Now Rihanna Is an Investor

March 9, 2021
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You asked for more content around business finances, so we’re delivering. Welcome to Money Matters where we give you an inside look at the pocketbooks of CEOs and entrepreneurs. In this series, you’ll learn what successful women in business spend on office spaces and employee salaries, how they knew it was time to hire someone to manage their finances, and their best advice for talking about money.

Denise Woodard isn’t averse to taking risks. After her daughter was diagnosed with severe food allergies, she took the plunge and left a steady paycheck and a nearly decade-long career at Coca-Cola Co. to fill the void for delicious, allergy-friendly snacks in the packaged food industry. With her desire to create safe snacks for her daughter, her experience in consumer packaged goods, and her wide network, there was just one thing standing in her way: capital. Despite Partake Foods gaining traction and securing local placement in Whole Food and Wegman stores, funds were tight early on. “In the beginning, I sold my engagement ring and drained my 401k,” Woodard tells Create & Cultivate. “The possibilities with Partake made those sacrifices worthwhile.”

Fast-forward to 2021 and those possibilities have certainly panned out. Partake Foods is now stocked in nearly 3,000 stores, including retailers such as Target, Whole Foods, and Sprouts, and Woodard recently made headlines as the first Black woman to raise $1 million for a food startup. In fact, more than half of the $7.5 million she’s raised for her startup is from Black investors—including Marcy Venture Partners (the VC fund Jay-Z co-founded), Grammy Award-winning artist H.E.R., and Rihanna—and that’s intentional. “As a Black and Asian woman, it’s important to me that I am bringing profit to Black investors that are going to take the returns and successes and reinvest them into other Black founders to keep that money circulating and growing,” explains Woodard.

Create & Cultivate recently caught up with the founder and CEO to talk about how she bootstrapped her business (and later raised VC funding), why she believes women should talk about money more, and the enduring legacy she wants to leave behind.

You left a nearly decade-long career at Coca-Cola Co. to launch Partake Foods after your daughter was diagnosed with severe food allergies. What inspired you to launch your business and pursue this path?

Well, actually, it was our sitter Martha (who now owns shares in Partake!) who said to me, “Vivi’s diet is so boring! You should really do something about that.” What she meant, knowing me and my experience in consumer packaged goods (CPG) food and beverage was “DO something about it.” So, I did. I wrecked my kitchen recipe testing the first cookies, but I knew I was on to something when Vivi genuinely loved them.

You recently raised $5 million in Series A funding from investors, including Rihanna, which makes Partake Foods her first investment beyond her personal ventures. No doubt you’ve learned a lot along the way. What are three crucial elements everyone should include in a pitch deck when raising money and why?

The pitch deck is absolutely important, and Partake’s deck has evolved substantially. It’s gotten shorter, if you can believe it, the more we’ve grown. And that’s what I think I would offer to those seeking pitch deck advice. How can you tell your story as impactfully and concisely as possible? Prioritize your why, your market opportunity, your growth projections, and your potential exits. Know your numbers and keep it tight. Can you ride in an elevator and pitch in the time it takes to get from the lobby to the board room? If not, tighten your story.  

More than half of the $7.5 million you’ve raised for your startup is from Black investors, including Marcy Venture Partners (the VC fund Jay-Z co-founded), and Grammy Award-winning artist H.E.R. What advice can you share for entrepreneurs on partnering with the right investors? What do investors need to bring to the table other than just money?

It’s been very important to me, as we’ve grown, to look at a few things when bringing on investors. First, I acknowledge the areas in which I want to lean on advisors. I am always learning, it’s in my DNA. I’m very curious and love studying the stories of businesses that succeed and fail. I also enjoy hearing from other people’s experiences, so having investors around me that bring a variety of expertise and disciplines to the table is critical.

Also, as a Black and Asian woman (my father is Black, my mother is Korean), it’s important to me that I am bringing profit to Black investors that are going to take the returns and successes and reinvest them into other Black founders to keep that money circulating and growing. Black business is not a charity. It’s a solid investment. It’s good business. Working with Black investors who see this and are willing to invest in Black and brown founders (especially Black and brown female founders) now, not just because it’s cool, is a legacy thing for me.

Startups led by Black women receive less than 1% of venture capital funding, and you recently made headlines as the first Black woman to raise $1 million for a packaged food startup. Why do you think there is still so much inequality in the venture capital world, and what advice can you share for WOC entrepreneurs who are currently seeking funding?

Project Diane and Digital Undivided do a lot of good work in this space, and I appreciate that they’re driving meaningful awareness around the details of this. Recently, they released their updated report that noted 93 Black women (of which I am one) and 90 Latinx women are the only ones on record to raise more than $1M publicly. That’s it. I think it’s important to contextualize and continue to reiterate that only 183 Black and brown women of record have achieved this. It’s not because of our ability, it’s because of an opportunity gap. And because of the oppressive systems that have kept us outside the leadership programs, the C-suites, the board rooms, the country clubs. It’s generations of being kept out and then “allowed in” when it’s convenient for white people in power. We are mentored much more than we are hired. 

Non-whites are no longer the minority—that language should be retired. And Black and brown female founders are showing significant business growth. Forbes reported late last year that “majority Black women-owned firms grew 67% from 2007 to 2012, compared to 27% for all women, and 50% from 2014 to 2019, representing the highest growth rate of any female demographic during that time frame.” 

We have buying power and can harness our communities to support each other. I am very grateful to be embraced and publicly supported by many in the Black community. Those who are white and in allyship with us can seek out and buy from us. And those allies in positions of power can invest in us. Again, not because it’s charity, but because it’s a solid investment.

Where do you think is the most important area for a business owner to focus their financial energy and why?

This is a subjective question, but to date, I do as much as I can with “sweat capital.” In the beginning, Partake was self-funded and self-distributed. I didn’t hire a full-time employee until 2020. All of our early dollars went to operations. But now, we have a larger and more balanced budget to ensure that we’re investing and reinvesting in areas that make the most sense for our growth. The safety and quality of our products are top priorities for us because customer enjoyment and trust are most important to us—for the short and long-term, it always comes down to enjoyment and trust. 

What was your first big expense as a business owner and how should small business owners prepare for that now? 

Buying ingredients in bulk took getting used to!

What are your top three largest expenses every month? 

They all tie back to operations. We are consistently buying for production, producing for current and forecasted orders, and shipping to distributors and retailers.

Do you pay yourself, and if so, how did you know what to pay yourself? 

I pay myself a modest salary, yes, but in the beginning, I sold my engagement ring and drained my 401k. The possibilities with Partake made those sacrifices worthwhile. It’s my, and my husband Jeremy’s, hope that we’ll eventually be able to repurchase an engagement ring one day!

Would you recommend other small business owners pay themselves?

This is really a personal decision, but my husband and I live and work in the NYC metro area, and our circumstances mandate a two-income household. 

How did you know you were ready to hire and what advice can you share on preparing for this stage of your business?

For the past few years, I have worked with trusted marketing and PR consultants, but gaining distribution in multiple regional stores (Whole Foods Market and Sprouts) and the possibilities of national distribution that came to fruition (Target, Trader Joes, Kroger), I knew full-time leadership and support was critical to getting everything done well. We now have a full-time team of six and the plan is to grow to 10 to 12 by the end of this year. 

Did you hire an accountant? Who helped you with the financial decisions and setup? 

Yes, we have a consulting accounting team. 

What apps or software are you using for finances? What’s worked and what hasn’t?

We use Quickbooks Online. 

Do you think women should talk about money and business more?  

Yes, the more we share, the more we bring to light the disparity that women, especially Black and brown women, live with every day. Not talking about it keeps things status quo. We need to move away from the status quo.

Do you have a financial mentor? Do you think business owners need one?

I have many trusted investors who have decades of experience building CPG businesses like ours, and I do check in often with them on a variety of questions. I wholly recommend seeking out mentors who have done the doing in your industry! 

What money mistakes have you made and learned from along the way?

One of my most memorable to date was in buying booth space at a large industry trade show a few years ago. I felt pressured to be there because of the other brands that were attending. With the money I spent, especially when you factor in travel expenses, I could have covered more ground hopping on the phone, flying to see individual buyers, or even cold emailing on LinkedIn. It just reiterated to me that this is my journey, and it doesn’t have to look like anyone else’s. 

With that, it’s important to note I wholly believe in real-life events. I’m always so grateful to get to connect with customers face-to-face, and I can’t wait for the world to open back up again so we can get back to offering samples of our products in grocery stores and at local consumer-facing conferences.

What have been some of the hardest money lessons you’ve learned along the way?

I have to spend money to make money. I know this intellectually, but my scrappiness and upbringing ingrained in me the need to make the absolute most with what I have. 

What is your best piece of financial advice for new entrepreneurs?

Know your numbers. Know your burn rate. Know how much it costs to acquire a customer (if that’s relevant to your business). Stick to your budget. Do everything you can to make the most of every dollar.

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