We’re sure you’ve heard of the infamous saying, “you can’t have your cake and eat it too”. Yet, this marketing-savvy, creative, black mompreneur is making sure that families with food allergies can have the sweetest options in the best of both worlds.
Denise Woodard is the Founder and CEO of Partake, an allergen-free cookie company with a variety of family-favorite flavors. In 2016, Denise decided to leave her decade long career as a Marketing Executive at Coca-Cola and sell cookies out of her car for six months. The idea for Partake grew from Denise’s daughter, Vivan’s, serious food allergies. In turn, she decided to partake in these problems and create something amazing.
Denise recently reaped the sweetest harvest as she raised over one million dollars for her food-start up. The news went viral, as Partake was backed by none other than HOV himself, as JAY-Z’s VC Fund Marcy Venture Partners invested in the booming company. This makes Denise the only woman of color to raise over $1M for a food start-up. Partake’s treats can be found on Target, Wholefoods, The Fresh Market, and on their website.
In this interview with BAUCE, Denise chats with about how to go for your dreams at full force, market yourself to the best of your ability, and the sacrifices she makes daily to run her successful cookie company.
In 2017, you took a huge leap by leaving your career at Coca-Cola to pursue a dream birthed from your daughter’s food allergies. Were you afraid at any point that you may not have landed feet-first into success?
Denise: Honestly, no. At crazy as it sounds, I feel like starting Partake was one of the things I was put on this earth to do, and while there were so many setbacks along the way – and there still are, all of the time – things always seem to fall into place with hard work, creative thinking, and luck. I live every day as a food allergy mom, so I knew our consumer all too well — because I am “her” — and really felt like there were gaps in the allergy-friendly snack space that Partake could fill.
We love that the idea behind your business ties in with the value of being a mother first by providing an alternative solution for your daughter’s allergies. At times, do you find it hard to manage family time and a successful business?
Denise: Definitely so, especially during this COVID-19 period, where I’ve been thrust into the role of teacher, while maintaining my role as CEO of Partake, at the biggest point of growth in our business. I really view my life as an integration of being a mom and a CEO, so while I have to prioritize different things each day, I work hard to find ways for the two to live harmoniously together. In more normal times, I would bring my daughter to pitch competitions and trade shows, and I’d leave the office early to make sure to pick her up from school (knowing that would mean picking the laptop back up after her bedtime).
When Partake caught the attention of Jay-Z’s VC Fund Marcy Venture Partners, it secured $1M in funding, and shortly after, the news went viral. How much weight does the power of social media and word-of-mouth hold in contribution to Partake’s success?
Denise: I think a large part of Partake’s growth has been tied to social media, the press that we’ve received, and the power of word of mouth marketing. The news of our investment spread like wildfire and brought awareness to our brand that wasn’t previously there. Thankfully, I think we make an awesome product, and a large part of the struggle in scaling is getting more people to try the product, and the investment news prompted lots of people to try our products – or tell friends or family members about it – and hopefully, we have gained lifelong customers from this.
Touching on the sacrifices to make a business thrive, it is said that you sold your engagement ring to fund the company! Do you believe that sacrifice is one of the most important things that come with running your own business, and if so—how much sacrifice is too much?
Denise: I read an article that named work, sleep, fitness, friends, and family as major cornerstones of life, and it shared the perspective that you could only do three really well at a time. In running Partake, I’ve definitely sacrificed on the Friends and Fitness part quite a bit, but I think when your business is causing you to sacrifice everything that is important to you, it’s time to rethink things.
You sold cookies from your car for six months while demoing daily and meeting with a variety of store managers. How important was it to be your biggest advocate, and what tips do you have in terms of selling yourself correctly?
Denise: Nobody is going to sell you or your product like you do, and for me it was important to be my own, and Partake’s, biggest advocate and cheerleader, but to also show up as myself everyday. I don’t think there’s a right way to sell yourself, other than being yourself, being honest, doing the hard work, and keeping your promises to all stakeholders, whether that’s your investors, customers, or employees. I do think it’s important to be extremely professional, to show up how you want to be remembered, and to know your stuff – whether it’s your business metrics, your market size, or your finances – inside out.
What is the hardest, yet most rewarding lesson that building your own company, and the brand has taught you?
Denise: I think of the Jay-Z lyric “Everybody can tell you how to do it – they never did it”. Along the way, you will get a LOT of free advice. Listen where it makes sense, but remember you know your business best.
A lot of aspiring business owners may be foreign to how to use marketing to run their business. How can they jumpstart their knowledge in marketing to find success?
Denise: I think we are living in a time where people have access to education, in a way that never existed before. You can literally Google your way to anything, so I would implore aspiring owners to teach themselves as much as possible. And network – I’ve never been afraid to be vulnerable, share what I don’t know, and reach out to people who know a lot more to see if they’re willing to help me.
Creating generational wealth within minorities has become a constant topic as more minority-owned businesses begin to flourish. Do you believe that generational wealth created by businesses such as yours, can benefit minority communities, directly?
Denise: Yes, 100%. When you look at VC funding, you see dismal stats around investments in women and people of color, and I think a lot of that is attributed to the fact that the people making the investment decisions are often not women or people of color. As more minority-owned businesses flourish and these business owners have liquidity events, I think and hope that they will pour back into the community and invest financially and through mentorship.
In addition, as a business owner with privilege and a platform, I feel like it is my duty to work to support minority communities through social mission efforts – we work with the Food Equality Initiative, started by a Black woman, Emily Brown, to provide allergy-friendly food for food-insecure families financially, through the vendors we work with, and through providing time and mentorship.
Partake is a company that carries a universal brand image of “family”. What is the importance of establishing a brand, before executing the business?
Denise: I think executing the business and building a brand go hand in hand. At Partake, our business was built to provide better for you, delicious snacks that promote inclusivity because nearly everyone can enjoy them safely. A brand is the consumer’s overall perception of the business – and it’s built through every single interaction – emails, trade shows, interviews, the product – and when consumers experience Partake, we hope that the two go hand in hand because the business was built around a multicultural family that wants everyone to have an opportunity to partake in the best that life has to offer.
We can describe legacies as planting seeds in a garden that lives long beyond our years. As your daughter Vivienne grows older, what is one message you’d want to leave behind through Partake?
Denise: I’d love for Vivienne to see that when you have a problem, you don’t sit and wallow in your sorrows, but instead you do something about it – and with hard work, faith, and focus, anything is possible.