WSII’s Investing in Women program presents a series of interviews to introduce thought leaders and create a conversation around a more gender informed economy. We have selected individuals from across the impact spectrum—multinational companies, impact investors, social entrepreneurs, and more—to share their candid thoughts on trends, missteps, best practices, and more.
Drawing from a passion for high-quality and nutritious foods, Shelby Zitelman, W’07, co-founded Soom Foods with her sisters Jackie and Amy to introduce America to the wonderful world of sesame. Now the brightly-packaged tahini can be found on Whole Foods shelves, and is the exclusive tahini purveyor to Philadelphia restaurants Zahav and Dizengoff. Since launching in 2011, Soom Foods has been featured in major publications including the New York Times Magazine, Bon Appetit and Food & Wine.
As a Wharton graduate, Zitelman shapes the company’s strategy and operations. She recently spoke with WSII about her business, unique challenges, and a vision for the future.
Can you tell us about why you co-founded Soom Foods and where it falls in the context of ‘investing in women’?
My sisters and I co-founded the company because we are crazy passionate about tahini. We were introduced to the product through my sister’s now-husband. He’s been in the industry for 10 years in Israel. If you’ve had the opportunity to travel abroad and tried a product and wondered, “Oh my gosh! This is so good! Why can’t I get this in the States?!”—it sparked that discovery process and we learned a lot about the product and we felt it was an important ingredient to bring to America. Tahini is big here, but there is no brand or voice about the product, and the products we could find, in a taste perspective, were sub-par.
The reason we’re talking about Soom and investing in women and girls is because we are a women-owned business, founded by women and now officially certified by the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC). I just came back from their summit and salute in Phoenix, so we’re super excited about being a part of that network now, and joining the conversation about women-owned business and empowering women-owned businesses.
In what ways are you thinking about using your business to “level the playing field” of gender?
I started thinking about that more at the [WBENC] conference because they were talking a lot about supplier diversity, so I’m auditing the companies that we’ve done business with to see whether they’re women-owned.
I think in our target market, more of who we’re trying to reach on a consumer level, women are really the primary buyer that we’re looking to target: those who care about what they’re putting in their bodies and giving to their families, because as much as we talk about tahini as this wonderful versatile and delicious ingredient for the Mediterranean or Middle Eastern diet, we also are really excited about its applications for healthy living. So we’re reaching a lot of end-consumers around that conversation.
What unique challenges or opportunities have you experienced as entrepreneurs?
I think people really connect with us and our story because we’re a family business that happens to be run by women. I once listened to [a talk] about being a female entrepreneur, and [the speaker] said, “Judge me for being an entrepreneur. Not a female entrepreneur.”
I also do recognize that there are a lot of challenges across the board to being a female entrepreneur. This past year, my son Malcolm was born, and my sister and co-founder Jackie, who lives in Israel, had her daughter two weeks before Malcolm was born. It was this crazy time about growing the family and also running this business. What time do we take off? And, how do we continue to run the company when we’re so small and two of us are now otherwise occupied? So I’ve become really passionate about maternity leave and maternity policy as a part of this conversation of being a women business owner or entrepreneur. I don’t believe that a fast-tracking woman or one that wants to start a company should have to choose between that and her family.
We’ve been told that a couple of accounts or relationships we’ve been working on have been stalled because we’re women and the person on the other side of the table doesn’t necessarily enjoy, like, or want that.
Doesn’t seem to be stopping you!
At the chef or grocery level, we have a lot of success because we’ve found it’s talking person to person. As soon as you get to the distributor conversation, it’s cents and dollars and the product almost doesn’t mater. That’s when I find the negotiation becomes more challenging.
As you think about the evolution of entrepreneurship in 15 years, what do you hope looks different?
I worked for a venture capital fund right after college, and one of the conversations was, why aren’t there more venture dollars going into women-owned or founded businesses? It’s still a conversation today. I do think that it’s a systemic issue.
The types of businesses that are high-growth tend to be more science-driven, and there tend to be more men who are studying those disciplines, so I think it starts at the educational level. This is precisely why I love what Girl Develop It is doing in Philadelphia, and other programs that get girls interested in tech, sciences and engineering in terms of startups. On the financing side, I’d love to see more activity within the Golden Seeds network and empowering female investors to be a part of that process.
So in 15 years, I don’t know what the landscape will look like, but I recently read an article where Mr. Wonderful from Shark Tank spoke about his investment portfolio and said his best performing businesses are run by women. I think there will be many more in 15 years because this generation of women sees those opportunities as “available.” Because there are women who have assumed these positions and taken on this initiative, girls coming into this space have role models to really look up to.
Who inspires you?
One of our first inspirations for the company was Lynda Resnick from POM Wonderful and FIJI water. Specific to POM, she took a product that was known in other parts of the world, brought it to America, commercialized it and made it popular—my sisters and I thought, we need to do that to sesame and tahini!
What are you reading lately?
My dad gave me The One Thing to read, it’s about focusing on one thing that will move the needle.
I also did a Strength Finder Analysis through Gallup, so I read that book. I only focus on my strengths!
I gave my sister a book called Presence by Amy Cuddy, a professor at Harvard who talks about body language, how to build confidence. I think that’s interesting when talking about women in business and the difference in gender in communication style.
Sophie Hilaire is a second-year MBA at the Wharton School, where she is a Social Impact Initiative Fellow. She graduated from West Point in 2009 and spent 6 years as a U.S. Army officer. She holds the Guinness World Record for the Fastest Marathon in Full Military Uniform, and is a non-profit CrossFit gym founder.