“The right people will bring so much more than you ever thought possible...”

by Erica SunkinJan 13, 2022

NEA's Q&A series is focused on the company building journey and the impactful work of leaders across NEA’s portfolio. Our goal is to shed light on unique perspectives, guiding principles, defining moments, and lessons learned. Responses have been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Tell us a little bit about the company you are building. What problems are you solving and what is differentiated about your approach?

We are New Wave Foods, and we create plant-based shrimp. There are a lot of unsavory practices happening in our seafood supply chains and our ocean's resources continue to get depleted. I believe New Wave Foods can be part of the solution and have a meaningful impact.

We selected shrimp as our first product. Shrimp is the most consumed seafood in the United States by a factor of two, and we see it as the poster child for a lot of issues within the supply chain. Shrimp and shellfish have such a unique texture, even compared to finfish – there’s this snap, the bite is very succulent, it's juicy. Because of that it, it’s very hard to get right. We're creating something extremely versatile for food service chefs to use and consumers to enjoy.

We’re focused on food service because that's where 80% of shrimp consumption takes place. We've developed a product that is a one for one swap in any kind of hot recipe, from an appetizer to entrée, whether it's a shrimp taco or chowder. Chefs love it and it's just got tremendous versatility.

As a first-time founder with a technical background, what inspired you to start a company?

I'm a material scientist, but I’ve always had an interest in food and food technology. I find it fascinating how when we create delicious things, people can make really small changes in their diets that can have ripple effects on public health and the environment. I always imagined moving to the West Coast to work for a plant-based company, but I ended up co-founding one instead. Plant-based meat was starting to gain a lot of traction and I realized that no one was looking at seafood. I met an oceanographer who taught me about the issues impacting our seafood supply chains and we saw the potential for a plant-based option to alleviate the pressures on our oceans. While seafood does present some unique challenges compared to other types of protein, I knew they weren’t insurmountable—and given the massive addressable market for a plant-based seafood alternative, I saw a tremendous opportunity to build a company.

I have always been steadfast in pursuing what I believe in and what I'm passionate about. It’s very important to me to have an active role in determining where I put my time and energy, because we spend so many hours working. I am motivated by the fact that at the end of the day I am putting energy into something that will make the world a better place.

What are you most excited about in the upcoming months?

We are excited to be entering the market. Earlier this year, we achieved national distribution through our partnership with Dot Foods. We also signed a contract with Gordon Food Service and most recently, we got a national broker in Waypoint, who also represents Beyond Meat. The product is also going to be in a number of colleges and universities, a regional restaurant chain and in a very notable tech company’s cafeteria. These things are happening this fall and we're super excited about the breakthrough into the market.

On the product side, we have some launches that we are really looking forward to, including different sizes (appetizer and entrée sizes) and breading, which is a huge part of the shrimp market! Anything breaded or popcorn style in shrimp are consumer favorites, so that's one of the things we're working on bringing to market by the end of the year.

Can you tell us how you overcame a roadblock when developing your product and how that moment in time still helps you today with your business?

What I’ve found through the process of building a company is that the people and partners I choose to work with are among the most important decisions I make. The right people will bring so much more than you ever thought possible. And the people that aren't quite right can really set things back. I always make sure when we’re building teams that the people we bring on are 100% engaged with the mission and vision for the business, adaptable, and ready to be a little bit scrappy. We spend a lot of time finding the right people.

How would you describe your leadership approach to team building? What do you think are the most important ways to cultivate or strengthen a company's culture?

It’s all about empowered decision making with our team. We're a small group and we have a lot to do, so we have to figure out creative ways to get the work done. I liken it to being the captain of a ship. The team needs to know the direction you’re headed because it’s going to take everyone doing their part to get there. Trust in your team is paramount, especially if the waters are choppy. When times are tough, a leader needs to be focused on prioritizing and adjusting course. With the right culture in place, you can cultivate a resilient team who will be able to quickly adapt.

Setting the right culture for us means enabling everybody on the team to both contribute their best, be seen and heard and feel recognized. I want to make sure that people stay excited and clear on the goal.

What has your experience been as a female founder?

I've been surprised how many times I've been told “no.” And how many times I've been told, “you're not capable of this,” or “how could you know something like this?” Those experiences certainly haven’t slowed me down, but they did make me realize that I want to surround myself with people who say, "You can do this. You can do much more than you think you can.” What I’ve also found, and I don't think it's a coincidence, is that the people who are the most encouraging and supportive are typically female leaders themselves.

Is there any advice that you want to share with other female leaders in the early stages of their company building journey?

Early on, I spent a lot of energy in pursuit of being liked – by everyone. Being more authentic in my career has been a process but it’s been freeing. It’s helped me connect and work with more people who share the same values, which is so crucial when you’re trying to build momentum in a business.

Taking a cue from my own experience, my advice to other female leaders would be to surround yourself with people who believe in what you're doing and trust your gut. There have been plenty of times where I have doubted myself and paid dearly for it later. Don't doubt what you know to be true. Don't let other people get in your head and steer you in directions that you know are wrong.

Are there any mentors or role models that have inspired either of you in your career or played a significant role in your own professional development?

I’ve had many business and professional role models over my career, and all have played vital roles. A startup is a roller coaster every day. There are highs and lows; the highs are high, and the lows can be very low. For me, it is so important to stay connected to people I consider to be my cheerleaders. They help me dig deep. They say you've got this; I've seen you get through this before. At the end of the day, and on the days where I'm doubting myself, those are the people who keep me motivated.

Bonus lightning round:

  • What was your first job? I was an ice cream scooper

  • What are you currently reading? I'm currently reading Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. I think this one is going to keep me occupied for a bit.

  • What is your best productivity tip? Schedule time for thinking and heads down work and literally block it on your calendar. I recently started implementing this and it has changed my life.

  • What’s the first thing you do in the morning? My 3-step Curology routine.

  • What keeps you up at night? I’ve been working long hours, so I crash at night. What does get to me is what our normal will look like in a post pandemic world. I don’t think there will be a clear cut “end” but I believe our society will find a steady state.

  • If you aren’t in the office, what can we find you doing? You can find me running through the park right up the block from where I live. I also have been playing a lot of board games with friends. My current favorite is Moonrakers.

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About the authors

Erica Sunkin