Interview: Denise Devine, Executive Entrepreneur

By: Denise Devine@FrooseNutrition

Rick Anthony and Lonnie Sciambi recently interviewed Froose ® Nutritional Brands founder and CEO Denise Devine on their popular podcast, The Entrepreneurs Network Radio. The show is “the nation’s crossroads for serial and aspiring entrepreneurs, angel investors, and helpful service providers.” You can find Denise’s episode and browse profiles of other entrepreneurs on the podcast’s website.

Below is a transcript of the hosts’ half-hour conversation with Denise, entitled “Denise Devine: Healthy Snacks at the Foundation of her Venture” — definitely worth a listen! (Time stamps are included throughout for quick reference.) Be sure to visit The Entrepreneurs Network website to find upcoming events and helpful resources for entrepreneurs.

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Interview Transcript:

Denise Devine left an executive position with a major food company because she was concerned about the snacks her children were eating at school. The solution: her own brand of nutritious beverages and snacks.

 

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Rick Anthony: Each week, we bring you big ideas, fascinating guests, fabulous listening, and valuable lessons learned from entrepreneurs and business experts from markets coast to coast and border to border.

Lonnie, when I started, thirteen years ago, The Entrepreneurs Network, a series of meetings we have here in this region, principally to provide a venue for aspiring and serial entrepreneurs and angel investors, I had a heck of a time finding female entrepreneurs to come to the meetings. I tried everything: I extended invitations to anybody I thought could be of help, but it just didn’t work. One or two would show up; that was about it. I knew they were out there, but I couldn’t figure out why they were holding back. Today, I am happy to report the number of female entrepreneurs who attend my meetings, as well as all of the other meetings that have to do with entrepreneurship and investing and taking risks. Female entrepreneurs are now growing in number, as well as their roles as angel investors and service providers who support other early-stage ventures.

Lonnie Sciambi: You know, Rick, you’re right about the rapid growth of female entrepreneurs. Unlike the corporate world, where people talk about glass ceilings that limit the advancement opportunities for women, [in] the entrepreneurial community, especially early-stage ventures, women are heading up some of the most interesting ventures and they’re getting funding that’s needed to move from concept to marketable product or service.

Our guest today was in the vanguard of successful female entrepreneurs. She was a high-level corporate executive with a major food company who became concerned about the snacks her children were eating, especially fruit juices loaded with calories but with little nutrition. It was before the headlines about obesity and the nation’s binge about children and adults on unhealthy foods. Driven by her motherly instincts that too much juice for young children was not good, she set out to develop a nutritious alternative to juice that would incorporate the whole food chain — complex carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, and fiber — that young children needed to grow.

RA: Sounds like we all need that stuff, not just kids! Our guest today is Denise Devine. I’ve known Denise now for several years in one capacity or another. Denise is founder and CEO of Froose ® Brands, F-R-O-O-S-E Brands, manufacturer and distributor of Froose ®’s nutritious and fun beverages and gummy snacks. Welcome, Denise, and thanks for sharing your story with us today.

Denise Devine: Thank you, great to be here.

RA: I was delighted when you were able to make yourself available and pull some time out of your busy schedule. Have we overdramatized the circumstances that persuaded you to leave a very successful career as a corporate executive for the uncertain journey in a highly competitive industry, the food industry?

DD: No, I don’t think so. It was really an epiphany for me, very personal because I witnessed these problems with my own son at the time, and I just became very passionate about children’s nutrition as directly impacting so many of the big socioeconomic issues that we face. It impacts a child’s ability to learn, so it impacts education; it impacts lifelong health and healthcare costs, which, we all know, as a nation, we are dealing with healthcare costs; it even impacts the military. There’s a group of retired admirals and generals that started a nonprofit called “Too Fat to Fight”. It’s a big, big issue.

RA: When did you start?

DD: The journey started much earlier than Froose ® Brands, when I really wanted to do something about this issue and I had this notion, initially, for an alternative beverage for young children because there was an acute need in that space, and what I was trying to do was develop something from the ground up and it was very difficult. I started working with some chemists up at Cornell and, initially, very difficult for chemists to understand what I wanted to do. They said, “Well, you just want to take juice and put some fiber in it.” (5:00) I said, “No, I want to basically turn the development on its head and start from the ground up and start with a whole food base,” and I was very interested in whole grains because of the nutritional qualities of whole grains; we certainly don’t get enough of whole grain elements and fiber in our diet and this was long before there was a lot of attention being put on that. I wanted to start with that and flavor it with fruit, so it was a very different approach to developing a beverage and one thing led to another and we ended up with a core technology with patents; I could use whole grains and whole vegetables in a number of different ways.

When we test marketed the product initially, we found out that the market was not ready for these things. So then, I set to work to explore the limits of our technology and establish an R&D company, Nutrifarm, Inc., which did just that and we developed about eight products in various forms of commercialization and did consulting projects, strategic alliances, and licenses of some of the products with other companies. I even did an over-the-counter pharmaceutical that I licensed to two major pharmaceutical companies.

RA: No kidding! I didn’t know that.

DD: Yes. So that’s what I spent a lot of time doing, and then, about three years ago, I saw that the market certainly seemed to be ready and that we were really talking about childhood obesity in a very different way, that now it’s become part of the national conversation and it was an issue that everyone was taking seriously, and I saw some changes starting to happen in the marketplace and I thought that the market was now finally ready for some of the products that we had been developing, so that’s when we launched Froose ® Brands, and the timing is right. Consumers are definitely looking for alternatives.

 

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RA: What was the origin of the name “Froose ® Brands”?

DD: It’s a made-up name, it’s nothing, but we have this moose character so it rhymes with our moose, the Froose Moose; it’s just a fun name. The essence of the brand is fun and what we hope to achieve a little differently than some of the other “better for you” products that are out there is that we are really focusing on providing very nutritious, healthy snacks and beverages in the fun, familiar formats that kids love but with the convenience and nutritional value the parents require and those two elements are very important. Convenience is ultra-important to parents. I think there are a lot of parents out there who struggle and obviously they want to have better products for their kids but we have busy lives — everyone has busy lives — and until we develop products around people’s existing lives, I don’t think we’re going to move that obesity needle.

Convenience is ultra-important to parents . . . everyone has busy lives and until we develop products around people’s existing lives, I don’t think we’re going to move that obesity needle.

RA: We have to stop preach-ifying because it’s not working.

DD: Exactly.

LS: Denise, this more than a business for you; clearly, it’s a crusade.

DD: Yes.

LS: Up ‘til now, what would you say your most notable achievements have been, and the second part to the question is, what’s your long term vision for this?

DD: Well, I’ve always been motivated by impact, that’s number one, that’s just my make-up, I have no other way to describe it, and when I left the corporate world, it’s just something I felt compelled to do, that’s the only way I can describe it, and I think our biggest contribution has been our technology really did pave the way for all these new kinds of beverages that you see out there now that contain any kind of whole food elements. That was never done before we did it many years ago, before the market was ready, but now you start to see them there. So, we’ve done that, I think we have, in a small way, at least, raised awareness of the issue and I’m involved with this issue other than just through my business. My company is a partner of Get FIT Philly; I serve on the board of the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness (NFCA) because our hope is our products are developed to appeal to mainstream kids; although they’re kind of a natural for the natural food channels (10:00) that we’re in, we’re also in mainstream grocery, which is where we need to be to get to the people that need them the most but, also, the attributes of them also serve the needs of those with special dietary needs, diabetes, allergen-free, gluten-free, because I also believe that it’s important that children that have special dietary needs should have things that look like normal food that everybody else has.

. . . it’s important that children that have special dietary needs have things that look like food that everybody else has.

RA: I knew you were an early innovator; I didn’t realize how disruptive your formulations were and continue to be. You set the standard, apparently, for the use of whole foods for beverages?

DD: That is what the patents were, yes, long before many of these other ones happened and ran [their] course and there are lots of things percolating out there.

RA: Your background, your education, as far as I know, is in finance.

DD: It certainly is.

RA: I assume you didn’t know very much about nutrition when you started out. How did you go about, as most good and successful entrepreneurs do, surrounding yourself with people who had the knowledge, competencies, and experience that were needed to launch your products?

DD: First of all, I did my homework and I learned as much as I could on the nutrition side. I have a minor in chemistry, undergrad, which only makes me dangerous. I know enough to ask questions, but I believe that someone skilled in the art could execute the ideas that I have. I’m an ideas person but I think my best skill, honestly, is connecting dots. I see something happening here, I see something happening over there, and put them together and I’ve done that, actually, in the finance area, where we’ve implemented strategies that have never been done before because something was going on here and something was going on there and nobody ever put them together. The revelation to me is that, I’ve learned a lot dealing with a lot of scientists along the way and food chemists, and I continue to be surprised at how non-creative they are, quite frankly, very iterative, very iterative, and sometimes they need somebody with a wacky idea from the outside to say, “Why don’t we try this?”

I’m an ideas person but I think my best skill, honestly, is connecting dots.

RA: But they’re trained not to deviate.

DD: Right, exactly.

LS: How have you been able to find amongst all of the noise out there — or really, lack of noise out there — in the chemists and biosciences, where you could find people who would adapt?

DD: That’s a great question and I think we really got lucky. I went to Cornell because Cornell has a wonderful food science program and called the chairman of the department. He recommended working with The International Food Network, which is housed at Cornell in their tech park. They were just starting up then, and they all came from big companies, as well. They were fairly new, like we were, and interested in doing new things and it just so happened that one of the chemists that was working on the project was very into herbs and organics and because of that, she just was a little more dogged, because this was not an obvious thing and there’s a lot of know-how to it. So, the patents are one thing, but after the patents, there’s been a lot of know-how and a lot of tweaking and a lot of learning along the way, so we have this storehouse of all kinds of different learning that we can take beyond the patents, really.

LS: How long did it take you to develop a commercially successful product?

DD: Initially, it took probably two years, but since then, since we’ve had all this experience that we’ve built upon along the way; that is really an advantage, as a smaller company. We can do development now very, very quickly and what do now as a small company is we engage our suppliers (15:00). I have an R&D QC person who’s been with me now a long time; he also came from a very large company and he’s wonderful working with a small company because it’s instant credibility, like when you walk into a manufacturer. We work with our suppliers and we will come up with the formulations and the tweaks and then [it] will cause us to use different amounts or a different kind of flavor or whatever and then the suppliers have bench capabilities where they will do it for you just to make sure their product is working well and your formulations. So, we can turn things around very quickly working with our suppliers and using our relationship.

RA: Is the R&D operations virtual; do you outsource most of what you do?

DD: Yes, we do.

RA: So you’re lean and mean and been that way from the outset, I guess.

DD: We are. I took one detour along the way several years ago where my company actually did a joint venture with two other companies and we bought a manufacturing facility, quite a large one, and that was a detour that was a great learning experience, but as a smaller company, you just don’t want to be involved in the manufacturing.

LS: What was the big lesson?

DD: The big lesson was it’s a distraction. The facility was large, so we were co-packing for others and it was a separate business.

LS: It’s one of the things I preach to entrepreneurs all the time and that is: “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.”

DD: Right.

LS: And: “More is not better, it’s only more.” And I think you learned that one, huh?

JA: It’s different by ego.

DD: Yeah, it’s six of one, half dozen of the other. Yes, it’s expensive, but on the flip side, as a small brand, the challenge in food, which may be a little different than some other businesses, it’s very hard for a small brand to interest a contract manufacturer in producing because they want certain volumes, they want commitments — or the flip side is they won’t give you a commitment — so getting to the hurdle where they actually give you a formal contract or production guarantee from a co-packer is a huge milestone.

RA: You’ve talked about learning and the benefit of interacting with so many other bright people. Is there a single person that stands out as your mentor, the most influential person in your professional career, at least this part of your career?

DD: Honestly, no, I can’t say that because there’ve been so many and I can’t imagine that anyone could have just one. We’ve been fortunate in that people are excited about what we’re trying to do and I find a lot of people that just find us and are willing to help. I have a loose advisory board and we have some great advisors. One is Andrew Martin; he was the founder of Annie’s and he was also the founder of SmartFood, which was sold to Pepsi. At this point, he’s migrated to more of an impact, as well, and he’s doing some nonprofit activity, but there are a few brands that he works with; he’s just been wonderful because when a mentor is someone who’s actually done it from the ground up, it’s just so much more important. There are any number of big corporate people that I can call on, but it’s very different.

RA: I understand.

 

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LS: Let’s slide over a little bit. You are the prototypical entrepreneur and you are a leader in terms of female entrepreneurs. Why do you think that today there are more and more entrepreneurs that come from the female ranks and what held them back for so long?

DD: I’ll start with the second part first: “What held them back for so long?” About ten years ago, I was the co-founder of an organization called the Alliance of Women Entrepreneurs and it’s still going strong. It was founded because a group of four of us in the Philadelphia area (20:00) — I remember this, as clear as day — were reading an article in the Wall Street Journal that still said an incredibly small amount of venture funding was going to female-owned, female-led businesses, and that wasn’t the problem so much as the reason. The reason that was given was that women typically are not founders or leaders of businesses that are venture capital-fundable, they’re mostly service businesses or small retail businesses.

LS: More lifestyle.

DD: Right, and we sat there, looked at each other and said, “We’re here! Here we are, there are women that are doing technology-based businesses or bioscience or manufacturing.” There was only one organization at the time that I was aware of that had anything to do with female in businesses and that was NAWBO, the National Association of Women Business Owners, and that’s a wonderful organization but does tend to cater to those smaller service or retail-type businesses and it’s a very different resource requirement from what we were involved in. In capital, there’s just such a different need and sometimes you go years without revenue in the bioscience and then on the other side you go years without profit, and it’s a very different path. So, we formed this organization and I think the problem had been capital, really, to the extent of the initial stages.

When you’re trying to raise private money, angel money, you don’t just cold call an investor. You have to have those networks and even coming from the finance world, my networks were much further down the path. If my company was at a substantial revenue level, I would have any number of people whom I could call through my networks, but a start up? That’s a whole different story, and I think that’s what’s holding women back. Now, I think a lot of women that are starting businesses have their own careers, are self-funding the initial stages. I think there are a little more networks out there for women, but it’s still a long way to go.

. . . we sat there, looked at each other and said, “We’re here! Here we are, there are women that are doing technology-based businesses or bioscience or manufacturing.”

RA: It’s still tough. I have my own theory, and I mentioned this to somebody just earlier this week: I think women are better storytellers and successful entrepreneurs are really good storytellers. In the final analysis, they have to be able to tell their story in a compelling, convincing, persuasive way. I know from what I’ve observed that women entrepreneurs who have come into The Entrepreneur Network and have presented — twelve minutes, that’s all they get, without PowerPoint — some of them have made the best presentations I’ve ever seen.

LS: Yes, and the important thing is that there’s a typecasting, as you well know. The venture community is still somewhat an old boys’ network, or a young boys’ network, depending on your viewpoint, but it’s changing. I have a client out in Bellevue, Washington, and we just met with a venture firm from out there that has a woman partner who caters to women-owned businesses, that’s her total focus, which is very interesting. That’s something you didn’t see five years ago, certainly.

RA: That’s an emerging market.

LS: So, there are more and more women entrepreneurs. But one of the critical things I’m most interested in is how have you been accepted in the food industry? Beyond the fact that you are an entrepreneur, beyond the fact that you are not a chemist or a nutritionist or whatever, how are you accepted by the big boys? How do they view you?

DD: When you say, “the big boys”, you mean the big CPG companies you really have to deal with on a day-to-day level, like the distributors and the grocery buyers?

LS: I guess both, the Syscos and the big CPGs.

DD: We’re not working with Sysco yet; that’s our next step. I have a male salesperson who, quite frankly, is pretty much (25:00) the one that has contact on a day-to-day basis. It is a male business, there’s no question about it. In terms of the whole distribution chain, warehousing, you don’t run across too many women. There are a couple of female buyers at the grocery chains, but mostly male. I accept it; I guess it really hasn’t been an issue, but I won’t say that we’ve been embraced.

RA: Denise, if it can be done, you’re going to do it. You’ve already demonstrated that. This has been terrific. Thank you so very much for sharing it with us, for giving our listeners, particularly those who are aspiring to become entrepreneurs, the benefit of your experience and the inspiration that you’ve provided. Thank you very much, and we will double back sometime in the future to find out what Froose ® Brands is up to.

Lonnie, another great one! So many key points came up in that discussion: starting from the ground up and being absolutely committed to introducing a disruptive technology, not just a warmed over or a different version of somebody else’s, but something that was truly disruptive; the fact that she discovered early on that she was ahead of her time (and timing is so important; very often, timing is everything); her comment about being motivated by impact and what that means for her. Again, how often have we seen that in some of the entrepreneurs who have struggled and struggled and struggled but remained true to what motivated them. They might have had a different word for it. I love her phrase “connecting the dots” because that’s what you and I both do.

LS: Oh, yeah, and the fact that her earliest motivation remains her motivation even though she had to pivot along the way and move down an entirely different R&D path, that was fascinating, and then has come back three years ago and introduced a product, and that is a very, very tough business to break into, female, male, or otherwise.

RA: Amen. It’s expensive, takes time and money.

LS: No question. But she has done a remarkable job in just being able to line things up and continue down the path she set on.

RA: Well, you could hear it in her voice, she’s obviously a very steady, focused person. Well, we learned some more lessons today, ladies and gentlemen, and hopefully there will be many more on The Entrepreneurs Network Radio, and so, until next time, take very good care of yourselves and be sure to eat nutritiously.

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