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Female-founded Sundial Foods talks entrepreneurship, friendship & how the business world has a problem attracting women [Interview]

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Plant-based meat alternative startup Sundial Foods started out as a university project between two friends, Jessica Schwabach and Siwen Deng.

In just three years, the company has been backed by Nestlé, raised $4 million in seed funding, and completed a successful soft launch in foodservice outlets across the US, bringing its plant-based chicken, complete with crispy skin, to the public.

We caught up with the two friends and co-founders, Jessica Schwabach and Siwen Deng, earlier this year to find out more about their experience as female scientists and entrepreneurs.

You developed your product concept during the U.C. Berkeley's Alternative Meats programme and founded Sundial Foods immediately afterwards, quickly going from being student scientists to business owners embarking on multi-million-dollar funding rounds. How welcoming have you found the worlds of science, business, and venture capital for women?

Jessica: “We are a totally female-founded company. I started Sundial when I was just out of university so we’re not only female founders but first-time founders. It’s almost been like a weeding mechanism, if you will, because when we’re trying to grow our team, we necessarily only attract the kind of people who are interested in working at a company that is not going to prioritise certain stereotypes of business leaders.

“They have to be super willing to work with us to even consider the opportunity. So, what we’ve ended up with is a really diverse and exciting team of people who are genuinely passionate about the issues we’re working on and excited by the science.”

“On the investment side, it’s difficult to say. We did raise and close our seed round last November and were able to raise what we needed. I think that people are pretty understanding and open, and there are a lot of great folks in this space who are willing to work with us.”

Is it possible to keep a work-life balance when you’re in an early-stage startup?

Siwen: “When we were at IndieBio, what we learned was: work with people that you enjoy working with. Founding a company is stressful but if you have right co-founder, you will also enjoy it. We are like family and friends. We started this company three years ago but now we feel like we’ve known each other for more than 10 years.”

Jessica: “Siwen is my best friend, and we hang out 24/7, so this works out fine for me!”

Did you fall into this career by chance or did you always want to develop your own product and found a business?

Jessica: “I think it was an accident. I don’t think I ever believed I had what it took to become an entrepreneur or even consider the idea. I just assumed I couldn’t do that and was studying science and hoping to go into medicine eventually. All of this happened because I met Siwen and we worked together on a project at school. We started to see there was an opportunity for us to pursue this and have a direct impact, so we went for it.”

Siwen: “Same for me. I was very academic-focused and loved research. We’re both passionate about science and I wanted to stay in academia; do a post-doc, become a professor, mentor, and teach. But we knew we could create a great product direct for the consumer and it’s still well-aligned with our passion and mission. Either you do research in academia or you do science in industry, developing products. The goal is to make a positive impact and now, looking back, no regrets.”

Siwen, you wanted to stay in academia and Jessica, you never imagined yourself to be capable of becoming an entrepreneur. Does the business world have a problem in attracting female entrepreneurs? Does it project itself as being a men’s own club?

Jessica: “When I hear the word business, I imagine a white guy in a suit holding a phone and yelling at someone with a briefcase. Probably in New York city, too! But I think that once we really got into entrepreneurship and started to meet people, we got a huge amount of support, especially in food tech. I definitely think the coolest and most inspiring thing for us is seeing other female founders and female investors who are making an impact. They’re doing it, they’re doing a really good job, and we can learn from them too.”

Siwen: “Definitely, before the ratio was very sparse but now you can see a lot of female entrepreneurs. I’m really happy to see that and glad we are here with other female founders too.”

Do you have one piece of advice for women thinking of starting a food business?

Jessica: “How corny would it be to just say, ‘You can definitely do it!’? I think that we don’t hear that enough. But if you’re thinking about it and have an idea you want to pursue, you can find the right people to support you. It’s not always super easy and sometimes you’ll have to work harder than the person next to you, but you can still get there.”

Siwen: “If you have the opportunity, take it. You can do it. And we’re here for you!”

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