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“I hope to be a serial entrepreneur, but I also want to build a sustainable business that can thrive beyond me” [interview]

Women-in-Food-Interview_Leah-Bessa
From researching alternative insect proteins to launching two foodtech startups, Leah Bessa, co-founder and chief scientific officer (CSO) of precision fermentation company De Novo Dairy, shares her experiences as a female serial entrepreneur.

Leah, you are the co-founder and CSO of De Novo Dairy. How did your career path lead you to where you are today and what was your motivation in founding De Novo Dairy?

“I studied for an MSc in food science in university and my research focused on insects as an alternative protein source. Upon graduating, I founded Gourmet Grubb, a startup producing dairy alternatives from insect protein.

“Form the onset, we knew that consumer acceptance would be a challenge. We wanted to move into a space where we were recreating [a product] in exactly the same way [as the original], yet without using animal-derived ingredients.

“After starting Gourmet Grubb, we partnered with two further co-founders to launch De Novo Dairy. The purpose of De Novo is to create more sustainable and ethical protein alternatives that are identical to the real thing.

“Coming from Africa, nutrition is a really important pain point and we wanted to solve that. Using our technology, we can create high value dairy proteins that are typically very expensive, in a more affordable way. This means that more people have access to it. For us, the nutrition element is very important, but we also wanted to use the technology to drive the cost down. As the technology is expensive, we wanted to avoid working with bulk proteins as we were aware that that would make it more expensive.”

What are your experiences of being a female entrepreneur in the foodtech sector?

“I think the foodtech industry is very favourable to women. There are a lot of women in the space, and I would say that the food industry is very much driven by women.

“I have had experience of working in corporate companies and in founding startups, and although women may not get the centrepiece in a corporate company, I found that starting my own company allowed me to create my own narrative and […] control my career path. As women, we are leading the way in a lot of ways in our own company.”

“[As a female entrepreneur in the foodtech space] I haven’t had any major challenges, which is perhaps controversial. I think that this is maybe as the food space is very female oriented and desirable from a development side.”

A report published by the Vegan Women Summit revealed that 60% of female entrepreneurs working in the plant-based and alternative meat sector experienced bias when it came to fundraising. Have you encountered any obstacles in terms of financing or leading your businesses?

“It is difficult to [determine the impact of being female on the investment side of the business] as our business also has male founders, which may help us. From an investment point of view, I would also say that it has been beneficial to be female.

“One challenge with being a female leader, I would say, is we lead very differently.Women usually lead with more compassion and a softer edge. I have found that on some occasions, the male leaders in the team have had to step in to really drive the message home, so to speak.

“[However, the fact that] female leaders are generally more compassionate can also be a benefit when it comes off as a strength, rather than a weakness. I think that you do need the compassionate side to drive leadership, but employees will ultimately respond differently to mixed leadership styles.

“My biggest struggle being a female entrepreneur is the resistance that you get from others. [That being said], the male cofounders in our team are all very supportive and I don’t feel disadvantaged in comparison to them.”

Having founded two startups, would you consider yourself as a serial entrepreneur, or do you think that you’re onto a winner with De Novo?

“I do think we’re onto a winner here. I see this as a company that we’re truly going to grow and scale, but that’s not to say that I think of myself as a serial entrepreneur. I want to build this company to the point where my skills are no longer needed.

“I like to create things and I see myself as more of an innovator. When it comes to building the corporate machine, there are people with better skill sets to do that than myself. One day, I hope to be a serial entrepreneur, but I also really want to build a sustainable business that can thrive beyond me.”

Do you consider South Africa as a startup-friendly environment?

“Yes and no. It is not a saturated market but there are downsides to that. [South Africa has] lots of infrastructure set up for agriculture which is pretty good for the sector [our business operates in]. There are a lot of fintech companies […] but it is still a novel market [in terms of] foodtech. The ecosystem is designed for startups and the foodtech [sector] is emerging into that.

“The challenge is that South Africa is an emerging market, […] the infrastructure that exists in some markets doesn’t exist in South Africa, […] but at same time is an opportunity.”

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