Oh baby! Saskia Sorrosa Discusses The Risks and Rewards of Entrepreneurship
The average baby food aisle in the U.S. is virtually indistinguishable from the fruit produce section. There’s applesauce, apple-banana blend, banana-mango blend, apple-banana-mango blend, basically every combination of fruits one can imagine. Vegetables in baby food are replaced with fruit, or already-sweet vegetables, like corn, peas, sweet potatoes and carrots, which have a higher sugar content. Even our language reflects infant sugar consumption—consider the phrase “like taking candy from a baby.”
When her first daughter was born, entrepreneur Saskia Sorrosa was horrified to find that conventional baby foods in the U.S. are loaded with sugar. This was at odds with her upbringing in Ecuador. Growing up in Ecuador, “we eat everything the adults are eating. We’re having onions and spicy foods as babies,” says Sorrosa.
“Everything on the shelf in the U.S. in the commercial space was just sugar,” says Sorrosa. “It was sugar-loaded, the leading ingredient was always a fruit with a vegetable at third or fourth on the ingredients list. I just didn’t want my daughter to eat that way. I didn’t want her first relationship with food to be sugars. And I also didn’t want her to become another statistic in the childhood obesity epidemic.” Considering I mindlessly scarfed down a brownie while writing this article, Sorrosa has a point.
So, Sorrosa made all of her daughter’s food herself, while also working full-time. However, once she had another daughter, keeping up with making their baby food while working full-time was no longer feasible. Sorrosa took the leap and left her job with nothing else lined up. “I had been there for 11 years as VP of marketing and I quit my job cold turkey and just decided that this is what I wanted to do with my life. So, I started [Fresh Bellies].”
Fresh Bellies is a line of organic, savory-leaning baby food. In the flavor “Pepperlicious,” bell peppers are blended with sea salt and sunflower oil. “Broccoli Ever After” is broccoli, swiss chard and garlic. Fruits are present, but blended with spices, not each other. “It Takes Two to Mango” is mango and basil, while “Keep Calm and Cardamom” is apple with cardamom.
Health-conscious moms and kids were on board, but investors took a little convincing because they were mostly men and saw baby food as “women’s work.” Sorrosa says, “A lot of the people I worked with at the beginning were men because the food industry was dominated by men. That was a big surprise for me… So, it was really hard to pitch a baby food company to a group of 10, 20, 100 men. It was really hard and, you know, it still is hard,” says Sorrosa. “In the last five years, there’s obviously a lot more to support for female entrepreneurs, and there are a lot more female investors actively funding female entrepreneurs, but it’s still not the majority. So, it’s a challenge that we face every single day when we’re out there raising money and speaking to investors.”
Sorrosa dealt, and still deals with, condescending attitudes. “We’re not technology, it’s a hard sell. It’s so hard when you’re talking to a group of men who sometimes respond, ‘Oh, this is cute. My wife did all of the feeding at home,’ or ‘I don’t even know what babies eat.’ If somebody were pitching something to me that I that I didn’t know about, I would never say to give it to my husband and see what he thinks. I would keep myself on it and learn and then have something intelligent to say,” says Sorrosa. “But it’s hard as a female entrepreneur in a space that’s dominated by men. It’s changing, but I think that’s going to be the mode of operation for many years before there’s real change in the space.”
However, Sorrosa’s tenacity eventually led her to the reality TV show “Shark Tank.” This show allows entrepreneurs to showcase their business ideas to “the sharks,” five highly successful judges who started their own businesses. If the sharks think their idea will bring success, then they provide funding to bring those ideas to fruition. She said, “The experience was amazing. Being in front of the sharks was amazing, hearing their feedback was amazing. We obviously couldn’t get a deal but it ultimately gave us a platform to talk to a national audience about our mission and how committed we are to changing the way kids eat.
“…an overwhelming amount of people reached out to us, wanting to learn more, or purchasing our product. Even people without children told us, ‘We wholeheartedly believe in what you’re doing and we can’t believe the sharks didn’t give you a deal.’ We even had pediatricians, nurses, and speech pathologists write to us. For us, it was the best thing we could have done for our company. It really put us on the map.”
That said, it’s still a David-and-Goliath situation when it comes to the aforementioned baby-food aisle. “The food spaces are really difficult spaces to play in because it is sort of monopolized by some of the bigger players in the market,” such as Gerber, says Sorrosa. “Everything from distribution to shelf space to the mass manufacturing facility, they have it. It’s actually what makes it harder for startups like ours to compete because then price point comes into play. We don’t mass-produce, we’re making food with whole ingredients, we’re not using process puree, we’re not using ascorbic acid or citric acid or fillers.”
Considering all of these challenges, has Sorrosa every felt like giving up? “Every day,” she says. “As an entrepreneur, every day you have ups and downs, really high highs and really low lows. Every day you’re questioning, ‘Oh my gosh. What am I doing? Am I doing the right thing? Are we going to make it, are we not going to make it?’ I don’t know if that ever goes away.”
The benefits outweigh the challenges, though, says Sorrosa. “There are investors out there who want to support you. For every ten who say no, there are five to say yes. That’s what you’re working towards, finding those people who will believe in you and your mission.”
As for what Sorrosa would tell other female entrepreneurs, “there’s always this notion that women need to operate more like men, or if they have families, they can’t fully focus on their businesses,” she says. “I would just say to tune those noises out because of all the statistics out there of female entrepreneurs outperforming their male counterparts, even though they get 2% of the funding. That’s proof that we can. We are capable of doing that. We are capable of taking businesses forward and being successful.
“I’m running a home at the same time” as her business, says Sorrosa. “It’s not pretty, it’s not perfect, it’s sort of a balancing act. I think when female entrepreneurs believe that and believe in themselves, the better the prospects will be for female business owners.”