Chobani Incubator’s diverse new cohort illustrates new focus to lift up underrepresented entrepreneurs

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Chobani Incubator’s diverse new cohort illustrates new focus to lift up underrepresented entrepreneurs

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“Disheartened” but “not surprised” that so little venture capital currently is invested in startups led by women and minority entrepreneurs, Chobani Incubator’s new program director Zoe Feldman says she wants to more intentionally support founders from underrepresented groups in upcoming cohorts.

“For the third year in a row, all venture capital funding to female founders or co-founders is hovering at about just 2% across verticals, and for founders of color, particularly African Americans, it is a minutia of a percentage – not even a single digit percentage in sum total,”​ Feldman told FoodNavigator-USA.

She explained that investment in women and minority entrepreneurs remains low in part because “there is a lot of systemic bias, both conscious and unconscious”​ in the investment world, which is dominated by white men.

“Investing is psychological and emotional. You tend to fund what you know, and you know yourself, and 93% of all individuals in positions of power, who are active in capital and investing money into the broader eco-system … are not female and are not people of color. Only 7% of folks at VCs in positions of power, where they have the ability to actually distribute capital, come from underrepresented groups,”​ she said.

Feldman noted that this reality is “deeply, deeply disappointing,”​ and something she can’t help but take personally given her experience as an LGBT woman who worked for more than four years in the VC world trying to direct money to underrepresented groups.

During that period, she said, she prided herself “on bringing a different perspective to leadership teams and … on having a pretty strong record on the deals in which I was personally involved investing in having founders and co-founders of underrepresented minorities in terms of race, ethnicity and gender.”

And yet more work has to be done, which she said, she is excited to do it with the “unbelievably impressive and completely supportive” ​team at Chobani.

“My goal for this new incubator cohort is for it to be over-indexed in underrepresented groups, not just in terms of race, ethnicity and gender, but also sexual orientation and geography, education level and class,”​ all of which are factors that bring a “really unique perspective”​ that everyone in the cohort can learn from, she said.

To ensure increased diversity in Chobani Incubator’s Spring cohort, Feldman began by taking a closer look at the team’s travel budget and expanding where they visited to promote interest in the incubator.

“We held happy hours and events all over the country. We hit up eight cities and larger towns, seven of which the incubator had not visited prior. So, places like Burlington, Vt., where you wouldn’t think there would be a rich community of entrepreneurs, but in fact there has been forever. It is part of the Vermont culture,”​ she said.

By making a conscious effort to recruit beyond the obvious locations, such as Boulder, Colo., Austin, Tex., and San Francisco, Chobani was able to widen the scope of its reach and meet entrepreneurs who hadn’t heard of the program and might not have applied before, she said.

A diverse incoming class

Feldman’s efforts paid off with 75% of the incoming Spring cohort being led by underrepresented minority founders and 63% by women founders.

“It is also extraordinarily diverse in terms of geography, as well. We have several entrepreneurs from the South, a couple from rural areas, one from Seattle. So for me, again, is just about this rich tapestry of narratives of all different types of individuals”​ whose experiences and values match those held by Chobani, Feldman said.

“Chobani is built on this idea of democratizing food and making it better for you and more accessible and affordable, and that is an ethos I have carried during the course of this whole selection process with the team,”​ and the incoming class reflects it, she said.

Advice for entrepreneurs and investors to boost diversity

While Feldman and Chobani are leading by example, she said that entrepreneurs and investors need to make an effort to diversity the segment as well.

Women and minority entrepreneurs can help each other break through by coming together virtually or at live meet-ups, suggested Feldman.

“There are now these small, organic communities that are being built from the ground up and folks are coming together.… There are communities for everything. Sometimes you have to search a little harder for them, but they do exist for sure. So, that would be my number one recommendation for entrepreneurs – find your tribe and the people with whom you feel supported and seen and validated,”​ she said.

She advised investors to take a close look at their teams and hiring practices to ensure that they are bringing in as diverse a workforce as possible so that when they evaluate potential investments, they do so from a range of lenses.

To do this, investors will need to look beyond their immediate social networks or the places they typically recruit, she advised.

“Adjust your hiring practices to look for folks who have experiences that are different from yours and who may not come from certain institutions that you may want to hire from. There are amazing people who have incredible social skills but who come from atypical backgrounds,”​ Feldman said.

Feldman adds that it is essential that investors represent a range of experiences and values because entrepreneurs may be intimidated to pitch if they perceive everyone at the table as the same as each other but different from them.

Chobani Incubator sets companies up for long-term success

Even as Feldman pushes the Chobani Incubator forward, she acknowledges that it is already one of the best models in the industry as illustrated by its alumni’s success post-graduation.

According to Chobani, participants in its first and second cohort saw a year-over-year increase in distribution of 68% on average as well as a 67% increase in annual revenue from fiscal year 207-18 on average.

In addition, alumni have collectively raised more than $60 million since starting the program in 2016, Chobani notes.

Minority and women entrepreneurs dominate Chobani Incubator’s incoming cohort

Chobani Incubator’s new director Zoe Feldman wants to bring to the program more diversity – not just in terms of race, ethnicity and gender, but also sexual orientation, education level, class and geography. The result of her efforts is the incubator’s most diverse cohort yet, including:

Afia Foods​ – ​A Texas-based company founded by a Syrian native who wants to bring the Mediterranean home with authentic Syrian recipes for frozen falafel and kibbeh.

COCINA 54​ – ​Founded by Argentinian immigrants on a mission to “make delicious empanadas, bringing a convenient product that fits consumer’s busy lifestyles and the search for bold international flavors.”

The Meat Hook​ – ​A Brooklyn, NY, based nose-to-tail butcher focused on local grass-fed and –finished meat from small family farms.

Mason Dixie Biscuit Co​ – ​A women owned, Washington, DC, based business dedicated to making “America’s best biscuit” made from real butter and dairy and no preservatives or additives.

Cannonborough Beverage Company​ – ​A South Charleston, SC, company making soda that “excites and challenges the limits of the beverage industry.”

Edesia Nutrition / MeWe​ – ​A Rhode Island-based non-profit that makes ready-to-eat therapeutic foods.

Seal the Seasons​ – ​A Chapel Hill, NC, company that sells frozen food sourced from local farmers “pertinent to the regions in which they grow.”

Thaifusions​ – ​A Seattle sauce company focused on family heritage and pride in the Thai culture.

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