Founder of FOODTOEAT
Deepti Sharma is the founder and CEO of FoodtoEat, a community minded catering concierge service that connects women, immigrant, and minority-owned food vendors to business opportunities in NYC. Deepti founded FoodtoEat in 2011 with the mission of creating opportunities for Black and Brown people, minorities that have historically been overlooked and underserved by many industries --including the food industry.
Deemed one of the World Economic Forum’s global shapers, Deepti worked for different political campaigns and community building activities before starting her own ventures (although she continues her work as a vocal advocate for policies that benefit minority owned businesses).
In 2017 Deepti co-founded Bikky, a data platform solving customer engagement for restaurants, helping them discover loyal customers and leverage real-time feedback to improve and grow their businesses .
Deepti is a true innovator and an incredible advocate for women, immigrants and her community. For all of her amazing work she has been recognized as a Forbes 30 Under 30 and a WEF Global Shaper.
I had the opportunity of speaking with Deepti and asking her some questions about her entrepreneurial journey. She shares what she looks forward to today, how she wants FoodtoEat to evolve and the hurdles she had to overcome, from her experience with (sexist) investors to how her company pivoted from a consumer brand to a b2b model.
What inspired you to start FoodtoEat and become a social entrepreneur?
Whenever I think about why I started I always think about who I am as an individual. My labels. I am a woman of color. I am a mother. I am an entrepreneur. I am a first-gen American (my parents were born in India and I was the first one to be born here). All of those things are things that make me unique, that make me who I am today. I also realize that a lot of immigrants, women and minorities don't have a lot of opportunities that are created for them specifically and it’s always a hard trek up to do anything, just like it was for me.
What were some of the first obstacles you had to overcome?
When I was pitching my company to investors it was always really hard for them to understand why we were so mission driven and not just concentrated on our revenue, why we weren’t just talking about our numbers and how we were going to double or triple our revenue within x amount of time. For us it’s not just about the revenue, it’s about creating something that’s meaningful and impactful and actually of value to the restaurants that we are going to work with. But instead I was being asked questions like “when are you planning on having children?” They saw a ring on my finger and assumed I was married, from which then they assumed that I even wanted kids… and it’s such a personal question, you don’t really openly talk to people you just met about something so personal. It was really frustrating because I was trying to build the first version of our company, which was a consumer brand, and if you look at the companies that exist in this space, I was one of the very few women founders in the food tech space. But the point is, when I first started I kept thinking I'm not smart enough, I’m not good enough, and that was why they don't want to invest in me… it took me years to realize that it was because I wasn’t exactly what they wanted, I wasn’t a South Asian woman who came from an ivy league background, who worked in a big bank or a consulting job. I worked in politics and campaigns all throughout college and then I started a company. And to them my experience wasn't good enough. Even though I did do some really incredible things at such a young age it wasn’t enough for them. I would say [that the obstacles I faced] at the beginning were just always being doubted by people, it wasn't until when Forbes recognized me for Forbes 30 under 30 when I felt like I had credibility. People would take a call with me at least because of that. Before then it was just like who is this person? They didn’t want to look at me twice.
When did you pivot FoodtoEat's model?
We pivoted because building a consumer brand without large venture dollars is hard, because you can't keep competing with multimillion dollar companies that have extreme budgets, and are signing up new restaurants or are just doing a lot more things than you're capable of doing. So we pivoted to our b-to-b model and focused on opportunity -- how do we create new opportunities for these restaurants -- and we did that by creating relationships with large corporate companies (like Warby Parker, Microsoft) that really believed in our mission, because it wasn’t just about the food, they really enjoyed the conversations that we were bringing in. Which is why we really wanted to focus on expanding our company in NY and really provide this amazing service where we felt like there were so many stories to tell
What do you wake up looking forward to today? How would you like to see FoodtoEat evolve?
I have two kids, a four-year-old and a two-year-old, and my hope is that they allow me to work in peace and quiet and just have some mental clarity so I can keep doing what I want to do. But it’s hard, you don’t want to sit them in front of a screen all day, which sometimes we end up doing because both my husband and I are entrepreneurs and we both have businesses (and it’s a lot). So we try to create some balance where we try to teach them things, but they are toddlers and they are very active -- they need something new every few minutes. So for me, when it comes to work, my main thing is: are we adding value? Are we creating new opportunities? Everyday I get up making sure that I did something to create an opportunity to add value to the businesses. As a parent I want to be able to do the same thing for my kids, and I try as much as I possibly can -- given the small apartment we live in New York City it’s definitely not easy, but we are doing our best… at the end of the day that’s what’s more than enough, I don't try to put this immense amount of pressure on myself because it’s not worth it.
In the past you shared about the hurdles women, and especially Black and Brown founders, face when looking to raise capital. How do you think we can get the VC world to change? How can we get more VCs like Arlan Hamilton’s Backstage Capital that are investing in Black and Brown founders?
Honestly, it’s as obvious as making sure you are looking at who you’re investing in and looking at who the founders are. What Arlan Hamilton does is she just looks at Black and Brown people. Because she knows opportunities aren’t really coming towards them, that they’re not being invested in. So her sole mission is how can I invest in as many Black people as possible. I think that we have to take a step back and look at the businesses that different VCs have invested in, and see how many of them are Black or Brown -- if there’s 2 out of 100 then there’s a problem, and it’s not because Black and brown founders don’t exist. It’s not a pipeline problem. It’s a matter of opening the door up to them. I always say whenever someone is starting a business the most important things you need are capital, resources and network. If you have at least 2 of those you are bound to make your life a little bit easier. But if you only have one, it becomes really hard… you need at least 2 of those 3 things to succeed, move forward and build a successful business (no matter what success looks like to you). So it’s important to make it easier for people to feel they can actually come and talk to you, so you’re the one who’s actually doing the outreach, like Harlan does.