My car is crammed with signs, stickers, food samples, and table decor. Through the chaos I can see my 4-year-old daughter’s face, taking it mostly in stride. “Mom, are we going to talk about food waste again?” Just days earlier, she had come with me to a presentation at a 9th-grade class, which happened to coincide with a preschool vacation day. The weekend before that, she snuck into my office while I was taping a webinar.
I like to think my work ethic and round-the-clock dedication to building my company is teaching my young kids by example that pursuing a passion makes for a good and meaningful life. I also maintain that their existence keeps me from being a workaholic. It’s a constant give and take. Only time will tell if these are actual truths or just stories I insist on believing.
When I started my first business, a meal delivery and catering company, I was 23 and had nothing to lose. People would say how brave I was quitting a traditional job (which I hated) and going it alone. But I never felt brave. It just seemed a logical next step at the time. Over the next 10 years, that business grew from a service-based, one-woman show to a full-fledged operation grossing $1 million annually with 18 employees. Keeping that afloat was brave.
In the last year of its operation, my daughter was born and I managed to self-fund 10 weeks of maternity leave which allowed me the first real break* from my own life. (*Many new moms do not feel like they’re on a break. I, however, was so burnt out, staying home with my new baby was truly a vacation from my business). During this leave, I mapped out the future and realized that the business, as it existed, was not in line with my idea for living the next decade. It was an incredibly hard thing to come to terms with and sent me down a path that left me feeling quite vulnerable. The most annoying part though? Everyone (and there were so many of them) who said: “Oh, selling makes sense. You can’t possibly run a business and be a good mom.” Why? Says who?
Having my daughter gave me the space to see what mattered and the time to figure out how to get there. She is the reason I founded a second business more aligned with my goals and the mark I want to leave on the world. She’s not the reason I decided to close a business. She’s the reason I decided to build a better one.
During the year-long process of selling my company, I worked for a larger food-tech business and had regular hours. I lasted for eight months. The short time I was on someone else’s schedule was the only time in my four years as a mom where I was confronted daily with the common woe of being neither a good employee nor a good mother. Contrary to popular belief, I found that running my own business with a baby at home was far more flexible and fulfilling than working for someone else.
As I mapped out a new business model and mission statement, it was clear I would need money to get started. Since I live in San Francisco, the epicenter of venture capital, that seemed to be the most obvious route. After hours of research and learning as much as I could about the process, I built a pitch deck. This was great, except I couldn’t get anyone’s attention. Much of the conversation about securing an investor pertains to the actual pitch: what you will say in the room, how to create urgency, and how to keep going after you hear “no” 75 times. I was ready to weather the rejection, but I couldn’t even get in the room!
Stats on how infrequently female founders receive funding are often written about. In my experience, being pregnant or female weren’t the biggest hurdles. Being an outsider with non-technical experience was my biggest barrier. In the venture fundraising process, which I explored for about 10 months, I managed to talk to a few in-the-know people but was ultimately dismissed for not having a tech co-founder or knowing how to code my app myself.
There are always opportunities in the Bay Area to network and meet the next person who might make an intro that might get you into a room with an investor who might like your idea. The problem was that I will always prioritize my family. I want to be there to pick up my kids from daycare (where they have been for nine hours) and go home and make my family dinner every night. While Silicon Valley has no shortage of networking events, almost all of them happen in the evening. The odds felt stacked against me as an outsider and as a mom.
My goal is to build a thriving business that provides value to busy families, educates home cooks about our part in climate change, and empowers behavior changes that matter.
Continuing to go down the VC route was taking my eyes off the prize, in more ways than one. My no-food-waste business still has a long way to go — it’s only just about to launch to the public after months with 100 beta testers — but I’m excited about the possibilities and impact so far. And I know I’m setting a good example for the most important someone when my daughter tells her little brother: “Don’t throw pasta on the floor. It’s not okay to waste food.”
Alison Mountford is the Founder and CEO of Ends+Stems, a meal planning service designed to reduce household food waste and stop the effects of climate change. Alison has 15 years of experience as a professional chef and entrepreneur. Her first business, an early model in meal delivery, was sold in 2015. She is a 2018 Rubicon Waste Fit Champion and advocates for reducing waste.