Nicole Ledoux and the Seeds of Entrepreneurship

Audio Description

Nicole Ledoux, co-founder of 88 Acres, went from the trading floor to the bakery floor selling nutritious, seed-based snacks. Hear how she pried open the door of opportunity—then left it ajar for others.


This transcript has been generated by an A.I. tool. Please excuse any typos.

00:03 - 00:50

Welcome to Women and Wealth. I'm Beata Kirr, the co-head of Investment Strategies at Bernstein Private Wealth Management. This show aims to engage and inspire women as they make the right choices in their financial journey. Hi, it's Beata. I'm thrilled to share today's episode with you. Kim Davis, my partner at the Women and Wealth Institute, sat down with Nicole Ledoux, the co-founder of 88 Acres, a delicious bakery that makes nutritious snacks derived from seeds. But wait until you hear how her journey started. I'll give you a little bit of a window into it. It involved a trip to the emergency room on a date with her now husband. Anyway, I loved hearing about the amazing culture she's built at her company. And I think you will, too. Enjoy.

00:52 - 01:28

Hi, everybody. Today's guest got her first taste of entrepreneurship selling pumpkins at a farm stand at the age of eight. She quickly learned that having your own money means financial freedom, but never dreamt that those early seeds would grow into a multimillion dollar seed business. Today, I'm delighted to chat with Nicole Ledoux, co-founder of 88 Acres, which makes snacks, spreads and salad dressings derived from seeds as she tells her story. She’ll touch on biases in capital, raising self-care for founders and tips for taking your side hustle to the next level. Welcome, Nicole. It's so great to talk to you.

01:28 - 01:31

Thanks so much for having me. I'm thrilled to be here.

01:31 - 02:02

So, Nicole, I love your story and the excitement you bring to your business. But I'd love to start with a little bit about your background and your love of farming and producing great food. So your parents were poppy farmers and you shared that you actually self-financed your own education for college through your farmstand savings. And you started with a traditional finance role before a fateful dinner with your now husband that planted the seed for it 88 Acres. Can you share a little bit more about the company's origin story?

02:02 - 02:49

Sure, yeah. So by 2012, I had been in finance for nearly a decade and was kind of at a crossroads in my career just a little bit before then. I had met my now husband and co-founder Rob on, which back then was really the only way to meet somebody online, which makes me sound like a dinosaur. And on our fourth date, we were literally like two bites into dinner. And he looked across the dinner table and he was like, I don't want you to panic, but I need you to get me to the E.R. right away because my throat is closing. So he's definitely allergic to peanuts and tree nuts, and I have no food allergies and at the time had no experience with food allergies.

02:50 - 03:18

So I put him in the car and drove 100 miles an hour to the Beth Israel emergency room. And I met his mom and dad there for the first time, which I found was like a really funny way to meet your future in-laws, because I got to be the hero that saved their son's life that night. And all the focus was on him and not on me. So definitely an interesting way to meet your future in-laws. That experience really kind of sparked us on this journey that we're on today. Yes.

03:18 - 03:44

I saw firsthand, like how terrible the options were for people like him. We were both super health conscious and into like triathlons and road races. And he really wanted, like healthy, convenient snacks that he and I could both share on bike rides and hikes and everything that was on the market had nuts. And anything that didn't have nuts was just super stigmatizing. Like it was all about safety.

03:44 - 04:21

Taste and nutrition were like a complete afterthought. And so I started making bars for him in my, like, crappy basement apartment kitchen. And instead of using nuts as the protein base, I use seeds. Seeds are like this nutritional powerhouse. They're packed with protein and amazing nutrients. And most importantly for him, they're not a common food allergen. And the company just kind of took off from there, like what started as us, me making bars just for Rob and then our friends stealing them. We found ourselves passing out hundreds of bars before running and biking workouts in the morning to our Boston community.

04:21 - 04:59

And then we got in front of Whole Foods and decided to launch our business after Whole Foods had asked if we would be willing to launch regionally throughout the North Atlantic region, which is our home New England region. And now we are we have 85 team members making, selling and marketing for sea based lines sold in over 4000 natural grocery stores nationwide. We have bars on JetBlue and Delta. We sell on K-through-12 and higher ed and we're found on Amazon in 88 Acres dot com among other places. So it's really been an amazing journey.

04:59 - 05:14

That is a really incredible journey. Just envisioning that fourth date and what that experience must have been like. And, you know, there's a huge journey from that first bar that you made in your basement apartment, kitchen, you know, to where you are today.

05:14 - 05:33

So what I'd love to talk to you about is your experience. Once you started to realize that you needed some outside funding and to scale on this podcast, we've talked a lot about how hard it is for women to find that funding. But what came out was that you and Rob experienced a different type of bias when you were trying to raise money. Can you talk more about that?

05:33 - 06:17

Yeah, sure. So we're super data nerds, the two of us. And so we like we've really focused on building this data driven story, like taking these little milestones, achieving them, wrapping that into a data story that we could kind of pitch to honestly, whoever would give us the time of day. I was prepared, I think, for the funding world to be like a giant boys club. I think what I was unprepared for was that I felt like we heard a lot of no's in the early days because people were nervous about investing in a husband and wife team, which I found really interesting.

06:17 - 07:07

In 2013, we were part of Mass Challenge, which is a startup incubator here in Boston. It's incredible. There's 125 companies that take part in this four month program. So we were in front of a lot of investors at the time and they were like, We're starting a company. It's really stressful. And they were worried about the impact of the stress on our relationship and how most people can't work with their spouses. I think for us, like we had always viewed it as a huge positive that we're a husband and wife team. Like there is no one on the planet that I trust more than Rob. And I think that starting a company with him has made our relationship even stronger because we have to solve all of our problems at the end of every day.

07:07 - 07:37

And we saw spectacular implosions with other founding teams who are friends or who kind of like met at bat, like founder matching events. And so we're always so confused about why people gave us so much grief about being a husband and wife team. So we just had to work really hard to convince a lot of people that that honestly, it made us a stronger team. And I think we did some smart things early on to help with those conversations.

07:37 - 08:33

So when we first incorporated the business, our legal team was Rob and I had just gotten engaged, so we were like flying high. It was like, romance is in the air. We were just like, We're so happy. And our legal team was like, Look, we're just going to rip the Band-Aid right off. You need to sit down and hash out what will happen to the company if something happens to your relationship. And we were like, Whoa, whoa, We just got engaged. But they really forced us to think through, like exactly what would happen. And we wrote out a side agreement, and that was the first thing that we did. Before we had ever built a bakery or made one bar. We had that agreement in place and it really forced us to get comfortable having those difficult conversations and to really think through some of the longevity of some of our decisions. And so we would tell people that when we got pushback.

08:33 - 08:44

It seems like you solve something that is really difficult for a lot of teams and families and couples, which is to have that clear communication, especially under stress. That's very interesting.

08:44 - 09:01

And what I'd love to talk to you about more is this is not the first time or situation where you've had to overcome objections or had to advocate for yourself and you've had a history of doing that. So I'd love for you to share a little bit about how you build a self advocate in other parts of your life.

09:01 - 09:50

Sure. Yeah. I was one of the first people in my family to go to college. My parents became parents very young and had college aspirations that they had to shell to focus on their family. And my parents were entrepreneurs, so my dad started an actual contracting business when he was really young. He was like 20 in his early twenties. And in my family, like, the currency of choice was always hard work. Like, my parents didn't care what I wanted to do in life. As long as I work my butt off to get to wherever it was that I wanted to get to. And in their mind, especially my dad, it was just like, he values hard work over everything. So I think it just really it was really formative for some of the decision making that I made early in life.

09:50 - 10:12

So when it was time to apply for colleges, I applied to a really big range of schools and I got a full academic scholarship to a state school, and I got almost no financial aid at a bunch of private schools. And I took the you know, my dad was like, do the math. This is this is a really easy math equation.

10:12 - 10:46

Sure. So it wasn't really until I until I graduated I graduated from undergrad in 2001, which for anyone who was around back then, it was not an easy time to be networking in to finance. It was like right after the dot com bubble, I started bartending in Boston. I was just I always wanted to be prepared for Bill Gates walk through the door. I was going to be ready to pitch him on why he should hire me. So I stack resumes under the bar and I would hand them out to basically anyone who would give me the time of day.

10:46 - 11:03

That's amazing. Wait, I'm sorry. I've got to stop there. You were bartending in Boston, so that feels a little bit more recession proof. And I remember that period. And in this industry, it was very hard to start your career at that time. But you were bartending and you had a stack of resumes there at the bar.

11:03 - 11:36

Yeah. And they were like they were like, printed on the like, remember when you got official resume paper and it was like special paper that you printed your resume and they were like on the off the, like heavy duty paper and they were like in a box. So they didn't get smudged. And so trying to network into, to getting it getting any job at that time I think was pretty difficult. And I learned that I am the brand manager of me, like everyone is the brand manager of themselves. And so they always have to be kind of selling their strengths.

11:36 - 12:30

And one of my favorite customers in the bar was an SVP at Putnam Investments, and I had applied for like 150 finance jobs before then, and that was my first taste of like, we're not hiring right now or we're not hiring because you went to a state school or you don't have, you didn't do any internships in college that were finance based. And so I just learned to how to tell my story and how to use my hustle as a huge advantage. And so this SVP at Putnam took one of my beautifully printed resumes and helped me get my first job after college. And that was like a huge lesson. And like always be prepared and make sure you're talking to everyone because you never know who the person on the other side of the conversation is. And if they like you, then it can really be helpful.

12:31 - 12:46

First of all, you pry the doors open for yourself time and time again, but I love to talk to you about the amazing culture you built at eight acres, because I do see some similar themes in terms of the opportunity for your employee. So talk to me a little bit about the team you built and the culture at.

12:46 - 13:21

My time in finance was incredible and I'm so grateful that I was always able to find champions within. I had three roles between undergrad and starting 88 Acres, and I was super fortunate to work for some amazing people, but there were always those people who sat in their glass offices where you had to schedule meetings with, and they were kind of treated like gods on the floor. I worked on it mostly on trading floors and with portfolio management teams and

13:22 - 14:06

So I just remember being, you know, in my twenties and being like, wow, like the big boss gets to sit in the corner office and, like, I would never be able to talk to them. And I think that was just the opposite of the culture that I wanted to build in my own company. I don't want to be sitting in a glass box. I want to be in the trenches with the team. Like one of the things I love the most about running a company is the ability to mentor and create leaders throughout the company. And so I think that building our own bakery and running a manufacturing facility, those are tough jobs. And within food manufacturing, that's typically like a pretty high turnover type of role.

14:06 - 14:40

There are lots of companies who do things like using temporary workers, like we just if we were going to if we were going to build our own manufacturing facility, we really wanted to turn that model on its head and to think about how we could really drive this like career mentality and provide upward mobility and to and to invest in our team members to really foster leadership. And I think it's the vast majority of people, particularly within the bakery, who've been promoted within the company, have been promoted from within.

14:40 - 15:10

So the gentleman who runs all of first shift production started as part time, like helping me cut bars. He was one of our first employees back in 2015 and now he's like a full time salaried. He's crushing it. And our team and our director of ops like myself, we spend a lot of time with him on leadership development and that story has been replicated probably ten times within the bakery and we're super proud of that.

15:10 - 15:34

You should be proud of that, especially in roles that historically have high turnover. To have that loyalty and that and that growth for your team. And we've just been through and we are still going through one of the most fundamentally challenging periods for society and businesses. It seems like culture has been a very important component of keeping your business and team together.

15:34 - 15:41

But talk to us a little bit about what happened to you in 2020 and how the business is doing today.

15:42 - 16:33

So COVID, yeah, navigating the company through COVID was probably one of the most difficult things we've ever had to do as humans and as leaders. I think like when the world completely shut down in March of 2020, I remember like really wrestling with the fact that we had a portion of our team who worked out of the office and who could very easily do their jobs from home. And then we had a big, big percentage of the team who was deemed essential, and we were asking them to go in every day and produce food as food was like disappearing off the grocery store shelves and how nerve wracking it was to try to keep people safe when we had so few tools to keep people safe.

16:33 - 17:07

So we got really lucky that we had we buy PPE quarterly and because we're a bakery, we already were wearing a lot of PPE like hairnets and gloves and lab coats. And I didn't realize this at the time, but our like domestic suppliers of PPE, they were all of it was coming from China. And so just through our normal conversations with the people that we buy things for, they were like in December or January, they were like, things are really getting bad in China right now.

17:07 - 18:02

You might want to think about making sure that your needs are going to be met over the next few months because we've heard rumblings about like factories shutting down. But 2020 was a really rough year for in general for anything single serve, anything that was based on healthy convenience, because suddenly the whole world was at home making like pancakes and bacon and like a seven course breakfast. And they didn't necessarily need anything that was single serve anymore. So the bar category was hit pretty badly. And then we had some verticals that just kind of disappeared overnight, like we play in K through 12 pretty heavily. We have obviously we have like a big presence within airlines. So when some things evaporated overnight because we have we've always had this omni channel strategy. Other channels were like absolutely taking off on a rocket ship. So e-commerce and Amazon were two examples of that.

18:02 - 18:35

So when revenue became uncertain, we really focused on driving the business plan. So in 2020 and 2021, we just drove like we were maniacal about improving margins, really reducing cash burn as much as possible, being thoughtful about where we're spending money on marketing, like where did, where could we cut back and where should we be doubling down? We got all of our finances in a row so that when things started to recover in 2021, we were just really well positioned to take advantage of that.

18:35 - 19:15

So in 2020, we still grew, which was a miracle. We grew by about 40%. But in 2021, we were really well positioned to take off again. And we had the year that we should have had in 2020. And then for 2022, we're projecting like 2 to 3 X revenue growth over 2021 despite being capacity constrained. We're building a new bakery that's slated to open in January of 2023. So really focused on expanding the business, expanding capacity and really positioning ourselves for some astronomical growth coming in the in the next couple of years.

19:16 - 19:37

That's an extraordinary journey, and I love to hear about how you were being strategic. But I think the culture that you built, where you take care of your team, that you're an approachable leader who's in it with them. It sounds like that was a big part of keeping everybody together and getting through. And I'm thrilled to hear that the company is doing so well.

19:37 - 19:54

So we have a couple of minutes left, and I'd love for you to share your best advice for other entrepreneurs because you've been through periods that were really hard from startup to in the most recent cycle. And you know, what other tips would you offer entrepreneurs who are considering embarking on this journey?

19:54 - 20:42

One of the things I grossly underestimated was how lonely it would be going from my last finance job. I was trading on a fixed income options desk, and I always thought of myself as kind of a lone wolf. Like a trading role. It's not really like a team role. So I thought I'd be really well positioned to go out on my own. And when we first started 88 Acres, I was the only one focusing on the business. And my husband Rob, was still he was working is getting his MBA Babson. I didn't realize that being part of a trading floor like that, I could spin my chair around and talk to, you know, 30 different super smart people and bounce ideas off of them.

20:42 - 21:20

And when I left to start 88 Acres, I didn't have that. And I was working from my couch all by myself and it was bone crushingly lonely. I remember my low point was I was I distinctly remember this morning he was like heading off to work. And I begged him to stay home because I just couldn't I couldn't gear myself up for another day by myself. And that was when he was like, you got to get out of the house and you have to find somewhere to work out of where you're surrounded by other people. And that was really good advice.

21:20 - 21:42

The advice I would give people is to really start to build up your network. And don't be afraid to say like, I'm really lonely or I'm struggling or this sucks. It's not like the super happy, beautiful, easy picture that like Ink magazine can sometimes paint about entrepreneurship. Like it can be dark and difficult.

21:42 - 22:41

And, and I think the other thing that I had underestimated was like, I had this amazing network within finance and super smart, amazing people I still talk to. I still talk to them very frequently, but I really needed to build a completely new network within the startup world, within food and beverage and CPG, because I needed a crew of people that I could pick up the phone and ask questions. Think about that network that you have, and I think about it as like almost like a personal board of directors. I have a a list of other entrepreneurs who are at really similar stages to us that it's more of a peer network that you can call and honestly, you can just like pitch to if you need to or or share ideas. And then there's like the next level up is the network of kind of mentors and people who've been there and done that an hour years ahead of me.

22:41 - 23:03

That's spot on that you need that support and strategic advice as an entrepreneur. So last question, Nicole, One question we want to ask every guest on the podcast because we talk about investing with intention, and sometimes it means financial decisions and prioritizing what's meaningful is different for everybody. So what does investing with intention mean to you?

23:03 - 24:03

We have such a focus internally on investing in our team, and I think that sometimes we can be so focused on trying to invest in others that we don't invest enough in ourselves. And so when you say investing with intention, it immediately turns me inward to how I think about investing in myself. Right now. My, like, my most valuable asset is time. It's even more important to me than than money. So I'm investing not only in how to create more time for myself, but also thinking about how I can invest in in making myself a better leader or pushing myself to be a better boss for other people. So maybe that's about giving myself an hour at the end of every day so that I can. I love reading business books. Again, I'm a data nerd. Probably not the life of the party, but just kind of like creating that time and space for myself.

24:03 - 24:11

That's terrific on the call. Thank you so much. It was a pleasure talking to you and we really appreciate you joining us today.

24:11 - 24:13

Thank you so much. Thanks for having me. Kim.

24:14 - 24:27

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