“We’re a very mission-based organization. We recently partnered with the food quality initiative and through our e-commerce sales we’ve been able to feed over 3,000 food insecure families managing food allergies. We also launched a Black Futures in Food and Beverage program where we partner with five historically black colleges and universities to give students the chance to learn more about consumer packaged goods.”
~ Denise Woodard, CEO, Partake
“We’re a very mission-based organization. We recently partnered with the food quality initiative and through our e-commerce sales we’ve been able to feed over 3,000 food insecure families managing food allergies. We also launched a Black Futures in Food and Beverage program where we partner with five historically black colleges and universities to give students the chance to learn more about consumer packaged goods (CPG).”
~ Denise Woodard, CEO, Partake
CEO Lounge: October 2020
CEO, Partake: Denise Woodard
Interviewed by: Madeline Keulen (MBA 2019)
HBS Association of Boston Board Member and
Vice President of Leadership
MK: Denise, I’d love to start by asking where you grew up, your family, and how your upbringing shaped you?
DW: I grew up in Fayetteville, NC, home of Fort Bragg, one the largest US military bases. My father is African American and served in the US Army for ten years. He met my mother who is Korean while stationed in Korea and they settled in Fayetteville which is where they raised me. Neither of my parents finished high school – my dad got his GED when he was in the army and became an entrepreneur.
When he first left the army, my dad became an over-the-road truck driver which meant he was gone for weeks at a time. Those were difficult periods for us as it meant my mother, who didn’t know anyone and whose second language was English had to care for me as a toddler solo. It really shows how strong she is. Eventually, my parents saved up enough money to buy a few more trucks and overtime built a trucking company. It’s a huge inspiration.
My parents instilled in me the value of education and I was the first in my family to graduate college and obtain a masters degree. They taught me to value hard work – being a woman, a person of color and coming from the background I did, my parents told me from day one “you’re going to have to work 10 times harder than your counterparts.” And finally they taught me that you should treat people the way that you would like to be treated, and to treat the janitor with the same level of respect you give the CEO.
MK: How has your early career experiences shaped your leadership style as the CEO of Partake?
DW: I spent my career after graduating from UNC at three organizations – Altria, Fedex, and Coca-Cola, the bulk of my time at Coca-Cola. It was there I learned the importance of building and protecting the brand and the need for processes. However, I also learned that with large organizations oftentimes comes a lot of hierarchy that needs to exist due to the size and scale.
As I build Partake I’m working to keep the organization as flat as possible. I want our most junior members to feel they’re valued. I have an open door policy and make an effort to schedule coffee meetings to get to know them. We’re all equally important in getting the job done.
We also have a come as you are culture. I’m a working mom – there’s a lot of integration in running the business and it’s really about a village. I want everyone to feel like they can balance kids, aging parents, personal challenges and be able to show up at work as they are knowing it’s okay. It makes us who we are.
MK: What are the core values of your brand? And how do they shape your mission at Partake?
DW: The first is inclusivity. The name Partake is built around this. My daughter has severe food allergies and I was worried that she wouldn’t be able to partake or be included in activities and social events because of dietary restrictions. Because of this, our foods are top 8 allergen-free and safe for 90% of people with allergens of any kind to eat. It’s also important to me because of my background as a woman and person of color. I think it’s important that everyone is both welcome to have a seat at the table and feels confident in that seat. The second is transparency. This means transparency in our ingredients, in who we are, and in what we stand for.
We’re a very mission-based organization. We recently partnered with the food quality initiative and through our e-commerce sales we’ve been able to feed over 3,000 food insecure families managing food allergies. We also launched a Black Futures in Food and Beverage program where we partner with five historically black colleges and universities to give students the chance to learn more about consumer packaged goods (CPG).
We have this idea of giving back and lifting as you climb. It’s my favorite thing about the company. Using business as a force for good is such a powerful tool that even the smallest of businesses like partake have the opportunity to do so.
MK: As you look to expand Partake, what types of opportunities are on your radar?
DW: We’re going to launch our first product outside of cookies in Q4 of this year. When I think about Partake I feel confident that the brand has the capability to live amongst many categories – not only sweet snacks but also savory and cooking tools, etc. I see us being all across the grocery store. We also have a cool co-branded opportunity next year where Partake is going to be used as an ingredient in another product.
MK: What is your biggest challenge in building the Partake brand?
DW: Maintaining the company culture. We started the year as a company with one employee and have now grown to six. In 2021 we’ll be looking to hire significantly as we fuel our growth. Ensuring that everyone believes in and understands the mission as we scale is incredibly important because while growth is important, protecting our culture is everything. Our team and people are our most valuable asset.
MK: Who do you rely on for advice and support? Have you leaned on mentors throughout your career? Did this change when you become a founder and CEO?
DW: I’ve been fortunate to have great mentors along the way, people who have generously donated their time and social capital to help me grow. It’s one of the reasons I’m so bullish on mentorship and coaching.
Personally, I lean on my husband and daughter, as well as my group of girlfriends. From an industry perspective, I lean on other founders who are at a like stage, as well as those who have done this before. In starting Partake, I was particular careful to hear from those who have had to wind down their businesses to learn some of the harder aspects as well. When things are going well it’s hard to remember the bad stuff – but when things don’t pan out, those aspects really stick.
MK: What advice can you share for others looking to leave established companies to start entrepreneurial ventures?
DW: Know that it’s going to be a really hard road. Oftentimes entrepreneurship is glamorized, and you only see the press releases that talk about exciting new initiatives and funding. However, 99.9% of the time it’s not like that at all. As the CEO you’re constantly problem solving and looking towards what’s on the horizon. I haven’t taken a vacation since I started Partake in 2016 because I’ve been building the company, though I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s incredibly rewarding.
My second piece of advice is to just get started. This was advice I received from Seth Goldman at Honest Tea. I was going back-and-forth on decisions around skus, flavors, and distributors. He told me, “If you just start, you’ll take a step in the right direction. You’ll get consumer feedback and that will lead you to your next decision.” Perfect can get in the way in getting started.
MK: What is something most people don’t know about you?
DW: My favorite thing in the world is our family’s Friday night dinner. We go out for pizza and I have a glass of wine. It’s the highlight of my week every week.