Rachel Domb, a second-year student at Northeastern, got the idea to be a maker of healthy snacks when she was in high school.
“I was a track runner and needed constant fuel all the time,” she says, so she made her own granola to carry around. She felt it was a healthier alternative than the sugary, store-bought offerings with their unpronounceable ingredients and plastic packaging.
Now, in addition to taking five classes and leading a Northeastern program for women entrepreneurs, Domb has been hiring Northeastern designers for a website as well as for a line of T-shirts, bags, and other merchandise. Another university designer was hired to create individual snack packs.
The swirl of activity is a prelude to her big moment—the coming launch of her plant-based snack food venture, Rooted Living.
“It’s a lot to be doing all of these things at once,” says the psychology major from New Jersey. “To be completely transparent, it has been a really very stressful few weeks.”
But she isn’t going it alone. She’s had help from several corners of the university.
Packaging design was handled by fellow students in Northeastern’s Scout program. Domb also worked with other members of the university’s innovation ecosystem, including IDEA and the law school’s IP CO-LAB. She funded all of this with the $2,500 she won in last year’s Husky Startup Challenge, beating out 11 other young companies created by students.
“I’m so fortunate to have these resources around me,” she says.
Domb also recently hired an Irish company that makes just the right type of compostable packaging for her snacking fare, which comes in two flavors—maple almond and peanut butter crunch. Each sells for $9.50 a package.
Domb says 40 percent of the plastic produced in the world today is packaging, mostly for food. Single-use plastics, she adds, are a major contributor to global warming, causing “detrimental, irreversible impacts to the planet.”
There often isn’t another choice when it comes to the packaging on snacks, which is why she decided to create one. That explains why picking a company to make the compostable pouches for her granola was so important.
“It was a very intentional decision because there’s lots of different quote unquote eco-friendly packages,” she says, making air quotes with her fingers in an online interview.
She could have gone with recyclable packaging, which would have cost less, or post-consumer recycled containers such as aluminum cans or plastic water bottles. Biodegradable packaging was another choice. “But all of those options have a lot more negatives associated with them when it comes to the planet than compostable does,” Domb points out.
Women-owned enterprises are the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. business community, but they continue to struggle to obtain equal access to capital and contracts, according to the U.S. Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship. And, almost 60 percent of the largest female-owned businesses started from scratch, like Domb’s.
But many startups also will fail, largely because they are not solving a problem people care about or the team may not be fully committed, explains Mia Nguyen, co-founder of Northeastern’s Women’s Interdisciplinary Society of Entrepreneurship (WISE).
Nguyen doesn’t see either being an issue with Domb’s company.
“Rooted Living has identified a need that people are seeking a solution to, and Rachel is empowering her team to go after it,” she says.
Domb’s crowdfunding campaign also will launch mass production of the granola, which is being handled by a company in Massachusetts. After securing the proper licenses to make it herself in the kitchen of her Boston apartment, the snack will be made to her specifications by a Massachusetts bakery that also will package and ship the product.
One of the more interesting takeaways from being her own CEO is the inevitable self-doubt that crops up, Domb says.
“I deal with a lot of ‘impostor syndrome’,” she says. “I just have to keep reminding myself every day that nobody else is solving this problem, and the fact that I’m taking on all of this makes me qualified.”
Self-awareness is one of the key characteristics of successful business founders, adds WISE’s Nguyen, along with authenticity, adaptability, and the right attitude.
“Rachel naturally has all of those traits,” she says.
Domb expects to launch Rooted Living around April and sell directly to consumers through the website for the first year. Of greater urgency is building a solid foundation before investing in retail channels, which are expensive.
“You have to pay for shelf space and pay for things that aren’t sold, and that’s just not feasible for a small business,” she says. “I also really think it’s important to prove that your product is something that people want.”
And that, she says, is what keeps her going, especially now that things are getting real.
After working on her brand for more than a year, she still doesn’t have a finished product to show for the long hours and sleepless nights, but that will be changing soon. She anticipates the day when she can actually hold a bag of Rooted Living granola in her hand.
“That’s going to be a very big moment for me,” she says.
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