Yale SOM Entrepreneurs Launch Frozen Food Startup

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Zoni Foods, the brainchild of Yale SOM alumni Zoe Lloyd and Nilofer Ahmed, provides healthy, frozen, plant-based meals that are cost- and time-effective. The meal kits can be prepared on the stove in under 10 minutes, require minimal cleanup, and contain lower levels of sodium compared to most other frozen meals available on the market.

"We're dedicated to making plant-based eating a part of everyone's life," Lloyd explains, adding that Zoni Foods is differentiated by this environmental and social mission. "We're not just about reinventing frozen food. We're about making plant-based foods tasty and convenient."

Zoni Foods currently sells three products: Zesty Peanut Noodles, Coconut Curry Noodles and Sweet Potato Spirals.

The co-founders met in 2016 at SOM and spent a year brainstorming, prototyping and testing products before launching in 2017. (Ahmed is no longer formally involved in the company.) By conducting consumer research, Lloyd has gained valuable insights into how Zoni Foods products are used, knowledge that will inform future iterations of meal kits. For example, the entrepreneur found that consumers who shop in health food stores often seek gluten-free or nut-free options. Additionally, microwave re-heating was reportedly highly preferred by customers who bring lunch to work, so Lloyd and her team are implementing changes to cooking instructions on packaging labels to accommodate more consumers.

"By using lean startup methodology to gain consumer insight, our company has the advantage of small scale because we can learn and iterate fairly quickly," she says. "We're capitalizing on that and learning how to best make the product and do so in a way that's profitable."

Lloyd also considers stakeholders beyond the consumer--such as retailers, distributors and investors--in the process of improving Zoni Foods' products. The size of the meal kit boxes are being revised to better fit retail shelving, and the aesthetic of the packaging and texture and flavor of the product are being refined.

While at Yale, Lloyd worked with SOM students on engineering and manufacturing aspects of the business and harnessed the abundant resources available to Yale entrepreneurs. Her experience at SOM's entrepreneurial suite connected her with Tsai CITY's Jennifer McFadden, whom Lloyd has kept in touch with since graduating. Lloyd says she especially valued the communities of entrepreneurs she was able to engage with on campus.

"Having other entrepreneurs around to hang out, commiserate and celebrate with is so important--to ride the emotional ups and downs and have fun!" she says. 

As an ongoing participant in Tsai CITY's Food Intensive program and the Women Innovator Series, Lloyd views these opportunities as ways both to learn from others and to give back and share the lessons she’s learned as an entrepreneur.

"To be able to tap into these communities and meet aspiring entrepreneurs really energizes and invigorates me," she says, lauding the Food Intensive program as a great way to test the demand of food and beverage products across Yale.

Zoni Foods is next headed for New York City, where natural food stores and independent gourmet grocery stores will soon stock the plant-based meal kits. By gaining more proof of concept through this expansion, Lloyd hopes to understand whether this is a product people want, whether the company can be profitable, and what makes sense in terms of retail opportunities.

While the company envisions steady expansion, the founder maintains that Zoni Foods is "too early" for venture capital.

"They expect you to put a valuation on your company, and that would mean giving away a large percentage of Zoni Foods because our valuation is so low," Lloyd explains.

To preserve equity share, Zoni Foods has raised a convertible debt round. Lloyd says she is looking to raise capital in future but is now focusing on "people who believe in our mission and can support us in ways we need, such as retail, strategy, supply chain, branding and marketing."

Lloyd describes the financial environment for female entrepreneurs as "especially challenging," particularly in the face of biases held by VC boards largely composed of male members.

"There are not as many women on that side of the table, so to have a support network at Yale, learning fundraising strategies and how to present yourself as a female entrepreneur, is so important," she says.

Lloyd describes working on a startup as "a fun, challenging and invaluable" experience.

"There's so much to learn about building relationships with people, business, food and product development," she says,"but mostly learning about myself and what it means to be a successful leader."

Veena McCoole is the YaleWomen Innovation Fellow at Tsai CITY.

Veena McCoole