Rendezvous with Ginger-it-Up
(Interviewed by Mani Mukhija)
Meet the CEO & the Co-Founder- Colleen Kavanagh of “ZEGO”
“The Nature worked on developing a symbiotic relationship between humans and food for millions of years. We should honor and respect that and try to eat as close to the land as possible”, says Colleen, CEO & Co-founder of ZEGO in an exclusive interview with Mani Mukhija, Founder & Editor-in-Chief of Food Blog/Magazine Ginger-it-Up.
Colleen Kavanagh co-founded “ZEGO” in response to her own & her kid’s food related health issues, from celiac disease to allergies and intolerances. She has been an entrepreneur since her early teens. Colleen enjoyed her childhood entrepreneurial venture wherein she made braided hair barrettes and sold them to raise money for her 8th grade dance. Before co-founding ZEGO with Jonathan Shambroom, she had been the Executive Director of “A Better Course”, a non-profit company founded by Colleen herself to address and improve nutrition for low-income kids through programs & public policy.
Colleen has a passion for healthy food and thus enabling a healthy life through her passion. Scouring the grocery store aisles, she found that the few allergy and gluten friendly snacks available were mostly high-carb and without the healthy protein and fats kids need to develop strong minds and bodies. So she decided to solve her problem by starting her own company, ZEGO, to make the product all the parents around her were asking for: nutritious, clean, convenient snacks that kids and adults love to eat AND meet all the common dietary restrictions.
I feel honored to have Kavanagh as my Rendezvous guest. In spite of having a very busy schedule, she agreed to speak with me and answer my questions and share the inspiration with my readers of Ginger-it-Up. A very warm welcome to Kavanagh on Ginger-it-Up.
Apart from being a successful entrepreneur, Colleen is a very humble person and a super mom too. Let’s learn more about this “city-gal” (who loves the hustle-bustle of big cities) through this exclusive interview on “Rendezvous with Ginger-it-Up”.
Mani: Tell us a little bit about yourself and your Snack brand ZEGO?
Colleen: I am a city gal, living in Memphis, Washington DC and now San Francisco—I love the hustle and bustle. My husband and I are raising our 3 children in San Francisco, all of whom have various food related health issues, from celiac disease to allergies and intolerances. I’ve been working to improve nutrition for kids in low-income families for most of my career, either working in government or nonprofit, before starting my superfood company ZEGO. ZEGO’s mission is to fuel people to achieve their dreams by providing delicious superfood products that meet all their dietary needs, from allergies to diabetes to lifestyle diets.
Mani: What were you doing before this, and is this your first business?
Colleen: My first entrepreneurial venture was in 7th and 8th grade. I made braided hair barrettes and sold them as fundraisers and to local stores. I had my whole class making them to raise money for our 8th grade dance—we had so much fun! My mother and older sisters ended up taking it over and ran it for about 10 years.
Before ZEGO, I was Executive Director of A Better Course, a nonprofit I started to improve nutrition for low-income kids through programs and public policy. I focused mostly on social justice issues that prevented kids from getting the foods they needed to succeed in their day. For example, we fought for better federal regulations to stop high schools from separating the students by income when they stood in line to get their school lunch (students eligible for free lunches in a separate line than their peers who paid full price).
Mani: What inspired the birth of ZEGO and how did you come up with this name ‘ZEGO’?
Colleen: ZEGO means “zest on the go!” We wanted a name that implied what the product provides – energy and safety. Need energy, need allergy safety, need superfood nutrition? ZEGO is your perfect GO snack! Mom approves, you love it, it’s safe, everything is a-go.
My inspiration for starting ZEGO came from my family and our school. All my kids have celiac disease or gluten and dairy intolerance. We also try to keep sugar and refined grains low. We were pretty good at providing school snacks that were healthy and met all their dietary needs but then our girls’ elementary school adopted a peanut and tree nut free policy campus-wide. Suddenly 250 families had to buy nut free foods that also met any other dietary restrictions of preferences they had. When I started looking for a 10am snack option that was shelf stable and healthy, I couldn’t find anything I approved of that they would eat (they weren’t big fans of eating straight seeds). Everything was either full of processed ingredients and sugar. All my friends had the same problem, the parents were very frustrated with the lack of options. I started ZEGO to solve this problem for all of us.
Mani: I read that it took you two years to develop your tasty allergen-free bar! What kept you going? Did you feel like backing out at any instance?
Colleen: I love hosting dinner parties – making people happy through food. ZEGO lets me do that on a grander scale! What keeps me going with ZEGO is knowing that I’m providing nutritious snacks for people in the stressful moments – when they are starving on an airplane or in the middle of nowhere at a soccer field with kids who are hungry but need snacks that don’t have nuts or gluten or are safe for diabetics. Normally, these are really stressful moments that can lead to a lot of tears, but ZEGO can turn these moments into great memories by removing the food stress.
Product development is long for us because in addition to not using common allergens, gluten, cane sugar and grains, we also don’t use the additives or processed ingredients other companies use to make it easier to develop a flavor profile or get the dough to work well on your machines.
We have to learn about our ingredients and how they behave in different circumstances. For example, we buy “ugly fruit” puree from Oregon and Washington but the puree will have a different mix of pear or apple varieties in it depending on the harvest date. This affects the moisture content and flavor which has dramatic effects on how the dough mixes and runs through the machines. For our sunflower seed bars, we use a proprietary sequencing process for our recipes so we don’t have to use additives to correct for oiliness or dryness.
Mani: There’s a still lot of confusion among people when it comes to picking from GMO & Non-GMO products. Some consciously look behind the packaging to find out before they buy while others are still ignorant and pick whatever they feel is a good deal for them. What are your views on GMO based food and why do you think is the need of NON-GMO and allergen free products in the market?
Colleen: My philosophy is that nature worked on developing a symbiotic relationship between humans and food for millions of years. We should honor and respect that and try to eat as close to the land as possible. Less processing, not genetically modified in a lab. Of course, there are different kinds of human modifications of food, grafting grape vines onto stronger root stock to avoid disease I support, putting pesticides into corn I don’t support. We are creating problems we don’t discover until down the road. For example, they modified soy and as a result most of the soy we eat has dramatically more of the protein that causes most of the soy allergies—that was a bad idea.
We don’t know how tied together allergies and autoimmune diseases are to the chemicals and GMOs in our food system, or the flame retardant on your mattress or couch. We do know that there are so many chemicals in our world now, they are so prevalent they are showing up in babies and mother’s milk. Let’s clean up the food, water and air and see what happens!
Mani: Are there any challenges that you faced in starting this business?
Colleen: So many! I feel like I’ve gotten an MBA and marketing, food science and finance degree since I started. Everything boils down to money and experience. When you are a new company, you get bombarded with consultants and services trying to sell to you. I found that engaging on these when I was feeling overwhelmed often resulted in bringing in the wrong kind of support that proved expensive and frustrating. I think you shouldn’t take sales calls when you get started. Instead, hire consultants through a reputable agency in your business area and pay them to help you figure out your business model and the type of support you need.
Mani: Name three snacks that you would most want to see made allergen and GMO free?
Colleen: Beside what I’m making with ZEGO (we have new snacks coming out at the end of this year – stay tuned!)? For me personally, I’d love to have a gluten free flatbread that is made from whole foods and not processed starches or legumes. Better dairy free ice creams, again without processed ingredients and lots of gums. There are some small brands that are doing a great job, we just need them more readily available and less expensive. For my third, I’d like to see more products that are completely corn-free. My daughter has a corn allergy and it’s been really eye opening how much corn is in every part of our lives – our foods, our cars, our plastic bags.
Mani: What is that one ingredient that you would most want to see banned from food products and why?
Colleen: Anything artificial. Food should be nourishing. You shouldn’t be allowed to put artificial flavors, colors or sweeteners in a product and be allowed to call it food. Maybe we could have a new name like, “chemically altered food product.”
Mani: I and my husband have recently started to use just Organic and Non-GMO food products in our family. Most of the consumers still think that moving on to Organic is an expensive affair. What’s your say on this and how would you respond to those consumers?
Colleen: I buy organic and non-GMO because, in addition to the health benefits and taste, I like knowing that I’m not contributing to the problems their production causes — farmworkers suffering from pesticide poison, plants resistant to most weeds so they encourage the growth of super weeds, rivers and waterways with measurable amounts of glyphosate (in Roundup). Glyphosate is so prevalent in our world that it is in our rain water, everything we eat, even organic foods. In fact, at ZEGO we are starting a glyphosate testing program to help us find ingredients that minimize glyphosate residue in all our products and we are encouraging other companies to do the same. It’s all about transparency. Companies can get the organic certification but if they aren’t testing, they don’t know if it’s contaminated. This all falls under the enhanced transparency we’ve built under our Z-Code food safety system where we batch test for allergen and gluten cross contact and post the results to consumers through the packaging QR code. If you aren’t testing, you aren’t protecting your customers.
For those who are on the fence about organic or if it’s too expensive for them, I always encourage them to focus on their fats. That is where the toxics animals eat collect. Buy organic fats like butter and lard. That will just add a few dollars a week to your bill and the health benefits will be disproportionately high.
Mani: Describe yourself in one sentence?
Colleen: Gosh, that could take me a lifetime to think about. How would others describe me? Passionate, dedicated, a bit visionary and an extremely hard worker—and I’m not as good at singing as I think I am but I make up for it in style.
Mani: Do you have a favorite mantra/quote that keeps you inspired?
Colleen: Learn fast, pivot faster.
I was raised Catholic, and when it comes to tough questions, I’ll ask myself, “What would Jesus do?” Insert your own admired person here. It works really well!
Mani: What important piece of advice would you like to give to the parents and kids when it comes to picking up the school snack?
Colleen: Spend an hour at the start of the school year researching brands and products to decrease impulse buys—it’s easy using hashtags on social media platforms like Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. For example, search under #healthysnacks, #peanutfreesnacks or #vegan. It’s so easy to get subscriptions now either on company websites or Amazon so you don’t end up grabbing unhealthy options at the store.
Also, your kids are offered plenty of grains and sugar all day long from well-meaning people. Balance that out by making sure your snacks are superfood-based–fruits, seeds, veggies, nuts. There are great options out there being made by smaller companies. No matter where you live, you can feed your kids healthy snacks.
Mani: Any Closing Remarks Colleen?
Colleen: The food industry is stacked against new brands and yet that is where the innovation is happening in healthier foods. It’s really important if you find a small brand you like that you help promote it, not only by purchasing but also by posting on your social media and telling your friends. It makes a huge difference!
Mani: Is there anything else you can tell us about yourself, your business that would be interesting or helpful to others aspiring to enter and succeed in the similar business?
Colleen: Food is an extremely hard business. You have to be passionate about more than just your recipe to endure the ups and downs. You also need experienced staff and financial backing. The “started in her kitchen, won on Sharktank and is now wildly successful” story is very rare and often not really true.
As part of your business planning, ask yourself if you can raise the money you need to become successful. Do you have or can you afford the experience you need to build that success? My advice to others thinking of going into food is that you need more that a recipe everyone loves. You need partners who have food experience building food companies, or the money to hire someone with that experience. And, you should line up investors before you launch, or at least start the conversation before you launch about investing later, after you’ve put in a couple of years of your own money and sweat equity.