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The first time I tried a Partake chocolate chip cookie, I knew I would need a second one — and probably a third. My husband and two young kids joined in, and the box was empty in minutes. My husband was recently diagnosed with Celiac disease, and this was the first gluten-free snack we’d found that our entire family enjoyed.
Partake is a Black-owned, woman-owned business that was born in Denise Woodard’s kitchen. Her daughter Vivienne was diagnosed with severe food allergies as an infant, including allergies to most tree nuts, corn, bananas and eggs. Woodard and her husband struggled to find healthy snacks that were not only safe for her to eat but also delicious.
“I quickly realized that a lot of vegan and gluten-free products aren’t healthy, and the healthy ones didn’t taste good,” she says. “I also noticed that, starting at a very young age, many social events and activities for kids involved food. I didn’t want Vivienne to feel left out and excluded. I wanted her to be able to partake and participate with other kids.”
So Woodard left the corporate world and her successful career at Coca-Cola. She took her sales and marketing expertise and her passion for making healthy and delicious snacks for her daughter to start Partake.
Today, Partake is growing and thriving. But unfortunately that’s not the case for most small businesses during this pandemic — and it certainly hasn’t been the case for most Black-owned businesses. Over 100,000 businesses have closed since the start of Covid-19, and many continue to struggle to stay open. Black-owned businesses are confronted with disproportionate hardship, including having less access to capital from both commercial banks and the Paycheck Protection Program than non-Black-owned businesses.
“Like many companies, a lot of our marketing strategies for our products hinged on in-person interaction,” Woodard says. “We had to quickly pivot to the virtual world.” As Woodard and team continued to build the business in a virtual world, the country was experiencing another racial reckoning and increased conversation and action around racial injustice following the death of George Floyd. At that moment, there was a massive influx of support for BIPOC-owned businesses.
“It has been a challenge and a heavy, bittersweet time,” Woodard says as she reflects on Partake’s journey and the success she has experienced. At the beginning of 2020, Partake products were in 350 stores. Now, Partake has deals with Target and Whole Foods and will be in 6,000 stores by the end of 2021.
As Partake expands from cookies into other healthy and delicious snacks, here are just three of the many lessons Woodard is instilling in her daughter Vivienne and future women entrepreneurs:
1. Never give up
Woodard was rejected 86 times when seeking seed funding, but she received funding on her 87th try. Although the fastest-growing group of entrepreneurs in the U.S. is Black women, they still receive less than 1% of funding. What kept Woodard going when all she was hearing was “no”? “I knew I could never look my daughter in the eye if I quit just because it got hard,” she says.
In the beginning, Woodard would go pick up her cookies from a climate-controlled facility in New Jersey every day. She would take them to stores, go to trade shows on weekends and do product demonstrations at night.
“It was a family labor of love,” Woodard shares. “It gave my daughter a glimpse into entrepreneurship, and a lesson on going out and doing the hard work every single day when you have an idea that can help others.”
2. Choose who you want to work with
Woodard said she knew as a woman of color it would be really hard to raise money. But for her, raising money was important for reasons other than just keeping the lights on and the cookies baking. “In the early phases, you take what you can,” she says. “I built as sustainable of a business as I could so that we could say no [to funding] if necessary.”
Woodard wanted to build a sustainable business so that she could be intentional about her cap table, her partners, the direction of her business and the causes she wanted to support.
“In our series A round, we brought together partners who were mission-aligned, and half of our cap table today is Black,” Woodard says. Partake and its partners continue to rally around causes like childhood food insecurity and increasing diversity in the natural food space.
3. Support those who support you
“When I started Partake, it was so my daughter and others with food allergies were able to partake,” Woodard explains. “But as a woman, as a Black woman, and as a founder, I realized a lot of other people needed an opportunity to partake. I want investors aligned with investing back into the community and helping underserved, underrepresented folks. I knew we could have an impact on a broader ecosystem.”
Ultimately, Woodard wants to take Partake’s success and use her power and influence to put more good into the world. That means doubling down on efforts to feed food insecure families. It means helping first-time fund managers build track records of success and continue investing in women and people of color. It means launching a Black Futures in Food & Beverage fellowship program to increase opportunities for women and people of color seeking careers in the food industry.
“Black and brown people are underrepresented in the consumer packaged goods (CPG) food and beverage workforce, and we feel it is both our opportunity and our responsibility to help open doors for Black students interested in exploring CPG career paths,” Woodard says.
Although Partake is still finalizing some of its long-term charitable goals, including partnering with the Food Equality Initiative, Woodard is clear on her focus: “My personal mission is to really lean in and drive how Partake can continue to bring positivity to the world.”