Denise Woodard is the story of what could go right when you believe in yourself.
When Woodard’s daughter was diagnosed with multiple food allergies, she found a huge absence of snacks for people with food allergies. Denise got to work creating a cookie product that was both delicious and avoided using the top 9 most common food allergens.
Now, Partake Foods is a booming business, collaborating with Ben and Jerry’s and being distributed in most popular grocery stores. Woodard sat down with MBE magazine for National Black Business Month to tell us exactly how she rose to her level of success, and how other entrepreneurs can follow in her footsteps.
Q: Tell us about your daughter and how she inspired you to create allergy-friendly food products.
Woodard: My daughter, Vivienne, was the driving force behind the creation of Partake Foods. When she was diagnosed with multiple food allergies at a young age, finding safe and nutritious snacks for her became a constant challenge. My frustration and concern for her well-being led me on a journey to develop delicious and safe snacks that she could enjoy without fear of being excluded.
Q: I’d just like to say that I tried your Partake Chocolate Chip Cookies and they were amazing! From a baking perspective, what did the process look like of creating a cookie that was both delicious and avoids using the top 9 allergens?
Woodard: Creating a cookie that is both delicious and free of the top 9 allergens requires a meticulous and innovative approach to baking. We carefully select alternative ingredients without compromising taste and texture – a cookie must taste good! In addition, preventing cross-contamination during production is also vital to ensure our offerings remain top nine allergen-free, so we have strict protocols and testing in our manufacturing process.
Q: Why was it important that your company was classified as a Certified B Corporation? What causes does Partake focus on?
Woodard: Earning the B Corporation Certification is something our company is very proud of as it reiterates our commitment to making good products for good—better for people and the planet, high-quality, gluten-free, vegan and allergy-friendly. Partake continues to partner with like-minded organizations and nonprofits to fight food insecurity, increase access to safer foods and develop opportunities for people in underserved communities. We are also excited to start recruiting once again for our Black Futures Fellowship program, an initiative I founded in 2020. Each year, Partake selects fellows from participating Historically Black Colleges and Universities to connect with CPG (consumer packaged goods) food & beverage industry leaders in hopes of securing internships and full-time employment. We also provide professional development from industry professionals via keynotes, panels and workshops.
Q: In 2016, you started funding your operation by draining your 401k and selling your engagement ring. Were there moments where you doubted yourself, and if there were, how did you build your confidence back up?
Woodard: Original funding for Partake included winning a pitch competition and a successful Kickstarter campaign. Funding for the business started very small, and it’s hard to believe I’ve raised more than $20M at this point, but there are often times it’s easy to doubt myself. I’m a first-time founder and CEO—there is quite a bit of on-the-job training. When I feel anything but determination, I look at my daughter and am reminded of the 32 million Americans living with food allergies. Knowing I am serving her and them gives me tremendous motivation. I can also look to my team and am inspired by their “can do” attitudes—we are very mission-focused within our company.
Q: You are the first Black woman to raise more than $1 million publicly for a CPG start up. What was your secret weapon when it came to raising investment funds?
Woodard: There is no secret weapon. It is persistence, being unafraid to knock on doors (or drop notes into LinkedIn), build your network, ask for introductions, know your numbers and have a sound business model and idea. And it’s doing that over and over again relentlessly.
Q: August is Black Business Month and MBE magazine is all about empowering Black entrepreneurs. How do you think being Black has affected your experience as an entrepreneur?
Woodard: While I haven’t experienced any overt racism in my fundraising journey as a Black woman, limiting factors such as the racial wealth gap can make it much more challenging, as often these ingrained inequalities can make it harder to get a company off the ground because there aren’t as many friends and family to lean on. We were fortunate enough to have people, such as former coworkers who were willing and able to help fund our business at the earliest of days.
I also think there is a lack of social capital. When you look across the ranks of boards and senior executives at big and emerging CPG companies, there’s not much diversity. If you don’t have someone who has the same or similar lived experience as an advocate, mentor or supporter, it makes the hard journey that much harder. That’s why I’ve been meticulous in my fundraising to date for Partake ensuring we maintain our minority business enterprise status and surround our business with diverse, underrepresented investors.
Q: Tell us more about Partake’s collaboration with Ben and Jerry’s!
Woodard: The chance to work with Ben & Jerry’s was a dream come true! In January, Ben & Jerry’s unveiled its newest flavor: Oatmeal Dream Pie. The concoction is an Oatmeal Crème Pie Non-Dairy Frozen Dessert with Gluten-Free Oatmeal Cookies by Partake and Marshmallow Swirls. As fellow champions of inclusivity and good food doing good, Ben & Jerry’s has long been at the top of our list to partner. We are thrilled to join them in freezers across America by providing our one-of-a-kind oatmeal cookies.
Q: What advice do you have for Black women who want to start their own businesses?
Woodard: The business advice I’d give to fellow Black entrepreneurs just starting out would be the same that I’d give to any entrepreneurs starting out—know your “why,” understand the financial metrics of your business, value progress over perfection, and specifically to the Black community, I’d say that your particular lived experiences are what make you unique—that’s an advantage, not a weakness.
For so long, those with allergies had to make do with whatever narrow selections were on the grocery shelves. But now, Partake is filling that empty shelf with allergen friendly foods that are also mouth-wateringly delicious.
Denise Woodard’s story is the ultimate entrepreneurial dream: she saw a need, knew how to fill that need, and worked hard until her vision became a reality. Not only did she find a market in need of a fabulous project, but she is a beacon for all women entrepreneurs out there who have set their eyes on a goal and are diligently striving for it everyday.