In Bustle's Quick Question, we ask women leaders all about advice — from the best guidance they've ever gotten, to what they're still figuring out. Here, Deepti Sharma from FoodtoEat shares one of the biggest roadblocks she faced when starting her business.
Deepti Sharma says she accidentally started company in the food industry. The founder and CEO of FoodtoEat — a corporate catering concierge service that partners with local vendors that are immigrant, women, and/or minority own, run, or managed — comes from a political background and has worked on a number campaigns. But after a desire to represent people who were like her, FoodtoEat was born in 2011.
"I'm a first generation immigrant and a woman of color, and I wanted to elevate their voices, their stories, and be able to help them grow and scale their businesses," Sharma tells Bustle. "The idea is, how do we get companies to start thinking about diversity and using their purchasing power to invest back in small businesses and the communities that they work out of," Sharma says. "On one side, we're helping these small food vendors, like individual restaurants, to be able to help them get more catering jobs. We do a lot of their storytelling."
FoodtoEat takes over sales and marketing for local vendors' catering and also help them book large catering opportunities at corporations like Microsoft and Droga5.
But Sharma says turnover among salespeople was one of the biggest roadblocks she faced when launching FoodtoEat. "I was just hiring [them] because they seemed to have the criteria of having worked in a sales position," she says. "I learned through the experience of having a company of my own was that what was more important was selling them on the mission and the vision."
But the company's mission is still something she wants to elevate today. Within the last year, Sharma noticed FoodtoEat's mission was mostly being discussed with office managers, HR reps, and people who work in diversity and inclusion — but it wasn't reaching the people who are actually eating the food. Through a new campaign called "I Made Your Food", Sharma wants to bring emotional connection to food by having local food vendors share their personal stories on social media. Soon, they'll be printing them out and delivering the stories with every meal.
"We get so busy, we get so wrapped up, and we find it to be really important to just stop, think, credit the person that put this beautiful meal together, and just understand who they are as people," she says. "In the political climate that we're in, people want to find ways to explore immigrant, women, and minority-owned businesses, and this is a very simple way. We want companies to think about diversity beyond just hiring women and people of color. We want them to think about diversity in their purchasing power and how they can actually invest in this community."
Here, Sharma tells Bustle about her tricks for turning her brain off, who her role models are, and the main task on her to-do list.
How do you pump yourself up before a big meeting or a presentation?
Deepti Sharma: I usually like to meditate a little bit. I take a couple minutes, close my eyes, whether it's 30 seconds, five minutes, or 10 minutes. I like some form of stepping away from whatever activity I'm doing.
Music, obviously, is always there. I like to listen to certain kinds of music, depending on what kind of a talk I'm giving or what kind of presentation I'll be doing. If it's something that I'm prepping for a couple days in advance, I'll go for a run without any music, which is another meditation for me.
How do you turn your brain off?
DS: One thing that I do — once a week because it's hard to do it every day — is I eat by myself without a computer, without my phone, without headphones in, without a book, and just kind of clear my mind. They say do one thing and do it well, and I think we don't chew enough when we're eating. Once a week I just try to make sure I clear my mind through that one activity.
I do that with running as well. I don't run with music for that exact reason, because, do one thing and do it well. Take it in. Take your outside environment in and notice things around you. Too often you're listening to music, you're eating, and you're dropping your kids off to school. You're doing 50 things, and you don't even think about what's happening around you.
What's on your to-do list right now?
DS: Right now, it's to raise two feminist sons. Smash the patriarchy. I'm a working mom, a working parent along with my husband. As a woman of color, I find it's really important to talk about that and share my stories, my failures, and some of my successes, even if it's to my 3,000 followers on Instagram or it's on a panel or a talk that I'm giving. Just talking about what parenting is like as a millennial working mother is important. Only because I think that there's not enough women of color talking about it.
Even if my experience is the same as some of my white friends, I think it's important to talk about it. You can't be what you can't see. Being able to be a voice and not repeating, but trying to add to the conversation.
Get out there, do it. Fail so fast, or sell and succeed. Whatever it is that you need to do, just do it quickly.
Who do you go to for advice?
DS: Honestly, just the cliché, mom and dad. Obviously, they've always been my champions in anything I do. It might not be anything they know about, but I explain situations and sometimes I like to get their advice, just because they may not be in the nitty-gritty like I am every day.
And then I surround myself with some people that don't necessarily love everything I do and are critics so I can get the other side as well. Obviously, mom and dad will always try to champion for you for the most part, but I like keeping those people that I know will always be a little harsh and tell me how it is, and not always be like, 'oh my god, that's so great, you should do it!'
What's something you need advice on?
DS: Oh my god, what do I not need advice on? I've been building a community, so I've asked for advice how to amplify the voice of that community that I've built. Like, the I Made Your Food campaign — how do we get more awareness to that campaign? So just advice on how to amplify the community that we've already created, and bring more opportunities to the people that we're trying to create opportunities for.
Who was your role model when you started your business, and who is it now?
DS: I feel like it's been the same. There's a few women that I've looked up to then, from whether it was in the political world, to where I am today. Women like Michelle Obama, women like Reshma Saujani. Those are two women that have built businesses. Michelle Obama didn't build her own business, but she's building a brand now, if you think about her book. She was in the political world, and I was in the political world on a much smaller scale but I looked up to her and her voice.
Reshma ran for office two times. She's the founder of Girls Who Code. She's been just an inspiration, especially as a woman of color, to see what she's built from scratch and grown — even after having not succeeded running for two positions. She's kept at it and kept going.
What's the worst piece of career advice you've ever received?
DS: Someone said to me something like, 'take your time, create a business plan, be cautious before you start something.' I don't know if it's the worst, but I just don't like that. When you're trying to start something, it's best to start quickly. Do your due diligence to some extent. Ask people if it's actually a problem, it's not just a problem to you.
Get out there, do it. Fail so fast, or sell and succeed. Whatever it is that you need to do, just do it quickly. Don't take a year because within a year, somebody else will have done it. No idea is really that unique any more. A lot of the times it's about execution. I don't think you need to build a robust business plan before you start. I think you can create that MVP [Minimum Viable Product], get it out there, get the advice, and iterate. Iterate on the first version, because your first version's never gonna be the best. And then keep going from there.
I would tell my younger self, just stop worrying about who you think you need to be for others and just be who you need to be for yourself.
What advice would you give your younger self?
DS: Take advantage of the opportunities that exist, if they exist, because not everybody has opportunities. Take advantage of everything you have. When you're in high school and in college or whatever environment or community you're a part of, there are some opportunities there. Sometimes you think, oh, there'll be another time, there'll be another time. Take advantage of as many of those opportunities.
The second thing is, because I think I did this a lot when I was in high school, I kept worrying about what other people thought of who I was. I've always been unapologetically myself and taken pride on that, but I sometimes questioned who I was as an individual and if I was interesting enough. I felt like I had to be somebody else in order for people to like me. I would tell my younger self, just stop worrying about who you think you need to be for others and just be who you need to be for yourself.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.