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TEO FOODS: Teen Entrepreneurs on a Mission to Reduce Food Waste

TEO FOODS is on a mission to reduce food waste.

Over the years, Zero Waste Canada has been very privileged to share the amazing stories of youth making a difference around the world. We are excited this week to interview Lillian Chen, a young entrepreneur, from Houston Texas, who along with seven other high school students launched TEO FOODS, a subscription snack box business that promotes healthy snack foods made from made from “forgotten” or imperfect  foods.

Lillian Chen of Teo Foods

ZWC: How did your life experiences impact your decision to start Teo Foods?

Everyone has that person in their life that has been their biggest influence ever since they can remember. For me, that was my mother. Growing up, my mother was my role model and my best friend. As a child, my mother also constantly reminded me to never waste my food. I’m from a very typical Asian family that sees waste as against our customs and morals. Unfortunately, I resisted eating my vegetables, as any normal kid would, and wasted them at each meal. You want me to finish the broccoli? Yuck, no!

That was, until my mother got breast cancer when I was 9 years old. Our family completely transformed the way we ate and the way we viewed food as we began to see how important fresh, wholesome, and organic foods were to our body. After witnessing how much my mother suffered from cancer and almost losing her to this deadly disease, I wanted to live out the principles she taught me and help others obtain and be encouraged to eat healthy food.

Seeing the contradiction between my home, where waste was practically nonexistent, and restaurants, in which massive quantities of leftovers were thrown away, I began to wonder how big of an issue was food waste in all of America. Once I researched and found out that more than 150 billion pounds of food was wasted each year (that’s enough food to fill the Rose Bowl football stadium EVERY DAY), yet 1 in 5 families are starving and cannot afford healthy, organic produce due to their high costs, I became determined to do something about it. I wanted to find a way to give back to the community and to the mother I so loved who taught me the right principles to live by.

ZWC: Lillian what are the three start ups that you have worked on?

Project Intact- As of September 2014, every new car produced is mandated by the government to include a Blackbox, a device that continuously collects memory data of the car’s braking patterns, acceleration habits, etc. Project Intact provides software that analyzes this Blackbox data to assess who is at fault of a car crash. We aim to help insurance companies by solving the issue of insurance fraud, which is a $8 billion problem.

MIT Launch Entrepreneurship Program– Launch Houston is a program I founded to teach high schoolers the basic tools to start their own ventures. It’s sponsored by the MIT Launch Entrepreneurship Program. In Launch Houston, high school students in the Houston area spend the entire school year learning entrepreneurship skills, working on teams, and building their own companies from idea to future growth. Teams participate in a International Pitch Competition at MIT in May, in which they pitch their ventures in front of a panel of investors.

Loca Foods- Loca Foods is an online platform that connects local farmers to individuals, restaurants, and school cafeterias to provide them with easy, efficient access to healthy food as well as help local farmers increase their revenue and customer base.

Loca Foods also strives to provide high school students with healthier lunch meals. By connecting cafeterias with organic ingredients, Loca Foods aims to reduce the obesity rates in Houston as well as educate students on the importance of eating healthy.

ZWC: When did you launch TEO Foods?

June 25th, 2016 was the day our team formed together. TEO Foods’ website was officially launched around August 18th.

ZWC: Why did you focus on snack foods by subscription?

At first, when our team first started to tackle the issue of food waste, we explored the avenues of creating snacks from the ugly and excess foods to directly decrease food waste. After weeks of extensive research, we found companies were already doing this. We wondered why weren’t their products more well-known? Through our desire to provide these products and the awareness about food waste to more people, our solution was formed. We partner with and promote a diversified portfolio of waste-reducing companies by selling their products through our online subscription service. That way, we can attract more people to the idea of decreasing food waste, grow the repurposed food market, and indirectly cut down on this food waste issue.

Also, subscription boxes have been gaining popularity over the past few years and have seen a rapid annual growth of over 200% since 2011. We wanted to reach as much people as possible, and from our numerous surveys, we found that the overwhelming majority of people preferred delivery/methods that saved them time to buying snacks in grocery stores.

Average age- 17 years old.

ZWC: Did your business benefit from any business incubator programs or crowdfunding to help you develop or fund your business?

Yes, like I mentioned before, we benefited from the mentorship of Catapult’s incubator program. Through Catapult, we received mentorships with corporate leaders and top graduate students and access to thought-leaders in the technology, venture capital, and social entrepreneurship spaces. At the culmination of this incubator program, we pitched to 23 judges and won both the Overall Favorite & Social Impact Awards. We also received $1,000 grant and one-on-one mentorship from the venture capital firm 1517 Fund to help propel us over the next few months.

ZWC: Is social media the main tool that you use to promote your business?

As of now, social media and word of mouth/connections are our two biggest avenues for promoting our business. Since we are small and only recently launched, we are relying on friends and families, as well as connections with mentors and people in this food/health industries, to grow our sales and customer acquisition.

ZWC: Who do you see as the target market for these healthy snack foods?

Initially families, individuals aged 18-35 years old who live healthy, active, and socially/environmentally-conscious lives.

However, we want to expand our future target market to innovative & environmental corporate business/startups who can give our subscription box snacks to their employees as holiday gifts or brain food (Google gives a lot of snacks to their employees). Companies are the customers that we think we can get most of our sales from. With increased sales, we can then start to donate part of our profits to hunger-stricken families and homeless shelters to reduce the prevalence of starvation in the world.

ZWC: Did you have any difficulties finding suppliers creating snack foods from food that would have been wasted?

We did have a relatively hard time finding these suppliers. It took us a couple weeks of extensive and purposeful research to find these companies/suppliers that were repurposing ugly and excess foods into snacks. But this difficulty is one of the main reasons we were prompted to create this type of business because we wanted to make waste-reducing companies well-known and available to the general population. Forming mutually beneficial partnerships with waste reducing companies was easy though. A simple email or phone call was all we had to do. Because our missions align together and we help increase advertising and customers for these companies, they were eager to send us their products at discounted and sometimes free prices and advertise for us as well. We see each other as allies rather than enemies because we are all helping each other strive to our goal of reducing food waste.

ZWC: Are you actively looking for more product choices or are you developing your own products?

Currently, we are actively looking for more and have already found a dozen or so more that we can include in our boxes. In the future, once we achieve a larger customer base and enough profits, we are thinking to develop and manufacture our own products from ugly/excess produce to directly cut down on food waste.

ZWC: Packaging of snack foods can be problematic in terms of recyclability, does your company do anything to reduce this form of waste for consumers?

Our company seeks to use biodegradable/recyclable boxes to ship our snacks.

We encourage our partners to make their product’s packaging biodegradable/recyclable too. We are also working with them to make their packages smaller to decrease the amount of waste.

We hope to partner with an organization that makes decomposable boxes in the future or make our own decomposable boxes as well.

ZWC: Many school organizations or youth sports teams sell products to fundraise for their teams and organizations, will your boxes of healthy snack foods be marketed for this purpose?

We are hoping that our snack boxes could be marketed to these sports teams/events, school organizations, as well as in airplanes. We currently have established a collaboration with the Houston Dynamos soccer team, one of the major league soccer teams in the U.S. We are providing the soccer players with our snack boxes. Since I and one other teammate of mine are attending college this upcoming fall, we do intend to provide these products first to college environmental clubs and then to school organizations in areas near our colleges.

ZWC: What dreams do you have for TEO Foods?

On top of expansion plans that I have for Teo (mentioned in previous answers)… My dream for Teo Foods is to be the brand known for making food waste solutions easy, affordable, and appealing. I hope our site can begin to direct people to other waste-reducing products and that we can obtain commission from those companies who are getting increased traffic from us. After Teo Foods achieves greater sales and starts creating its own recovered products, I want Teo to start selling other objects to increase people’s awareness about this issue. From vegan designer clothes with powerful messages to waste-reducing kitchen technology, Teo Foods can become an online platform that provides numerous of innovative products that decrease food waste–the new “Amazon for Food Waste.” Eventually, I also see Teo Foods providing schools and colleges with talks, classes, and educational material about food waste, inspiring people at a young age to think critically about how they view, treat, and eat food and how they can further help the world.

ZWC: For you how important is it to “make a difference” while being an entrepreneur?

Making a difference is, in my opinion, what makes an entrepreneur… an entrepreneur. It’s the seed that sparks almost every entrepreneur to quit their high-paying corporate job and instead pursue something they are passionate about. Entrepreneurs see opportunities to doing good as far more valuable than monetary wealth. That’s why they are willing to risk stability and job security to do something more meaningful for this world. Making a difference, to me, is why I want to be an entrepreneur and why I wanted to start Teo Foods. This desire to “make a difference” is what I believe fuels so many entrepreneurs passions and motivates them to create a successful startup despite the arduous, long path and many failures/risks they are faced with.

ZWC: What was the biggest lesson you learned from starting this business?

-You can’t do this alone.

-A leader does not manage, a leader inspires others to become leaders as well.

-Sometimes you won’t have the perfection solution, but a solution is better than no solution. Once you hone down the problem, stick to a solution that will achieve your mission and don’t be afraid to try it. You might fail, and if so, fail fast and move on to another solution. But you never know unless you try.

-Be passionate and kind, and most of all, genuine. Good people are naturally attracted to those qualities and when they see them reflect honestly from your heart, they will want to help you too.

 

Teo Foods isn’t just another “snack box” company, it’s a team of motivated, passionate, and inquisitive high school students on a quest to change the world for the better. Check out more information about TEO FOODS at www.teofoods.squarespace.com. Support Lillian and the team by buying a box or sharing about Teo Foods to your followers.

Less Waste. More Taste. Go Teo!  Go Zero Waste !

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