Most successful entrepreneurs have an element that drives them beyond fame or money. Something that speaks to the very core of who they are. For Zume Pizza co-founder Julia Collins, that driving force is food.
As a child growing up in San Francisco, Collins spent a lot of time around her grandparents, who came to the Bay Area from South Carolina during the Great Migration and opened up their own dental practice.
Collins says her grandparents were well-known in her community, not just for their success professionally (Collins’ grandfather was one of the first Black dentists in the Bay Area) but for the way they used food to bring the people in their community together.
“At my grandparents’ house there was never any notion of setting four places and sitting down at the table at six o’clock. It was much more ‘come one, come all, there’s always something on the stove, everyone’s invited,’” Collins told Afrotech.
As a child, Collins’ understanding of what it meant to feel safe, happy, and connected to her family and others came from food. Ever since her grandmother would make her famous cheese grits — Collins’ favorite — for breakfast, she knew that her love of food and the feeling it gave her was something she wanted to share with the world.
Zume Pizza is an automated food company that uses robots to make — you guessed it — pizza. In November of 2018, the company raised $375 million from Softbank and was valued at $2.2 billion, propelling Collins to unicorn status in Silicon Valley. Just a year earlier the company was valued at only $170 million. Her company’s funding round was so massive, it surpassed all the money invested in food robotics since 2013, according to Forbes.
You would think, based on her upbringing, that Collins got into the food industry right out of the gate. But it wasn’t until graduating from Harvard and going to Stanford Business school that she really jumped into making her love of food, a career. Collins says in her family, like many Black families, the pressure to succeed loomed large. Even though she wanted to work in food, she felt that she had to attend Harvard as a biomedical engineering student to make her family proud. She says it took her a decade to reconnect with her true calling.
“When you’re 18, and you’re lucky enough to get into a great school and have the support of your family, there’s this kind of sense that you oughta do your best to make people proud,” Collins said. “But that for me was at counter purposes with what you might call my ‘authentic self.’ Which was this person who just loved the world of food.”
Collins said she would dream of all the restaurants she could start and all the products she could create, but that at some point, her action had to match her aspirations.
“When I finally got the conviction to follow my passion, I just didn’t let anything stand in the way, Collins said. “I knew that it was food and anything that wasn’t food was a distraction.”
That conviction is what led Collins to start her career in food, first as a restaurant executive in New York, then as co-founder of Zume Pizza.
Zume’s valuation and funding are only part of why the company Collins helped create is so well-positioned. The company has patented technology that automates cooking while food is being delivered, allowing it to be freshly made once it reaches a customer. The company uses it for pizza, but it could be used for much more than that.
So at the end of 2018, Collins was one of the most dynamic entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley. She owned a company that revolutionized the way pizza is made and delivered, and she sat on a mountain of cash, ready to jump into the future. For a while, it was hard to talk about any successful business in Silicon Valley without hearing her name.
She had, for all intents and purposes, “made it.” However, she knew a bigger mission was on the horizon for her. One larger than money, or valuations, or magazine features.
She wanted to save the world.
The next venture Collins is embarking on is called Planet FWD, a company that relies solely on a regenerative supply chain. Collins is focused on regenerative agriculture, a concept people who aren’t in the food industry may not know about, but one that she thinks could be the solution to global warming. She wants to use food to not only feed the planet but save it from catastrophe.
Regenerative agriculture is a form of farming that sequesters carbon from the atmosphere. The current way food is produced creates greenhouse gas emissions, whether it’s through transportation or machinery used on farms. This makes the planet warmer, contributing to climate change. It’s a trend that the rest of the food industry is taking note of. General Mills — one of the biggest food companies on the planet — is aiming to make regenerative agriculture common practice on 1 million acres by 2030.
We caught up with Collins to talk about her new venture, where her passion for the environment comes from, and what it was like stepping away from a business that was massively successful to try something new.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
So before we get started can you tell me a little about Regenerative Organic Agriculture and why you think it’s so important?
As we draw down greenhouse gasses, we reset the health of the planet. Regenerative organic agriculture is like turning back the hands of time and delivering our children a healthier planet.
It’s unlikely, particularly given our current administration, that in the short term we’ll be able to move the needle, through political forces on that issue [global warming], but I believe in the power of private companies to make a change. Imagine a world where all food companies shifted to a regenerative organic agriculture system. That would actually get us to a point where we were carbon negative. Where not only were we not increasing the amount of greenhouse gases, but we were actually sequestering it all back, just through agriculture.
So if people just keep eating food, all types of food, plants, animals, and in the process of the whole planet eating in this really righteous way, we actually reverse global warming and reset ourselves to a place where we’re carbon neutral. It’s incredible, it’s absolutely incredible. And in a time where there’s so much darkness and so much worry, regenerative organic agriculture is the first thing that I’ve found in a really long time that gives me a tremendous amount of hope. So you can see why, although I’m absolutely in love with Zume pizza, and I had so much success with that company and the company continues to do well, for me I really had to take this opportunity to begin building this new company.
So you’re trying to save the world?
Yes, I’m trying to feed the world and save the planet. That’s absolutely it. It’s what gets me out of bed every day. And there’s so many reasons why it matters. It’s always mattered to me, but I think there’s a combination of three things that happened in my life personally that really made this such a narrow focus.
The first was becoming a mom for the first time and looking into my son’s eyes and wanting the very best for him and for all the little people on the planet. I think the second was just the incredible success we had at Zume and feeling like I had been given such an opportunity to make a difference in the world. And the third was actually, you know, approaching the age of 40 and feeling like ‘you know what, I’m a fully fledged adult at this point. Now is my time. It’s time to kind of move out of the training and learning phase and think about the impact I can have and the legacy that I want to leave behind.’
So you say that the health of the planet always mattered to you. We’ve heard you talk about how food has been a longtime love of yours, but where did that passion for the environment come from?
I’ve always cared a lot about the planet. I remember growing up with my grandpa and him teaching me about hydroponic farming. He actually had a little hothouse where he grew tomatoes on his hill in Noe Valley, California and in sixth grade I built my first hydroponic garden in San Francisco. In seventh grade, I partnered with my friend to start our first composting club called WORM, World Organic Recycling Movement. I was born in 1979, so seventh grade was a long time ago. So it’s something that I’ve always cared about, but I think these last few years, becoming a mom, feeling the momentum of being a founder in Silicon Valley during this time, and turning 40, I think that trifecta of experiences in my life have given a renewed focus and renewed energy around working on businesses like the ones I’m working on right now.
We know about the tech industry at this point and that it’s not diverse. We know about the disparities in VC funding for founders of color. What was your experience like being a Black woman founder, in one of the most white male dominated places in the U.S?
First, if I’m going to be really real and really honest, I have to recognize my privilege. I have to recognize that I come from an incredibly supportive and well-resourced family that put me through Harvard and Stanford. I have to recognize that I’m the fourth generation to pursue higher education. I have to recognize that I come from incredible love privilege, folks that spent my whole childhood telling me that I was the smartest and the best. So that’s the fuel that’s always been in my tank. And that fuel can get you really far.
But even with all of that, the experience of being a Black woman in Silicon can really give you imposter syndrome. When you drive up to Sand Hill Road and open those doors and you do not see a single person who looks like you, it can really shake your confidence. So it was a difficult experience, it continues to be a difficult experience and it is why I spend so much of my time working on accelerating the success of Black women, of intersectional people, of people of color in these spaces. In a lot of ways I would be happy to have my nose in a book and just work on my business 100 percent of the time, I’m pretty nerdy in that way. But I peek my head up because I want to make the world more equitable and because I believe that I have a responsibility.
You used the word imposter syndrome. I hear that word a lot among Black founders, I’ve felt it a lot too, personally. But here you are, a person who has gone to the best schools in the world, you’ve innovated constantly and have built successful businesses from the ground up. You’re the exact opposite of an imposter.
I think the reason why I share that note about imposter syndrome is because I want for people who are experiencing it to know that they’re not alone and that it is just a syndrome. It is a myth and it is something that’s not true, but yet feels very true in the moment. And I think sometimes only when you see someone else who is experiencing that thing do you realize ‘Oh, I’m not alone. This is temporary. This is fleeting and I still am as awesome as I think I am.’
But that’s why I think it’s important for us to share stories and to be authentic.
You did something amazing with Zume. The company was wildly successful and you did things that have never been done before. How did you know it was time to step away from something that you had built from the ground up and what has that transition been like for you?
One of the things that happens when you’re a serial entrepreneur or a founder who has worked on a couple of successful businesses, you finally have this experience of feeling a little bit like the wind is at your back. And it doesn’t mean things get easier. Actually, things get harder and more complicated. But you develop a little more confidence and you also develop a great network. Not just a network of friends, but a network of investors and a network of partners and people who want to work for you and with you. So the transition has been really wonderful.
There’s so many ways to think about your entrepreneurial career. Sometimes you’ll build a business and you’ll ride into the sunset and forever and always you will be attached to that business and that is great for many, many people. There are other times when you are uniquely positioned to be the first to enter a new space, to build something, to get it capitalized, to get the right people in place, and when you feel like the businesses has legs and when you have a great, competent management team, and you’re really well-capitalized –sometimes there’s a window of opportunity for you as the founder to continue to dream. For the dreamers, it’s often the case that no one thing is big enough to hold them forever.
And I’m a dreamer.