Sherry Zhang of GenoPalate on empowering people to eat healthier with personalized nutrition
Describe your business in a few words?
GenoPalate is a data-driven personalized nutrition company that helps individuals eat healthy based on the analysis of their unique genomic DNA.
What made you take the leap to start your own business?
My desire to fix a big problem that can affect me, my family and hundreds of millions of people. Wanting to help with what I know, initially. I remembered the day when I was a research professor at a prestigious medical college reviewing some new results in my lab. We found a specific genotype in certain part of a study population that is always associated with higher BMI (an obesity proxy). I remember I said to myself, “wow, I wonder what mom’s genotype is for this one?” My mother struggles with weight issue all her life. I wonder if this gene may play a role in her traits. As a geneticist with Ph.D. training in molecular biology, I knew this technology can be applied to everyone and I thought the insights can really help our rising pandemics of obesity, type 2 diabetes, inflammation, metabolic syndrome, all are chronic diseases related to food behaviors and nutrition. Years later, I was ready to start my company GenoPalate to provide a unique service to empower anyone who wants to eat healthier and practice personalized nutrition with evidence-based knowledge in nutrigenomics.
What was your background prior to starting your own business?
Before starting GenoPalate, I was a Ph.D. research scientist and medical college assistant professor studying obesity and Metabolic Syndrome using the most state-of-art technologies in the genomics field.
Did you always know you wanted to be an entrepreneur?
I did. I always felt this urge of starting something on my own, you know. I have had two startups before GenoPalate. Each one always started with me wanting to bring a new, potentially better solution to the world. GenoPalate is very special. I was able to give it my best as the founder and I think it is important for an entrepreneur to differentiate the qualities of multiple good ideas for making a successful startup.
Take us back to when you first launched your business, what was your marketing strategy to get the word out and did it go as planned?
I was lucky to have some of the best help for starting up GenoPalate in Milwaukee. Our first marketing strategy involves earned media such as pitching my story of founding GenoPalate and what it can offer to reporters of local papers, journals, TV and radio stations. Those are the best kinds of media if you can get some reporters to write about your story. Not only they don’t require much of media spend, but also people that became our customers from reading those articles are often our best brand advocates. We then drive awareness of our product and value proposition on social media. Our strategy went well for the stage of the company.
We always learn the most from our mistakes, share a time with us that you made a mistake or had a challenging time in business and what you learned from it?
I think one lesson I have learned from making multiple mistakes is the importance of creating your organizational design early. I wanted to run my startup lean and efficient so I stretched for longer than I should have for some key positions that can benefit the business greatly with talent that brings the right experience-based perspectives and skillset. Eventually we have survived and learned a great deal from making those mistakes but I think we may be able to save much time and effort in reaching our targets if I realized the impact that extra help in early days can make.
What is the accomplishment you are the most proud of to date?
I am most proud of the product GenoPalate has created with my vision and technology insights and I was able to offer a sophisticated product of premium value to general public with low friction in user adoption and experience. That’s very hard to accomplish and is the barrier that prevents quality solutions of high complexity to be accessible to general population. I am happy that GenoPalate has been successful in overcoming tremendous amounts of challenges in delivering quality products at scale.
When hiring for your team, what is your go-to interview question? Please share any hiring tips you can share from your experience?
My go-to interview question when hiring for my team is, “where would you like to see yourself at in 5 years?” I have observed that the person’s answer to this question will tell what kind of growth trajectory this person aspires to have and whether my organization and myself can be that incubator to foster that. Most of my employees have stayed on growing with the company and it is important to know when hiring if it could work for long for both the company and the talent.
How has your business or industry been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic?
It has seasoned my business fast, in a positive way. We are a digital health and wellness company providing a unique solution to everyone who due to the pandemic have been “trapped” in a situation where self-care became a need. With our knowledge in personalized nutrition and health and our offer of 24/7 communication through our engaging customer service team, we have been taken even closer to our customers and the public through our publications (blogs, newsletters etc.) and service calls and communications. We want to give our customers more than the products they have purchased from GenoPalate. We want them to feel we are there for their questions and needs for nutritional information for taking best care of themselves with the power of science.
What’s next for your business? What can we expect to see over the next few years?
We have entered a very exciting phase of GenoPalate. In the next few years, we will be releasing a series of new DNA-powered personal nutrition products and being able to provide our service in a data-driven engaging way to our growing customer base. We wanted to help people optimize how they eat their foods, how they make food decisions, and help them understand their nutritional needs and prevent nutrition-related chronic health issues. I have never been more excited about GenoPalate and the potential impact it can make in people’s lives.
What is the biggest lesson you have learned in 2020?
Never take health for granted. It is fragile and vulnerable. Yet it is so important to us. It is the foundation to enjoying all our rights. We need to take good care of it, as a team.
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were first starting your business?
Start the process of organizational design from day one. Double down on talent that can help you move fast towards your goal.
How have you managed to stay grounded this year?
I have a very strong family rapport right now. My family 100% believes in me and I do them. I think family is always someone’s foundation in life, no matter what happens. With GenoPalate business, we have made effort to stay close and being helpful to our customers. Within the GenoPalate team, we are cordial to each other and try to be there for each other in creative ways during the pandemic time. We are welcoming the first “baby of the company” and we are all so happy for our colleagues’ milestones in life.
Do you believe in work/life balance? What are some of your best tips?
Yes, I do. I have to admit I didn’t believe or realize how important it is for my happiness to maintain a well- balanced work/life equation. When I was younger, ambition sometimes gets in the way of making the wiser judgement on work/life balance. I think it can be a common pitfall for anyone and I specially wanted to caution women entrepreneurs to be aware of it as women have our own biological course and clock that can make certain life decisions more challenges on timing of events. Becoming a mother is one of the best things happened to me and I knew I always wanted to be a mother. But it was not easy when I wanted to accomplish my goals for career in making decisions like when to bear a child. Fun fact is that I became pregnant the last year of my graduate school. I gave birth to my son in a February, defended my Ph.D. thesis in April, graduated in May and started my first job as a post-doctoral fellow in June. It may sound a little crazy, but I loved every minute of that busy time and I am so happy that I managed to become a mother in the midst of one of the critical phases of growing as a professional. My tips will be thinking further into your future life, like 10 years and imagining what makes you feel you will be happy then. Take that list and see what can be offered by growing in personal life and what can be offered by your career and jobs. Seek out for advice from people who has life and work experiences more than you do, especially from those who will candidly share not only positive experiences and successes but also lessons and failures. Collect data from more than one point of view.
What’s something our audience would be surprised to learn about you?
I want to one day write comedy and maybe even do standups once a while.
What are your top 3 tips to stay productive each day?
When you need to power through a project, put a timer on for a 2-min break every 20 mins. Your brain will decline in productivity in 20 mins or so and taking a short break will help your brain quickly regain its speed. Use a notebook daily and draw your most difficult thoughts out on paper. I found it very helpful to take burden from my mind and suddenly feel it is really not that complicated. Do something both healthy and enjoyable every day. My go-to is cooking.
What does being an Entreprenista mean to you?
It helps define and refine what I do. Being an Entreprenista, I benefit from my natural calls and intuition from the perspective of a female as a person, as a partner, as a mother, as a daughter. To me it is a powerful and evolving identity that enables me to play a productive role in my community.