Q&A with Yumi’s Evelyn Rusli

Evelyn is the Co-founder of Yumi, a freshly made, organic plant-based subscription meal service for babies and toddlers.

Briefly introduce us to Yumi and your journey to founding the company?

Yumi is an early childhood nutrition program.  We offer food that is optimized for nutrient density and ship it directly to our customers’ doors.  Our food is freshly made and tailored to your child, which allows us to support your child’s milestones and grow with your child. 

One of the most interesting aspects of our program is the way we have honed in on the importance of the first thousand days of a child’s life. We believe in more nutrition in every bite, especially during this period which is considered the most important in a human’s entire life for nutrition and development, especially brain development. It’s logical — the brain grows to 80% of the adult size by age two.  Nutrition is the building block that fosters this development. The food a child consumes during the first thousand days impacts the child’s neurological, metabolic and physical health, and also taste preferences.  So, having the right food is critical.  

That’s the way of Yumi.  We saw a deficiency in the current market.  As we began working on this problem, we found a huge information gap. We asked ourselves: how can we educate and empower parents on the information we were discovering and the importance of the first thousand days? That’s what we set out to solve.

My path is very atypical.  I used to be a journalist at the New York Times then Wall Street Journal and spent a decade or so covering startups and innovation.  I started writing for the Times in college and fell in love with the idea of shedding light on important stories and helping unpack the complex. 

Journalism will always be my first love. But, I’ve also enjoyed the unique challenges of entrepreneurship, and the idea that you’re working every day to change the world in a specific way. With Yumi, success is far beyond the P&L, it’s about reaching millions of families and potentially changing the health of a generation and the generations to come. 

My Co-founder [Angela Sutherland] is the other side of my brain.  Where I am the English major who went into the world of storytelling, she was a Math major who went into finance and operations, and had experience scaling businesses.  

Angela and I had been friends for many years predating the company and would nerd out on many topics, and naturally we talked about childhood development after she became a first time mother.  She had a Dropbox folder packed with interesting studies on how important nutrition was during this particular period.  And from this we unearthed the problem that Yumi was born from. 

This Baby Food Service Seriously Changed My Life

What is the most important part of a business to get right first?

The why.  What problem are you solving? 

Businesses will go through many iterations in terms of product, engineering structure or marketing.  But, your foundation, your north star, should ideally remain the same.  A lot of your decisions inevitably flow from that.  It’s your reason for existing, which should provide clarity in terms of your initial business model and assumptions. Most importantly, there will be many moments where you doubt yourself, but having north stars, some grounding truths, will help make many decisions easier.  

The baby food category is particularly tough as your customer base may age out of your product within two or three years.  As a result, you are constantly having to acquire more customers.  How do you approach this in terms of your business model?

We didn’t start this because we thought it would be easy.  We knew that acquiring customers during this period would be challenging. However, parents are also a very engaged community and they want to help their friends with recommendations. So we were especially thoughtful about making components of the Yumi experience incredibly shareable. Our content is tailored to your baby and meant to hook you with fascinating factoids about your baby’s development. Our foods are nutrient-first, but they’re also fun. We use surprising ingredients like Japanese sweet potatoes and we pair with James Beard-award winning chefs to create limited drops. Babies don’t have favorite chefs, but parents certainly do, and they will want to share that with their friends, who are also passionate about food, and happen to be parents. 

There is so much opportunity to create products that age up, and in conjunction with our ability to create direct household relationships, we don’t have to be confined to an aisle. 

The DTC channel is a great way to acquire customers and control your messaging, but is also difficult to scale.  What is your distribution strategy going forward?

I do think it can be difficult to scale.  We have identified and solved a need that is apparent in the market.  So, going from 0 to 1 was a bit easier because of natural market need.  We saw baby food as a snack category, with people looking to eat more organically and have more convenience as lifestyles become more hectic. 

In the future we are going to be where consumers are.  We like building out a foundation in DTC because we get to have interaction with customers on a weekly basis, which you don’t get out of retail.  We are also creating a mobile app to find other touchpoints of engagement.   We know that the world is a lot bigger than DTC, and we do think about what it looks like becoming more omnichannel.  But, we want to do it the right way.  We are fortunate enough to have grown and scale with such repeatability and defining what relationships are like with consumers.  

How important is the 1000 Blog and a having a strong content platform for your brand?

Incredibly important.  We are only in the first inning of what our content can be.  The vast majority of what we made is just consumer facing.  Everything that we are creating, both product and content-wise, is tailored to a person’s child.  What our content is when your child is seven months old versus thirteen months is very different — as it should be.   

We realize that our parents want more content that feels relevant to them — whether it’s about food or not. During the pandemic, for instance, our head of content created a children’s book as a means to talk to young kids about shelter in place.  It was created in a week and soon garnered 145 million social impressions and more than 100 celebrity mentions — all with $0 in marketing.  It was one of those moments we just wanted to show up for our families and show that we support parents in ways that extend beyond food. 

Yumi - Fresh, Organic Baby Food Delivered

What are parents’ major pain points when it comes to baby food?

There’s a lot. First is the fact that households today are busier than ever before. Most households have two parents that are working, more so than we have seen during any period in history.  This means they are more time strapped, and preparing meals becomes hard.

We believe that every parent wants to make the best decision but are often restrained in terms of the time they have.  Think about the responsibilities of parenting: trying to keep your child healthy and happy, thinking about meal planning, what you are feeding them and why, going grocery shopping, etc.  It’s a ton of responsibility. The average parent spends 8 hours per week on the process of feeding their child.  It’s essentially an additional work day.  

On top of this, there is an additional layer of anxiety regarding the uncertainty of whether parents are feeding their children the right things.  Since many of these parents feel uncomfortable with the options at grocery stores, they have felt compelled to prepare and go back into the kitchen during the busiest times in their lives. It’s this unfortunate flywheel. Our goal is to take over that duty so you can feel confident and less stressed about your child’s nutrition.  We do that both in terms of our food and our content.

What is a unique place where you find inspiration?

Reading fiction is great for creative parts of the brain. So much of my day-to-day life is steeped in non-fiction, whether it’s clinical studies or articles on the industry. Fiction helps flex the other parts of our brain, provides unexpected inspiration and can offer a new lens by which to see the world. 

What is the most spontaneous thing you’ve done?

While backpacking in Eastern Europe as a young adult, I randomly connected with the head of a nonprofit in Sarajevo, and helped host a conference for teen leaders to foster greater tolerance in the region. I was 5 months into my travels at this point and low on funds — I was pretty much eating this plain yogurt drink, popular in Sarajevo, for every meal — but it was also a very satisfying and inspiring time. I think when you’re in your 20s, you dwell on how little you have, and it’s only years later that you appreciate that space for spontaneity, is a major luxury in itself. 

What is a memento from your childhood that you still keep and how does it serve you?

I have this report card from the first grade, and in the notes section the teacher said that she was worried about me and that I had to learn some basic information like where I lived. I’ve always been a natural introvert and I vividly recall feeling incredibly self conscious and became even more withdrawn.

It wasn’t until I discovered that I was naturally good at math in the 4th grade and could get to solutions faster than my peers that I really broke out of this box.  Math, especially 4th grade math, is very objective: there is (in most cases) one correct answer.  That objectivity allowed me to start to build up confidence.  I have always treasured that report card because it made me realize how we can be prisoners of external expectations.  

What is your creative outlet and how does it help you channel a flow state?

I love painting, though I don’t have a lot of time to do it these days. Specifically, I like to work with oils and love the physicality of it. It pushes me creatively as it doesn’t have to be done in a certain structured way. Once I get started painting, I can get sucked into this flow state for days and barely leave the room. 

What is one daily ritual that you cannot live without?

I love waking up and having at least 30 minutes to myself to just meditate and let my thoughts flow.  I think it’s really important to reserve time for yourself to think and just let your mind wander. 

TV show you binged?

The Undoing (HBO)

Movie you watched?

Princess Mononoke (HBO Max), so glad the Studio Ghibli collection is available on HBO Max.

Podcast you listened to?

Nice White Parents. 

Book you read?

Fifty-Two Stories, Anton Chekhov

Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky