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“Authenticity matters” With Candice Georgiadis & Emily Darchuk

Authenticity matters: I think it can be easy to try to fit a mold or strive for a persona, especially for female entrepreneurs, who may struggle with imposter syndrome, but it’s important to remember that whatever has gotten you to the opportunity you have today, is what will help make you successful going forward. The imperfections […]

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Authenticity matters: I think it can be easy to try to fit a mold or strive for a persona, especially for female entrepreneurs, who may struggle with imposter syndrome, but it’s important to remember that whatever has gotten you to the opportunity you have today, is what will help make you successful going forward. The imperfections are what make you memorable and human so embrace what makes you unique.

As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Emily Darchuk.

Wheyward Spirit Founder and CEO, Emily Darchuk, first forged her career as a food scientist in the natural food and dairy industry before disrupting the liquor sector through her ingenuity and commitment to sustainable spirits. Her mission-driven product brings the natural food ethos into the spirit category where both consumers and local dairies need it most.

Always curious about where food came from and how it made those around her feel, Emily dedicated her undergraduate studies to Food Science and Nutrition at the University of Illinois. She holds a master’s in food science from Oregon State University and another master’s in business with a focus in innovation and entrepreneurship from the University of Oregon. Her roles at Whitewave and Coca-Cola as a Food Scientist and as owner of Rara Avis Innovations, a consultant and development company that helps food brands take flight, solidified her experience amongst the ranks of the world’s leading food and beverage innovators. A close mentorship with Stonyfield Farm’s co-founder Gary Hirshberg also proved instrumental to her development as an emerging entrepreneur.

Balancing her roles as both a scientist and consumer, Emily perfected her signature spirit through hundreds of hours of trials, carefully crafting the recipe while she mastered the distillation process hands-on. Through her work and expertise, Emily realized how much-underutilized resources like whey impact the environment and industry. Using whey as her central ingredient, she tapped into one of the nation’s most underutilized byproducts, as less than half of the 100 billion pounds generated annually in the US is fully used in the food supply.

Most importantly, the opportunity to give those who care about where their products come from and those who are working towards sustainability a voice, gave Emily the inspiration to launch Wheyward Spirit in August of 2020, delivering a perfect marriage between the alcohol and dairy industries. This “farm to flask” product creates an extraordinary culinary experience, shinning in blind taste tests and becoming a cult favorite with mixologists while delivering a lower water and carbon footprint than traditional grain spirits. Emily lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband, James, and rescue dog, Lars.

Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

Prior to starting Wheyward Spirit, I worked as a food scientist and product developer with a passion for the natural food industry. I always cared about where food came from and as a scientist, I had a natural curiosity on how to make a difference through innovation. Before jumping into entrepreneurship, I worked for large CPG companies commercializing products and from my time working in the dairy industry I saw the issue of whey waste first hand and it’s something that has stuck with me until I had the platform to pursue a solution through Wheyward Spirit.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

Wheyward Spirit is a mission-driven company with the aim to transform the spirit and the dairy industries for the better by making a more sippable and sustainable spirit through repurposing some of the billions of pounds of whey that typically go to waste. We get our name as we are proudly a premium whey-based spirit and from our Wheyward mentality to buck the status quo and do things differently for the right reasons, from our flavorful and versatile offering to our sustainable farm-to-flask production.

We are different because of our circular economy model of production creating a spirit that has been shown in studies to have a lower carbon and water footprint than a grain-based alternative and prevents food waste. We are female-owned, operated and distilled which is rare in spirits. Additionally, as outsiders we’ve looked at what spirits can be through a different lens, taking a very customer and purpose-driven approach to creating our company from the product formulation to our messaging and branding.

I created Wheyward Spirit because I didn’t see a spirit on the market that spoke to consumers like me, who care where their food comes from and I wanted to bring the natural food ethos I believe into a new category while making a positive difference. I also saw a landscape in spirits where the trend of needing to fit a narrow product category (vodka, gin etc.) slows innovation and it seemed like a having a spirit that is flavorful enough to sip straight and with the right elements to be really versatile in cocktails, would add value to both our consumers and the spirit category as a whole.

Our spirit is one of a kind and was designed to take the best elements of vodka, gin, and rum creating a signature flavor that has oaky hints of vanilla cream, and warm spice notes, rounded with a subtle pear aroma, followed by a velvety smooth finish. Our flavor is naturally made during fermentation of whey and the cuts we carefully make during distillation to let that flavor blossom creating a versatile base for cocktails and a spirit smooth enough to savor straight. Customers have really appreciated how nice it is to have a clear spirit they don’t need to cover with sugary mixers and that one bottle of our spirit can do the work of three in many drinks. Mixologists have been excited by the creativity that a new spirit brings to them to create bespoke cocktails.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were firststarting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I used business competitions as a platform to learn how to pitch my company and refine my concept but walking into my first one I had no clue how hard that experience of learning on the fly can be. I’ve always felt comfortable presenting but these events are more performance art than anything else and on a stage with bright lights in your face, the reverb of a microphone and a buzzer that will cut you off after 60 seconds mid-sentence in front of hundreds of people can be nerve-wracking. Needless to say, I was fully unprepared for that first experience and when taking the stage for the first time I froze after some incoherent and jumbled words, making for what felt like an eternity of a minute! It sucked… but I took that as a learning experience to distill down who we are as a company, why we do what we do, and why that matters which was actually a big breakthrough for defining the positioning of our brand. I now see speaking events as an exciting opportunity to share about our company and try to showcase our brand personality through the presentation.

Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

I have been so lucky to have had the mentorship of incredible people that have made a major difference in the trajectory of the company and in my evolution as an entrepreneur. The one who has had the biggest impact is Gary Hirshberg. I met Gary early on in my journey at a conference and after his speaking event, I introduced myself and shared an early prototype of Wheyward Spirit. From that day forward he has been an incredible mentor and supporter to helping us get to market. Even indirectly Gary has done so much to mentor entrepreneurs over the past year by putting on twice-weekly “from the trenches” webinars that kicked off right after covid hit. These were an inspirational lifeline to many entrepreneurs who were navigating uncertain times for the first time.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’?

To me, disruption is good if it brings progress, innovation, sustainability or increased equality to an existing market. Things can be built, evolving an existing structure without disrupting it, however when something is so radically different that it seems obvious because it solves a latent problem, then naturally it is disruptive. I think that is the best kind of innovation since adoption is natural and the value is clear.

Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

A lot of entrepreneurs like to say they are disrupting something when in actuality they should focus on bringing value and positive change. When they get it right the adoption by consumers is what actually creates the disruption in an existing market. Without this purpose, disruption can be a setback not a progression. This is especially true when a category is “disrupted” and then there is a rush of companies into that space to do the same thing. A disruptive innovation needs time for market adoption to become established, if there is too much competition early on this can diminish the impact of the initial innovation creating a lot of market noise that can actually slow progressive innovation, killing a category before it ever has a chance to flourish.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

Authenticity matters: I think it can be easy to try to fit a mold or strive for a persona, especially for female entrepreneurs, who may struggle with imposter syndrome, but it’s important to remember that whatever has gotten you to the opportunity you have today, is what will help make you successful going forward. The imperfections are what make you memorable and human so embrace what makes you unique.

Trust your gut: Starting something new can be hard and it is a comforting thought to try to find a playbook or someone who has all the answers but eventually you come to the realization that if you are really making something innovative, there is no playbook. No one knows what you are doing better than you do, so trust your gut and find supporters and mentors that will help you find your own clarity when making tough decisions.

Embrace the messy middle: Startup stories are always about Unicorns or people sharing their hardships that they have already successfully overcome. Neither of which is the full picture about what it is like to be an entrepreneur in the moment. The truth is building something is hard and it can be lonely. So, it’s important to have perspective on the long process and appreciation for the messy middle because that is where the growth occurs, opportunities are made and where a lot of work (and fun) happens. Realistically embracing the stage, you are at also allows for reflection on growth and triggers the strive for the continuous improvement that makes a lasting company and can help prevent burnout.

How are you going to shake things up next?

We are a tenacious company with big goals. Our spirit is elevating the message of sustainability in spirits by bringing a better product to market and our work isn’t done until our mentality becomes the norm, not the exception in the category. To influence that we hope to spread our message across diverse platforms creating positive change along the way. With covid, our direct-to-consumer online sales have been a great channel and we currently have fulfillment in 31 states through our website reaching consumers across the country that share our vision and really appreciate our superior tasting spirit. We think there will be a lot of shakeup in the alcohol industry and are well-positioned to be a brand of the future bringing a flavorful quality and sustainable ethos into the spirit category that is truly unique.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by ‘women disruptors’ that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

Women founders receive a fraction of funding that male founders do, and I think this is especially challenging for female disruptors. Women often have to show significantly more traction to get the same level of support and that is a huge barrier to someone with a disruptive idea that requires time and resources to fulfill. Studies have also shown that there is bias in the questions women are asked by investors with a focus on how women will prevent losses, whereas men are asked how they will promote gains which favors male disruptors as it is inherently risky to do something new. Finally, I think there is a real problem with the bias that comes from pattern matching, I hope this is overcome as more female disruptors gain support and those founders remain as CEO to successfully lead their companies.

Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?

I have been a loyal listener of “How I built this“ on NPR. For a business podcast it brings so much humanity to the journey people go through in building their vision. It is also a great reflection to how long a path takes and how persistence prevails in the end. They have been doing a resilience series lately and I think it’s a great reminder that we can all face the same challenges and uncertainties, regardless of past success, and how you handle those challenges can inspire innovation.

If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I am a big believer in gratitude, and I have started personally reflecting and sharing three things I am grateful for each day. With quarantine and all of the uncertainty surrounding the future, especially early on, that practice has helped slow the blur of time, give an appreciation to the changes in cadence and find ways to connect with people in a new way since we have all undergone the same shared experience. The times I felt I made a positive difference for someone or someone has shown gratitude to me, it has been such an uplifting experience in a time where personal connection is challenging. I think this is a simple thing that in these times would make a big difference for more people to incorporate and pay forward.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote?” Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My favorite life lesson quote is “you can’t plan life” and 2020 has certainly fit that. I really like that quote because jumping into entrepreneurship is leaving the safety of the known to blaze a new path and with that, encountering lots of twists and turns. I have said that quote many times along the journey of starting and running a business and it keeps me humble and plowing forward with tenacity to see what opportunities can be created. It also helps to maintain perspective, when challenges arise, that not everything is in your control but how you choose to show up and move forwards is.

How can our readers follow you online?

We invite readers to “join our Herd” at WheywardSpirit.com where they can also learn more about our company and find links to follow us on social media.

CHEERS!

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