As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Laureen Asseo. Laureen is an entrepreneur and passionate foodie from California. At age 18, she started Fresh n’ Lean, a meal delivery service specializing in fresh, nutritious and unprocessed food. Starting out, she worked out of a one-bedroom apartment, but over the years, the business grew rapidly and currently operates out of a 55,000 square foot facility, employing over 120 people. She achieved all this without a single cent of outside capital, and at age 27, is still the CEO of Fresh n’ Lean. In 2018, she opened her first retail store in Santa Monica, and also operates the non-profit Feeding Friends, which subsidizes meal plans as well as provide education on healthy eating and nutrition. Her dog Leo comes to work with her every day.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
In 2009/2010 I was going to school for Apparel Manufacturing and Business Management when we got some pretty serious news regarding my father’s health. He was extremely overweight, and as a result, he was suffering from very high cholesterol among other things. He’d moved to the US from Europe, and the weight gain was caused by years of over-indulgence in America’s fast/processed food world. We decided to go back to basics and adopt the “European” way of eating again. This focused on whole grains and vegetables, all homemade from scratch and completely free from processed ingredients. We also removed animal protein from his diet. Making the changes to his diet paired with exercise made a huge difference. He managed to lose 85 pounds and really turn his life around. All of this happening grabbed the attention of his friends and fellow workout partners, who were absolutely blown away with his results. The substantial interest in the “food plan” is what catapulted this into a business idea.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
That is a tough one…. I think the whole beginning is an interesting story in terms of the struggle and the risk that was taken. I put everything on the line to make this dream a reality. Looking back at the very beginning, I remember being in my one bedroom apartment cooking the meals, packaging them in Tupperware containers, handwriting labels and personally delivering meals to customers on weekends. We have come so far in all aspects it still astounds me when I think about it. We now employ 120+ people and continue to push ourselves and take risks to improve our process and our product.
Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?
We live in an instant gratification society. With that, getting food quickly and conveniently is key. With the world becoming more educated about what they put in their bodies, there has to be a better choice than traditional fast-food restaurants. Our mission is to encourage more people to change their habits by providing a ready-to-eat healthy, organic meal solution that’s both affordable and accessible.
How do you think this will change the world?
Obesity and illnesses related to being unhealthy and overweight affect a large portion of the American population. We can save millions of people by changing that, and we are already seeing a huge shift in the medical world with the growing acceptance of the idea that food is medicine — or at very least an integral part of staying healthy and happy. We’re passionate about addressing misconceptions about what it means to eat well. Healthy food does not mean bland food, and organic does not mean expensive. The mission since day one has been to provide convenient, healthy, organic meals at an affordable price.
Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this idea that people should think more deeply about?
People not understanding the real value beyond the purely financial. Although we are becoming more educated as a society, there are still many people who are stuck. I hope that those who are “stuck” can understand that if you look at the ingredient list and you cannot pronounce everything on it, do not put it in your body.
Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?
The “tipping point” was probably when I moved from my one bedroom apartment kitchen to a commercial kitchen. I was doing it on the weekends while in school, and the demand just kept growing. I realized at that point I couldn’t continue working out of my apartment, so I rented a commercial kitchen for one day and hired my first employee. From there, the demand continued to grow, so I rented the kitchen for an additional day. Six months later I was there full time and hired a few more people to help out, but mostly friends and family since it was all I could afford.
What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?
Just more awareness, but that is happening naturally every day. When this all first started, the market was really new. But now, ready-to-eat meals direct to your door is something that people have a real need for.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. Use your gender to your advantage. Even though starting out as a young female was really challenging, learning how to change and challenge people’s perceptions early on was crucial. Also, I found it very useful to realize that men and women have their own strengths and weaknesses, and I used that to build, grow and learn.
2. Take a minute to be proud of yourself. It’s so easy to lose sight of what you’re doing and what you’ve achieved when you’re focusing on the business 100% of the time. You just get buried in the day-to-day. I always think I can do more and be better (which we all can), but sometimes I just need to take a step back, realize what I’ve accomplished and given myself that minute to just be proud.
3. You are stronger than you think you are. In the past nine years, I have pushed myself in ways I never thought I could, both mentally and physically. I never realized how strong humans were until I was put to the test. In 2014, I was diagnosed with Lupus. This was right in the middle of the most challenging growth period for Fresh n’ Lean. I was very sick and experiencing a variety of symptoms, but I simply could not let it hold me back. I still got up every day at 4:00am and made my way to the office. That really showed me that I was capable of more than I ever thought possible.
4. You will make mistakes, but that’s okay. When you’re starting a business, there is so much that’s unknown, and so much that gets thrown at you. With that, you will also make mistakes. Everybody makes mistakes. There have been times where I was tackling something new, and it didn’t go the way I wanted it to. But in the end, I learned so much, and it only made me stronger.
5. When times get tough, you will learn who is really on your side (and that’s also okay). Before starting the business, I had a pretty active social life. Being 18 and not going to college parties or be out late because you had to get up at 4am to work really took a toll on that. I wasn’t able to maintain a lot of friendships and in turn, lost people that I thought were friends. In the end, I realized there is nothing wrong with building your future, and there are plenty of like-minded people out there that want to support you and see you succeed. Those are the relationships it’s important to hang onto.
The future of work is a common theme. What can one do to “future proof” their career?
Become a force to be reckoned with in your field but also don’t limit yourself and your potential. There’s so much out there if you can think outside the box. Always push yourself and never settle. Be flexible, but know your craft.
Based on the future trends in your industry, if you had a million dollars, what would you invest in?
Medically driven food technologies and directly targeting insurance companies to realize the benefit of food as medicine instead of just prescribing more and more medication.
Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?
Never give up, but always be humble! It’s one thing to believe in yourself and know what you’re capable of, but never lose sight of who you are and where you came from. Life and business show no mercy, and they will kick you in the butt if you forget that!
Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?
Never ever give up and know what you are capable of. And you are never too good for anything — I take this very seriously. I’m a firm believer that to be a good leader you have to know exactly what you are asking of your employees. Having gone through it and been in the “trenches,” I feel confident when directing different departments to get the job done. Having a true understanding of what you are asking people to do is huge.
Something will always go wrong, but it’s okay! Finding the solution and growing from it is the truly important thing. A huge lesson I learned is if something can go wrong, 99.9% of the time it will and that is okay. It only makes you stronger.
In starting/growing business at a young age, there are a lot of people waiting to see you fail. As a young woman in the business world, I have been confronted with many difficulties, mostly coming from men who have no respect or automatically dismiss you because you are young and a woman. At the very beginning, I even used to lie about my age in meetings because it was always a topic of conversation. I would walk into rooms of men that would ask a question but would not address me directly — they’d always talk to a male counterpart that was with me. It became fun for me to redirect the conversation and shatter their initial idea that I didn’t know what I was doing because I was a young woman. You need to expect some push-back, but reach deep inside yourself and find the resilience to prove them wrong every single day.
Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say?
I wouldn’t… and I know that is crazy to say in the business climate we are in today. This company was truly built on blood, sweat, and tears. We are at the point where outside capital in a large sense just wouldn’t make sense. I am proud to still control 100% of my company while still growing 80% year-after-year and always turning a profit.