Dr. Dionne Baker of DeeBee’s Organics: “This is a time like no other”

This is a time like no other. The awareness around the value of diversity in business, politics, and entertainment has never been so high. It is like a cultural paradigm shift that I feel I have witnessed even in the nine years I have been in business. The change in attitude from lenders, big retailers, […]

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This is a time like no other. The awareness around the value of diversity in business, politics, and entertainment has never been so high. It is like a cultural paradigm shift that I feel I have witnessed even in the nine years I have been in business. The change in attitude from lenders, big retailers, government, etc., is notable. That awareness creates new tangible opportunity for women — as banks, investors and suppliers rally to catch up with the movement. There’s a groundswell of support for women and diverse entrepreneurs right now as we work culturally to correct long-standing imbalances.

The world needs women! We need diverse perspectives and ways of leadership and doing business. We need the breadth of creativity and innovation that can come from diverse experiences. Everything and everyone benefit from this.

As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dionne Baker.

Dr. Dionne Laslo-Baker, founder of DeeBee’s Organics, is an expert on the impacts of environmental toxins — especially in the food chain — on child health. A PhD medical researcher in the field of maternal-fetal toxicology, her doctorate focused on the effects of exposure to chemicals during pregnancy on fetal development. She is a strong proponent for the health science behind organic food, and she founded DeeBee’s Organics as part of her a mission to make “conscious” snacking really fun!

Dionne is an alumna of the EY Entrepreneurial Winning Women™ program, which identifies ambitious women entrepreneurs and provides them with the guidance, resources and access they need to unlock their full potential.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I was completing my PhD in Medical Sciences when I was in the kitchen with my two children in 2012. Our youngest, who was on quite a strict diet for health reasons, was making tea while our daughter was making fruit popsicles. The kids were rallying over who would get mommy’s attention when my daughter said, “Mommy, let’s make teacicles!.” I then had one of those “lightbulb” moments, ran to my computer and discovered that nobody on the planet was making organic tea-based frozen pops — and thus, the idea for DeeBee’s initial product was born.

At that time in my life, I could have comfortably settled into a career path as a professor/medical scientist, and this had always been where I thought I would make my impact. But when my children had this idea, rather suddenly I felt called to keep pushing beyond that goal. The potential of channeling my knowledge and values into becoming an entrepreneur and using a business as a meaningful platform really hit home. If you had asked if I could see myself as an entrepreneur, I probably would have laughed and thought there was no chance that was the path I would follow! But here I am, the entrepreneur!

I have become an advocate for getting an education in something you are passionate about but making sure to leave yourself open to opportunity and creativity, as your career path could take an interesting, new direction that you never thought possible. My university education in sciences taught me how to methodically research and plan — something that is a big benefit to business planning and step-by-step execution. It also taught me the value of collaboration, and of seeking out expert knowledge — being humble enough to know what I don’t know. Moreover, I was so used to applying for grants and seeking out collaborative institutional support that I had a leg up on finding creative funding for incubating product innovations. I started DeeBee’s naively in the sense that I had no formal training in business or finance, but I feel my research background ended up serving DeeBee’s startup needs quite well!

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

In our early days, I knocked on the door of many buyers who shut that door right in my face! Gaining distribution was tough, really tough. After months of trying, I finally scheduled an appointment with UNFI, a national distributor in the natural/organic food space. At that time, I was a one-woman show with an assistant who helped where she could. I was a mom, I was finishing my PhD, and I worked before the kids got up, while they played and until the early hours of each morning to get my dream off the ground.

I left my kids, husband and comfortable home in Victoria, British Columbia, at 3:00 a.m. for a flight that would take me to Toronto, Hartford, Connecticut and finally a drive to Chesterfield, New Hampshire, to meet with the UNFI buyer. After landing in Toronto and running to the gate to catch the next flight with my cooler filled with DeeBee’s handmade pops and dry ice in tow, I heard an announcement that all flights into the Hartford, Boston and nearby areas were canceled due to tornados. There was no way I was not going to make this appointment that I had been anticipating. There was no way I was going to return home to tell my two kids that I didn’t make it! Waiting months for another appointment was not going to happen, and failure was not an option.

I did what any determined mom and entrepreneur would do — rented a car, headed to the US border and hoped to heck that tornado didn’t change course and head toward me! I had to keep the car windows open (dry ice fumes can be toxic). So, as I drove closer and closer behind the dark clouds of the tornado, my face and body were pelted by hail, the wind swept through the open windows, and the thunder roared. I was one scared but determined mama! Wet, cold and undeterred, I belted out songs like “Hallelujah” and “Highway to Heaven” to keep myself awake during my nine-hour car ride well into the night.

I finally made it to my destination at about 1:30 a.m. The next morning, I was so emotional and excited that I cried all the way to the meeting. The buyer loved DeeBee’s, and she had no idea what it took for me to get to that 15-minute meeting. DeeBee’s was on its way!

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

Life was like a scene from “I Love Lucy!” I started making DeeBee’s Organics pops in our kitchen with my kids and our nanny, MaryAnn. I realized that freezing tea simply resulted in a hard ice cube that would break your teeth. Although I was trained as a medical scientist, food science was a completely different ball game! I needed a commercial kitchen space to start to figure out how to freeze a popsicle in 15 minutes and make sure that it had the proper ingredients so that you could bite it without cracking your teeth. I rented a space in one of the worst parts of Vancouver, but it was all I could afford. I would drop my kids at school, take the ferry to Vancouver, and work at making the pops. I raced around selling our DeeBee’s pops in stores around British Columbia, and I also tried to be everything and everyone to my kids, my husband, and our customers! It was simply crazy, and I had no balance in my life.

It is such a common mistake for startup founders to try to do and control everything yourself. But this “mistake” teaches you the value of your own time, and it teaches you the value of finding and investing in people who can do certain jobs better than you can. This time taught me that I really needed to look at what is the highest and best use of my skills/talents from the perspective of building success for everyone.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I had long respected my cousin’s husband, Izzet, for his entrepreneurial skills, but I did not know him very well. I knew that he had just gone through a very challenging time in his life, but he felt a pull to chart a new course and he wanted to move from overseas to Victoria to help make the DeeBee’s dream come true with me. I was unsure of how this would change our small team or the dynamics of our family, but we both took a leap of faith that would result in the launch of DeeBee’s most successful product, SuperFruit Freezies. DeeBee’s Organics SuperFruit Freezies completely upended their grocery category and became the fastest selling item in both Canada and the top grocery chains in the US! Izzet is the humblest human I know. I had no idea how much incredible information was stored in that brain of his! To this day, we talk through everything, and sometimes we challenge each other. We learn from each other, and I have a lifetime of gratitude for him.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Simon Sinek focused not on what you do but why you do it. In his book, Start With Why, he explained how humans respond best when information resonates with the parts of the brain that control emotions. In a work team setting, successfully communicating the bigger reason or passion behind the “why” taps into people’s limbic brain. This is the part of the brain that guides decision-making and produces feelings like trust and loyalty and a sense of meaning — essentially, it’s how people become inspired! Being inspired is what has driven me personally, so I’ve consciously tried to make sure that working at DeeBee’s offers a sense of meaning and purpose beyond our bottom line. I love to ask, “what’s your dream?” In fact, we’ve woven this commitment of “why” into our business through our DreamLauncher Program, which allows DeeBee’s to incubate each team member’s personal dreams of giving back and create deep personal meaning through their work.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

The quote I have lived by and try to instill with my children is one that I made up when my kids were small: “It is not the challenge you face, but how you face the challenge.” I have faced so many challenges, both in business and in my personal/family life. Remembering this saying helps guide me to the understanding that I have to face every challenge as it comes my way. I cannot go around the challenge; I must go through it. This has made a world of difference for me. I feel that this has forced me to be creative, think out of the box and sort my way through things that sometimes feel insurmountable.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

I have a very clear memory of the moment when I decided why I wanted to leave my career in sciences and start DeeBee’s. I was riding my bicycle with my husband, Steve, around Vancouver’s Stanley Park, and I had this vision that I could show my children what it meant to set your mind to something and figure out how to accomplish big goals while staying true to your values. I also felt strongly called to help make Steve’s dream come true. He had supported me through my studies and put himself through medical school after being raised by a single mom and facing his own life challenges. He was delaying some of his dreams to allow me to follow mine. One of his dreams was to one day use his skills as an eye surgeon to join Orbis — a charitable flying eye hospital with a specially outfitted airplane that travels to developing countries to help the visually impaired see again. Surgeons who join Orbis must help raise funds for their missions, as well as leave their practices for a time, so it’s a significant commitment. From the start with DeeBee’s, I’ve had the ultimate goal of one day seeing Steve off on his Orbis mission, and I know that the day he steps foot on that plane will be the day that DeeBee’s has made it.

From the moment of that vision, I have looked at DeeBee’s as more than a business. It was a way for me to weave ambition with meaning — to live my personal “why.” If going down this road didn’t make my soul sing and mean something to my heart, I would have stayed in sciences! I believe that each of us have personal “whys” that are uniquely meaningful to us — and that given the time and resources, most of us would take an opportunity to give back to the world in an impactful way. I saw DeeBee’s as an opportunity to set in motion what has now become DeeBee’s DreamLauncher Program. The Program is an employee-driven initiative that weaves our team’s “dreams of giving” into the fabric of who we are. DeeBee’s DreamLauncher Program fosters ongoing employee-led charitable initiatives with donation matching, annual paid time for volunteering and designated charitable contributions linked toour employee stock option program.

I was also excited (and still am!) by the idea of building an ethical company — one where the products we make and the way we do business make a positive impact in the world, and one where every person in the company has a chance to live up to their potential and reach their dreams. All DeeBee’s team members who’ve helped us build also hold options in the company, so the success of DeeBee’s is coupled with fulfilling dreams they may have. Building DeeBee’s has meant so much more than simply making clean, healthy organic snack foods that I feel good about giving to my own kids — it’s about inspiring people to meet their potential and to use that inspiration to do great things.

Now, DeeBee’s Organics has evolved into setting a path to be one of the most successful natural snack foods on the market. So, what started out as a tiny idea in my kitchen has now evolved into a high-growth B Corp company. Being a B Corp means that DeeBee’s has passed rigorous testing to ensure we are doing business for the greater good.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?

Unconscious bias may be subtle, or it may stare you directly in the face. But either way, it can have a significant and far-reaching impact. The thought of starting a business, especially with the intention of large-scale growth, can be daunting for any founder. When I met with our bank to discuss the possibility of securing a loan to start DeeBee’s, I was asked to come in for a meeting. When I arrived, I sat down with three male bankers who asked why I was starting a business. My husband was successful, and why was I rocking the boat? In other words, go home and bake cookies and be happy with what you have, darling. I left feeling like I wanted to crawl under the closest doormat. But I picked myself up and trudged on forward. Just a few months ago, when DeeBee’s had a valuation north of 40 million dollars, a successful local entrepreneur asked how my business was doing and said they wanted to know if I was making my Freezies in our kitchen, to which I answered, “well, we made about 30 million Freezies this year so, no, I am not making my Freezies in my kitchen.”

Society as a whole is becoming more equal in terms of gender roles, but we have a long way to go. Empowering women to pursue their entrepreneurial goals by providing practical mentorship and advice can help women take their first step. I learned to surround myself with mentors every step of the way. At the beginning, you may not know how to make your first stride. That is the time to reach out to other female founders — even if for no other reason than to just run an idea by them. Not every mentor or advisor is going to be the right fit. In fact, many may come with unconscious bias. Founders need to hold their heads high and speak to more people until they find that right match. It might be that in the end the business idea needs work and adjustments before it can succeed, but your determination and grit to keep persevering will go a long way.

Female founders are a minority in the business world, and we can make a significant impact by speaking as role models for other female founders. Meeting and hearing from women with whom you can relate makes it easier and less intimidating to ask for advice and mentorship. Encouraging and teaching traits early in life, such as perseverance, determination, grit, and good communication, are integral to entrepreneurs, especially for female founders — and, in fact, for any career choice for women.

Can you share with our readers what you are doing to help empower women to become founders?

I have endeavored to help support female founders on many levels, from investing in their businesses to providing mentorship and advice. Here are just a few high points that excite me!

  • DeeBee’s provides internship, co-op and executive assistant opportunities for female, minority and LGBTQIA+ students to work in an entrepreneurial environment.
  • We encourage our people to be their authentic selves and join our team for experience in pursuing not only their DreamLauncher initiative but also their career aspirations.
  • I try to get out into the community where I can teach students at both the high school and university level what it means to be a female founder. I share my insights about what it takes to get off the ground, the key steps that need to be taken to succeed, and how to balance family and entrepreneurship.
  • I have mentored various female founders who have connected with me through groups such as WEConnect International, Women’s Presidents Organization, GroYourBiz, WBENC International, The Forum, and LinkedIn. I make myself available as a resource for female entrepreneurs at any level from idea and concept thoughts, financing issues, raising capital, expanding distribution, innovation, or introductions to buyers and retailers.

This might be intuitive to you but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?

This is a time like no other. The awareness around the value of diversity in business, politics, and entertainment has never been so high. It is like a cultural paradigm shift that I feel I have witnessed even in the nine years I have been in business. The change in attitude from lenders, big retailers, government, etc., is notable. That awareness creates new tangible opportunity for women — as banks, investors and suppliers rally to catch up with the movement. There’s a groundswell of support for women and diverse entrepreneurs right now as we work culturally to correct long-standing imbalances.

The world needs women! We need diverse perspectives and ways of leadership and doing business. We need the breadth of creativity and innovation that can come from diverse experiences. Everything and everyone benefit from this.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Can you please share 5 things that can be done or should be done to help empower more women to become founders? If you can, please share an example or story for each.

  1. Make funding more available to female founders. There is funding now, but it comes with so many strings that it becomes prohibitive to simply begin!
  2. Provide accessible business training and mentorship for working women and mothers. Women tend to be great at “why,” but if you haven’t had a business education or don’t have a support network of businesspeople to draw on, the “how” can be very daunting.
  3. Support universal affordable childcare and champion mothers in business. We tend to look at mothers in business as encumbered, when actually mothers in business tend to work twice as hard as anybody else!
  4. Normalize “failure.” Women often indicate that one of the reasons they don’t get into business is that they are afraid to fail. It is like there’s more judgment on women somehow — and more to prove. If we put the emphasis on striving and learning from downs as well as ups, we build confidence and resilience.
  5. Teach leadership skills in school. Instill situational awareness, communication skills, boundary setting, conflict resolution and the basics of negotiation. Girls are still often taught to be quiet and “nice,” and to put their needs second. Learning how to ask for what you want and to genuinely listen and collaborate can give anyone a stronger base to succeed from.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I would love to see other founders create projects similar to DreamLauncher so that we can inspire more giving than taking.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

I would love to share a lunch with Oprah Winfrey! First of all, I know she is a fan of fruit snacks, and I have a good hunch that Oprah would love our DeeBee’s Organics SuperFruit Freezies! But what inspires me most about Oprah is her unwavering drive to give. She seems to get the most joy from seeing others smile, and that is something that rules in my world!

How can our readers further follow your work online?

We have a DeeBee’s blog where I talk not only about starting DeeBee’s and our story, but I also share my perspective as both a female founder and a medical scientist. On Instagram, I share my day-to-day stories at @deebeesfounder, and on LinkedIn, I love sharing both personal and business challenges and wins as I have charted my journey as a female founder.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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