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How Shelby Smith of Gym-N-Eat Crickets Is Changing Attitudes About Eating Bugs

I say this to myself each time I am feeling insecure about a video I am recording or speaking engagement that I don’t feel qualified to accept. I think so often we worry what people are going to think or how they are going to feel if we do a particular thing. The reality is, […]

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I say this to myself each time I am feeling insecure about a video I am recording or speaking engagement that I don’t feel qualified to accept. I think so often we worry what people are going to think or how they are going to feel if we do a particular thing. The reality is, people are thinking about me and my brand far less than I am imagining. Internalizing these words is something I work at every day, but they have helped me get over any anxieties I have about “what people might think.”

As a part of our series about strong women leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Shelby Smith.

Shelby Smith is the founder of Gym-N-Eat Crickets, producer of sustainable, alternative protein snacks from 100% Iowa-raised crickets. She is a former college basketball player turned equity derivatives trader and now, she’s a cricket farmer. She has been raising bugs and convincing people to eat them since 2018.

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?

Believe it or not, I didn’t grow up dreaming of becoming a cricket farmer. I was raised in central Iowa on our conventional family farm before going off to college to play basketball in Philadelphia. After graduating with a finance degree, I headed overseas to Ireland to continue my playing career and my education. While in Ireland, I earned a Master’s Degree at Trinity College in Dublin, then worked as an equity derivatives trader for a Canadian bank. After a few years, I found myself very unsatisfied with the finance industry and made the decision to return home to the family farm in Iowa. I moved back just in time for harvest in October 2017.

Post-harvest, my dad and I had many conversations about future plans and my future in farming. He encouraged me to consider niche agriculture, citing less competition and higher margins than common commodity crops.

On January 1, 2018, I sent my parents an article about raising crickets for human consumption. Ten days later, I bought my first 10,000 two-week old crickets and the rest is history!

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

In the land of sows, cows, and plows, I am trying to normalize eating bugs.

For most of the world entomophagy (eating insects) is a normal part of the culture and cuisine. An estimated 80% of the world’s countries and one third of the world’s population eat insects. Here in the West, convincing consumers that crickets are food and not filth has occasionally been a challenge.

By no means am I the first company to try to do this, but I have approached it differently than most. Most often, companies will choose cricket farming or cricket products. There are not many set out to tackle both at the same time, but I did.

With only a handful of cricket farms in North America devoted to raising insects specifically for human consumption, I was uncomfortable with relying on those limited sources for the key ingredient in my products. Instead, I decided to try my hand at raising crickets and developing, producing, and marketing an end product. I had zero expectations when I set up my stand at a local farmers’ market and was blown away when I continually sold out.

I was forced to expand my production to try to keep up with demand, but found my limit on what I could grow and produce alone. I decided to further scale the business using a contract grower model, similar to the swine and poultry industries. Agreements like those are incredibly common in Iowa, which was helpful when trying to familiarize potential growers with what I was looking to build.

Since rolling out the program in December ’19, we have grown our network of growers around the state of Iowa to 8. We are the only network of cricket farms for human consumption in the US.

In addition to growing the supply of crickets and despite the setbacks brought on by COVID-19, we have landed on the shelves of over 15 stores around the Midwest since May.

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?

I will never forget the day I received my first crickets. They were delivered on January 10th, 2018 via UPS. I had ordered 10,000 two-week old Acheta domesticus crickets from a farm in Louisiana the day before. They arrived in a larger box with two smaller boxes of 5,000 crickets with heating packs placed around them. The two boxes containing crickets were very well taped up, but I could hear them scratching around inside.

It was a frigid cold Iowa day, so the first order of business was to get them into a warm environment before opening up the boxes to put them in their forever homes. In the days leading up to the delivery, I scoured YouTube for any resources on rearing crickets and managed to put together a few boxes that would serve as home for my first 10,000 crickets. I had food, water, and shelter set up and ready to go. All I needed to do was to get the crickets transferred into the bins. Easy enough, right? Wrong!

I had no concept of just how tiny two-week old crickets would be. I sliced the tape open for the first box and a flood of tiny crickets came racing out! I was so panicked I quickly moved the box to a forever home and tried to prevent any further escapees. By the time all was said and done, I would guess that I lost 25% of the crickets before I even started.

Needless to say cricket farming was going to be a major learning process. It’s something that is always evolving. Cricket farming is a practice!

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

I have been incredibly lucky to be surrounded by a support system that is unparalleled. The foundation of that system is definitely my parents. Without their support and mentor-ship, none of this would have been possible. Though most people don’t realize it, farmers are entrepreneurs. In that way, entrepreneurship is all I have ever known. It has been incredibly helpful to have them to commiserate with about long hours, big decisions, large cash outlays, and bad days.

I was also fortunate to be a part of the Iowa State Start Up Factory, a start-up accelerator program with a fantastic mentor network. Several members of that community have helped me along the way in various aspects of my business. In many ways, entrepreneurship can be very lonely. Going through the Start Up Factory with Cohort 6 gave me a group of peers all going through the same thing. It’s great to have the mentor network and my cohort to bounce ideas and issues off of.

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’? 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?

I have seen this occur in my own industry. I have watched many in the industry race to become the first to automate the process of raising insects. While technological advancement is absolutely necessary to scale the market as a whole, not at the expense of the basics of cricket farming.

I think there are many in the industry that view some of the oldest farms as old relics stuck in their ways. There is a lack of respect and appreciation for the wisdom and experience of those farmers. I think if the majority of the industry spent more time trying to figure out how to raise more crickets and less time worrying about whether or not they have a patent-able technology to raise venture funding, we would be a lot further ahead.

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

“Get comfortable being uncomfortable.”

Those words were shared with me long before I started my entrepreneurial journey by my management professor in college. Each time I feel discomfort, I do my best to lean into it. I know that discomfort is where the growth happens. It was uncomfortable for me to move to another country after college. It was uncomfortable for me to leave my high-paying finance job for the unknown. It was uncomfortable for me to put myself out there and start raising crickets. Without fail, all of those things have caused massive growth for me as a person.

“How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”

I liked these words so much that I have them tattooed on my ribs in my mom’s handwriting. It was my favorite motto when I used to do ultra-distance obstacle course racing. If I thought about the entirety of the elephant that is a 24+ hour race, I probably wouldn’t start. The only way to the finish line is one bite at a time.

These words have transitioned perfectly into entrepreneurship. I have shifted to a “one store at a time” motto as I try to grow my wholesale accounts. It is incredibly easy to lose sight of progress or get overwhelmed with the amount of work you think needs to be done. Each “bite” takes you closer. Breaking things down into more digestible numbers has made it easier for me to fight those nagging feelings of overwhelm that come with running a growing business.

“Don’t worry about what people think about you, because they don’t think about you.”

I say this to myself each time I am feeling insecure about a video I am recording or speaking engagement that I don’t feel qualified to accept. I think so often we worry what people are going to think or how they are going to feel if we do a particular thing. The reality is, people are thinking about me and my brand far less than I am imagining. Internalizing these words is something I work at every day, but they have helped me get over any anxieties I have about “what people might think.”

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

I have some cool new product lines and ad campaigns up my sleeve. There is a ton of room to innovate in the insect protein space with product development. Cricket powder lends itself well to being blended into many different food products. The key is staying within traditional grocery categories, but with a twist.

At the very least, I see a cricket cookbook in my future!

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

I think many times women feel unqualified or not ready to take on a particular topic, project, or job, so we end up moving slower, or worse, never jumping in. As a result, we get passed up by the competition or fail to scale because we don’t feel ready.

I am not sure if it is an inherent desire to feel secure or more self-confidence/overconfidence from our male counterparts to blame. Pushing those feelings of inadequacy or unpreparedness aside and just “going for it” is not always easy, but it’s something we as women need to do more often.

To reiterate some previous words: “don’t worry what other people think about you, because they don’t think about you.”

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

Jocko Wilink’s “Good” video on YouTube is a must watch. It is less than 3 minutes long, but it is incredibly relevant to life and the entrepreneurial journey. You have two options when things don’t go your way: feel sorry for yourself or learn from it, get better, and move on.

While I am not always the best at re-framing the multitude of failures and setbacks that come along with trying to convince people that they should be eating bugs, embracing failures and the lessons that can be learned serves me much better than wallowing in the “no’s”.

The onset of COVID-19 and the cancellation of most in-person events is a great example of this. For most of the general population, eating insects requires a certain amount of education before they are willing to take the leap. Prior to March 2020, I relied on in-person events for education and sampling to drive sales. With the onset of the pandemic in the US and the resulting lockdowns, I will admit it, I wallowed in “what do I do know” land for a few days, then shifted to a “good” mindset.

With live events, markets, and speaking engagements cancelled, I suddenly had space in my calendar to work on things that I hadn’t previously focused on. I was able to get more consistent on social media, start a YouTube channel, launch new flavors, and drive online sales. As a result, I’ve consistently grown online sales month over month and increased wholesale accounts to offset the revenues lost with live events.

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

Memento Mori or “Remember You Must Die”.

I know, it’s a bit morbid, but it’s a great reminder. It’s very easy to get bogged down in the day-to-day, but it is incredibly important to remember that this life is finite. I have made an effort to squeeze as much out of it as possible and as a result have experienced things that many will never have a chance to.

Those words have had such a deep impact on me partially because of what happened to my mom. Ten years ago, she contracted food poisoning which then mutated into HUS (Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome). As a result, she went from a healthy, active 51 year-old to bed-ridden for 18 hours per day while she progressed through kidney failure. In the last ten years, she has had seven surgeries, one 20+ day coma, one life flight, one flat line, and one kidney transplant. Thankfully, she is like a new woman post-kidney transplant and is on a run-streak (running at least 1 mile each day) that is approaching 500 days long. A part of me will always have the fear of the possibility of something like that happening to me in the back of my mind.

You are a person of great influence. 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. 🙂

Food is your greatest medicine or your worst poison.

If I could help provide optimal nutrition to the world (not the Standard American Diet) the amount of human potential unlocked from an overall healthier population would be stunning.

How can our readers follow you online?

Your readers can find me on Our WebsiteInstagramFacebook, and YouTube

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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