Gratitude for technology. I have been thinking a lot about how much harder this pandemic would be if we weren’t where we are in the state of technology. Can you imagine if you couldn’t video chat with your family, friends, and co-workers? Or we didn’t have easy ways to share photos so that we could still see glimmers of the lives of people we love. What if distance learning wasn’t even an option because we simply didn’t have the technology. So I guess what I’m saying is, it could be so much worse, and I’m really glad that we still have so many ways to connect despite it not being the same. We have celebrated birthdays, marriages, and babies through Zoom and even though a remote celebration isn’t the same as an in-person one, it’s still better than nothing.
The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Many of us now have new challenges that come with working from home, homeschooling, and sheltering in place.
As a part of our series about how busy women leaders are addressing these new needs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jess Dang, founder of Cook Smarts online meal planning service, voted #1 on Lifehacker. She started Cook Smarts in 2012 to help families live healthier lives, feel empowered and inspired in the kitchen, and lighten the mental load of meal planning. Prior to starting Cook Smarts, Jess was a contestant on a Food Network cooking show and taught in-home cooking lessons around the Bay Area. She is a mother of three and host of the “In the Kitchen With Cook Smarts” podcast.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
Absolutely! Although I had no idea at the time, Cook Smarts’ origins actually go all the way back to when I was 17 and donated blood at my high school’s blood drive. Three weeks after donating, I got a form letter in the mail informing me that my sample had been rejected because my blood had tested positive for Hepatitis C, a virus that attacks the liver and in some cases can be fatal.
I assumed there had to be some mistake. I was young, healthy, and was getting ready to start my freshman year at Stanford University, a school I had worked extremely hard to get into. But unfortunately, further tests confirmed the diagnosis. As it turned out, I had contracted Hep-C from a blood transfusion I received at birth, before blood was tested for the virus. That transfusion had saved my life — yet now it was putting my life at risk.
I decided to postpone the treatment until after my freshman year of college. If my life was going to get cut short, I wanted at least to enjoy a year of college first. The year that followed after involved a chemotherapy-like course of pills and shots that left me with depression, nausea, fatigue, and hair loss. I didn’t know if it would work, but in the end my viral load was reduced and I was considered “recovered.”
My body and mind, however, took a lot longer to recover. I was physically weak, and it took months to get back to where I’d been before. At age 20, I saw death lurking around every corner. It was then that I promised myself that if I lived to see age 30, I would do something to help others live healthier lives. In the meantime, I would just do my best to live.
A month after my 30th birthday, I quit my corporate job at Visa. I began an exploration that eventually turned into my meal plan service, Cook Smarts.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started at your company?
Like so many entrepreneurs, I initially tried to do everything myself in my business. When I became pregnant with my first daughter in 2015, I realized that I couldn’t do that anymore, so I began to think about building out a team. But the positions I wanted to hire for felt so specific that I didn’t even know where to look. For instance, I wanted to hire a meal planner who had the creative mind to create recipes, test them and photograph them, but also be okay sitting down in Google Sheets and doing all the administrative, data entry stuff. I thought, “Where am I even going to find someone like this?” It didn’t feel like something you’d post on LinkedIn or search for on a job board.
But we had our customer base, and it turned out that one of our existing customers was the perfect fit. We hired Jess Smith, who is still our meal planner today. She wanted to do everything that was involved in the job, and she’s fantastic at it.
Our customer service person, Sarah Byun, was the same way. We weren’t looking for a full-time person, but she’d been homeschooling her kids and was ready to take on 15 or 20 hours of work a week from home. She was a really big fan of the company and had just the right skillset.
It really made me realize how valuable customers are for building out a team. Often they’re the best people to work for you because they already know the product and support the vision and values of it. Since then, as we’ve added more positions, we’ve looked to our customer base and most of our team has been built that way. As a meal planning company, many of our users are mothers. There are so many mothers out there who are super well-educated and have great skills, but it’s hard for them to find flexible, part-time work. Now I always encourage other entrepreneurs to look to their customer base when hiring for part-time positions, and in particular to consider mothers.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We are incredibly proud of the product we’ve created over the last seven years, and over the course of the last few months even prouder that we’ve been able to help so many people in the kitchen during this incredibly challenging time. We’ve all been forced to eat and cook a lot of meals at home, and to take some stress away from our members during this time has really been such a gift.
However, we also realize that there are so many people who are living with food insecurity, both as a result of COVID-19 and even well before that. For so many, a meal plan is not the answer they need to provide sustenance when they can’t afford food or don’t have access to a grocery store in their neighborhood. While we are still far from answers for how we can take part aside from donations, I know that to fully serve the entire community we want to serve, we need to do more. We have always provided our materials to nonprofit organizations supporting the underserved, and I really want to figure out how we can take that to the next level within the confines of being a small, lean business. It’s going to be a challenge, but we think to create the change in the kitchen we want to see, we need to be doing more for a larger population.
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’d have to say my dad. We weren’t super close when I was growing up, but my dad was an entrepreneur. He owned a restaurant. He was brave and didn’t mind failure, and seeing that modeled really helped me to start a business of my own. Anyone who goes into business, unless you’re a real narcissist, you understand that there’s a risk of failure. And my dad’s restaurant went out of business when I was in junior high. He declared personal bankruptcy, which was a big deal in our family because we were saving up for me to go to college, and suddenly all of that was gone.
Watching my parents rebuild their life, and seeing that they could still have a life despite such a big setback, helped me learn that failure is okay. As an immigrant, my dad didn’t have much, but he still built something up, lost it, and was able to rebuild.
For me, I have so many more resources than my parents did because they worked hard and made sure I went to a good school. I know that even if I fail, I still have a much more substantial safety blanket than they did because of everything they did for me. And so when I considered starting my own business, I was able to do so knowing that if I failed, life would go on.
The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Can you articulate to our readers what are the biggest family related challenges you are facing as a woman business leader during this pandemic?
The biggest challenges came in those first couple months of lockdown. I had three children, ages almost one, almost three, and four at the start of the quarantine, who were all at home with me. I was still nursing. The baby refused to sleep past 5 a.m. The older two kids’ preschool switched to remote learning. Of course, all three kids were on three different nap schedules, and on top of all of that, I still had to do my job.
Trying to support my kids while trying to keep the lights on at work was really hard. I was basically working an extra shift: I would take care of the kids until two o’clock, and then either my husband would take over or I would just have to put my oldest daughter in front of the TV, so that I could finally start my workday. Then I still had to get everything else done, like getting them fed — luckily I had a bit of advantage in that area running a meal plan service.
I look back at that time and I don’t think I realized how little brain space I had. When it was two o’clock and I would go to work, my kids were still pounding on the door and I’d have to say, “No, this is finally my time to do some work.” Trying to be supportive of them while also caring for my own mental health and balancing the business’s needs was really hard. I still feel a little scarred from that time.
It was also really important to me to make sure I was supporting my team during this time too. Running a business that’s made up of mostly women, many who were in the same boat as I was, I knew they were going through the same stresses. I definitely made sure we went into minimal-mode during this time, doing only what was necessary and leaning on more help from those on our team without kids.
Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
We were really lucky that we got childcare starting in June, so my husband and I were both able to go back to work full-time. That made a huge difference. Prior to that, learning to compartmentalize was a huge help. I’d think, “For these couple of hours that I’m with my kids, if I keep thinking about all the work that needs to be done, I will be miserable and my kids will be miserable.” So for those couple of hours, we’d just focus on play and learning.
Can you share the biggest work related challenges you are facing as a woman in business during this pandemic?
Like a lot of businesses, we’ve had to sacrifice growth to focus on what we need to do to keep the business running. We feel lucky that even though we’re not growing as we’d hoped this year, we’re still here. Our company is still alive and able to serve customers.
Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
It’s really helped to prioritize what truly needs to get done because the business depends on it, versus the things that are nice to have. And again, just recognizing that this is not a year for growth. We’ve seen a lot of other businesses shutter in the past few months and are so grateful that we’re still able to be here and serve people.
Can you share your advice about how to best work from home, while balancing the needs of homeschooling or the needs of a family?
A lot of it is just realizing that less is going to get done. There’s still a finite number of hours every day, so if you’re now devoting an extra four, five, six hours to childcare, you’re going to have less time for work. And similarly, if I can buy myself some time to work by feeding my kids hot dogs for dinner some days, that’s great. Yes, I own a meal planning company, but every family has had to alter their routines during this time. I am a true believer in doing less in the interest of mental health.
Can you share your strategies about how to stay sane and serene while sheltering in place, or simply staying inside, for long periods with your family?
Focusing on fun has really helped me. Play is not my natural state, because in the back of my mind I’m always thinking, “There are dishes to be done” or “There’s meal planning to be done,” or I’m thinking about all the things that are behind with the business. But I learned to just play with my kids and to use those moments as school too. We’ve gotten so many games, and it was really fun to see my kids’ brains develop very quickly in the couple of months that we were all home together because they had such focused attention from me.
Another thing that helps is understanding that this will be a season in our lives. We don’t know how long the season will last, so in the meantime, what are the best parts of this season? Yes, there’s a pandemic going on, but the fact that I get to be safe at home and spend more time with my kids, and have a job that is flexible enough to let me do that, is something I really appreciate.
It was a big shock to go from “everybody in childcare or going to the office” to “everybody at home now” and nobody getting to do exactly what they need to do. By the second month, though, we’d gotten into a groove and by the time I did go back to my office and they did go back to childcare, I kind of missed that time. But also, that’s what weekends are for. We can still replicate all that time spent together in play on the weekends.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your perspective can you help our readers to see the “Light at the End of the Tunnel”? Can you share your “5 Reasons To Be Hopeful During this Corona Crisis”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
This has been both a low point and a high point. It’s been hard to see what’s happening to the country, but both on social media and traditional media it’s nice to see people coming together and to see that they really care. People have a lot of time on their hands, and it’s given people time to re-evaluate things. I was able to have my husband watch the kids so I could go to a couple of marches myself, and it was really nice to come together with other people in a safe way outside and be part of something bigger than all the worries at home around whether we were going to get sick.
For so long, people have believed that you have to work in the office, and I think when we come out of this, people will realize they’re able to do their jobs with fewer hours on their hands, and that they can do them from other places than a traditional office. For us, our team has always been remote, but the one challenge around that is how we’re going to do our usual in-person annual meet-up remotely. But we’ve had five months to practice being on Zoom, and five years to practice being a remote team, so I think we’re well equipped to make it work.
The power of local community
Before the pandemic, it was so easy for everyone in our local neighborhood to go about their lives. You might know a few of your neighbors, but the fact that we don’t have anywhere to go has really allowed us to spend more time getting to know our neighbors (from a safe distance, of course). There have been so many impromptu evening get-togethers just out on our driveways while our kids chalk up the sidewalk.
Our neighborhood’s listserv has also been very active during this time with neighbors offering to shop for seniors, trading toys, offering up extra Black Lives Matter signs. As humans, we crave connection and since we might not be getting it in our workplaces and with our friends, it’s been great to find another source of connection that is literally super close by too!
The resiliency of kids
This is what I’ve seen because I have younger kids. I am sure that older kids and teenagers have experienced the pandemic in a very different way, but with the age of kids I have, they see it as a huge treat to all of a sudden have all this extra time with me and my husband. And to be honest, this time has been really special for me as a working mom, who as a business owner never really gave myself a true maternity leave.
I’ve also seen them become more independent and more okay with boredom, because I simply cannot entertain them every single moment that we’re home. I think it really helps that there are 3 of them, and they have each other, and they’ve already developed a more playful relationship with each other than they would have if they were all in their separate childcare areas. They’ve been able to just go with it, from “Okay, now you’re not going to school anymore” to “Now you’re going back to school.” Young kids don’t remember very much from before, so it’s just, “Okay, this is now what we do,” and it hasn’t been a big deal. Kids are very resilient and adaptable, at least in their younger years.
Gratitude for technology
I have been thinking a lot about how much harder this pandemic would be if we weren’t where we are in the state of technology. Can you imagine if you couldn’t video chat with your family, friends, and co-workers? Or we didn’t have easy ways to share photos so that we could still see glimmers of the lives of people we love. What if distance learning wasn’t even an option because we simply didn’t have the technology. So I guess what I’m saying is, it could be so much worse, and I’m really glad that we still have so many ways to connect despite it not being the same. We have celebrated birthdays, marriages, and babies through Zoom and even though a remote celebration isn’t the same as an in-person one, it’s still better than nothing.
From your experience, what are a few ideas that one can use to effectively offer support to their family and loved ones who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?
Zooming out to the big picture, I think what’s really hard is the uncertainty, just not knowing how long this will go on. I think we’d all be okay if we knew it were going to be for six months, a year of our lives, but the fact that we don’t know if it will be happening all school year or even another year is hard. For myself, just focusing on the small things we can control has been really helpful. The only choice anyone has is to take this day by day and be grateful for each day that we have. I can’t control whether other people go out with a mask or not, but I can go out with a mask. I can choose not to engage with certain things that put my health or my family’s health at risk. I can still control what’s for dinner. For me it really does come down to the small things right now.
So I would recommend focusing on, what are the certainties in your life? Your child is going to have another birthday, so what can you do to make it special within the parameters of a quarantine? I’ve seen people get really focused on these things because it’s what they can control and it’s helping them through. And that’s the advice I would offer families.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
There’s a indie movie called “Smoke Signals,” and one of the lines I really remember is, “Some days are for dying, and some days are for breakfast.” I think it speaks to the fact that as human beings, our lives are a mix of emotions. Some days are really bad, and others you’re like, “I’m just going to get up, have breakfast, and get started with my day.”
I think for us during this pandemic, there have been so many days that feel like a day for dying. It’s okay to acknowledge those emotions, to understand why we’re having those emotions, but not to let them control us. Hopefully by acknowledging them, we can have more days that are for breakfast, where we choose to take that next step and then get started with the day.
So much of life is about momentum, and with the pandemic it’s been really hard to move because we’re stuck in our homes, and we don’t know if some of our actions are going to be risky. But we do know that there are enough things we can do that are safe and help us live a full life — having contact with friends, for one, and for those of us who are lucky enough to have our work, being grateful for work. So I think focusing on those days that you choose to have breakfast, focusing on how to move through the day with intention despite everything going on is important. Focus on the day, because none of us know what the next day is going to bring.
How can our readers follow you online?
They can follow @cooksmarts on all major social media platforms.
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!
Thank you, and same to you!