Hire for culture. In the early days of a startup, it’s easy to disproportionately focus on skills and experience when hiring, particularly because the team is so lean (often you plus one) and everyone needs to hit the ground running quickly. However, an experienced team member who isn’t fully committed to your vision and the culture you’re trying to build is all but guaranteed not to work out. No doubt, a certain level of experience is crucial for certain roles, but the team members that will be the greatest asset for your organization are those who genuinely believe in what you’re building and who share your values.
Many successful people reinvented themselves in a later period in their life. Jeff Bezos worked in Wall Street before he reinvented himself and started Amazon. Sara Blakely sold office supplies before she started Spanx. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was a WWE wrestler before he became a successful actor and filmmaker. Arnold Schwarzenegger went from a bodybuilder, to an actor to a Governor. McDonald’s founder Ray Croc was a milkshake-device salesman before starting the McDonalds franchise in his 50’s.
How does one reinvent themselves? What hurdles have to be overcome to take life in a new direction? How do you overcome those challenges? How do you ignore the naysayers? How do you push through the paralyzing fear?
In this series called “Second Chapters; How I Reinvented Myself In The Second Chapter Of My Life “ we are interviewing successful people who reinvented themselves in a second chapter in life, to share their story and help empower others.
As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ruth Elnekave.
Ruth Elnekave is the founder and CEO of JOYÀ, a botanical functional food brand on a mission to help people feel, think and live their best, every day. After almost a decade practicing corporate law and a previous career in marketing, she changed course and returned to her culinary roots to pursue her passion: bringing joy to people’s lives through food. Ruth holds a Master of Business Administration (MBA) from the Schulich School of Business, a Juris Doctor (JD) from Osgoode Hall Law School, a Bachelor of Arts (BA, Honors) from McGill University, and a certificate in Classic Culinary Arts from The International Culinary Center, and is a Certified Nutritional Practitioner (CNP).
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
Creating and sharing food has been a key part of my life as far back as I can remember. In fact, I’m quite sure that a passion for all things culinary is in my DNA. At home, my mother cooked delicious meals with global flavors from scratch daily, and I was her sous chef by the age of four. I’d also spend summers in Israel watching and helping my grandmother prepare her Middle Eastern delicacies that we’d then share as a family of 20+ people. As a child, I even created cookbooks when my friends started to repeatedly request my baked goods recipes.
My other lifelong passion is wellness. Athletic from a young age, I was always kicking or throwing a ball around or climbing something, coached tennis as a teenager and was on every girls’ sports team in high school. (Today, most of my travel is active and adventurous, and in my adult life, daily movement is something I crave and need). And the way the body and mind function and the role of nutrition have always fascinated me.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Oh! There are so many that deeply resonate with me, but here’s one:
“The work you do while you procrastinate is probably the work you should be doing for the rest of your life.” — Jessica Hische
My entire life, escaping to the kitchen (and usually to bake or cook for others) was the thing that I did when I didn’t want to study, organize, work… anything that I had to do. As the CEO of JOYÀ, my career still entails far more time than I’d like on a computer. But now my work and its purpose revolve around bringing people joy through food. And when I escape to the kitchen to develop a recipe, it’s often to share on JOYÀ’s blog and social media channels!
You have been blessed with much success. In your opinion, what are the top three qualities that you possess that have helped you accomplish so much? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
I’m truly blessed, and so grateful for my career accomplishments. But my real blessing — and what has played a significant role in my accomplishments — is all of the support, advice, guidance and patience that I’ve always received from my family, friends, key mentors and sponsors along the way.
I think that I’d need to pose this question to all of these people to know for sure! But if I had to guess:
Thirst for knowledge — I always want to know more about things, to dive deeper. For example, growing up I never had any intention of working in a restaurant or kitchen, yet I went to culinary school purely due to my desire to take my self-taught skills to the next level. (Funny enough, this knowledge ended up directly influencing the concept for JOYÀ.)
Perseverance — In law school, I had decided that upon graduating I wanted to practice at one of the large corporate law firms on Bay Street (Toronto’s equivalent of Wall Street). Every single person in my JD/MBA class received numerous interviews and at least one offer for law firm internships, but I had two interviews (not at top firms) and zero offers. My grades were far below what these top tier firms would typically consider, and I didn’t have a resume stacked with impressive extra-curricular activities working in my favor. But I fully believed that I should and would succeed, and did everything I could think of, from networking and joining academic committees to focusing on business law courses (and getting better grades in those courses), and I ended up working at one of the country’s top corporate firms.
Initiative — I’ve always approached challenges by thinking outside the box, and I take initiative to get things done. I guess you could say that I don’t like waiting around for things to happen (or likely not happen). Following on my last story, when I needed more exposure to my top choice law firms while in law school, I created new student events with these firms to make that happen. More recently, when I was struggling with health issues and couldn’t find products on the market that were effective and enjoyable to consume, I hit the drawing board and developed them.
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about ‘Second Chapters’. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before your Second Chapter?
As we discussed earlier, until my 20’s, food, athletics and wellness were driving forces in my life that you would have thought would inspire my career choices. Yet, I wasn’t drawn to any one career and never knew what I wanted to be “when I grew up”. I was in marketing in the consumer packaged goods industry after completing my first university degree, but while it was an interesting job that fed the creative in me, it never felt like something I wanted to pursue long term.
Eventually in my late 20’s I took what I was advised was a “practical” route and studied business and law, and then found myself burning the candle at both ends as a corporate finance and mergers and acquisitions lawyer. It was a career that resulted in working nights and weekends, little (and poor) sleep, little physical activity, and rushed and often skipped meals — a lifestyle that wore me down. Yet there was something about the challenge and intellectual stimulation that hooked me, and despite resenting the hours and missing any semblance of a life outside of work, I continued to practice law for seven years.
And how did you “reinvent yourself” in your Second Chapter?
I’ve always had an entrepreneurial bug. Both of my parents are entrepreneurs, so executing an idea and building something out of nothing has always been in my blood, or at least in my life.
After leaving the law and having had spent a good part of my young adult life in a bureaucratic, non-creative environment, I realized that I wanted to pour my energy into making people happy, not making them money. While I didn’t yet know exactly what I wanted to do next, I knew that I couldn’t stay in the corporate world and that this was the moment in my life to completely change gears and do something that I was truly passionate about.
Can you tell us about the specific trigger that made you decide that you were going to “take the plunge” and make your huge transition?
When I left the law, I decided to take a year to clear my head, dig deep into what makes me “tick”, and do all of the things that my 24/7 legal career didn’t allow for. I had discovered a one-year program in holistic nutrition, and as I’d been so disconnected from food and wellness for so many years, I dove in with no intention initially to pursue a career in this space, but rather just to feed my soul.
Just as I began the program, a few months after leaving the law, I began to experience debilitating health issues which I soon realized were the result of a body shut down due to chronic stress. It’s of course never a good time to get sick, but if there ever was… my studies in holistic nutrition introduced me to various forms of traditional medicine and the healing and strengthening power of certain botanical ingredients — the very modalities that helped me heal.
Experiencing these health challenges was a blessing in disguise, as being reunited with food in such a personal and powerful way was the lightbulb that made me realize that I was meant to bring people joy through food.
What did you do to discover that you had a new skillset inside of you that you haven’t been maximizing? How did you find that and how did you ultimately overcome the barriers to help manifest those powers?
I don’t think that I actively discovered any particular unutilized skillset prior to starting my new career path. Rather, part of what gave me the confidence to dive into a field so completely unrelated to the profession I had studied and excelled in was that I knew that through all of my experiences to that point, I had developed many skills that would be transferable to founding just about any business: analytical and problem solving skills, drafting and negotiating contracts, leading teams, managing projects, structuring financing and more.
There was also one key thing that I felt deeply lacking in my legal career: a creative outlet. Sure, you need to think creatively to successfully negotiate deals and facilitate your clients’ business goals in the face of legal obstacles. But I’m an artistically creative person, and working 15+ hour days left no time for artistic activities. Luckily, I’ve been able to apply my creativity daily building a brand, from the early seeds developing JOYÀ’s brand identity, website and packaging, to ongoing projects related to photography, social media and advertising.
How are things going with this new initiative? We would love to hear some specific examples or stories.
Since we launched just over a year ago, it’s been a roller coaster of a ride filled with an array of obstacles, wins, failures and excitement almost daily! Building a new business is always challenging, and throwing a pandemic into the mix doesn’t help. But it does make you even stronger and more agile and forces you to learn very quickly how to roll with the punches.
Some of our larger obstacles have included extreme supply chain delays which prevented us from getting ingredients needed for production; needing to pivot and completely restructure our packaging solution; and figuring out how to connect and build trust with consumers with live events cancelled.
Some of our wins and developments have included launching an innovative and truly sustainable packaging solution; creating partnerships with key retailers; preparing to launch in Canada and on Amazon; and we’ve got some exciting new products in the works!
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’m truly blessed to have so many people in my life who have been a source of unconditional support and have provided invaluable guidance and mentorship. But there’s one particular person without whom I don’t know if — or when — I would have discovered the particular entrepreneurial path that I’m now on.
While I was still practicing law, I worked with a brilliantly talented career coach. At the time, the goal was not necessarily to completely switch careers, but rather to grow as a professional and find more fulfillment, whether that be in law or another field. She pushed me to look deep inside and be honest and vulnerable, and helped me uncover parts of my true nature that I had become oblivious to because I was so all-consumed with my career.
My life-changing work with this coach made me realize that nothing brings me more fulfillment and gets me more fired up than helping people in ways that bring them well-being and true joy. And what do you know? Drafting contracts and structuring deals was not accomplishing that. Yet, without the guidance and friendship of this coach, I may have never left the law.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction?
So many things happen almost daily that would make an interesting (and very entertaining) entrepreneurship book. But what immediately comes to mind for me is an experience from JOYÀ’s pre-launch days that resulted in a pivot from the original concept to where the business is today, in the herbal supplement space.
JOYÀ was originally conceived as a wellness café offering beverages including the elixirs and herbal teas that we now sell. We were planning on opening in Toronto’s financial district — my old backyard — where I knew that the lawyers, bankers and other busy professionals wanted delicious yet truly nourishing food to support their health in the face of their demanding lifestyles, yet there were no such options at the time. Landlords were excited about the concept, but locations that I considered suitable were not becoming available. The long search (we scoped locations for almost 10 months) gave me time to reassess, and I realized that as much as I was excited about a business that would allow me to interact with customers daily, I was even more excited about sharing the power of our offering with a much larger audience well beyond just Toronto.
And talk about a blessing in disguise. This “lack of success” finding a location led to pivoting JOYÀ to what it is today and away from owning a restaurant in a neighborhood that the pandemic has devastatingly turned into a ghost town.
Did you ever struggle with believing in yourself? If so, how did you overcome that limiting belief about yourself? Can you share a story or example?
Absolutely. I have my moments regularly, particularly when something isn’t going right or we’re facing a big challenge. What I learned very quickly on this entrepreneurial journey, largely from speaking with many other entrepreneurs and first-time founders, is that having moments of doubt is normal. It’s a challenging and often extremely difficult and draining ride.
Each time I find myself struggling or even feeling like an imposter (which happens!), I remind myself that I’m not alone: every other startup founder experiences immense and ongoing challenges, and I’ve got an incredible and growing network of peers and experienced mentors who are there for me with their support, advice and often most importantly, their tales from the trenches.
In my own work I usually encourage my clients to ask for support before they embark on something new. How did you create your support system before you moved to your new chapter?
I wouldn’t say that I consciously set up a support system or knew I had one in place before embarking on this journey. Rather, as questions and challenges arose and I started to ask for support of all kinds — time, advice, information — I realized how many people that I knew were so well positioned to help and truly wanted to help, even if that meant connecting me with their own network when needed. And now that I know just how crucial a strong support system is, building and strengthening mine is something that I work on every day.
I’ve always loved to support and mentor others, whether coaching sports, teaching culinary skills or mentoring students or law firm colleagues. Not only do I get so much fulfillment from helping people feel empowered and joyful, but I always learn a fair share from the process myself. My experience with my support system is no different. I love connecting with founders just starting their journeys and others in similar stages to mine, and there have been very few chats, if any, in which I haven’t learned something valuable just from being there to support others and hearing their stories.
Starting a new chapter usually means getting out of your comfort zone, how did you do that? Can you share a story or example of that?
My transition from corporate lawyer to wellness CPG entrepreneur was somewhat gradual, but deciding to step out of my comfort zone for good was not. Seven years in, I knew I had to leave my role at the firm, but I was so emotionally and mentally all-consumed by the role that I didn’t have the capacity to figure out my next step while I was still practicing. So, I left before I had a game plan, and decided to take some time to clear my head and figure out what my next adventure would be.
As soon as I had distance from that intense, 24/7 environment, I immediately realized that after spending over a decade studying and working in an area that brought me no real joy, there was no way my next move would be back to “big corporate”.
This decision did mean that I would be leaving what I had worked long and hard to excel at to go to the complete unknown. But I was approaching 40 and wanted to finally pour my energy into something that I was truly passionate about — that would allow me to feel like when I leave this world, I will have done something good.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my organization” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
- Hire for culture. In the early days of a startup, it’s easy to disproportionately focus on skills and experience when hiring, particularly because the team is so lean (often you plus one) and everyone needs to hit the ground running quickly. However, an experienced team member who isn’t fully committed to your vision and the culture you’re trying to build is all but guaranteed not to work out. No doubt, a certain level of experience is crucial for certain roles, but the team members that will be the greatest asset for your organization are those who genuinely believe in what you’re building and who share your values.
- Connect with peers ASAP. As we discussed earlier, a strong support system is key, and having one in place from day one that specifically includes other startup founders in your space is invaluable. I wish I would have known this as I was preparing to launch JOYÀ. These are the people who are going (or have gone) through the exact early stage challenges you are, and had I had those connections earlier, I would have saved myself a good amount of time and headaches spinning my wheels in the early days.
- Keep questioning and iterating. As they say, perfection is the enemy of progress. In fact, nothing will ever be “perfect”, but if you constantly hold back and don’t just get out there and test and try, you’ll never learn or know what does and doesn’t work. I got stuck in this viscous circle in the early days, and as a result missed out on the opportunity to beat a number of competitors to market. That said, never get comfortable. There’s always room for improvement, and if you don’t stay inquisitive and open-minded, you’ll miss out on great opportunities to grow and improve.
- Don’t forget to enjoy the journey. While your future goals (including what you want your culture to be) should guide your decisions and actions, don’t get so caught up in planning that you forget to savor and enjoy each moment of the ride. The experiences of today are what determine the organization’s culture tomorrow.
- The entrepreneurial journey doesn’t get easier. No matter how much you learn, new (and often more difficult) challenges continuously arise. But if you’re on the path you’re meant to be on, it gets more fun.
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?
I deeply believe that one of the easiest and most significant opportunities for increased wellness in society is the emotional and psychological wellness derived from experiencing many small moments of joy throughout the day.
How incredible would it be if people would stop for just a few minutes a couple of times a day to truly savor and appreciate something that brings them joy — a hug, a view, the sunshine or fresh air, a steamy and delicious latte, a selfless act for another person. I’d bet that the effects would be so impactful that people would find themselves practicing ‘joyous savoring’ more and more until it became a habit.
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. 🙂
Oh, wow. Just one? I am in complete awe of Brené Brown and her eye-opening work in such important areas for humanity, including equality and empathy. I’ve learned so much from her (and her incredible discussions with guests on her podcasts) about authentic leadership and the importance of vulnerability as a leader. I don’t think one meal with her would be enough!
How can our readers further follow your work online?
I’m personally on LinkedIn and Clubhouse (@ruth.joya). You can also find JOYÀ online at joya.ca (where we share lots of great wellness tips and delicious recipes), and on Instagram (@thejoyalife).
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!