Julia Collins was just a little girl when she discovered her passion for food. Her grandparent’s home in San Francisco became a communal haven where she was able to witness how cooking brought people together.
After attending Harvard University as a biomedical engineering major one thing remained: her love of food. This in turn inspired her to seek a career in the business. After developing two successful restaurants in NYC, Collins saw the opportunity to return to her roots in Silicon Valley and combine her love of food and technology with the development of Zume Pizza.
Since co-founding the pizza company which is known for its robotic technology that makes pizzas, she is a unicorn in Silicon Valley with a company valued at $2.25 billion after raising an additional $375 million this year.
With so much success in just three years with Zume, Collins is stepping down as President and preparing for the next phase of her journey in food tech and her goal of wanting her 11-month-old son to inherit a planet that’s healthier than the one that we’re living on right now.
Ahead, Collins shared with ESSENCE her humble beginnings in the food industry, the challenges Black women face in Silicon Valley and what her plans are for her new company:
How did you get your start in the food industry?
There was nothing that would please my family more than for me to get this incredible degree in [biomedical engineering]. The problem is I wasn’t living my authentic truth. You know, even at 18 years old, I knew that it just wasn’t for me. It wasn’t until I came to Stanford Business School and I permitted myself to live in my authentic truth and to say to myself, ‘Julia, it’s food, this is what is meant for you. This is what the universe is calling you to do.’
I was fortunate that [restaurateur] Danny Meyer gave me my first job in the business. He took a chance on me, and that was the turning point in my career when I got to be a summer intern at Union Square Hospitality Group where the early Shake Shack was being formed. I can’t claim any success for that enterprise, but I had the good fortune of working for Randy Garutti who is now the CEO of Shake Shack and working for Danny Meyer, who’s been a most well-loved person in the world of restaurant development. I was working for Richard Coraine, who’s probably the smartest person in the world of restaurant development on earth. After that I knew that I couldn’t do anything else with my life. I had to be in the food business, and so when I graduated from Stanford Business School, I went back to work for Danny before going on to start my other food businesses.
After building your résumé working with companies like Shake Shack and Murray’s Cheese and founding and owning two popular New York City restaurants Mexicue and The Cecil, why did you return to San Francisco?
I knew that the timing was right. I knew that I’d be able to get traction for the idea [of Zume]. I knew that the investment community was beginning to think about food, and all the conditions were right for me to move here and build this business from the ground up, but it didn’t exist before I got here.
Tell me about Zume.
I’m so incredibly proud of Zume Pizza because it’s the first time in my career when I’ve had the opportunity to build a company that innovated across so many elements of the food industry. Not just the nature of work in the food industry, not only the quality of the supply chain in the food industry but also the health of the food and the taste of the food. That’s what was so exciting about Zume Pizza, and that’s why I knew that 2015 was the right time for me to move to Silicon Valley and work on this, because I could see that the market conditions were completely optimal. I was going to be able to get customers to love what I was doing; I was going to be able to get employees to want to come and work for us and I was going to be able to get investment from the investment community.
Where do you see the food industry headed towards in the next few years and how is your company Zume leading the way?
What has to happen is we have to make a significant correction regarding the way that we are eating, the way that we are growing, the way that we’re delivering food. By the year 2050, there’ll be 9.7 billion people living on planet earth. We have already reached the limit of arable land, and water in certain parts of the world over-consumption of beef in North America, combined with the rise of the middle class elsewhere in the world is creating a massive surge in global warming. Nitrogen runoff from agriculture and livestock is creating dead zones in our states, and we’re on the verge of a global ecological disaster.
Companies like Zume are incredibly important because they’re using technology to create a better future for food. We’re using innovation in growing and distribution to shorten the supply chain. We’re using menu development to create an appetite for fresh produce so that customers lessen their dependence on red meat and replaced that with a joy and a love for vegetables and fresh produce. We do that by sourcing from local purveyors. We also have to think about the jobs that are involved in the food industry, and we were always very proud that through automation we were able to create better safer jobs. Eliminating tasks that are dangerous, like sticking your hand in and out of an 800-degree pizza oven and letting a robot do that task so that you preserve the occupation of being a cook. You preserve the job, but you remove the tasks that are dirty, dangerous and dull — all of those things that human beings shouldn’t be doing.
Last year, your company raised $48 million. You’ve raised $375 million with Softbank Capital this year. What does it take to reach such milestones in two years?
I want to preface this by saying I don’t value myself as an entrepreneur based on the valuation of my company. I don’t value myself as a leader based on the size of my last fundraising round. The point is the impact that we’re having with our company. If we think about a different milestone, how many jobs were created in a year, that’s a significant milestone and what it takes for me is a commitment as a leader to living your values.
It’s a commitment to doing the right thing to being with your team and to putting your energy and putting your money where your mouth is. To go from just myself and the cofounders sitting on a card table, to having 270 people gainfully employed by our company in such a short time. That’s a huge milestone, but it takes a lot of hard work. I think it takes a commitment to live your values because ultimately your customers, your employees, and the investment community are going to measure you based on that.
What were some of the challenges that you faced as a woman trying to raise money in food tech, and how did you overcome them?
I was surprised when I got to Silicon Valley; the situation was as dire as it was regarding the utter lack of representation in the room. I rarely ever met a female investor, let alone a Black female investor. That has changed a little bit now that I’ve broadened my network in the Valley. When I did find a woman present in the room, it changed the dynamic. It felt like that team was listening to me in a way that I didn’t feel when I was in a room of all male investors…
Many of these investors simply do not have friends of color. They do not have powerful friends that are women, and so the context that they’re always using is, ‘Well, maybe I’ll ask my wife if that’s a good idea.’ I think what happened is many of these investors move in circles that are homogenous and so when they enter the boardroom; they don’t have the experience of understanding how to see a Black woman, how to empathize with her. That’s one of the issues that I see; it’s just a culture of homogeneity that’s pervasive in both social and professional circles.
One of the problems that we have is when people talk about diversity in the Valley, they’re not talking about intersectionality. They’re not talking about the unique experience of being Black and a woman or being differently abled and a woman or being queer and a woman. They’re just sometimes looking at increasing participation by women and if we’re only making a change regarding increasing the number of white and Asian women, if that’s what we’re doing, then we’re not solving the problem.
You’ve helped to build this company you’ve created, you have 270 people who are gainfully employed. You’re making way with trying to create opportunities for other Black girls in Silicon Valley, so what’s next for you?
I am so excited that I have the opportunity to use all of the learning and all of the momentum that I gained while I was at Zume to build my next company. The company is going to be the first food company built on a 100 percent regenerative supply chain. This means that we’re moving beyond just organic food or moving beyond just sustainable food. We’re moving into food and food products that actually regenerate, replenish, and heal the earth.
For example, if Americans ate 10 percent less red meat and replaced that red meat with beans, lentils, lagoons, we could reduce global warming in America to the tune of something like taking 25 million cars off the road. I’m building a food company that relies on a regenerative supply chain so that we can begin to turn back the hands of time. With regenerative agriculture, we can do that. The other thing I care a lot about is social justice, and so I’m doubling down on the work that I’m doing with Black Girls Code and I’m also going to be doing some angel investing, really focusing on female entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs of color and I’m going to be launching both of those initiatives in 2019.
Why did you decide to leave Zume at this moment, a company you’ve worked so hard and long to build, what does it feel like to step away?
I can only tell you that it’s bittersweet. The hardest thing to leave behind is the team. This is the first time in my life when I truly have the freedom to do absolutely whatever I want, and although I’d been an entrepreneur in the past, I’ve never had the level of knowledge, momentum, and access, that I do now. I feel like to whom much is given, much is expected, and because of all the incredible fortune that I’ve had to this point, I think that it is my absolute duty to create something to create a business that has the maximum amount of impact.