Sara Gragnolati, Cocomama Foods, Woman Entrepreneur
Sara is not only confident but she has an incredible aura about her. Not surprisng that she has managed to build a gluten free food company by herself from scratch. Although I completely understand the marketplace and believe the potential is huge as more and more people are finding that they have gluten issues it isn't something I have enjoyed eating. So when I was introduced to Sara to hear about Cocoamama Foods I was seriously skeptical. But her journey and entrepreneurial spirit are hard not to be enamored by. She has serious energy and it is her personal health issues that led her to creating this food line. The good news is that she has been working in the health and natural products industry since graduating college so Sara didn't jump into this industry blind sided.
Sara grew up in Hartford, CT. She left CT and went to college at University of Scranton. Her Dad is an environmental health consultant and her Mom is an art teacher so business was not high on her radar. When she got to college she took a few business classes and loved it. Not surprising because even as a kid she was the one of her and her sister who thought about selling the lemonade vs looking at the elements in it. Her sister is a scientist.
While she was in college she spent a short period in London and took a 3 credit course where she was able to spent time in Uruguay, Brazil and Argentina. It was there that she looked at International biz models. An incredible experience that really got her thinking more about what she wanted to do when she graduated.
After graduating school, Sara spent two years in Philadelphia working for Mambosprouts Promotion company. She worked on marketing programs around sustainable products for the heatlh industry. She loved the industry but didn't love Philadelphia. She had followed a boyfriend there. It was totally random that she landed a job with Mambosprouts which at that time there were only four people working there…a total start-up but she knew the minute she got there that she loved the industry.
Her boyfriend was working for a large industry and could not get over how much responsibility Sara had. I am not so sure she did either as it was the first job out of college and she just dove in. The boyfriend ended up getting a job in DC and they would go back and forth. In the end, the relationship ended and so did Philly. Sara wanted to be in NYC.
She moved after 9/11 to NYC. She continued to consult for Mambo while she looked for a full time job. She ended up working two years for a small marketing boutique firm. Then moved into a more traditional sector where she got to learn about everything including building a trade booth. She was wearing a bunch of hats so by the time she had worked all the jobs, she had a good sense of content, marketing, PR and products from start to shelf.
In 2003, she became involved with launching Kiwi magazine. Another start-up. She learned many lessons in those 3 years before departing in 2006. She had never been an editor before and all of a sudden she becomes an editor. She was managing writers and freelancers. The company had some initial seed funding to get going. The two most important lessons Sara learned is that if you are under capitalized it affects everything. Second is you need to have a balance of work and sleep. There were times when she would work for two weeks in a row barely getting in four hours of sleep every night. What happens is that you get sick and for Sarah her health began deteriorating.
At the time she was diagnosed with food allergies. She really didn't buy into it. Her asthma was out of control and the doctors believed it had to do with food allergies. She said yes to participate in a clinical study at Beth Israel hospital to prove that her asthma was actually connected to food allergies. Sara had to take literally everything out of her diet and then slowly bring things back in. Ends up that she was seriously allergic to wheat.
After being in the food industry for almost nine years she figured she knew everything about it. Wrong. As a consumer there were very few options for people who have gluten issues. She saw the business opportunity but also saw the gluten free products in the market weren't healthy. People were also not tying dairy issues with gluten free issues together.
She was so burnt out from Kiwi and from finding out about her health issues that she decided to check out and go to Babson and get a 12 month mba. It was the perfect place to recharge her batteries. It was there that she began to hone her business plan. The idea was a line of healthy gluten free products with the emphasis on healthy.
After graduating in 2010, Sara launched the first item. It was an innovative product and when she showed it to Whole Foods and Wegmans they both thought it was a total "wow". She got the original funding winning the Babson graduate competition. She was the first female to ever win and with the win comes $20K. Then she entered in another contest called the Mass Challenge where she won $50K. 800 people applied and through a series of hurdles 17 got rewards.
Her products are quinoa cereals packs that have already been pre-packaged and ready to eat. You can take on on a hike or eat one for breakfast. Currently Sara is a one-woman band but I love how she speaks in "we" vs "i". She has incredible energy. Seriously impressive young woman. I have no doubt on her ability to create a line of pure delicious products that you will be able to find at your local grocery store sometime in the near future.
Really enjoyed learning about Sara and Cocomama Foods. As a Babson M ’09 it always makes me happy to read success stories! I wish her the best and look forward to seeing the company grow.