Shazi Visram ’04 knew what she wanted to do before she knew how she would do it. The daughter of immigrants who became successful business owners, she was determined not only to launch a company but to use it to drive social change. In 2003, while pursuing her MBA at Columbia Business School, she discovered an opportunity that would allow her to pursue both ambitions.
“I decided I would go to Columbia to create a toolbox so that when I had that big idea of how I was going to change the world, I would be able to execute,” says Visram, founder and CEO of Happy Family, which makes organic foods for babies, toddlers, and children. “While I was there, I was having a conversation with a friend where she talked about how she didn’t feel like a good mom because she wasn’t giving her baby homemade baby food, as recommended by her pediatrician. She was really taking a lot of guilt out on herself. I suddenly had that ‘lightbulb moment’ that revealed to me what would become my passion: improving children’s nutrition.”
As she listened to her friend, Visram saw an opportunity not only “to address the pain in the marketplace” but also to “change the way children are fed in our country.” She founded Happy Family in 2003, a year ahead of her graduation, and used the remainder of her time at Columbia to work on the launch.
A course called “Launching New Ventures” was especially helpful, as was a program called the Entrepreneurial Greenhouse, which she cites as “the cornerstone of what has now become Happy Family.” As Visram explains, “The Greenhouse is truly like an incubator. We were starting businesses and using some of the best minds in New York to give us direction and act as sounding boards in the early stages of development.” Access to that collective wisdom helped Visram not only launch a business but make it a game-changer.
“My dream was to create something that was disruptive, not just another jar of baby food,” she says. She quickly ticks off a list of the product differentiators that guided the company’s development: “Number one, we would source from organic, sustainable farms, so we’d be supporting sustainable agriculture; second, for the baby we’d be making a product that is going to be super premium and delicious and set the stage for a lifetime of health and wellness; third, we’d be meeting the needs of a mom who’s crying out for something more premium but doesn’t have the time to make her own baby food; and fourth, we would meet the needs of retailers who want to appeal to that mom and make more than a 16 percent margin on the products.”
That added up to what Visram considered “a super solid business case.” Yet Happy Family progressed, at best, in baby steps in its early years and faced its share of struggles, including working capital shortfalls and failure to meet its initial sales projections. “Being able to stay in business while you’re innovating and trying to figure out what is going to work, even as you manage everything that’s not working, that was really hard,” Visram says.
But in 2009, a packaging innovation reversed the company’s fortunes. “We launched baby food in pouches, and within two weeks I knew we had a home run. It was the first time in four or five years where it felt like my convictions were fully affirmed,” she says. “These pouches are a new kind of packaging that allow for really high-quality food but are also very convenient, and that has proven to be a turning point.” Indeed: In just one year Happy Family’s sales growth more than doubled, from $6 million in 2009 to $13.3 million in 2010. This year the company projects sales will reach $130 million.
That financial success has given Visram the resources necessary to complete the other part of Happy Family’s mission: social entrepreneurship. Its “Happy to Help” initiative supports a variety of social programs related to children’s health, food policy, and sustainable organic agriculture. “You exist on this planet not just to work and make a profit,” Visram says. “I decided to profit a little bit less so I could do something bigger with that money. I don’t care if consumers choose us because we do that or not. It’s just important to me as an owner. That’s why I’m here — to do something that feels meaningful.”
Content courtesy of Columbia Business School.
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