When We Dared to Feed the World
How do you do justice to a moment in your life when you found your Ikigai: when what you were talented at and what you could be paid to do collided with what you deeply love, and what the world truly needs? What follows is a story about a time in my life when I sincerely believed in a company’s agency to revolutionize the way people eat for the better, and what I learned from being a part of it.
For those who are not familiar with Munchery, it was a venture-backed food startup that had one mission: to make real food accessible to everyone everywhere. At the time, we were unique in controlling the entire customer value chain from inbound sales on our e-commerce apps, production and packaging of the food in four kitchens across America, and delivery or shipping to half the nation. In addition, our food was certified organic, locally-sourced, and so good – and our drivers were not contractors but part-time employees who could get health insurance and paid tips. To tie this all together, this multi-million-dollar-backed operation ran on top of a technology stack that I was so proud to work on as it represented me at my best: using my craft in a mission-driven pursuit.
Before I found Munchery, I found myself grappling with some serious moral conundrums with tech. What positive impact were these venture capital pursuits having on my community in Oakland? Since 14, I have pursued the idea that technology could make the world a better place. I leveraged technology to help win presidential campaigns, to conduct research into crowd-sourced solutions to problems in the developing world, and to empower small businesses and nonprofits with the best SaaS marketing tools to succeed. But was that enough, especially at a time when my college friends literally chained their necks to BART trains to make commuters aware of the injustice plaguing the Black community? Could technology help solve issues on that scale?
That was when I found Munchery.
“We like to ask candidates this question to gauge their capacity: what is the most difficult thing you have ever had to overcome?”
I knew this was the team I wanted to work with as soon as Conrad, our cofounder and CTO, asked me this question in our interview. With just one question, he revealed a core of his values, absolutely the most important qualitative data point I use in gauging my interest in working with someone. I knew in an instant I had to reject my other job offers and do whatever I could to get an offer at Munchery.
This question, though seemingly veiled as a typical interview question about surmounting challenges in life, was really about giving a candidate the chance to discuss their raison d’être – their reason for existing. Here was a team that valued their why, and I just had to be a part of a team that dared to view the world through that lens.
My answer got real personal quickly: I opened up about how despite my assault from Southeast Asian kids from my own neighborhood, the subsequent news of my unrelated growth in my brain, tackling being a senator and taking three jobs to pay down the thousands in medical debt that piled up in collections – I still believed in my capacity to uplift the community that I come from in East Oakland.
To this day, I honestly have no idea how Conrad and our product manager, Greg, thought of that answer. It did not matter to me though – I was being real and showing my authentic self. A couple days later and I got an offer to join the team.
Tri, our other cofounder and CEO, and Conrad both stressed how all employees had to work in the kitchens and deliver food their first week as part of onboarding, allowing us to see how the food was made and delivered so that we could optimize it. In my time at Munchery, I would be so ready to lend a hand in the kitchen when there was not enough staff or deliver food in my car when we were short on drivers because it meant getting closer to our raison d’être. One more meal packed and one more delivered was a step closer to realizing the dream of food accessibility.
However, although everyone experienced this opportunity to see how the company operated away from our desks, I have to be honest that I personally felt Munchery struggled to be one cohesive company. There definitely was a class and racial divide between those in our headquarters and those in the kitchens and on the road. Things like separate holiday parties for separate divisions were a reminder that even in our efforts to promote food access and inclusivity, we had room to grow to realize those ideals in our own culture.
I personally hoped and pushed for us to eradicate the food deserts back in my neighborhood in East Oakland. I saw firsthand what the desertification of food looked like: national grocery chains quickly turned to budget grocery outlet chains and finally ironically a gym. It was such a ceremonial moment for me when I expanded our service areas to my old neighborhood. I even argued that with our unique chilled-and-packaged food, we could qualify to be Calfresh food stamps vendors. The plan was for us to start accepting EBT cards as forms of payment to really see our mission to fruition.
Our founders used to tell us to dare to beat McDonald’s one day. Parents should never have to compromise on quality food for their family. If we could give them the choice between the quality of Munchery versus the offering of McDonald’s at relatively similar pricing, we thought, they would choose Munchery. We could revolutionize food at scale.
We studied McDonald’s: its logistics system, its offerings, its unit economics. I remember poring over their SEC filings, trying to glean any nuggets of wisdom I could find to leverage. I vividly recall being inspired by Amazon and Jeff Bezos’ origin stories on one hand, and reading Michael Pollan’s “Omnivore’s Dilemma” and Alice Waters’ “Slow Food Nations” on the other. Could we scale to that level of industry while staying rooted in the ideals of food justice?
It turns out we couldn’t. Though I have moved on from Munchery, I was disheartened but not surprised to see it close earlier this year. I saw some not so great things at Munchery: troubling scandals, VC mismatch in expectations, a banishment of a founder and his dream. The profitable company I loved was turned into Silicon Valley’s latest cautionary tale of a Fyre Festival food startup gone wrong. I was appalled to see new Munchery leadership tastelessly stiff locally-owned vendors and leave physical laborers out of work and money.
As word got out about Munchery’s bankruptcy filing, my former team mates and I have been mourning. What we built was destroyed and what we dreamed of was now gone. It may sound strange to read that a team of chefs, engineers, and artists would mourn over the death of an institution they used to work at, but this was our craft and what we wanted to see in the world. Tackling food justice was a problem that matters. Perhaps these problems were too big for venture capital’s expectations to solve.
The largest lesson I learned from this experience was to be cautious in pairing my Ikigai to a machine that I ultimately had very little control over. I still believe that tech can do good in the world, which is why it is difficult to see Munchery fail while the bold answers it was searching for remain.