Nouri - Irene Liu
9 min read

Nouri - Irene Liu

Nouri is a startup that offers an adaptive, meal subscription membership for expecting mothers that fuses Western nutrition with Eastern food therapy. Recipes are crafted to build the baby’s food foundation while using science-backed ingredients to target pregnancy & postpartum symptoms.

Today we have Irene Liu, Co-Founder of Nouri, an adaptive, meal subscription membership for expecting mothers that fuses Western nutrition with Eastern food therapy. Recipes are crafted to build the baby’s food foundation while using science-backed ingredients to target pregnancy & postpartum symptoms.

Tell me about yourself and how you got into the tech ecosystem.

Sure--I went to Berkeley for undergrad and from there, I have gotten a taste of the startup life. I worked at Airbnb my sophomore summer, which was really interesting, because I really wasn't someone who was searching to work for startups. I just happen to be in San Francisco, and many of the jobs available were listed for startups. That experience was really interesting because it was at the phase of Airbnb when people were unsure if the company would work out or not. They were running into a lot of regulatory pressure, especially within the New York market. I was working on customer experience while I was there. Now, it is very common practice to have a customer experience team. But back then, I think they were exemplar in that they had a whole team that focused on customer experience. At the company, I would go through the customer feedback, dig up trends and what people were complaining about, and then help inform the product team of things they should be changing. This feedback loop proves to be really important in startups, but wasn't necessarily a common practice before.

During that time, I was only a sophomore. I decided that I wasn't really well equipped yet to go into a startup right out of college, and I still had my junior summer. Particularly, I felt like I didn't have enough structure and training to be super effective and climb in a startup environment, at least at that stage of a startup. So that's why I went into consulting. I worked at Bain during my junior summer, and then went back for full time. Throughout that time, I've always been very interested in food and nutrition. And so that was reflected in the type of extracurriculars I had in college, like running a farmers market when I was there. When I was at Bain, I advised an education farm that was located north of San Francisco. I took a six-month externship to work at a food access nonprofit in Chicago, and I was helping them expand through new delivery routes. It was a mobile grocery store, essentially for the south side. From there, I always knew I wanted to work somewhere in the food nutrition space, but I couldn't really figure out how to blend the two (between the business and the social impact sides of it). I always wanted nutrition to be more easily accessible, especially for people who live in food deserts. I also tried the nonprofit route and I don't think this is the way to solve it from a bigger impact standpoint.

So that's why I went back to school. Right now, I'm getting a Master in Public Policy degree at the Harvard Kennedy School and an MBA at Wharton. Last year, at my first year at Harvard, I was conducting research on nutrition guidance in supermarkets. I did a case competition-esque event for solving obesity in Birmingham, Alabama. I was also interested in the macro element of solving this in a sustainable way, because to get healthy food, you need income and job growth. After, I wanted to explore economic development when I worked in a city government this past summer to see how you create local jobs and a sustainable, local economy to offer more people gains in generational wealth to sustain food security. That was the general direction I was going.

But what's funny is how Nouri happened because in the back of my mind, while thinking about grad school and being at this age range, I've always been interested in growing myself and my career. I'm also getting to the age where many of my friends are getting married and I do have a serious boyfriend too. When you are seeing many changes in the surrounding personal lives, you are also thinking about how there is so much you want to do in your life and career while balancing those elements with having a family.

That has been in the back of my mind since two years ago, when all my friends are getting married. Then, my aunt had a baby this past summer and my mom was sending her postpartum meals. And those postpartum meals are very traditional, Chinese medicinal types of meals. While looking into it and reading about postpartum traditions and different food benefits, I realized that there's a lot out there. I saw that Eastern Asian countries have a collection of traditions and best practices to take care of yourself. I then thought of the question, what do people in the U.S. do? What would I do when I get to this age? What would I be sending my friends? And I couldn't really find something that incorporated both influences from Eastern food therapy and western nutrition. When I was looking at it, there were many unfamiliar ingredients and they are still seen as some alternative option. So I was trying to find something that blended the two and made it easy to order for the busy career woman.

How does Nouri work (i.e., who prepares the food and how is it delivered)? I understand that there are meal plans where customers can subscribe to.

My co-founder is actually a postpartum chef in New York so she does this already. She's a private postpartum chef, clinical nutritionist, a lactation counselor, and birth doula. She has all of those credentials. She prepares postpartum meals for new mothers on an individual basis by going to people's houses and cooking for them. So we are bringing her food philosophy around those meals to more people basically. In terms of how it's working, we're obviously a startup, so we're at a very small scale at the moment, but she has a commissary kitchen space near her house in Hudson Valley. She's cooking the meals there. We're also getting local delivery people to help us deliver. That's why we're only in the New York and Connecticut areas right now.

Are there any other players who are trying to tackle the motherhood meal space?

It's a very scattered market, I would say. I think that the players are very focused on traditional Chinese medicine and postpartum, specifically meals, which is like Jing Mommy, or they are very localized, which is most of them. So they only serve the Bay Area, or LA or New York, for example. This makes sense, given that delivery logistics requires high operations. And then, also, I think there are a very few that bridge the gap between Asian influence and western nutrition. If you look at the meals, a lot of times they're either very traditional Chinese medicine or a generic variety of western soup that involves tomato, potato, or barley. I think that there are players that exist, but there isn't a player that's doing it the way that we want to, which is why I want to start this anyways. I think what's different with our solution is that we are adaptive. What you get is different based on where you are in your pregnancy. For example, in trimester one, there would be a different offering compared to if you're in trimester three versus postpartum, because we're aiming to make the recipes based on what you need and what your pregnancy symptoms are throughout your pregnancy.

What do you look for in a founding team?

I think that number one is that you care about the mission of supporting moms and the way that we want to support moms because I think the shared mission will maintain motivation when things are tough. For number two, I think, in terms of personality, that you're someone that thinks about what's best for the company versus what you want in a role, especially in a startup where you need to be a generalist and fill in whatever is necessary. I think that is surprisingly hard to find because it ties back to your motivation of wanting to do it. Also, I think that you should also bring a different skill set. So I think the reason that my co-founder and I work really well is that we have entirely different skill sets to cover the spectrum of what we need.

I think that sometimes you might run into a founding team that has all too many of the same backgrounds, like three consultants or something like that. They're all very helpful, but, speaking from experience as a former consultant, you don't have the deep expertise and you've never actually done the nitty-gritty. I can tell you what a marketing strategy should be like or what the market sizes  are, but have I ever built the website or ran Google ads? No, and I'm learning that now.

What are the most challenging aspects of founding a company within the meal delivery space (and within a pandemic)?

It's quite interesting. I think, with conducting a business during COVID, especially in the meal delivery space, there are two ways to look at it. One is from the customer demand angle, and then the other one is on the business operations. What's changing is taking the extra precautions to make sure the entire operations is COVID-safe. Also, for those who you're hiring, you want to ask what their COVID safety is. On the operations side, I think this is something that is the type of service that people want to try beforehand and, at this point, you can't really have events or a pop-up stand at Washington Square Park to try it out. The situation where you can't have partnerships with people who have physical spaces is a little bit challenging with marketing, at least right now. And then on the customer demand space, we were trying to figure out that if people were going to work and if they were really busy at work, they would probably want to use this more. That was the hypothesis. Actually talking to customers is quite interesting because first, if you just think about postpartum, it doesn't matter if we're in COVID or not. It's just a crazy time and no one has time to take care of themselves. People during COVID, are still working many hours at home, possibly even more, and they do not necessarily take care of themselves at this time. At this point. we're in the phase of cooking fatigue. Also, we've just talked to so many moms who are able to prepare breakfast or dinner because those are times where they are free. For lunch, they seem to dread it because of the lack of time to prepare. We hear comments including, “It's stressful. I didn't eat in a full eight hours”. And so I think there's still a demand, but the solution should be creative in terms of how you make the offerings that are helpful for their lifestyles

What are some (if any) aspects of starting a company that you wish you would have known prior to starting a company?

I've been fortunate to have a few of my good friends start companies. I have heard anecdotally from them that it’s difficult, so I wasn't shocked when I started this. Now I think those challenges I heard before are brought to life. I definitely feel like having a startup is really tough. There are ups and downs and the ups are really high, the downs are sometimes aren't that much of a down, but you realize you care so much more about this compared to something that could have been a down in your other job. I think the hardest part for me so far has actually just been finding balance and taking care of myself. It really does take over your life. It's what you think about all the time and when you have an idea, you want to do it right away because you can and it doesn't have to go through all these rungs of hierarchy. However, you should be making time to take care of yourself.

I think it was challenging for me to stay up to date with my family and friends. I have about five emails and three numbers to check. I often, at this point will like, see something that I need to respond to, and then not know what platform it came from or what channel I should respond to. So I've actually had to spend time literally combing through my friends, all different emails, or like phone numbers to go through it. I think that's a trade off that you just have to know going into it.

What are other problems you see within the motherhood wellness space?

There have been a lot of new businesses coming up, which has been great because they're all from mom entrepreneurs who saw an issue and want to solve it. There are two things that I've noticed. First, now that I'm so entrenched in all of this and talking to my co-founder, who is a mom, there is unfortunately a lot of mom shaming that goes on, with many voices pointing to “this is the right way”, which I think is compounding an already stressful time. There is fear mongering that some brands do to get you to believe that their product is the best, and it makes you feel that you're doing it wrong if you don't use their products. We really do not want to be like that as a company. We want to be more supportive of you in the way that you want us to be. We want to help you feel better during your pregnancy and have the mind space to celebrate this time. So I think that's one that I've noticed.

For the second observation, the sexy, fundable things involve tech, right? I believe it 100% for spaces like mental health, building community, finding resources and things like that. For Nouri, it's very operationally intensive. I wouldn't say we're the most attractive to VC funders because they want something that's scalable with low marginal costs. But when I was thinking that we could be a nutrition platform for pregnant moms, I asked if that would actually solve the problem? The short answer is no, because the problem is you don't have time. A nutrition platform would give them a bunch of information and recipes, but who's going to do it? That’s not to say there isn’t tech and data that can make us more helpful for our mothers. We're just less interested in chasing the standard of what's successful for VCs versus building what is actually needed.

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