What’s the inspiration behind Upright Oats?
As someone who’s lactose intolerant and cares deeply about the environment, dairy milk didn’t make me feel good—physically or ethically. The more I learned about dairy alternatives, the more I realized they all make tradeoffs between health, taste, and sustainability. For a long time, I just drank my coffee black.
I was on a trip with MBA classmates in LA when I started noticing oatmilk in all of the trendy cafes. What I learned surprised me, in a good way: oatmilk uses 13 times less water than dairy, and 7 times less water than almond milk.
I looked for it when I got back to New Haven, but I couldn’t find it anywhere locally. I finally found it on Amazon for $200 a case (this was during the Great Oatmilk Shortage of 2018–2019), which made me realize there was an opportunity.
As I spoke with people doing interviews and focus groups, I learned that they loved the idea of more sustainable milk. The one concern they had about oatmilk was its low protein content. That’s how the idea for Upright Oats was born: a high-protein oatmilk that is good for people and our planet.
How was Upright Oats founded? How do you work together?
After coming up with the idea, I reached out to one of my MBA classmates, Thu Ra. He and I had met on the first day of business school and had joked about starting a business together after learning we were both interested in entrepreneurship.
I knew he’d be the perfect co-founder for this business. Our backgrounds and skillsets were complementary: I had been a management consultant focused on strategy across agriculture, consumer goods, and industrial manufacturing; while he had specialized in supply chain, logistics, and operations in consumer goods and packaging.
As a small founding team, we both have done a bit of everything. I focus more on strategy, product, marketing, and branding, while Thu focuses on operations, supply chain, legal, and accounting.
How do you handle risk and competition?
I’m personally fairly risk averse—I tend to research and analyze topics endlessly before making a decision. However, I’ve been challenging myself to feel more comfortable just trying things. Even if I fail, I’m learning from putting things out into the world.
I see competition as validation. When we first got started, oatmilk was just starting to emerge as a category. Now, there are countless brands. It’s validating to see my projections of market growth become a reality (albeit frustrating—if only we’d had more money early on to move faster!) I believe that a rising tide lifts all ships, and I’m excited to see the consumer education and market growth that competitors have enabled.
What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced while launching your company?
In early 2020, we were working on all sorts of plans: finalize our commercial formulation with our food science team at their R&D food innovation labs; produce our oatmilk with co-manufacturing partners; be on several cafe and store shelves; and, conduct a big fundraising campaign to enable all this. Then—COVID hit.
The lockdowns and turmoil of last year made it seem as though we might have to give up on our goals. All in-person activities were shut down (food is very hard to develop when you’re not in person!), supply chains were completely disrupted, and retailers and investors were closed to new opportunities since they were focused on just managing their existing portfolios.
In the end, these challenges were a catalyst for innovation. We realized that pivoting to focus on instant powdered oatmilk was a better opportunity. It allowed us to uniquely differentiate ourselves, better meet consumer needs for a shelf-stable product during the pandemic, simplify our supply chain logistics, and be delivered direct-to-consumer. It was also a more sustainable approach, since we weren’t shipping water around the world in a ton of packaging.
Have you learned anything new or surprising about yourself through this process?
I’ve done so much that I never expected to do! I never thought I would be developing new recipes (I’m honestly not a great cook), hosting focus groups and running business experiments (isn’t that what marketing people do?), signing agreements with giant suppliers and manufacturing partners (little old me?), designing packaging and websites (that’s what creative agencies do), among many other things. I’ve learned to get comfortable feeling uncomfortable, and just figuring things out.
If you could attend any concert/live recording (past or present), who would it be and why?
Coachella 2018 with Beyonce. I went to that concert and it is still the most fun concert I’ve ever been to!
Why did you decide to raise from the crowd via Republic?
There are three reasons. Firstly, I like the ability to set our own terms for the raise, and the simplicity of our cap table afterwards.
Secondly, I think Republic offers a great opportunity to not only raise capital but also double as a marketing platform to share our product with potential customers.
Lastly, I love the vision and mission behind what Republic is doing to expand access to economic opportunity and wealth creation
As a minority female immigrant founder, I believe platforms like Republic are the answer to a more equitable future—where everyone has the opportunity to create and invest in the future they want to see become a reality.
Why is Upright Oats important?
I founded Upright with the vision of a for-profit business that also promotes social and environmental good. I truly believe that small changes can add up to a big impact, and that change is needed if we are to combat today’s current climate crisis and social inequity.
Sustainability is at the core of what drives us, and we’re tackling multiple UN sustainable development goals through every facet of our business. Cows contribute 10% of total global greenhouse gas emissions, and current plant-based alternatives force tradeoffs between health and sustainability. Drinking just one cup of Upright oatmilk saves 39 gallons of water, 1.2 pounds of greenhouse gases, and 19 square feet of land compared to dairy milk.
Our Instant Oatmilk is even more eco-friendly, since we're not shipping water. We achieved Certified B Corps pending status in 2019, and are on track for full certification once we start production. We're conscious of our impact and are always looking to improve social outcomes through our operations.
What is your superpower?
What’s your kryptonite?
Fluffy, medium-sized poodle-cross dogs.
Do you have any unusual routines or habits?
I always hold my breath and make a wish when I go through any tunnel.
Do you have any other hobbies/things you like to do in your spare time?
During COVID I’ve become a huge fan of Peloton. Cody Rigsby is my favourite instructor. It’s become one of the best parts of my day, as part workout and part entertainment.
I also am a big fan of yoga, which I’ve been doing since the age of 15. Fun fact: I’m a certified yoga instructor, although I only ever teach friends and family, or for the odd charity event.
Are there any apps or gadgets that you can’t live without?
Does my SodaStream count? I love bubbly water, and I love the convenience and sustainability of making it at home.
I’m also a big fan of the Ten Percent Happier app. I try to start every day with meditation.
If you could give yourself one piece of advice 5 years ago, what would it be?
You’ll never feel ready. Just do it.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received?
Choose progress over perfection.
Do you have any mentors? If so, what have they taught you?
Many! I wouldn’t be where I am today without them and the advice they’ve given me.
Through them, I’ve learned to be vulnerable and ask for help. I’ve also learned that authenticity leads to efficiency.
I often think about what one of my mentors in my early career frequently repeated: “resilience trumps brilliance.” Their words have taught me to embrace feedback, follow my passions, and keep going.