Shazi Visram’s Journey From Impact Entrepreneur to Impact Investor

Happy Family Brands CEO Sold the Company to Danone and Is Now Giving Back Via Impact Investing

Shazi Visram guides Happy Family Brands from its corporate offices in Lower Manhattan. Visram sold the company to Danone for a reported $250 million in 2013, and now Visram is “paying it forward” by investing in other impact entrepreneurs.
 Photo by John Montre

Shazi Visram guides Happy Family Brands from its corporate offices in Lower Manhattan. Visram sold the company to Danone for a reported $250 million in 2013, and now Visram is “paying it forward” by investing in other impact entrepreneurs.
Photo by John Montre

Happy Family Brands CEO Shazi Visram sits cross-legged on a couch in her expansive Connecticut home. She is scrutinizing three brands of yogurt she has fetched from her fridge. She holds one each from Trader Joe’s, Siggi’s and Stonyfield.

Stonyfield is a sister brand of Happy Family at Danone, the publicly traded, Paris-based food multinational that in 2013 purchased a 92 percent stake in Visram’s company for a reported $250 million.

She is intrigued by my sense that one product is far more eco-friendly than the others. We examine both the recycled content and recyclability of the trio of tiny tubs. “Why do you think one is more environmental?” she asks. “I’m just curious.”

She asks not to prove I’m wrong (which I am), but to get a sense of how I’ve responded to the look and feel of each container. We’re talking about consumer perception versus reality, and how that affects Happy Family’s stable of more than 100 products sold in 30 countries, ranging from prenatal nutritional supplements to toddler snacks to healthy, organic baby food in pouches.

“We, unlike a lot of big food companies, are not just about marketing based on the perception of nutrition or sustainability,” she explains. “My company’s DNA is all about actually giving people, from even before conception through childhood, and someday maybe even beyond that, the best possible nutrition in the most transparent way possible.”

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It is Visram’s attention to detail when it comes to products, impact investing opportunities and people that has helped her build a mission-driven, healthful baby-food company from a biz-school project into a brand that brought in $130 million in revenue last year. “My goal for Happy Family is to be a billion-dollar brand,” she says confidently.

She also plans to continue being a leader in what she describes as Danone’s “mission to bring health through food to as many people as possible.”

As she works toward these goals, she’s also turning her attention to her new role as an impact investor supporting ventures with missions similar to her own. Drawing on her own experience as an impact entrepreneur raising capital for Happy Family, she has started investing in companies and organizations that aim to improve the world.

And she isn’t afraid to decline an investment, “even if there’s an opportunity to make 100 times on something that in some way, shape or form is a negative or doesn’t actually make the world a better place,” she says.

Becoming an Impact Investor

We meet at her home an hour outside of New York City because she is on maternity leave. Her infant daughter sleeps in the next room. Her son is at school.

Within a minute of the introductions, she adjusts the gray T-shirt she is wearing, pops out a breast and begins pumping milk. Before our interview has run its course, she’ll have pumped both breasts, even as the various staffers who help run her home and her professional life meander in and out of the room.

Shazi Vikram's family

Shazi VIsram with her husband, Joe Kulak, and son Zane. They couple also have a new daughter, Asha.
Photo courtesy Happy Family Brands

That’s the way business is done at Happy Family. “We have just created a culture of acceptance of what it’s like to be new parents,” she says. At the corporate headquarters in Lower Manhattan, “You can’t even get through a meeting without hearing someone’s pump.”

She says she and her team try to live inside the heads and hearts of new mothers, their main customers. A tour with Anne Laraway, Happy Family’s senior vice president of business development, includes a peek into the on-site lactation room with a hospital-grade pump and nursery for emergency child care. The company has 35 employees in New York City and another 40 handling operations in Boise, Idaho.

Visram and her business partner, Jessica Rolph, officially launched the company in 2006. Their first product was baby food frozen into ice-cube-style trays. Unfortunately, Visram says, parents weren’t used to looking in the frozen-food section for baby food. First-year revenue: $115,000. They changed course for the 2009 launch of Happy Family baby food in pouches, a new alternative to the traditional glass jar. That year brought $6 million in sales. Two years later, it was $35 million. This year, she expects revenue to hit $150 million.

By the time Happily Family was sold to Danone in 2013, Visram owned 20 percent of the enterprise. She put almost 5 percent of her shares into ImpactAssets, a nonprofit investment firm. She and her husband are using that firm’s donor-advised fund to invest in different kinds of projects and businesses, including a new business in Bangladesh, where 6 million children are chronically undernourished, one of the world’s highest malnutrition rates. (As the daughter of immigrants from Pakistan and Tanzania, Visram is internationally minded in her mission.) The business makes a therapeutic food product, Dadi’s (“Grandma’s”) Choice, made from locally sourced legumes and grains.

“ImpactAssets is one tool in the toolbox,” Visram says. She also works with a fund that only invests in the health food, natural and organic sector. “Putting your money in a fund that makes decisions for you is interesting because of the businesses it exposes you to, many of which I might not learn about through my network.”

Happy Family organic baby food pouches

Happy Family’s organic baby-food pouches set them apart from baby food sold in traditional glass jars.
Photo by John Montre

Compared with running her own company, Visram’s role as an investor lets her expand her mission. A case in point is Visram’s pending investment in EpiBone, a new company built on technology that will allow patients who undergo bone-related surgeries to grow their own bone for grafts, eliminating the medical complications created by synthetic or transplanted bones.

Visram also helped fund a promising new treatment for autism, a research area she follows carefully since her son’s diagnosis. That treatment didn’t pan out, “but it was worth it,” she says. “It needed the chance to be tested.”

Not all of her investments happen through impact-investment vehicles. Sometimes she invests from her family’s personal accounts, and she pursues her mission through charitable donations as well.

Paying It Forward: ImpactAssets as One Tool in the Toolbox

Seth Goldman was one of Happy Family’s early investors. He remembers his first meeting with Visram in Washington, D.C., when she was just beginning to raise capital. “I recall this woman was incredibly passionate and determined,” he says.

Goldman is the founding president of the organic-beverage company Honest Tea. And, like Visram, he developed the idea for his company while in business school. His company was ultimately bought by Coca-Cola.

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“I was hoping he was like a baller and was going to put in 100K!” she laughs. But his check was among the smallest in her first fundraising round of $550,000.

Goldman says, “That $2,500 may not have seemed like a lot to Shazi, but keep in mind that Honest Tea was still very much in its development phase, so I didn’t have any cash to spare — it was my first ‘angel’ investment, and I was committed to making sure we didn’t lose it!”

As Goldman had more money available, he invested more into Happy Family, Visram says. “As our relationship grew and as our business grew, so did his.”

Along with capital, Goldman also offered mentorship. “I was close enough to the pain-of-growth phase that my scars and bruises were still raw — I could give her unfiltered advice,” Goldman recalls. “Though Honest Tea was still quite early in its growth stage, it was proof to her that a mission-driven enterprise could gain traction in mainstream channels without compromising its principles.”

Over time, Visram raised more than $23 million from 186 people. She also capitalized Happy Family with a loan from RSF Social Finance, a Bay Area-based impact fund, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

Visram turned to Goldman when she realized Happy Family finally had a suitable buyer in Danone. Now, with a term sheet on the table from her dream partner, she needed advice. Presciently, the original business plan she created at Columbia Business School identified Danone as an ideal corporate partner for her exit strategy. Happy Family would need a partner to grow, and Visram was attracted to what she saw as Danone’s high standards for food safety and quality control.

She was facing daunting capital-gains taxes. She recalls, “Seth said, ‘This is really exciting — I want to tell you about ImpactAssets!’”

ImpactAssets’ donor-advised fund allows individuals to set up a “fund” for future charitable giving. As a charitable gift, the contribution to the fund is fully tax-deductible. Before the assets are disseminated to charities, they can be invested to preserve or expand their value. And although the assets are directly controlled by a trustee, the donor who establishes the fund can recommend particular investments.

Tim Freundlich, president of ImpactAssets, says even though tax-avoidance is a great motivator, the impetus for setting up a donor-advised fund is often about giving back. “Investors have a visceral connection to other entrepreneurs and want to help out,” Freundlich says. “They struggled, did what others believed they couldn’t, at times losing faith. But ultimately they created a ton of value and wealth and can’t wait to pay it forward.”

And it’s a two-way street because, as Freundlich says, “They also have very good noses for what it takes to succeed and, therefore, have very good ideas about investment.”

Visram agrees: “I am getting really good at picking what’s going to be a winner and what’s not.” That means entrepreneurs like Visram and Goldman can share what they learned in the trenches.

Visram says she is learning a lot seated on the investor’s side of the pitch table. When considering investing, she always asks impact entrepreneurs about their exit strategy. “That’s a good litmus test,” she says. She also looks for those whose dream is to change something that is broken. “You can tell if someone’s goal is to grow a business and simply flip it, versus to make an impact and change the system.”

As an impact investor, Visram has been challenged by the scope of the opportunities. It’s easy to get carried away. “Smart people invest in stages,” she says. “They start small. They protect their assets. They try to mitigate risk by making a number of small investments. And then they go back and support the ones that meet milestones and have a brighter future.”

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2016/2017 issue of B Magazine as part of the issue’s Impact Investing Special Section. For more, read the issue’s history of impact investing, which includes links to the rest of that special section’s coverage.

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