How a former Coca Cola exec built a vegan food B-corp

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Denise Woodard loved working at Coca Cola, the food conglomerate where she spent nearly a decade. During her tenure, she rose the ranks from account management to the director of national sales for venturing and emerging brands. She planned to stay forever.

“I loved what I did and really had no intention of ever leaving,” Woodard recalled during an exclusive panel with Fortune Connect on Tuesday. But right around her daughter’s first birthday, they learned she was allergic to numerous foods, including eggs, corn, tree nuts, and bananas. 

While Woodard was “really frustrated” with the dearth of nutritious and tasty options for her daughter, she was most perturbed by the emotional loss her daughter would suffer from being unable to competently participate in so many social events that center around food—birthday cupcakes, movie popcorn, baking banana bread. 

“I wanted to create a brand that made products that were better for you, that tasted good, that people could share, and enjoy safely,” she recalled. She left her job at Coca Cola to launch that brand, Partake, in the summer of 2017. “What started out as me selling cookies out of my car and bootstrapping the business has thankfully grown quite a bit.” 

With more than eight funding rounds, Partake has raised over $21 million, per Crunchbase. Through partnering with B Labs, Partake earned its B corp certification this year, only one of 6,000 businesses in the world to earn it, in recognition of its excellent social and environmental performance. 

Keeping DE&I central to the story

The company’s success is largely due to Woodard’s commitment to inclusivity, which has been central to Partake since she founded it. As Partake grew and evolved, Woodard reflected on the company’s priorities. Initially, she said, the name stemmed from the concept that her daughter, and all people with food allergies, would be able to partake in shared experiences. But since then, this sense of inclusivity has extended outward. 

“Through my experience—as a woman, as a person of color, as a first-time founder—I’ve learned all too well that so many groups don’t have the opportunity to partake in all the good things that life has to offer,” Woodard said. “I view our business, really, as a beautiful vehicle for creating more inclusivity in the food industry.” 

That’s no small task, which Woodard knows intimately from her days at Coca Cola. While there, she saw ample room for opportunity in the DEI space, where she was most passionate. 

“I took ideas and, thankfully, felt supported by my senior leaders, advocates, and mentors to say, ‘hey, I see an opportunity,;” she said. She’d propose focus groups, employee resource groups, and special projects aimed at making various inclusionary changes. “I [felt] like I had the support to be able to go to senior leaders and share my ideas about where I saw opportunities to create real change.”

Now in the driver’s seat at Partake, she insists on continuing to transcend lip service. Her team routinely brings in third parties “to verify that we’re doing everything right.” Namely: ensuring diversity, equity, and inclusion isn’t just some abstract goal, but is imbued in every facet of the company, “whether that be our suppliers, our investor base, our team, or the products” it makes.

It’s why maintaining the B corp certification is critical to Woodard. “I want to keep ourselves honest about the good that we want to do and how,” she said. 

That B corp status

Doing good is an admirable goal for any company. But few can withstand the rigorous B corp certification, with hundreds of thousands of businesses signing up for the B Corp Impact Assessment since its 2006 launch. 

“These companies have to meet these standards, they have to commit to continuous improvement on these standards. So once you’re in, you’re not just in,” Anthea Kelsick, board member and former co-CEO, B Lab U.S. & Canada, explained during the Fortune Connect panel. “You have to keep working at it and recertify every three years, ideally with an improved score. The real ethos of being a B corp is being on a path to continuous improvement.”

The B corp assessment grades companies across five key areas: governance, workers, environment, customers and community, according to Vogue Business. It also runs through a company’s weaknesses with a fine-toothed comb. Should a company pass, it must recertify every three years to keep its designation. 

Being a B corp has brought a tremendous amount of value to the company, Woodard added. “It’s made our employees more excited. We do an external employee engagement survey and I can see in the responses that our team is proud to work for a B Corp. And because everyone was so involved in the rigorous process, and understood the validity and rigor, it really holds the standard in a really high regard.”

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