[Name]: Susie Wyshak
[Areas of Expertise]: Serendipitous Collision, Brainstorming, Starting Up on a Shoe String, Artisanal Food, Customer Experience, Writing
Couchsurfers just want to meet people, see the world, and enjoy life. That’s what I love about couch-surfing: you never know what’ll happen. Recently I met the coolest couple from Barcelona for lunch. I took them to the Cheeseboard, but after I felt like I hadn’t had enough! So we had breakfast the next day, and I took them on a little food tour in West Berkeley. I thought: this is amazing! I should start a food tour here! I hadn’t realized how densely there were a few places to go. I took them to the Takara Sake plant, and June Taylor jams: she loves when people come in, and she’s the ultimate artisan. And then there’s Vik’s Chaat House, a popular Indian house; and Cultured, with the pickles and sauerkraut. They don’t really have a tour, but they’re there chopping and you can taste. After a stop at the Hub where they felt the vibe, they said “We don’t want to leave Berkeley!”
Chances are you were taught never talk to strangers, and to never-ever accept candy from them. Susie inspires me to do both.
“I live my life through synchronicity,” she says. “I encourage people to take off their headphones and talk to strangers. Ask them what they’re doing in life, because there’s usually some kind of interesting connection. I talk to homeless people, people in cafes, older people… So many people walk around looking down, not knowing if they’re missing the world. I’ve found that magical things happen when you’re paying attention.”
She had me at the caramels. Making delicious crunchy black rice gluten-free snacks through her company the Nutless Professor is one way Susie connects with people. With their irresistible combination of sweet and salty, the crunch caramels were gone before I could say “don’t take candy from a stranger!” The black rice “cruncheese” didn’t last me much longer: they’re perfectly crispy, cheesy, and a tiny bit spicy.
Susie started the Nutless Professor on a mission to learn the ropes of bringing food products to market, as research for her upcoming book about bringing good food products to market, with “tips from the trenches.”
But the Nutless Professor isn’t Susie’s first endeavor in the world of artisanal food. Ever since High School, when she wanted to skip college to go to culinary school (her parents said no)– and before the Food Network made it trendy to do so, Susie has found a way to weave food and cooking into her life. Inspired by Julia Child and a book called “Kitchen to Market,” Susie always dreamt of starting her own food business.
Chocolate, in particular has been a motif on the menu. In high school, Susie worked in a family-run chocolate shop in Los Angeles. “I loved being in the small-business environment,” she says. “Throughout my life I’ve been involved with chocolate in one way or another. I always thought I should start a chocolate company. Back then, I was thinking about how the workers weren’t getting paid enough and I became interested in cooperative models, which the Cheeseboard reinforced when I came to Berkeley.” She went so far as writing her MBA thesis about consumer behavior and chocolate.
Sure enough, Susie found a way to combine her passion for chocolate with her concerns about fair pay for workers when she started the FairTrade brand for chocolate as a volunteer with TransFair in 2001. “I was interviewing a girl to rent a room from me, and she told me she was working to help get farmers to make a higher wage. And I asked, ‘Oh, like Fair Trade?’ I told her I’d love to volunteer with chocolate, and she said ‘We don’t have a chocolate program.’ So I said ‘I’ll do it!’
At the time, Fair Trade chocolate certification existed internationally, but TransFair in the U.S. only had fair trade coffee since it was still in the early days of the movement. Susie worked with the international Fair Trade team, which had already established Cacao cooperatives, to set up a licensing program for the brand and set guidelines for using the Fair Trade logo. She also reached out to various chocolate companies to encourage them to work with Fair Trade co-ops.
Scharffenberger chocolate was only a few years old at the time, so Susie got to know one of the founders, Robert Steinberg, quite well. “They were such sticklers about the quality of the beans, and they really didn’t think there were high quality enough fair trade beans yet. They were already paying more than Fair Trade price and buying direct, before that model became standard.” According to Susie, Scharffenberger had a big impact on helping cacao growers improve the quality of their beans. “Working with them was just really fun,” she says.
But chocolate was only the beginning. Recently, Susie and a friend launched an incredibly useful (and, I warn you, addictive) website called Epicuring. Susie is pleased that the site has been well received, and points out that “It’s the first time anybody has collected a list of all the really cool food events and used it to generate food tourism in California.” Want to know where you can get free vodka tastings, learn to make your own jam, or partake in Biking,Beef, and Beer (whatever that entails) at Black Mountain? Epicuring is a good place to start.
As an early social networker and online community participant, Susie also has a tech “geek” side to complement her yen for live community and food. While working on the Fair Trade chocolate project, she also was contracting at AOL and managing the Evangelism team for the Mozilla/Firefox browser.
“I’m not a developer, but I just had a long history with people who were developing the web browser. We had a chance to try to get AOL to use Mozilla instead of Internet Explorer. I was working with this great team of passionate techies that were reaching out to developers around the world. It was really fun for me. I love tech start-ups. I love solving problems. I love seizing opportunities and creating opportunities for other people.”
During her evolution into a tech start-up guru, Susie thought up and launched several websites including SuperViva in 2005–pre-Facebook and Twitter. To create this precocious version of “the bucket list,” she hired outsourced developers and paid for the site herself funding it with ads. Users can “have everything they want to do in one place and live their lives in a very directed way.” (Susie’s own “public life list” can be found here) But Susie points out that you also can have the fun of checking it off and never feel like you’ve had a boring year!
Boring doesn’t seem to be a relevant word in Susie’s vocabulary. Since starting SuperViva, Susie has attended a ladies’ rock ‘n roll camp fundraiser, traveled to Barcelona, and started her own business. Chances are you also were taught not to play with your food, but a couple years ago Susie participated in the world’s biggest tomato fight. “La Tomatina in Spain is the biggest tomato fight in the world. There are thousands of people, and you’re squished in this little street in this village, and it becomes all soupy in the street. It was one of my best experiences,” although she admits feeling guilty about the rather large waste of tomatoes.
The connection between the corporate world and startups is a funny one. “That’s actually where a lot of small artisan food companies are born,” Susie explains, “People who have corporate jobs, and slave away at night making the food and hoping it will take off so they can quit their jobs. It’s a huge trend. It’s been like that forever.” (Makes you wonder if there’s something more behind your co-worker’s chocolate rum balls than just your average spreading of holiday cheer…)
Susie started DaLata Designs in the same spirit. Meaning “from the can” in Portuguese, this clothing and accessories company using recycled can pop tops sprang from a trip to Brazil and her bucket list item to start a Fair Trade company. “The funny thing is that there was a AOL company newsletter about employees who had side businesses. And I thought, well if they’re that supportive, then I’m going to start a side business! And that’s why I did it. It’s nice, it lets you use another dimension of yourself.”
Speaking of using another dimension, Susie finds that in fast-paced settings like the Hub, it can be challenging to remember to step back and keep it real. “Important things to me are community, relating to people, and food. Even though I’m really into the Internet and tech, I try to disconnect regularly,” she says. Wise words of wisdom for us Hubbers, and something to consider when we examine the community we’ve created here at our workplace. Would meditation, massage , or Sexy Salad help you disconnect? Take a break and join in!
I’m impressed and inspired by Susie’s enthusiasm, her desire to be “real,” to engage and connect, and her commitment to accomplishing big things even as her passion pulls her in different directions. How will she do it?
Susie believes that opportunities come with personal clarity. “Do things with intention,” she advsies, “A lot of the jobs I’ve had were because they were fun, or easy, or happenstance. Or because I could make a lot of money. But those weren’t the best decisions for my life. Live each day like it’s your last. Anything is possible once you know what you want.”
Proof of concept? Susie’s book will be published by her dream publishing house, and she’s landed a food entrepreneur client, whose project will help Susie “test” the book. How did she find the client and the publishing deal? From sheer audacity and “asking.” You’ll have to pull Susie aside for the full story, her way of meeting interesting new Hubbers!
Thanks for Reading!
Samantha, Your Hub Stories Correspondent