Food System Inspiration Found in Young Entrepreneurs: An Interview with Lena Kwak
Lena Kwak is the President and Co-founder of Cup4Cup, a gluten-free flour line based in California. Beginning as an intern under Thomas Keller at his French Laundry restaurant in Napa Valley, she soon became the restaurant’s research and development chef, eventually forming Cup4Cup. This gluten-free flour line stands out among the rest because it performs just like regular flour and caters to those with celiac disease at an equal ratio.
Kwak was named one of Forbes Magazine's “30 Under 30" and Food Tank recently interviewed her about Cup4Cup.
FoodTank (FT): Who has inspired your work and why?
Lena Kwak (LK): My inspiration for Cup4Cup right now is a lot of powerful women. I think for me right now is a young entrepreneur, seeing and hearing about the stories of other women in the workforce who are doing wonderful things. I was just on Fortune magazine’s Innovative Women in Food & Drink list with Ertharin Cousin, the executive director of the United Nation’s entire food program and she is addressing world hunger. It is really inspiring to see women in these positions, and it pushes me to work that much harder within my organization. It doesn’t have to be inspiration from my industry per se, but I am constantly inspired by other individuals.
FT: What are your professional goals for the future?
LK: Profesionally, I would say that I’m definitely working toward creating more impact for people’s lives concerning food. My personal vision is a world that appreciates the nuance of food and how it sustains us physically and emotionally. There is something very fulfilling about being able to connect with people through cooking and food. I am not sure where that leaves me, but it is pursuing that vision that is really my goal.
FT: Do you feel that change is necessary in the food systems today? What changes are necessary? How have you tried to contribute to that change?
LK: I think a lot of the change has to do with the growth of population. Every time there is a system in place, whether it is organic foods or non-GMO, there is attention drawn to the public. For us, this is a brand we have started moving toward – producing non-GMO products. You’ll see we have our first edition, which is our Wholesome line and we plan to continue to address that. I think small businesses, like us, if we gather and work together at improving the food system, can create the change.
FT: What steps do you think are necessary on a local, national, or international scale to solve some of the problems that we face concerning hunger, obesity, sustainability, agriculture, or industry?
LK: From the very basic, I think it is has to do with education and people who are educated and made aware of these problems. That is the way that I think change will happen, especially with obesity as a topic that we’re very familiar with in the U.S. It is a topic that we really have to start teaching kids in schools: how to eat, nutrition, and exercise. That’s really important to start off at a young age because at that point you’re able to develop really healthy habits for yourself. But beyond that, it’s going to be very hard to break those habits. We do not teach youth from the beginning about exercise and nutrition, so I think that’s definitely something that needs to be addressed from the government and education side. As for hunger and sustainability, again, it is about awareness. How many people around the world are familiar with each of the topics and who is really going to be pushing for this. Businesses and organizations are going to make changes if consumers ask for it. Once consumers are aware and pushing for a product, that is when large businesses have to change. It really starts with the consumers and education.
FT: In your position, what was your greatest obstacle? How have you overcome it?
LK: I think the greatest obstacle within any industry is recognizing what the rules and guidelines are within that industry and knowing, in small businesses, what are the loopholes. What are ways that we can approach a problem in a more healthy way? It is learning the ins and outs because not all businesses have deep pockets like some of these large corporations. For us, it is about survival. How do we do that? How do we try to think outside the box?
FT: What do you consider your greatest success? Why?
LK: I just had lunch with a friend in Boston and he told me a quote from an athlete and it just made so much sense to me. Barbara Walters was interviewing Tom Brady and asked, ‘Which ring is your favorite?’ He said, ‘The next one.’ That right there really captures what I would consider my greatest success. That is what really pushes me – looking for that next step. I do not think I have had that greatest success yet and I am going to continue to strive forward. I think it’s the next one.
FT: What advice do you have for young women hoping to make their mark on the food and drink industry today?
LK: I think this is really a general piece of advice for entrepreneurs, but for women as well. When you step into any new business, you are going to discover and redefine what rock bottom is for yourself. There are going to be challenges and then there are going to be more challenges. It is really vital not to let that failure get to your heart. You have to learn and recognize that you will be making mistakes. Your success and your stories are going to be redefined depending on how you reinterpret those mistakes and learn from them and pick yourself up. So, the bottom line is that it’s hard, but try and try harder. That is the way you are going to get on top.