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Female Founders: Sònia Hurtado of Kuleana On The Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder

An Interview With Candice Georgiadis

Take good care of your team and good care of yourself. For success to sustain, it’s imperative to ensure your people are with you and feel cared for. If they don’t, the consequences will become apparent in team efficiency. Ensuring that your team is engaged and motivated can improve overall productivity, but you also have to take care of the foundation beneath that: your team’s general well being. Same goes for yourself! Ensure you and your team have time to invest in a healthy mind and body.

As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sònia Hurtado.

Sònia Hurtado is the Cofounder and Chief Science Officer at Kuleana, a plant-based, sushi-grade seafood company that is reimagining the food system, starting with seafood made entirely from plants. Prior to Kuleana, she spent 17+ years in food science, specializing in alternative protein development. Sònia also happens to be a mother of two, and her time between Barcelona, home of Kuleana’s original R&D lab, and San Francisco, Kuleana’s HQ.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

My pleasure! I’m truly grateful to be part of these series of interviews. My story has always been rooted in my deep love for our planet’s animals. Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve cared deeply for animals. I recall times during my childhood when I felt closer to animals than I did other kids. While I had this awareness at an early age, finding ways to tap into this innate connection, and later, transforming this love into a mission driven career has been a journey.

My career journey began when I started university studies in human nutrition and food science. After completing my MSc in food biotechnology, I conducted research in functional proteins derived from pork blood. Needless to say, this research felt deeply at odds with my love for animals and not long after delving in this research, I experienced a personal crisis about who I was and how I could reconcile my personal beliefs with my food science research. In the middle of this career questioning, I had my first daughter.

Motherhood was a catalyst for me. Immediately after having my daughter, I pivoted my professional focus. In 2012, I joined a 3D food printing startup as their first hire. I became the lead food technologist, developing our hero product: vegan cakes! One of the cofounders was a long-standing vegan entrepreneur, Rosa Avellaneda, and she was also a key inspiration in helping me realize that I could dedicate my career to changing the rules of our food system rather than playing within their confines. While food science had often revolved around animal byproducts at the time, I could instead use my knowledge to help decrease the volume of animal products that comes onto our plates. At that precise moment, my life mission became much clearer.

Since that fateful career transition in 2012, I have dedicated my work to developing plant-based alternatives to traditional meat, spanning chicken, bacon, ham and now, seafood. I moved from developing alternatives to land-dwelling animals over to ocean-residing sea life in 2019. That year, I met my cofounder at Kuleana, Jacek Prus. During that meeting, I came to learn about the critical declines in Bluefin Tuna populations (down 97% in 50 years) and planetary strain related to overfishing. Our visions for the future of food were an immediate match and Kuleana grew legs!

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

As an early stage company leading development in a white space, we find ourselves in interesting situations frequently…there are so many that it’s difficult to pick just one, but the first story that comes to mind is one from Kuleana’s early days. We were working on prototypes of our plant-based, sushi-grade tuna from my Barcelona apartment kitchen. My entire apartment was only 600 sq ft, so you can imagine how tiny the kitchen was.

Sergio, our first employee, a biotechnologist and product developer, would come over to our makeshift lab (read: apartment kitchen) every day, as we experimented with formulations to get a plant-based product with the right taste and texture. My youngest son, Pere, would visit us in our kitchen-lab, belting songs, playing musical instruments… in essence, doing whatever he could to distract us. For a while, my kitchen was part R&D lab, part children’s orchestra. I always smile remembering these early moments.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I’m a big fan of High Moisture Extrusion technology. In most of my projects prior to Kuleana I was using this technology so, when diving into plant-based seafood, my thoughts immediately went to using this technique to create Kuleana tuna. What resulted was a springy, cooked, plant-based fish that resembled more of a chicken sausage than a fish fillet.

During this early product development, I was reminded of the importance of balancing expertise with experimentation. Mix allegiance to the processes you’ve cut your teeth in, with venturing to try new methods and technologies. You’re often rewarded when you do. Further, be aware of the biases you carry and challenge yourself to explore ways of doing things that may not be your initial go-to.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Absolutely, it takes a village. My brother Joan has been a key person, as have my best friend Bàrbara and my parents. They all make me feel grounded and loved, even during the most challenging moments of my life. They are always there for me, no matter the circumstance. I also want to specifically mention my grandma: “iaia Maria”. She passed away in 2015, but all her teachings and unconditional love have made me the strong, resilient, persistent woman that I am today. During tough times when I feel weak, I find strength coming from somewhere deep inside, and I’m certain that she’s part of that inner fuel.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?

Governments and judicial systems should deeply review how they support equality and pay special attention to ensuring we have equal accessibility to opportunities to become entrepreneurs. I believe that there are still a number of unbalanced systems that exist at a structural level. To share my recent personal experience with this… I’m a Spanish national, and I’ve recently split from a long relationship from which I have two children. Being a single mom and an entrepreneur is not easy. It becomes even more difficult when the company I’ve cofounded is headquartered in another country, operating in a different time zone. These difficulties are further exacerbated by a judicial system that denies me the ability to move my children to the country where my company is headquartered, the U.S.

As a result, whenever I need to be at Kuleana’s HQ in California for an extended period of time, I also need to be away from my children. For many moms, this forces them into a situation where they need to choose between being an entrepreneur and being near their children. In my case, these two worlds are separated by the Pacific Ocean. No doubt that we women can do it all, but there continue to be judicial systems and international governments that make it wildly difficult to find ways for entrepreneurship and motherhood to coexist. I hope to see these systemic hurdles fall to the wayside sooner rather than later, as we risk losing out on the opportunity to see the rise of global female leaders with each day these roadblocks live on.

Further, there’s the social, subconscious barrier that lives in this gender gap. Present day, you still find differences in the way children are treated based on gender: often, boys are actively encouraged to be confident and brave, and girls, to be well-behaved and agreeable. It’s difficult to challenge a behavioral pattern that’s been a part of our early childhoods, but we have to put some effort into interrogating these subconscious tendencies. We women have so much to do! So much to say! We lead, we inspire, and we can not be kept behind the scenes any longer. The world needs us and we deserve to realize the fullest versions of who we have the potential to be, without dilution.

Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?

Creating a worldwide entity taking real care (no posturing and showmanship) of situations involving gender inequality and doing a deep review of the judicial systems around the world, even those commonly perceived to have advanced diplomatic systems

Ensuring educators, spanning primary school to university education, have unconscious bias training to get us closer to a learning environment where all genders and gender identities are treated in an equal way

Conduct educational programs from an early age to inspire girls to pursue entrepreneurship

Grants for single moms that want to become entrepreneurs or pursue professional growth

Education for older generations to both honor their history, while ensuring our future isn’t indoctrinated with past prejudices

Identifying, calling out, and punishing inequitable and gender discriminating behaviors. I believe more severity is required here

This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?

Simply because we have the same right to do it! And, we are excellent at caring for the foundation of a company, team-building, and establishing healthy work relationships.

Personally, I find that women are generally not as ego-centered as compared to men. We tend to care for the whole pack, the collective…rarely do we hyper-focus on ourselves. More often, we tend towards the opposite, and end up caring too much for others while forgetting about our own needs. This is a great quality for founders, yet it’s also one of the underlying reasons why there are fewer female founders: we put others ahead of ourselves; “the others” can be our children, our romantic partners, or even our family and friends that need our assistance.

Women are strong, passionate, and determined. We are empathetic and we care about our people and our teams. We’ve built and kept generations of healthy families, like an unstoppable superglue that holds elements together. We do the same when we found companies.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?

An advisor once told me to be a good founder you have to be a bit “psycho” and obsessed with your company. I completely disagree with that belief. IMHO, the foundational element to being a good founder is to invest in your mental health and to maintain perspective about what is important in life, knowing that you are just an individual: a human with human limitations. It’s totally acceptable to allow yourself to fail, to be wrong, and to take a pause from time to time.

Of course, being a founder means being flexible with your personal life, so sometimes you’ll be working through weekends and evenings, with your company as your priority most of the time. However, if it’s at the cost of your mental health, then you’d better take a break. For your health, your team’s, and your company’s sake, your mental and emotional state need to be on solid footing.

Another old memory I have is the many times I’ve been told that I was too kind to be a strong leader. Again, I disagree with this conventional belief completely. Being kind has proved to be the best way to nurture employee loyalty and teamwork. As a leader, my goal is to create an environment that promotes “true and reciprocal love”, where every team member cares for the larger team, and allows us to trust each other to move quickly as individuals, knowing that our core motives are always to benefit the collective.

Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee? Can you explain what you mean?

I think everyone has the potential to be a good founder. It’s just a choice and a matter of determination. You can train yourself to it. I think what’s most important is to be honest about what truly motivates you, whether it is founding a startup or working within a larger team. For sustainable joy, finding work that feels purposeful and fulfilling is invaluable.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, what are the “Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder?” (Please share a story or example for each.)

Having a clear purpose you believe in. In my case, my purpose is to reduce the volume of animal products and byproducts from the food industry system. More specifically, with Kuleana, it’s saving ocean fish populations from extinction.

That purpose must be so important for you that it is your mission, not just your job.

Rise above others’ judgements. For instance, when you’re a mother, it’s not uncommon to hear comments about whether you can deliver professionally because “you’re too busy raising children’’. Ironically, these comments can also come as the reverse, about whether “you are taking good care of your children’’, because you’re so invested in your career. No matter what you do, there will always be someone judging, pointing, and commenting. Don’t pay attention. These comments are usually not worth your time and energy.

Don’t give up. Painfully trying times are inevitable. Your journey as a founder is guaranteed to have its ups and downs. Some moments you’ll be tempted to throw in the towel. Hold steady, find your strength, and keep going, even if it’s with a broken arm or a broken heart. Keep going.

Take good care of your team and good care of yourself. For success to sustain, it’s imperative to ensure your people are with you and feel cared for. If they don’t, the consequences will become apparent in team efficiency. Ensuring that your team is engaged and motivated can improve overall productivity, but you also have to take care of the foundation beneath that: your team’s general well being. Same goes for yourself! Ensure you and your team have time to invest in a healthy mind and body.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

I’m still on this journey, and expect to be for the rest of my days! I have yet to feel that I’ve successfully made the world a better place, but I continue to work on this every day, fueled by my life’s mission to reduce the volume of animals involved in our food systems, in the hopes of nurturing a healthier planet, with healthier oceans.

Day to day, I also try my best to inspire within my community, and create positive ripple effects, even if just with a simple gesture like a smile and a wave. Lastly, I deeply believe that the way we move through the world today can significantly influence future generations. My hope is that, independent of the direct planetary impact that my company might have, future generations will be inspired by our efforts and continue blazing the path forward, shifting things up a gear to drive exponential impact. Ultimately, whenever I think about what to focus my efforts on in the present day, I also consider what I can do to drive change that outlives my time on Earth.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

Anything that would provide humans with sustainable and satisfying food options that are good for the planet, great for the palate, and made without animals. This is our guiding principle to product development at Kuleana. We resolve to reimagine the food system, starting with plant-based seafood that’s good for our health and the planet’s.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Dr. Sylvia Earle! She’s a veteran marine biologist, oceanologist, and has dedicated her work to keeping our oceans healthy. I’m a total fangirl of hers.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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Candice Georgiadis

Candice Georgiadis

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Candice Georgiadis is an active mother of three as well as a designer, founder, social media expert, and philanthropist.