In San Francisco, new is normal. Risk is encouraged and creativity prized. Technology, health, film, climate change, technical wear and extreme sports are all lifestyle categories where California dominates and leads us into new terrain. In the spirit of culling and discovering visionaries, TheEditorial.com, from time to time, will explore bi-coastal stories with voices who have passed through Cambridge and Boston and now live on the other coast. As we romanticize the freedom and creativity in California from here, they perhaps covet a bit of our messy Petri dish of ideas and history here on our often snowy, slushy and, today, gloriously autumnal coast. Maybe... Let's see what happens.
by Heidi Legg
Where do we begin? With a run on bones in grocery stores in California for the coveted new super food: bone broth. Meet former MIT graduate Soo-Ah who now lives in San Francisco and founded a new startup in food called BRU Broth based in San Anselmo, CA. Soo-Ah spent years in business before taking time away from career building to raise her kids and now this Goldman Sachs, Williams Sonoma and Disney alumni is touting the benefits of her Korean tradition of bone broth. She’s not alone. Bone broth bars have now popped up in Portland (Oregon,) NYC and LA trending #wellness.
Soo-Ah’s homegrown BRU Broth took third place in a national public vote campaign for new concepts for a Whole Foods program and she is awaiting news to see if they will be a finalist to be stocked in the Whole Foods mothership in Austin, TX. I sat down with her to learn about her trajectory from banker to bone broth maker and why this matters to her.
Why is an MIT graduate now ladling up bone broth? My interest came from my personal upbringing. I grew up Korean and drinking bone broth my entire life. My father had cancer a few years ago and that's really when I looked at it in a different way and began to understand it’s medicinal value. We started to make a lot of bone broth for him and I am a big greens juicer and I realized in the mornings that I didn't want anything cold. I wanted something warm. I wanted something that had nutrient density. There was nothing on the market except coffee, tea and chai. I also didn't want sugar and so I took this green juice that I had in my hand and thought, 'how do I make this warm? How do I get the benefits of this in a warm format?' and that's when I reached into my roots and said, 'okay, I know bone broth. I know that well. How do I combine that with all that I like about these juices?'
This started in my kitchen experimenting with bone broth and different vegetables, roots and purees and all sorts of various other nutritional things that I could add to it for me and for my dad and for my family to enjoy... and this was before anybody was really talking about bone broth, before it was a trend.
Is it a trend here? It's not really front page in Cambridge yet. It's a huge trend. It actually started on the East Coast in New York. You’re starting to see bone broth bars pop up. You're starting to see scarcity in bones because a lot of people are not only making bone broth for themselves but they're making bone broth and selling it. You're going to start seeing it in farmer's markets if you aren't already in Cambridge. We're seeing it all over, out west.
Right now, bone broth is primarily available to buy frozen or you can have somebody ship it to you in a tetra pack. I wanted to create something that mirrored the world of what fresh pressed juicing does. I wanted to get nutrients that were as close to the original source of where it came from. With bone broth it’s very important to use organic chicken bones, organic grass fed beef bones because you’re cooking everything out of the bones, the minerals and the nutrients, and you want it to begin from a good source. I also wanted the vegetables to be as fresh as possible. I didn't want them to be cooked, canned, or processed in any way.
One of the worries is that when you boil vegetables you lose so much of the minerals and nutrients. How do you avoid this? Our vegetables are all fresh. It’s a little bit like fresh juicing in that all our vegetables are fresh pureed. They are raw. When you buy BRU Broth in the bottle, it hasn't been cooked yet. The first time it gets cooked is when you cook it as a consumer. The broth and the vegetable juice are combined.
How does the gelatin come from the bones when you cook them? The gelatin is literally boiled out of the bones, which is why carefully curating good cartilage rich ligament bones is key. [Soo-Ah sent us a good link on the nutrients of bone broth]
Bones and marrow, skin and feet, tendons and ligaments that you can’t eat directly, can be boiled then simmered over a long period of time. This simmering causes the bones and ligaments to release healing compounds like collagen, proline, glycine, and glutamine that have the power to transform your health.
Nutrition researchers Sally Fallon and Kaayla Daniel of the Weston A. Price Foundation explain that bone broths contain minerals in forms that your body can easily absorb: calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, silicon, sulphur and others. They contain chondroitin sulphates and glucosamine, the compounds sold as pricey supplements to reduce inflammation, arthritis and joint pain. They also have a good amino acids too – truly a superfood.
When something becomes a trend, we often see more products emerge that cut corners. What are you worried about in the micro-batch business of bone broth as an early player in the space? I worry about two things. I want to address the trend aspect and diminishing supply chains. It’s going to be more difficult to get the bones. We're working with farmers and farms to secure bones where we know that sustainable agricultural practices are being practiced within the farms and we work with the ranchers directly and establish really close relationships that are profitable and mutually symbiotic. That's one. As trends go, you’re going to see a high point and you're going to probably see a leveling off. I think you're going to see a high point that hasn't actually happened yet, but will happen in the next year or two and the reason for that is because it is really truly one of the most nutritious things that you can drink.
Why are bones so good for you? What you get out of the bone is protein, calcium, glucosamine, and collagen from the gelatin. The magical ingredient in bone broth is the gelatin. It is used for gut health. It is used for joint health and everything that you read about right now in terms of why people are drinking bone broth is not too far fetched from a lot of the reasons why when you were sick, you had chicken soup. I ask everybody, when you go to the hospital and you come out and you're in the recovery room after a procedure, what are the two things on your tray? The two things on your tray are broth and Jell-O – almost always – and the reason for that is the Jell-O has the gelatin; it has the collagen that helps heal your joints. It helps heal your gut and then the broth obviously is an easily digestible protein with other nutrients. Bone broth has all of that combined and at BRU broth we add vegetables, coconut oil, coconut amino and other things from a flavor standpoint but also from a nutrition standpoint.
You went to MIT. Can you tell us about your trajectory from MIT in Cambridge to the Presidio in San Francisco pushing bone broth at a cross fit gathering? [note the reporter was on a walk through the Presidio and not at crossfit!] I've done a lot of different things since graduating from MIT. I think I was definitely one of the small percentages of people at MIT who did not go to MIT knowing they wanted to be an engineer. I liked all the aspects of problem solving and was always very curious but engineering was not why I had gone to MIT.
I graduated and went into investment banking. I worked for Goldman Sachs. I then went into management consulting with A.T. Kearney in New York. I transferred to Hong Kong and worked there for a couple of years as well. Then I fell in love with products. I fell in love with the concept of having products and understanding what it takes to make somebody interested in buying that product.
When you were in finance, what spaces were you in? In banking, I was in fixed income. In consulting, I was in the financial institutions group.
Some people might say those are the most unhealthy lifestyles and unbalanced careers on the planet. Did that inform your new career? It did. We definitely did not have a healthy lifestyle. We worked 120-plus-hour-work-weeks and ate very poorly - not to mention all the activities that happen in the evening when you go out! It certainly does not lend itself to a healthy diet and I would say I paid for that in my twenties for sure.
A startup has a very different salary than the one on Wall Street. Many people have dreams of creating something and they want to start it but the economics aren’t there. How do you think about this? I think what's great about this world of entrepreneurship and about this current generation growing up in this world in that they're not tied to the same traditional way of thinking about career and salary.
I'm raising children and I'm not raising them to be a doctor or to be a lawyer or to go and have a job. I'm raising them to think about what they're passionate about in life and to pursue that in a way that hopefully for them makes money and hopefully allows them to define themselves as a success. That is no way, in any way, was how we were raised and I think that's really why we have the innovations we are seeing today. This younger generation has given a great deal of courage and inspiration to those of us who aren't from this generation but who still feel that, 'wait a minute. I still have a good 20-30 years in me to do something. I don't have to stay inside the traditional career path.'
When I left the corporate track, a part of what I wanted was to be able to raise my family and have some flexibility in my time and not have the mentality of only collecting a paycheck. Plus, I had a lot of really good ideas and in the normal corporate structure you can't really see them through. It's not that easy. There is a lot of bureaucracy. There's a lot of politics. Having an unbridled ability to have a product that you're passionate about and then being able to go after that and create a team of people who you want to work with and, most importantly, create a culture and brand identity that revolves around your beliefs is a tremendous gift.
What public opinion would you change? What I realized about three years ago was that it's hard to be a woman, have a career, have a family, and ‘have it all.’ Regardless of how much advancement we have had in society both educationally and financially, it's still very difficult. There are so many women who gave up their career to be able to have families. These women have these phenomenal educational backgrounds and work experiences and they arrive at this point in life where they say, 'I'm not sure where I'm supposed to go right now because I'm not done yet. Yes, I've had kids and I've taken some time to be with my kids and I still want be able to do that BUT I have more to do.’
I do think there is a public perception out there that suggests that if you don't stay within a workforce and if you don't stay in the game for a period of time, you kind of don't get to go back in easily or you certainly don't go back in at the level you might have been prior to leaving to raise children.
I started an entrepreneurial group a couple of years ago only for women. It was called Project Eight. It was eight women, eight ideas, and eight months. I recognized how many women were like me who had so many ideas but didn't give themselves the time to be able to incubate the ideas and see what they could really do with them. Being in that group helps us to hold each other accountable while we incubate ideas and set accountability and actually go deliver against them. These were women who had MBAs from Wharton, from Stanford and who went to MIT like myself. There were women who wanted to start an app, who wanted to build an executive coaching practice, who wanted to write a book, and all of these things that life gets in the way of allowing you to do. I think as women we stop allowing ourselves the opportunity to do that as well.
I would like to change that perception of how we see women who step out of their career to raise kids. I would like to reinforce that it's OK to go off the career path and it's OK to say I’m not sure what’s next, and it’s OK to get back into the game and that's a different thing. It doesn’t have to be what you've only known and it doesn’t have to be what somebody may say is the only thing you can do because you've done it for the last ten years.
Part of what I'm doing is changing that. I haven't done bone broth before. I've certainly never been in a beverage space. Nothing about my experience tells me that I should be the founder of a bone broth company. I believe that there are many other women like me out there who need a little bit more inspiration to take that leap of faith and go give it their all and go and do some really great things.
Do you think it’s a permission that women need? Do you think we lack confidence? I think it's a combination of things. I think women, in general, are going to put themselves lower in the whole hierarchy of family needs and everybody else's needs around them.
Why? I think it's part societal and the nature of whom we are. It's hard to change the nature of who we are and once you say to yourself that it's okay to put yourself first for X period of time – whether it's two hours a day or whether it's X days a week. I think the permission aspect is a big part of that but then you realize how much you need that time and how much you are able to forget that your self identity and your accomplishments and your capability are still really important and vital.
I'll share a very funny story with you. A couple years ago I had left a very big corporate job and I was raising my boys and it had only been a year since I’d left my career and somebody asked one of my sons, 'what does your mom do?' My son said, 'my mom cooks and cleans.’ At that moment I realized that I had an opportunity to dismantle the notion. My kids could potentially be raised to believe that was all women did because for a very long time, that's what moms have done.
I want my sons to know that moms can start companies and moms have done things that are kinda cool. I will selfishly say that was part of my inspiration to go off and start my company but it's been remarkable that my boys have been able to see firsthand what it takes to actually start a company and that you can take an idea and take it all the way through execution and they see that happening in action. They watch it incubate all the way through every single day. They no longer say that my mom cooks and cleans.
When will we see you on the East Coast? We're very excited. We've just launched our grocery distribution channel. We're starting in the Bay Area. We're hoping to be all over the east coast within twelve to eighteen months.
Where was your first store in California? Our first spot was actually in our hometown. It was United Market in San Anselmo. They were huge advocates of ours and the owner of United Market - Bill Daniels - has been an incredible supporter and is truly an inspiration for us.