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  • Writer's pictureJacob Chow and Drake Lim

Spilling the Tea with Health-Ade Kombucha's Co-Founder: Vanessa Dew

Updated: Oct 20, 2023

Vanessa Dew, co-founder of Health-Ade Kombucha, turned her passion for solving real-world problems into a thriving business. Here at Jia Food Blog, we had the privilege of sitting down with Vanessa as she spilled the tea (well, kombucha!) about her inspiring entrepreneurial journey and the story behind Health-Ade Kombucha.

What inspired you to create Health-Ade?

The inspiration surprisingly didn't start with kombucha, but rather with the idea of starting a business that could genuinely address a problem. We brainstormed various solutions for different issues, and in this instance, the focus was on hair loss. We initially believed kombucha could cure hair loss, so we began brewing it for that purpose. However, realizing our lack of clinical expertise and controlled studies, we pivoted to selling our kombucha as a beverage. We took this approach to the farmers' market, where we discovered that gut health is a real issue for many people, and kombucha is an excellent solution for it.

Do you have any fond memories of starting this business? A ton of fond memories! So, I think the beauty of starting your own business, especially your first one, is the naïveté that you have. Many of the fondest memories are just in the doing of it. Even on the hardest days, my co-founders and I were at the farmers' market, selling and talking to consumers. Although it felt challenging, it warmed my heart to see people light up when they tried our product. Another fond memory was in the manufacturing process. We made everything ourselves by hand, pumped everything, and saw everything. Looking back, it was very manually intensive, but there's nothing like creating something with your own hands and seeing the finished product. Tell us about the Health-Ade family. So, when I think about the Health-Ade family broadly, initially, it was just me, Daina, and Justin – we were the ones who kick-started the business. As we expanded, our company became like a tight-knit family, with amazing individuals, regardless of whether they were on the manufacturing line or in the corporate office. Our consumers, our diehard fans, truly light up our day. One of the best stories I've come across is on the side of our bottle, where we have little characters representing each flavor. Two customers actually got those flavor characters tattooed onto themselves. So, you know, when I think about the Health-Ade family, that's probably the most diehard example of being an advocate and lover of your brand – putting it on yourself.

Did you face any struggles as an Asian founder? In the food and beverage world, there are very few Asian Americans, let alone those who start their own business. It's not a common path for many of us. It has been uncomfortable at times, especially sitting with investors or buyers who may not share my perspective, but that's okay. I often wonder if they have perceptions about me, thinking I'm too young to be a founder. So, I've had to assert that I am indeed a founder and explain how it all started.

My non-Asian co-founders never made me feel different. However, as an Asian American entrepreneur, around five years into the business, I felt the need to find my tribe. Despite having co-founders and a great support system, it got lonely. So, I sought out organizations and fellow Asian American entrepreneurs for a safety zone—a place where people look like me, share similar perspectives, and make me feel validated. Now, I'm proud to have a diverse support system.

What is your favorite flavor and is there a significance behind it? Ooh, so my favorite! I see Passion Fruit-Tangerine on the table here, and that’s actually my husband's favorite. But I toggle between Cayenne Cleanse because I love spicy, and then Bubbly Rose is probably my other favorite. I like spice and very, very extreme flavors. So the rose floral is really great! Are you considering adding any other Asian-inspired kombucha flavors?

So we've actually tried—yuzu and lychee. The thing with us is, we really try to use juices. A good example is plum; that's the flavor we started with at the farmers' market. But it's very hard to get a plum juice yield. The way that other companies do it is to use extracts or oils, and so it's not the true juice. If we're not able to secure enough juice to make our batch, or if we're not able to use juice at all, it takes it off of the eligible ingredient list. So, unfortunately, some of those are harder to choose than not. But I know the team is still working on it.

We saw in your podcast interview with AsianBossGirl that you love matcha! Have you ever considered adding a matcha flavor? We actually tried a matcha kombucha years ago, specifically a matcha coffee flavor. However, it only lasted one year. We learned that what might seem good in theory and what consumers might like are not always the same. Through that process, we discovered that matcha lovers, coffee lovers, and kombucha lovers prefer their beverages separately. Coffee lovers don't enjoy the fusion with matcha, and matcha lovers don't appreciate the blending with coffee. Kombucha lovers generally prefer their kombucha as is. While there might be a small sliver of the population where these flavors can coexist, making super-small runs takes away from something else that could be a home run flavor. Whole Foods was willing to test it with us, and we learned that consumers prefer to enjoy their coffee, matcha, or kombucha individually.

Are there any new projects on the horizon for Health-Ade Kombucha? Yes, we just launched cans! It's a new product, and we only have a couple of our core SKUs in this packaging. We're keeping the iconic glass, but cans offer portability and accessibility, perfect for the beach or a stadium; we're even available in Dodger Stadium now. It opens new pathways for distribution and awareness that we couldn't access with glass alone. More convenient for you on the go, and it fits into the cup holder, unlike the glass Health-Ade bottle sometimes. What advice would you give to aspiring Asian entrepreneurs, especially those interested in the food and beverage industry? Yeah, two key things, especially for Asian American entrepreneurs. Firstly, I struggled to get my family on board with my decision. There's not a natural culture of risk with Asian American families. Talk to your family authentically, so they can feel what you're feeling, even if they don't fully agree. It was tough, but eventually, they were on my side emotionally. Secondly, as a food and beverage entrepreneur, be active in networks. In cities like LA with many natural product brands, reach out to brands you love. In Health-Ade's early days, I reached out to CEOs of admired brands, learning valuable lessons. Apply those to your business. It's not the same as other brands.

I think about the idea less as representation and more as being a leader and role model for those seeking leaders who resemble them. Growing up, I never envisioned a path other than becoming a doctor. Breaking such norms can inspire others to feel at ease in their identity and strive for diverse goals. Another example is one of our employees, who is Latino. He has two girls. They met me, and he said, 'This is my boss.' They were surprised, saying, 'Oh, I didn't know women could be bosses.' It's a crazy thought that girls might not think they can be in positions of leadership, but they need to see it to try and achieve that. That’s a new norm we should aim for.

This interview has been edited for length and brevity. Check out Health-Ade Kombucha!

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