Live Purely with Sara Cullen
Live Purely with Sara Cullen

"We worked with a holistic amount of disciplines and perspectives to build a product that really speaks to all of you and not just parts of you. And that was important in the formulation of this bite." 

- Sara Cullen

Sara Cullen from GEM: Reinventing the Multivitamin With All Food and No Filler

We take a big bite towards wellness this week as Elizabeth is joined by Sara Cullen, founder of GEM, a nutrient-dense food company focused on whole foods and sustainability. A pioneer in the food and beverage space, Sara shares her journey building GEM after discovering her own nutrient deficiencies, and the challenges of fundraising and product development as a smaller business. They discuss GEM’s science-backed formulation featuring superfoods like algae into one bite without any added fillers, building community engagement, and how small steps in nutrition can positively impact your day.

Use code: livepurely30 for 30% off your 1st month of GEM.

  • PODCAST TRANSCRIPT

    Elizabeth Stein 0:00
    Hi, everyone. I'm Elizabeth Stein, founder, and CEO of Purely Elizabeth. And this is Live Purely with Elizabeth, featuring candid conversations about how to thrive on your wellness journey.

    This week's guest is Sara Cullen, founder of GEM, a consumer health company reimagining daily nutrition. Sara has spent a decade building and collaborating with startups, nonprofits, and sustainable food networks all over the world. After years of dedicated research, Sara realized that the answer is in food, not pills or gummies made with synthetic fillers, which led her to create GEM a nutrient-dense bite packed with 20 plus whole food, vitamins, minerals, pre and probiotics for holistic foundational health, and ultimately resulting in the first ever real food multivitamin. In this episode, we talk about Sara's journey building the brand inspired by her health challenges, and the lack of suitable alternatives. Sara shares her experiences and tips for fundraising, and how she collaborated with a diverse scientific advisory board to formulate her products, to fill nutrient gaps in people's diets. The sustainability and nutritional benefits of algae are one of her key ingredients, in how she's building her brand through the community. And lastly, how small steps in the morning can positively influence the rest of your day. Keep listening to learn more. And if you want to try her real food nutrition, use code LIVEPURELY30 for 30% off your first month at dailygem.co. Enjoy.

    I have some super exciting news Purely fans. I am so thrilled to announce that our newest product line of cookie granola is finally here. We've created a one-of-a-kind recipe where a delicious cookie meets our wholesome granola. It's made with organic gluten-free oats and coconut flour 100% hole Grains baked with coconut oil and almond butter and only six grams of sugar. These snackable granola clusters have all of the flavor and crispness of your favorite cookie recipe, but an indulgence you can feel good about. It comes in three flavors to obsess over. Chocolate Chip, double chocolate, and my personal favorite oatmeal raisin find our cookie granola at Walmart, Whole Foods, Publix, and on our website at purelyelizabeth.com. To find the store near you use the link below in the show notes. I hope you're as obsessed with this new product as I am. Enjoy.

    Sara, welcome to the podcast. It's such a pleasure to meet you. I love what you're doing and can't wait to hear your story.

    Sara Cullen 2:55
    Thank you and likewise.

    Elizabeth Stein 2:57
    I’d love to start with your background. What were you doing before you started GEM?

    Sara Cullen 3:03
    I started another company before I started GEM. And it was a CBD beverage back in 2016. So I was a pioneer at that time. But have always been interested in this plant-based food and beverage space. And so I had founded that with a group of other angel investors. And before that, I was in an entrepreneurial fellowship called Venture for America. I've lost 10 or so years of my life in the world of startups and building things, and have long been passionate about this healthy food and beverage space.

    Elizabeth Stein 3:41
    What was the Venture for America program?

    Sara Cullen 3:45
    So are you familiar with Andrew Yang?

    Elizabeth Stein 3:51
    No.

    Sara Cullen 3:52
    He ran for president at one point. Some people know him from that point in his career. But when I graduated college, he had started a new program. And it was modeled after Teach for America, which people are quite familiar with. But instead of sending recent grads to schools, you're sent to startups and typically in cities that don't necessarily attract all the talent. So Cincinnati, New Orleans, which is where I was based, Las Vegas, Detroit, and you go work for a real startup is what I say because I think people have lots of ideas of what startups are. And these are very much on the ground, like two or three people. It's incredible because you get this fellowship, this mentorship, and you are surrounded by other people who are super smart, and also interested in building things. But you get this great experience as well. I wouldn't say it's a derisk way but it's quite derisk and a lot of ways because you have this fellowship supporting you and helping you find a job for two years. And as in the startup world, they can go under in under two years. Nice to have that experience so early on in my career.

    Elizabeth Stein 5:01
    Yeah, must have been amazing. So what were some of the biggest lessons, I guess that you learned that, kept you wanting to be in the startup world because he certainly could have experienced that and said, I'm running the other way, I want somebody super stable, or be what, what helped to propel you to continue down that journey and go into the direction of food?

    Sara Cullen 5:24
    Well, so I grew up with a father who is an entrepreneur in the food and agriculture space. So I think I had this bug from a very early age of just wanting to build things and moving fast. And it was exciting, I was never bored, my first two years after college I had a lot of friends who worked in management, consulting, and investment banking, and these jobs were a grind and didn't necessarily have the same velocity and, and so I was grinding as well but in very different ways. I felt like I was being able to make an impact. And that feeling of being able to make an impact so young at such a small company is very invigorating. It's very addicting. And so I love that. And I wanted to keep making an impact. So curious, actually how I would thrive in a big company. I've never really worked before. And I'm like, I wonder how I would do. I did internships in college, at the UN and the World Bank and these larger organizations, and I found myself just suffocated by them because they were so slow. And it had such an amazing mission. And I've always been attracted to these types of missions. But it's the impact that keeps me coming back to this daily grind of startups and building things, I guess.

    Elizabeth Stein 6:38
    Yeah, it is such a different experience, I think about that often of how I could survive in that world, and it is a different world. So tell us a little bit about how you were starting their CBD line. And what happened after that, that eventually led to the inspiration for GEM?

    Sara Cullen 7:00
    Yeah, I was like, 25-26, I think starting that first beverage company, and that's a whole podcast in itself. I learned a lot, I was super naive. My biggest learning from that was how to negotiate for myself. I was working with four other guys who owned 80%, I owned 20%. They were gonna do all the fundraising, I was gonna do all the sweat equity. And then I ended up doing it all. And then I just naively thought, oh. Then I'll just get the company after that. And we can just move forward. And that's not how life works. Learned very quickly, the importance of setting up good operating agreements, and negotiating for yourself. And then, of course, all the tactical things with building a company, how to break unit economics to scale. I learned about the retail world, what it's like to sell in and sell through, and all of those things around just building a food and beverage company. So super valuable lessons there. Around the time that I left that first venture, I was having my kind of health experience. In my late 20s, I was very stressed out living in New York. And I had a series of what I think now are allergic reactions, I didn't know what they were, they were like random swellings and things which led me down this path of figuring out. I had a bunch of allergy tests, I did a bunch of nutrient-deficient tests. And I found out I am nutrient deficient in these certain things. I am allergic or food-sensitive to corn, soy, wheat, and peanuts. So I started going through a lot of diet eliminations. And that's really what led me to the supplement aisle for the first time because I always believed, ironically, in getting your vitamins and minerals from Whole Foods. I didn't believe in the vitamin necessarily. But here I was on this health journey, and I was like, wow, I actually thought I ate well, I need to fill the gaps in my diet. And that's when I looked on the shelf. And I was like, a lot of these things are pills and capsules, and these processed supplements, these gummy bears, candy, a lot of them had soy, corn, wheat, and peanuts does try to weed out a lot of them had a lot of other dirty ingredients and process things. And I was like, this doesn't feel right. And so I started creating my concoction in the kitchen. They were super green and got really into spirulina and algae and other sustainable plants. And I felt a lot better doing this. And eventually, it morphed into this funny-looking bite that's now GEM. And in the very early days, it was a very green bite. It has a long way. Bless all the customers who have been with us since day zero. We've evolved, but I didn't even think of it as an alternative to your multivitamin. I just thought this was something that made me feel great every day. It's kind of my daily nutritional insurance. I started a small community on Facebook groups, ended up sampling out the product, and quickly realized this value proposition and, oh, it is the alternative to your daily multi. And then it kind of blossomed into a company from there. I ended up raising venture capital pretty early on through that beta community group that I started, and then I was just off to the races.

    Elizabeth Stein 10:04
    Amazing. So what was that like for you raising money at that stage?

    Sara Cullen 10:11
    Very challenging. In hindsight, and I often talk about this, I wish I didn't spend so much time on fundraising. Of course, it's way easier said than done. I wanted to do a crowdfunding campaign when I first started this company GEM. But what happened was that I had a network of investors, particularly from the previous beverage company, and I had invited them to this beta group that I had started, I invited them to this community. So I ended up getting knocked on the door of being like, hey, we're interested. But I was planning on not at I love Sara Blakelys of the world. Like, No, I didn't want to read, I didn't want to be on this venture capital hamster wheel, I wanted to be self-funded, I wanted to build a profitable company. But I think I was in a personal financial position where I needed the cash as well, at the time. So I ended up taking that first round and proceeded. And then once you're on that hamster wheel, like I say, you're on that, and the first $3 million, I think is the hardest to raise. We just closed our Series A last year. So now we have 22 million raised. But those first 3 million took up probably a good year and a half of my life, raising and focusing a lot of maybe too much time on that.

    Elizabeth Stein 11:31
    So any tips that you have to share for people who may be at the early stages of starting a company? And how do you spend less time on that, or anything that you can share with our audience?

    Sara Cullen 11:44
    It's such a good question. I think it's important that before you go into it, you ask yourself if you need it. There are a lot of companies that aren't necessarily a fit for venture capital, they're fit for other forms of financing, whether that's crowdfunding or debt financing. And so I think it's a question of actually asking yourself first is this a business model that's a fit for venture capital? And then, of course, it's asking yourself personally, where are you in life? Like, do you need it? Or is it possible for you to work another job and start this? So I think it's just being thoughtful about that, and having a real plan in place. Unfortunately, you have to fundraise money. I wish I could say here's how to do it so efficiently and make sure that you do it in under a month. But it's not always like that, sometimes you get lucky. But I think it's just being super intentional and thoughtful. I think it's stabilizing, now the market, but there was a period when a lot of entrepreneurs were just raising money for the sake of raising money. And I feel like that's kind of gone away a little bit, which is good. It's a healthy mindset that's going away. But I think there's a period where it was almost like a badge of honor just to raise money. And I think that that's just the wrong mindset for us. And you definitely should not go into it just for the sake of raising money.

    Elizabeth Stein 13:08
    The market has changed so much that it's so hard even to raise money if you need it. It's that difficult. So it's probably, of course, correcting through some of the nature of that. And I think the real important thing is certainly having a product or brand that is so differentiated, that you're going to get those investors interested in the first place. And you've done such a phenomenal job, bringing something truly unique to the market that didn't exist. So let's get a little bit into the product. And as you said, it started as this green thing. Then for those who are not familiar, tell us what it looks like today, what that formulating process looks like, and how you got to where you are now.

    Sara Cullen 13:58
    Sure. Well right now, it looks like a bright orange bite. It's no longer green.

    Sara Cullen 14:03
    I'm guessing people told you the green was a little bit of a turn off.

    Sara Cullen 14:07
    Exactly. This beautiful, tangy sweet buy is made with 20 different whole foods, superfoods, vitamins, minerals, and herbs. And it's this is chewy, kind of almost like a little bar by and it's real food. Right? So it's with this ethos of food is medicine, it's better absorbed in your body. And that was the idea behind this form factor. We're reinventing the idea of a multivitamin, of course, what it looks like instead of a pill capsule or gummy bear it's a real food bite, but also what's inside of it. It's not just like 100% of everything of all of your vitamins and minerals because you do eat food. You just need to fill the gaps in your diet. So really how we approached formulation was looking at okay, what are the key nutrient deficiencies in our diet today? And then what are our lifestyle demands that we need to make sure that we meet? So for instance, we're all very stressed out. When you're stressed out, you run through B vitamins. And so you might need some extra B vitamins. We all work indoors, most of us. So we might need some extra vitamin D. So that's how we approached it in terms of formulation. And I started forming a scientific advisory board early on and have continued to expand it. And one of my methodologies for doing that was to have a different perspective. So I didn't just want one Western medical lens, we have an herbalist, we have a functional medicine doctor, we have a neurologist, we have a biologist, we have a registered dietician on our board. And so we worked with a holistic amount of disciplines, and perspectives to build a product that really speaks to all of you and not just parts of you. And that was important in the formulation of this bite.

    Elizabeth Stein 15:51
    How was it finding this advisory board? And how did you go about picking these key influential people?

    Sara Cullen 16:01
    So I started with a food scientist herbalist and functional medicine doctor. And really through my network, I had worked with some food scientists in the past and my previous venture. So I started there, and our functional medicine doctor is our first kind of founding Scientific Advisory Board member, if you will, was one of the founding doctors actually at Parsley Health. So I look to other fellow startups, they're way bigger than us. I don’t know if I should call them a startup. And also to my network to begin finding them. And then I ultimately ended up hiring a registered dietician, actually to help me continue to recruit and build out the board. And that was successful as well. We're still adding to it today, as we continue to release new products, depending on what that product is, we go out and find a discipline that makes sense for that product and bring them on board.

    Elizabeth Stein 16:56
    Amazingly, you're able to put all of those key vitamins, minerals, nutrients, and herbs in there and make it still taste great. How hard was that process?

    Sara Cullen 17:09
    Really hard. And that's why I joke about it being this super green bite in the early days. I'm obsessed with algae, we still have algae in every single bite. And it's challenging to create to put all of these nutrient-dense superfoods into one bite without any added fillers, sugars, or processing agents. My life would have been a lot easier if I had just started a gummy bear company. It took a few years. And I also because I wanted to launch the company, I wanted to be on the path to profitability, we launched super lean, we launched super quickly. And it was really important to me that I evolved with the customer. And I wanted the customer to be at the heart and center of our product development. I didn't want to go do product development for two years by myself in the corner and not really be working with the customer on that. And so that's how we continue to evolve it. And we've had this very test and learn and iterative mindset from the get-go. B I brought in a pastry chef, for instance, and worked on the taste profile. I brought in two pastry chefs. So I started to add to my board not only the scientific minds but also the taste minds very well. And how can we create not only the healthiest bite but the most delicious bite without all those added sugars?

    Elizabeth Stein 18:34
    I think that's a really important thing that you decided early on to not just as you said, sit in a room and formulate, and bring in your consumers because I think it's such a great lesson, even just in life, like everything doesn't have to be perfect. And if you sit around waiting for it to be perfect, a) you may never even launch in the first place. But b) in this case, really listening to your consumer to get that information can help. Just that improvement and that connection that you have with your community. So how do you continue to build the brand and the community today?

    Sara Cullen 19:12
    Great question. We still have the original Facebook group that I started that continues to grow and you can still go and join it today. I don't even lead that now. It's completely customer-led people who share their stories as their tips, share advice on all things health. So there's that digital platform. Of course on organic socials, we have that as well. Then our team started something really special last year called GEM Breakfast Club, where we work with different chefs in different cities, all rooted in this food are medicine and ethos, and we create this delicious spread of food that typically speaks to our product as well. So there are ingredients that synergistically work together. Some ingredients are reflective and inspired by our GEM bite. For instance, there are a lot of turmeric-based egg dishes and fun things like that. And then we invite a lot of the community to that. And we just have a great conversation, we celebrate a sustainable future together with this delicious spread of food. So I love the real-life events and some of the digital activations. We're still very much a startup. So we're working from a microlens. We're doing these all like I would love to create bigger and bigger events and bigger communities to scale. But I think right now, we're focused on just creating genuine moments of connection with people in different channels and kind of building those microcosm communities.

    Elizabeth Stein 20:46
    I love that.

    I'm so excited to announce that we have launched two new superfood cereal flavors, chocolate, almond, and cinnamon raisin almonds. Our cereal is intentionally crafted with whole food ingredients you can see and taste like sorghum, oats, chia, and quinoa. Each spoonful of our superfood cereal combines crunchy ancient grain flakes with delicious granola clusters for irresistible taste and texture. Plus, they are an excellent source of vitamin D, a good source of fiber, and have over 30 grams of whole grains per serving. You can find these new flavors along with our existing flavors, honey, peanut butter, and vanilla blueberry almond at your local Whole Foods and as always, on purelyelizabeth.com.

    What are some of your favorite stories that you hear from the community as far as how the GEM by itself impacted their lives it's certainly something that I'm sure people write in amazing comments and share stories of changing with food as medicine.

    Sara Cullen 21:48
    It's beautiful. We have a lot of older customers, particularly, those who grew up on Flintstone vitamins.

    Elizabeth Stein 21:55
    I forgot about Flintstone vitamins.

    Sara Cullen 22:00
    And they've tried every powder mix, every supplement, there's falling handfuls of pills, and they're just exhausted by these routines. And they found GEM and it makes them feel amazing. And it's a delightful routine to add to their morning. And so I think that those honestly, more mundane stories are maybe just like, hey, I've been exhausted all my life. Thank you so much for building this product that just makes it easy. And I get all the nutrients and I enjoy it. And I don't have to swallow these handfuls of pills and gag on them. So I love those. But I'm sure you know this owning a food company. But people attribute sometimes. I don't even want to say on this podcast, because they're like medical, they're like, wow, I had XYZ ailment, GEM solved it. And I'm like, I don't know if we can share that. Like, I appreciate that. GEM certainly isn't the panacea for everything. But of course, even touched by those stories as well. I think when people take care of themselves and feel good, it has equity effects on their lives. And so it's cool to see that and be a part of that.

    Elizabeth Stein 23:12
    Yeah, that is cool. Also, I love how you say that it becomes like this little part of their morning habit or ritual, which is all about having those little steps in the morning that then lead to how you live the rest of your day. And so it's that ripple effect that you're helping your community with. So in addition to the GEM bites, you also have some bonus bites, which I love how you have had different functions. How did that come about? I imagine it came from the community. But if you could talk a little bit about what those look like.

    Sara Cullen 23:46
    It came from the community. We are always asking what else would you like from us, we're very focused on our gem citrus, Ginger bite the reinvented multi-or hero kind of product that's like really the foundational product that we're focused on. And we're not a company where I want you to take 20 bites in a day, like swallowing 20 pills in a day. That kind of defeats the whole purpose of it being easy. But there are a few fun areas where people might want to switch it up I always say you might want up to three bites in a day. I, of course, take more but I'm biased. And we tried to fill the gaps in some areas where it depends on your situation. So for instance, our sleep bite is an incredible bite and people have great sleep and they don't necessarily need it every night. But if you're a melatonin user, you might know that melatonin can cause groggy hangovers, your body naturally produces melatonin. And so when you take it, you know artificially what happens that your body gets addicted to it and stops producing its own. So we created a natural alternative to that. We use valerian root, L-theanine, GABA, the natural holistic herbs and roots, and we put that into this beautiful Chocolate Cherry bite. So it's kind of like a delicious treat at the end of the day to wind down. And you can kind of take that as you need. Another bite that we have is a calm bite, which has a lemon balm in it, which is incredible for stress, but also magnesium. And magnesium is one nutrient that I recommend mega dosing on the most. So we don't have enough of it in our foundational bite. So we recommend if you want extra magnesium take our calm bite. Magnesium is kind of the wheel for your machine so to speak. It's amazing for all kinds of things stress, constipation as well, headaches, for sleep. We also have magnesium in our sleep bite as well. So those two bites are awesome for different reasons and different needs. And then our latest bite that we just launched is an Energy Aid bite. This has some natural caffeine from green tea extract as well as some L-theanine. So all of that energy without the jitters, one bite is equivalent to half a cup of coffee. There's also kelp, which is incredible for metabolism, and ginseng, which is an incredible adaptogen for blood sugar stabilization and stress. So this is a really fun kind of holistic energy aid bite. For me, I love to take it actually, I’ve been weaning off of coffee recently, not caffeine. So I bought this bite in the morning and then I work out and it kind of gives me that pep in the step. And yeah, it's kind of a nice morning treat.

    Elizabeth Stein 26:40
    So as you just talked about kelp. I'd love to get back into the GEM bites and talk about algae. So for those who hear about algae, but maybe don't know so much of the benefits of algae, I feel like algae is the best superfood on the planet. Would love for you to share all of its amazing benefits and why we should be incorporating it into our diet.

    Sara Cullen 27:03
    Like 3 billion years ago, spirulina was the first living organism on Earth. So algae was our living organism. It's what our ancestors ate. It truly is the most sustainable source of nutrition. So spirulina is one type of algae. There are all kinds of macro and microalgae. Kelp is a macroalgae. But if we look at spirulina in particular, it is a microalgae, for instance. It has all of the vitamins and minerals. Most of these microalgae and macroalgae have a rainbow of vitamins and minerals, so to speak. So they have all the vitamins and minerals that you kind of need, even some of the macronutrients, proteins, and things like that all in a very sustainable source of protein. There's incredible data around this where it's six of the water use of traditional land, crops like soy, corn, and wheat. It can grow way more abundantly than those crops in much smaller spaces. It emits oxygen, because they're like, a forest of the ocean. It's a cool kind of plant ecosystem, so to speak. There are just a lot of really cool applications for our health. We're just tapping into it right now. But you're starting to see it crop up in different superfoods and things. And for us, we would love to continue to invest in innovation around how can we derive more vitamins and minerals from algae and more sustainable sources. So we have this wonderful prebiotic fiber in our GEM bite called Beta Glucan. That's from algae. Our vitamin D is actually from an algae type as well. We have golden chlorella, which has incredible health benefits. I can go on and on about every algae. And that is also in our Calm bite. So we tried to incorporate this plant into different bites. But I think there's a lot of really cool things happening in the food innovation ecosystem around this. And I'm excited to continue to invest and be a part of it.

    Elizabeth Stein 29:08
    I love that you're using it. And for us, I am always looking for ways that we can use algae in it. We use a d3 in our cereal that comes from algae as well. It's a tough place because in cereal, if you talk about algae, I think people get a little bit grossed out so we try not to talk about it too much. But at the same time, people should know that that's where it's coming from. So I think it works a little bit better for you in a supplement bite in this.

    Sara Cullen 29:41
    That's what's so challenging about being a food product and disrupting the supplement if we have the same kind of challenges that you do with taste and perception. That's one of the reasons why algae is the heart of my story behind GEM and why I wanted to start GEM and use more sustainable ingredients. And it was my inspiration in many ways for starting this company. And it's a delight to talk with you about it because often I don't get asked questions about it. And I don't often talk about it enough because it is quite a

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