Shelby Taylor signed her first venture capital deal at her counter, holding her days-old newborn son with her free arm.
“I was also on the congratulations call with him nursing so it was just really surreal,” Taylor said. “But more than anything it was just incredible relief knowing that I could take a couple of months with my baby and know that the business was in good shape and that we weren’t going to run out of funds while I was trying to look after a newborn and a three-year-old.”
Taylor’s Canadian company Chickapea Pasta has since expanded into the United States and recently received a $9.3 million investment from District Ventures Capital, InvestEco Capital and Export Development Canada. The brand offers healthier protein-packed alternatives to traditional flour pasta by making the Italian delicacy out of chickpeas, lentils, kale and spinach.
“We’re really surrounded by the right people and this capital is going into scaling the business,” Taylor said. “It’s growing so fast and it’s been almost hard financially to keep up with the growth of it so this provides the ability for us to make sure we’re not missing out on any opportunities.”
But before venture capital deals and two young boys, there was Jac’s Health Foods, the store that Taylor bought in 2014 when she was six months pregnant with her first son. Taylor always had the entrepreneurial itch to launch a product line but wasn’t sure exactly what the product would be. Jac’s Health Foods was the perfect market research opportunity to find the right health-conscious food product to develop.
What Taylor expected to be a multi-year process ended up being relatively short, as it didn’t take her long to realize that her customers were struggling to feed their families healthy meals. When she asked what meal their entire family would eat the answer was unanimous — pasta. Customers said that while everyone in their household would eat a pasta meal they never felt good about eating it due to the empty calories and lack of health benefits it provided.
“And that’s what got me thinking, why can’t pasta, and other foods that we already love, contribute to our health rather than take away from it?” Taylor said.
That question sparked an 18-month product development phase, learning how to make pasta from highly nutritious Pulses — or low fat and high protein and fiber foods such as chickpeas and beans. Taylor first had to “hand-crank” the pasta herself to fulfill orders made through a Kickstarter campaign.
The pasta was “absolutely awful” at first, Taylor recalled with a laugh, but ultimately it brewed excitement as there was no doubt now that making pasta out of Pulses could be done.
Manufacturing was eventually moved to a manufacturing facility in the United States, but it still wasn’t exactly what Taylor had envisioned for her healthy alternative. It wasn’t until the manufacturing was moved to Italy in 2018 that she saw a world of difference in the pasta, making it “the closest tasting to traditional pasta that’s really on the market in terms of alternatives,” Taylor said.
Stephanie Nairn, Chickapea’s marketing manager, sees Taylor as a role model for other female entrepreneurs in various industries.
“I’m so proud of Shelby for raising this money; she worked so hard to do it. So many women entrepreneurs struggle with getting as much investment, they have higher interest rates and things like that,” Nairn said. “And I just love that Shelby is confident and smart and she has thought of everything in building this business. She can go in and people believe in her and her mission.”
Taylor embodies what it means to be a working parent, having built Chickapea while simultaneously raising young children — with the help of her husband and extensive support system, she’s quick to point out. Despite the success of her brand, Taylor still experiences challenges and admits that it’s hard to balance time with her family and time working.
The coronavirus pandemic has allowed Taylor to become better at self-care, which for her includes working out at least four times a week (right as she wakes up so there’s no chance of distraction) and getting outside as much as possible. The pandemic also was a time of extreme growth for the company, which has doubled the size of its team in the last three to four months.
Jenna Callaghan, a Canadian Sales Manager, said that while the company is growing the environment has stayed the same. Employees at Chickapea are allowed to have a voice and contribute to company decisions and conversations.
“I think that all the decisions that have been made so far have shown how things can be done differently from how business was conducted in the past. You can have transparency and accountability, and have this more vulnerable work environment where you’re allowed to have a voice and use it and it’s encouraged,” Callaghan said.
The company also prides itself on being mission-driven and is currently raising awareness of the benefits of organic food by working with the Community Food Center Canada to donate food grown through regenerative agriculture. For Nairn, this shows how Chickapea is working to position itself apart from competitors, by showing what the brand stands for — giving back and helping the planet.
Younger consumers are looking harder at the brands they’re giving money to and are looking for companies with a clear and transparent mission, Nairn said. While people who are seeing Chickapea products for the first time have a lot of questions, Nairn has found that having a short list of ingredients has built trust with their customers.
Callaghan has “complete faith” in Taylor and thinks that people are investing in the company because they are investing in Taylor and her values.
Taylor said the greatest thing she has done for the company over the past year has been to offer empathy and flexibility to her employees. This adaptability is what Nairn encourages businesses to do as well in order to stay successful.
“[Shelby] trusts us to do our job, but she also doesn’t expect us to be perfect either. She admits when she’s wrong and where she doesn’t always have the answer and it makes us feel like we can too,” Nairn said. “She’s just so passionate and that’s why people buy into the business, that’s why people invest, that’s why so many of us join the team- because she’s so passionate and excited about what she’s doing and you just trust and know that it’s going places.”