Take a moment and think back to your childhood. Was there something consistent that immediately comes to mind when considering your formative years? A game you used to play in the driveway every summer evening? A lemonade stand that was open every Friday afternoon at the corner of your street? A homemade meal that made your mouth water when you saw it listed on the weekly menu? For Rosa Li, this memory is that of her grandmother’s brews and tonics that would greet her when she returned home from school. Prepared from a wide variety of herbs and wild plants, each drink would serve the same purpose: promote gut health and soothe the stomach. After growing up for 12 years under her grandmother’s care, Rosa knew that these brews were a family tradition that needed to be shared with the world. From this revelation came wildwonder, a beverage business specializing in products to promote a healthy gut.
With every can of wildwonder comes a unique intersection between health, heritage, and entrepreneurship.
We sat down to chat with Rosa about her path to entrepreneurship and how her company connects her with her childhood and heritage.
For our readers who might not know about wildwonder, what exactly is your product?
Wildwonder is a delicious and bubbly drink that combines gut healing, superfoods, such as prebiotics and probiotics and whimsical flavors. People are more familiar with probiotics nowadays from all the fermented foods and fermented drinks on the market. Probiotics are healthy gut bacteria and prebiotics are actually the food probiotics need to thrive. Just like with humans, they need food to be productive.So wildwonder, in brief, is a heritage-inspired sparkling drink for gut health.
How did you come to the decision to found wildwonder?
After working many stressful jobs in finance, I started my career in investment banking and private equity. I actually started running into health issues that all stemmed in my gut. So I got Microbiome-tested and became a true believer in gut health.
After business school, I really wanted to work on something I was personally passionate about, and that centered around food as well as the philosophy of food as medicine. The homemade tonics that my grandma brewed for me really worked wonders on my overall health and I felt that it was the perfect opportunity to apply a modern twist on ancient wisdom.
Everyone knows a little bit about Eastern herbal medicine or Chinese medicine nowadays. But our drinks aren't all about Chinese medicine; they're more focused on gut health. So we are really focused on the botanicals from which we derive the prebiotics and the probiotics. But the philosophy really stemmed from herbal medicine.
Could you walk us through the process of how you actually got wildwonder out in front of consumers and into the market?
Honestly, it was very difficult to start because I actually bootstrapped the business. Just like a lot of other entrepreneurs, I started in my kitchen. I'm a huge foodie and I love to explore different flavors. I love to cook and make things on my own. So when I first had the idea, I bought herbs and started brewing things in my kitchen. Obviously, the first iterations were not quite as delicious. I had all my friends try all of them, bless my friends. But it has improved over time!
I was a solo founder and a solo team. For the first two years, I grew the business myself with no employees or team members. I had to figure out a lot of things on my own, including the manufacturing side. No manufacturer really wanted to work with me because I was too small.
In the early days, I just wanted everyone to try the product and give me feedback. I went to a lot of the different sampling events and even at random events I would offer to sample the drinks. My first customer was actually Square, the tech company. I started sampling my drinks with some chefs and one of the chefs there loved it and wanted to share my drinks with the office. One of the chefs at Square invited me to a food show. Some tech companies host these food fairs where the employees can select what they want to stock in their office and what they want to see in their cafeterias.
This was before I even had product. I was invited to this food fair and I saw all of these big brands—snacks that you have heard of and that are owned by big companies. It was quite intimidating. Then here I was with literally just these bottles I bought from Amazon to make the drinks at home. I brought in a cooler with my pre-made liquid with no label. I did hand label one bottle just so it looked legit. Then magically the employees voted for my drink above everything else. This meant that I had to quickly figure out how to actually make the drinks at a larger scale and ship them. Square sent me my very first PO and I took that to a co-packer and convinced them to work with me. It took a lot of convincing, but they came to believe in me and believe in the drink. That was quite a stressful and exciting period because I had orders before I even had a product!
Has running this business helped you to feel connected to your heritage?
My Chinese grandma raised me for the first 12 years of my life in Beijing and had a profound impact in shaping who I am today. Every time I came home from school, she would greet me with a cup of tea. To be honest, I don't even know all the ingredients that she would put in this tea—she would use all of these obscure herbs. Usually I just call it tonic herbal tea for simplicity. Her tonics worked wonders soothing my stomach and lifting my spirits. Wildwonder is a great way to honor the healing philosophy and the entrepreneurial spirit of my grandmother.
Working on the business also makes me feel connected to my heritage. Heritage means honoring the rituals that we grew up with and embracing what makes us different and special. So much of the immigrant story is about fitting in, but there’s a lot more we can bring to the table by embracing heritage, like through introducing healing foods and different globally-inspired flavors.
What drove you towards giving back to your community via your company?
At wildwonder - we’re here to create everyday wonders for those under voiced in our communities. I feel passionate about elevating our being (through better for you products) and our doing (through uplifting our communities). I feel very passionate about amplifying the voices of marginalized communities. We see food as a powerful tool to bridge cultures and bring communities together.
We collaborate with organizations that have similar missions. As soon as the pandemic began, I believe we donated over 10,000 units of our products to communities in need, including frontline workers. We donated a lot of product to hospitals. We also partnered with local bars and restaurants and hosted virtual events to build social connections while supporting the hospitality industry. We worked with various organizations like Dime For Democracy to help rally people to vote. We also recently worked with a female-founded non-profit in the bay area that amplifies Asian and Pacific Islander (API) designers and creators.