First Black Unicorn Founder Julia Collins Shares Fundraising Secrets
September 16, 2021
Julia Collins is a serial entrepreneur who has spent her career building food companies. In 2015 she co-founded Zume Pizza, and became the first Black woman to co-found a unicorn company.

When she became a mother, she wanted to find a way to bring delicious food to people in a way that helped heal the planet for everyone, including her son. The ignited responsibility led her to found Planet FWD, a company on a mission to tackle climate change by making it easier to bring climate-friendly products to market. Julia sits on the Food for Climate League board, serves on the All Raise operating committee, is an EIR for Cleo Capital, and co-founded When Founder Met Funder (WFMF). In her interview, she shares her hard-won wisdom on fundraising and how you can mitigate the effects of climate change.

You are the first black woman to have a unicorn company. What is the biggest lesson you took from that experience?

When I co-founded Zume Pizza, I had no idea what a unicorn founder was. I didn't know that was something that people aspired to. I just did my work. I built my company, I thought about the impact that I wanted to have, I thought about the kind of culture that I wanted to build, I thought about the value that I wanted to create in the world, I thought about the value that I wanted to create for my customers. But I never had that billion-dollar target or the unicorn label on the horizon as something that I should aspire to. And I think that that was actually really smart.

It wasn't intentional, but it was certainly a good strategy in retrospect. Because when you start to value yourself based on the valuation of your company, you're walking a very thin line. You begin to make decisions about your capital strategy, your business strategy, and your own life that don't necessarily align with what success means to you. The fundamental thing that I've learned is it's vital as a founder not to value yourself based on the valuation of your company but rather to establish your own metrics for success.

Speaking more about your company, Planet FWD, what inspired the focus on regenerative food agriculture?

When we think about regenerative agriculture, we're talking about an approach to farming that helps restore our soil's health. That's vital because in many places, in our country and around the world, our soils have been severely degraded by industrial farming methods and climate change.

For example, when Native American people were in charge of what we now call agriculture in our country, and they were the stewards of our land, we had topsoil running across the country that was six feet deep. We had millions of bisons grazing, and our system was truly regenerative because it helped capture carbon from the atmosphere stored in the soil. So, when we talk about regenerative agriculture, it is a return to some of those indigenous principles of managing the land. Regenerative agriculture is a new term, but it certainly isn't new thinking.

The reason why it's so important is that it’s something we can do right now to improve the strength of our food systems, create healthier environments for people who work on our land, create more nutrient-dense food, and help control climate change.

When raising money for Planet FWD, what was the toughest part of your journey?

The truth of the matter is that the experience of raising money for Planet FWD wasn't very challenging for me because in my career, I had already raised more than $450 million across six rounds. So I had quite a bit of fundraising experience.

I think what continues to be challenging for black women at large is that we're vastly underestimated and underrepresented, as well as systematically discriminated against in the venture ecosystem. And so one of the things that’s important to me is to use the power that I've gained in this ecosystem as a serial entrepreneur and some of the hard-won wisdom that I've gained in running multiple fundraising processes, to support other black women and nonbinary founders.

For example, this year for the third year in a row, Domonique Fines, Megan Holston-Alexander, Judene Small, and I hosted an event called When Founder Met Funder. The event was all about connecting black women and nonbinary founders, at the pre-seed and seed stage, to early-stage investors so they can make connections and get some tactical feedback early on in their process.

Do you have any general tips for women of color starting to fundraise?

Develop a strong network around you of other founders. When I first started building my network, I looked at companies that I admired and reached out to ask for a coffee. I sought founders who were building interesting companies and just interacted with them. Sometimes they were founders in the same space - other climate tech people like Etosha Cave, co-founder of Opus12. But sometimes they were building in totally different spaces - like clean beauty maven Melissa Butler founder of The Lip Bar. Taking the first step, and being a little bit forward, often pays off. A more scalable option is to join a networking organization: Black Female Founders, Black and Brown Founders, Black Women Talk Tech, Visible Figures, and All Raise are a few.

When I go to fundraise, no matter how many times I've done it. The first thing that I do is let the other founders in my network know that I'm raising. And we share information. We share information about who we've raised from and what the experience was like. We share information about changes in the market. Like how quickly our deals are getting done and what kind of valuations we're seeing.

I'm in constant communication with other founders on a daily basis. The most important thing is to build those relationships and invest in them. That way, when it's time to ask for advice or feedback, you've already paid into that bank account, you've already invested in those relationships.

The number one thing I would advise founders to do is proactively create relationships with other founders, founders at the same stage, and founders who are a couple of steps ahead of you, to have that network.

What is the art of a great investor pitch?

One of the most important things you can do is to present the big vision. At the early stage, investors want to understand how the world will be different if you are successful. Having that clarity is incredibly important.

And you have to strike the right tone. Particularly at the earliest stage, you want to trigger a little bit of emotion within the investor. Even founders who are very passionate about their idea sometimes forget that little bit of an emotional hook. Investors want to know why they should be excited about this.

The final thing is to be as concise as you can. When you're thinking about making a deck for a presentation, use 10 to 15 slides at the most. Anything that isn’t core to your pitch should go in an appendix or a data room. Because if you overwhelm people with too much information, they're going to lose sight of the big idea.

In March, you announced a $2.7 million seed round and you elected to have majority women and people of color investors on your cap table. Why?

At this point, I've raised $6.8 million for the planning board. And still, the majority of my investors are women and people of color. This was tremendously important to me; it's something that I set as a goal for myself when I went out to raise even the first dollar for Planet FWD. I knew that I wanted to build a company where I was creating equity and justice across every facet of the organization, including my cap table.

Fundamentally, as a founder, I'm in the business of creating value and creating return. And I wanted to create value and returns, not just for the people that are already experiencing value in return but for people who had been historically discriminated against and left out of the conversation around intergenerational wealth transfer. And by and large, that is people of color and women.

Self-care is also community care. When you take care of yourself, as a founder, you send a very clear signal to your team that they should as well.

In terms of driving company growth, what are some common founder mistakes or tips to get it right?

One common founder mistake that people often overlook is just founder wellness. I've definitely experienced burnout myself. And one of the mistakes that I made earlier in my career was underestimating the importance of taking care of myself. I wore it as a badge of honor. I would say things like, “I haven't taken a vacation in two years” or “I never take a day off." It was a badge of honor to me because I think I was borrowing a lot of old thinking from the heteronormative patriarchy. Men tend to place a lot of value on that kind of orientation to work. I wasn't listening to myself or my body or ancient wisdom that says, deep breath is needed to perform your best work. This is a mistake that I still see happening with so many amazing founders who absolutely work themselves to a point where they are not well, physically, emotionally, or mentally.

Self-care is also community care. When you take care of yourself, as a founder, you send a very clear signal to your team that they should as well. When you put focus time and out of office days on your calendar, you're also signaling to your team that they should take time for focus and take time for rest.

What is a business culture priority for you?

One of the most important cultural values that we have at Planet FWD is something that we call catalytic creativity. The idea is that it's not just about making sure your ideas shine, it's about trying to understand how you can ignite creativity or genius in someone else on the team.

This can mean asking things like, ‘what I could ask that would help open someone's idea’f? Or how could I build on that idea? We're a group of incredibly talented, very passionate, very intelligent people. Without a culture that promotes catalytic creativity, what can happen is that each person focuses on their ideas and their genius. And I think that's okay. But what's much better is when you can also unlock that creativity in someone else. So catalytic creativity is one of the most important things that I value.

What are practical ways our readers can incorporate “climatarian” practices into their eating habits?

Making plants the base of your diet is one of the most important things that you can do. If you were to become completely vegan, you could reduce your food-related emissions by more than two-thirds. But you don't have to be completely vegan to have a really big impact. Even adopting a plant-forward diet, or some people call it a flexitarian diet, can reduce your food-related emissions by almost half - that's really significant.

The other thing I want people to know is that as consumers, as purchasers, as people who support brands, you have a lot of power. Brands listen. So the one thing that I hope everyone will do is reach out to your favorite brand and ask them to go carbon neutral. There's no good reason why brands can't all work on reducing emissions and getting to zero. But they are going to be motivated by their customers telling them it's important. So if you care about the climate, if you care about helping to be a part of the climate solution, if you care about tackling climate change, reach out to your favorite brand and ask them to go carbon neutral.



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