Inniskillin Changemaker: Judith Fetzer
“Women often create mom-and-pop shops and see themselves as small. I want women founders to be more ambitious and to dream big.”
In partnership with Inniskillin, Canada’s first estate winery, Startup Canada is celebrating and spotlighting leading entrepreneurial changemakers and disruptors across Canada. Startup Canada was pleased to sit down with Judith Fetzer, Co-Founder and President of Cook it, to learn about their journey and the impact of their work.
Judith Fetzer is the president and co-founder of Cook it, Canada’s first ready-to-cook company, whose mission is to reduce the mental load associated with meal planning and decrease food waste. As the forerunner of a digital revolution in the food industry, Judith created Cook it with the humble intention of changing people’s lives. Awarded Female Entrepreneur of the Year by Canadian Business (2020), Judith now finds herself at the head of a Quebec-based company with over 700 employees. Her unifying leadership has enabled her to lead several successful projects and encourage the next generation of women entrepreneurs through numerous conferences and public appearances.
SC: What does being an entrepreneurial changemaker mean to you?
JF: For me, launching Cook it came with a lot of change – it was an old ecosystem. When we launched in 2014, there had been very little innovation in the food ecosystem as a whole. For example, my parents and my grandparents bought food basically the same way, at the grocery stores. A lot of innovation that happened in that sector was really more focused on the big company than the customer. So with launching Cook it, we were asking customers for the first time “what do you want to eat?” – then we would take care of everything behind that [request]. So that was a big change in creating new ways for consumers to purchase food, and then bringing this new model online. In Canada, we were a bit behind in this specific area, but since then the notion of being a ‘changemaker’ evolved to not only include the product perspective itself, but as an employer, as sourcing your food sustainably, etc. The vision of what defines being a changemaker has evolved throughout the years, and that’s the really exciting thing. It’s exciting when you see that you have an impact through your decisions, your way of thinking, and what your team is doing – we really do impact customer lives and the lives around us.
SC: Tell us about your entrepreneurial venture(s) – what do you do? What role has it played in your life?
JF: We launched Cook it in 2014 as basically the first meal-kit company in Canada. Since then it has evolved from being a meal-kit provider to being a meal solution helper. Now what we’re trying to do is automatize fridges and kitchens so that you can live your best life. As of right now, 82% of our consumers are women, the people on my team that work with the products are women, and the marketing team are all women. So I’ve always said that it’s a product made for women thought of by women. From a feminist perspective, as women we have the social pressure to perform in so many aspects and areas, so at some point it’s nice to not worry about food. For example, I never really had fun buying tomatoes or things like that, but I wanted to have a great meal. So Cook it is kind of like hacking my way through the mundane so I can focus on living my best life.
In terms of the role it has played in my life – for me the concept of Cook it really came from a pain point that I had in my life. I had a job and every day at around 3:30pm I would stop focusing on my job and try to figure out what I was going to eat for dinner. I also was the worst employee ever. Like I would have motivation for a job for two months and then would get so bored – so it’s not really the best way to get promotions and to grow into a company. I would get fired a lot, and when I say a lot, I mean on a regular basis. I knew pursuing my career in that way would not be a great solution for me. Somewhere along the way I became obsessed with finding a business idea, but everyday I would stop brainstorming my big dream to make a grocery list. So at some point that clicked and I thought to myself “maybe we could step up the food industry in Canada”.
SC: What are you most proud of related to your venture(s)?
JF: I’m really most proud of the family that we have built at Cook it. The family of customers, the family of employees, the Board of Directors, and the people that help us. I have the privilege of meeting so many smart, inspiring people who want to change the world.
SC: Tell us about your biggest hurdle – what was it and how did you persevere through it?
JF: The biggest struggle for me was really on the financial side with raising capital. It took me 3 years to decide to raise capital in a capital intensive market and by the time that I decided to start doing my pitch deck, my biggest competitor had already raised 20 million. It took me a year to raise my first million in capital investments and that really accelerated and changed Cook it completely. For me, I had this idea that we would win because our product would be better than the competition and because we would put the customer in the middle. That is what eventually happened, but I can’t tell you how many hours I spent crying because I was completely terrorized. When you have absolutely no background in finance, you have to learn everything quickly. In the first months, there was not one legal term that I understood. At one point I even said “well, am I the right person to be the CEO of Cook it or would the company be better off in the hands of someone else?”. Fortunately, I realized that I could just hire people to help me.
SC: What has your biggest learning been along the way?
JF: My biggest learning has been that you can do anything you want in life. I do a lot of conferences around Québec and I go to universities and speak to students. Last year, when you could still go into the Universities, I was speaking to an entrepreneurship cohort that was enrolled in a startup business course. The program itself is very prestigious, with only about 20 people being involved each year. I asked the professor how many students actually move forward and start their business. The answer was less than 20% – I was completely flabbergasted at that moment because I was amazed that people go through a two year University level, full time program to launch a business and none of them actually do it. It’s completely crazy. I’ve always said that I’m not the best entrepreneur, I’m not superwoman, and I’m not the smartest person in the room. There is nothing extraordinary about me, the only difference is that I started my business.
Another part of that is the realization that there is so little competition when you fully dedicated yourself to doing something. I always give the example of becoming the best cello player on the planet. When you actually start playing cello 20 hours, 40 hours, and then 60 hours per week, you quickly realize that there’s not too many people who actually want to do that with their life and that a lot of people just go through the traditional trajectory of life and don’t have those big crazy goals.
SC: What drives your motivation when things get tough?
JF: Myself and the Cook it team have this kind of infinite vision – we’re always in this constant struggle to have the perfect product and that’s really motivating.
I think one of the characteristics that I’ve seen in many entrepreneurs is that we’re all kind of naive. It’s kind of like living in our own dreamland with bubbles and flowers everywhere. So I don’t know, for me I don’t really let the bad things bring me down. I’m full of gratitude that I’ve been lucky enough to have this amazing journey. I’m also grateful that I decided to launch Cook it at the right moment. You know, launching 10 years before would have been far too early and launching today would be too late. All in all, I don’t really have the feeling that progress or motivation really stopped at any point, and I’m really full of gratitude for that.
SC: Where can people go to learn more about your journey and organization?
JF: They can read more about us on our website www.chefcookit.com. Also on social media at @chefcookit on Instagram, Facebook, and now even Tik Tok.
SC: What is your ideal vision for Canada’s entrepreneurship community over the next 20 years?
JF: To have a more diverse community. I have become a big feminist over the years since I launched Cook it. I was absolutely not before but being a woman in business, I now completely understand the value of having a feminine touch on your team. When first launching Cook it, I spent the first two years thinking that I had to talk to men like I was a man. But there really are so many benefits of having a woman’s voice involved in business. We see the benefits between business partners, in how we plan projects, marketing, how we talk to customers, how we understand social responsibility, and how we see sustainability. I once had a talk with the founder of Spanx and it blew my mind that for many many years, the people designing, crafting, and marketing pantyhose were all men. She then explained that if women wear the pantyhose, we should get a say in how they are designed. I take the same approach with Cook it, as women still take on much of the heavy mental load of housework and cooking even in 2021. So having that more diverse touch is big, and a lot of this is about women but also includes things like black owned companies, etc. So yeah, I think that having a more diverse community where it’s not only white males between 30 and 40 would be cool. We’re getting there.
Additionally, In Québec for the past two years, we’ve had more women that launched a business than men. But the thing that we need to work on is fostering bigger business. Women often create mom-and-pop shops and see themselves as small. I want women founders to be more ambitious and to dream bigger.
Next, when you talk about Canada, I really see that there’s a disconnect between what’s happening in Canadian entrepreneurship and Québec entrepreneurship. We could benefit a lot from having both communities engage more. We have a super strong startup community in Québec. For us, it’s super easy to launch a product, but I know that it’s difficult for other companies to penetrate that market. It’s also difficult for our Québec companies to penetrate Ontario’s market and other provinces as well. So I think we could benefit a lot from building a bridge between those two ecosystems.
SC: What do you think today’s entrepreneurs should be focused on for a better, brighter future?
JF: For an entrepreneur to bloom, the first focus must be on sales and whatever kind of cash permits your company to grow in order to create more opportunities in the future. Our only focus for the first five years was designing a better product and selling it – that has given us the ability to grow into a more complete company and then to replicate those areas of focus with the right people at the right time. We were not trying to be the best tech company or the best operational company. It was really about making sure that we could grow and we could survive another month.
Are you an avid supporter of Canada’s entrepreneurship community? Share Judith’s story or showcase your OWN entrepreneurial changemaker across social platforms with the hashtag #CheersToTheChangeMakers!