Shiri Avnery of Thistle: “Purpose”

Having a company mission that aligns with your passion is so important to help keep that spark burning over the long term and go the extra mile. And it’s important to always be able to recenter yourself around your purpose when things get tough and you’re lost in the day to day.

As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Shiri Avnery.

Shiri Avnery is the co-founder and president of Thistle. With a PhD in Science, Technology, and Environmental Policy, Shiri brings a unique expertise that informs Thistle’s approach to building a food supply that promotes health and wellness, while protecting the environment.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

My enthusiasm for the earth and environmental science was inspired by an incredible geology teacher I was fortunate enough to have in the eighth grade. I remember he took us on an adventurous spelunking field trip and my mind was blown. Over time that evolved into a recognition of the massive, outsized impact we have on our planet — despite being around for just a blink of an eye in geologic scales. I followed my passion through college, a masters and a PhD, where my research looked at the impact of air pollution and climate change on global agriculture. I then worked as a researcher looking at issues related to climate change and resource scarcity, including food, water, and energy.

While I always thought I’d end up in academia, eventually I felt the pace of driving change was just too slow. And my co-founder (and husband!) Ash and I would talk a lot about how two of the greatest challenges of our generation — our growing health crisis and the climate emergency — pointed to a common solution: eating less meat and eating more plants.

And yet we found it really hard to eat a plant-based diet consistently despite our knowledge of its benefits. Like so many people, we had no time to cook, we didn’t know how to make plants taste as good, and we thought eating this way was too expensive. We figured we weren’t the only ones, so that turned out to be the challenge we set out to solve — how can we make eating nutritious, plant-based and planet-friendly foods incredibly convenient and accessible for all, a celebration instead of a sacrifice. That was how Thistle was born.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

When we were first starting out, our initial product was a line of raw, cold-pressed juices. We didn’t have the direct-to-consumer delivery service that we have today, but instead sold our juices at pop-up locations throughout the city or worked directly with businesses to supply products for their office employees. I remember we managed to get a meeting with a large, prominent startup based in SF and were able to impress them with our high quality and unique flavor profiles. At that time, we had a tiny kitchen doing pretty small volumes (less than 100 bottles per day) — and we got an order for what we thought was 700 juices weekly which, at that time, represented our entire capacity with nothing left over. We had no idea how we were going to fulfill it, but, knowing that these opportunities don’t come around often, we said we could do it. As we were trying to figure out how, the client clarified that the order wasn’t for 700 bottles of juice per week, but rather for 700 per day! Our jaws dropped — we knew this was going to be an anchor client that could help grow and stabilize the business — and that we had to say yes despite not having a clear path to being able to actually meet that demand. But you know what, we figured it out (the answer included sleeping very little and hiring very fast), and it taught us a lot of great lessons about being scrappy, resourceful, and doing whatever it takes.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

This wasn’t funny at the time! But when we decided to first bring on food, we were still trying to figure out product/market fit and weren’t sure whether demand for plant-based products in a subscription model would be there. So instead of investing in an expensive kitchen facility, equipment, and hiring a team, we decided to initially work closely with reputable caterers to cook our food, which we would then pack and deliver directly to customer doorsteps.

Come our first week of launching this new model and product line, we arrived at our partner’s location at 4am (as agreed) to pick up the meals — but no one was there! Not one meal was ready, and the delivery window started in two hours.

After what seemed like an eternity and 100 frantic phone calls later, we managed to wake up the executive chef, who had slept through his alarm and rushed to the kitchen to make up for his mistake. Ultimately we were able to get our meals made and delivered (albeit late!) — but this taught us that we as a company ultimately had to own the customer experience end to end, and that started with making our products in house. It was just too important to trust anyone outside of Thistle to get our meals right, from taste to nutrition to quality to price point. So we became a vertically integrated company, despite all the challenges that come with scaling fresh food production and last mile logistics.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I’d have to say both of my parents. They grew up in Israel with very little. My dad was born in a refugee camp in Israel after his family fled from Iraq in the 1950s. Both of my parents were the first in their families to go to university and instilled in me the value of hard work and education. When they first came over to the US, my dad got a job as an entry level engineer and my mom cleaned houses to help make ends meet — but eventually she pursued her passion for education and worked towards getting her PhD while taking care of three kids. My dad worked his way up and eventually ventured out as an entrepreneur, founding his own company. They’ve both sacrificed so much and have overcome a tremendous amount of adversity to give my sisters and me the opportunities we have today. Without their sacrifices, I’d never have been able to pursue the career path I’m on now (which, in an interesting twist of fate, happens to be walking in both of their footsteps).

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?

That’s right, and women-led companies received just 2.3% of VC funding in 2020 — which was an almost 20% drop over 2019’s high of 2.8% (a tiny enough number itself).

There are so many obstacles women face from the moment we come into this world, including systemic barriers in education, employment, and advancement opportunities driven by sexist gender norms around what we should be good at, what is appropriate behavior, what we should like, or what are the “right” priorities for us. And when we get into the workforce, we’re less likely to stay due to the tough choices families are forced to make around caretaking (whether kids or older family members) and financial stability (since women still earn significantly less than men, this puts further pressure on women to drop out). COVID-19 put a spotlight on and exacerbated these massive issues, and BIPOC women and individuals from LGBTQ+ communities have disproportionately suffered.

Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?

As individuals, we need to become aware of (through reflection, listening, and anti-bias training), check, and constantly recheck our unconscious biases. We need men to step up at home and be true 50–50 partners to women. We need to reject sexist cultural norms and stop treating girls differently from the start, and have the hard conversations with family members or teachers or caretakers when we spot differential treatment, no matter how harmless it may seem.

As a society, we need affordable, quality childcare. We need paid maternity and paternity leave and flexibility in work schedules. We need to invest in diverse women-owned and women-led businesses, hire and promote more women of all backgrounds at the highest levels of leadership, and elect more women political leaders. We need to create safer work environments and accountability for sexual harassment, racism, and discrimination. We need to pay and demand the same compensation for equal work. And we need to end the insidious, impossible cultural standard that women need to work like we don’t have a family, and parent like we don’t have work — that leads us to feel constantly inadequate and burned out.

This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?

Women-led startups build inspiring, successful, socially responsible companies with happy employees. They’ve been found to employ more women (especially in senior leadership roles), which research shows in turn perform better financially, have company cultures that value diversity and inclusion, are committed to ESG, and have more engaged employees. And for VCs, businesses founded by women have been found to outperform those founded by men. We also need more women founders because our perspectives and experiences allow us to identify problems that have long gone unaddressed, with the right lens on how to best address them. And above all, seeing more women in the ranks of corporate leadership matters deeply for the next generation to drive change in gender norms, eradicate implicit biases, instill confidence, and inspire the next generation to strive for better.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?

One huge myth is around the temperament or personalities of founders: that founders are all brash, extroverted go-getters who love taking all kinds of risks. I couldn’t be further from this stereotype — I am introverted and value being cautious and analytical.

On the first point, despite plenty of counter examples to the bold, over-confident entrepreneur, the fact that this myth remains says something about the persistence of gender-based stereotypes regarding temperaments supposedly required to succeed in business leadership, which makes it harder for diverse individuals to acquire funding, hire, and be successful entrepreneurs.

On the second, yes, entrepreneurship does require risk taking and is not by any means a safe or stable career path. But I think it’s all about taking calculated risks and mitigating unnecessary risks, about being analytical and taking in a range of data, weighing outcomes, and figuring out the most likely path to success.

Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee? Can you explain what you mean?

I think resilience might be the most important trait — being able to shake off the inevitable setbacks, bounce back from failures, and maintain the required level of conviction and willpower to just keep going. You have to be willing to find yourself in the trough of sorrow and self-doubt many times in your journey and find your way out over and over again.

Another important one is the ability to thrive in the absence of structure or certainty. You will be forging ahead where no one has before, and there won’t be someone handing you the roadmap and telling you how to execute: you’ve got to be able to build the future all on your own, separating signal from noise, ruthlessly prioritizing, and staying focused in the midst of constant chaos and distraction and uncertainty.

Having a growth mindset and the humility to admit and learn from mistakes is hugely important to keep growing, remove self-imposed boundaries, and improve as a leader.

Finally, at least in my experience, you’ve got to be okay with fluid work-life boundaries. It’s not about working yourself to the bone (though of course, hard work is a part of it) — but more that it’s hard to ever stop worrying about some aspect of the business and truly turn off, even if it is a night, weekend, or vacation. And I know that’s not for everyone — for very good reason!

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, what are the “Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder?” (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Grit: This is the sheer determination and willpower to persevere despite setbacks and failures time and time again; it’s the stamina you’ll need over the long-term to survive to fight another day.
  2. Purpose: Having a company mission that aligns with your passion is so important to help keep that spark burning over the long term and go the extra mile. And it’s important to always be able to recenter yourself around your purpose when things get tough and you’re lost in the day to day.
  3. A strong team: Thistle would never have gotten this far without the incredible team we are fortunate to have built (and keep building), who balance our strengths and weaknesses, bring unique perspectives, knowledge, and skillsets, and care as deeply about our mission as we do.
  4. Ingenuity: There are so many problems that need to be solved, and for most of us, so few resources available to solve them, that you need to have the ability to think outside the box, innovate, and consistently do more with less.
  5. A thick skin: Know that you won’t ever be able to please everyone all at once, whether customers, employees, investors, or board members. Steve Jobs had a good quote on this: “If you want to make everyone happy, don’t be a leader — sell ice cream”. (I’m personally still working on this one!)

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

As our business grows, so does our impact — they go hand in hand. The more successful we are, the further we push our mission — to make it easy to eat delicious, nutritious, plant-forward foods that improve human health and the health of our planet.

Since starting Thistle we’ve been able to serve almost 10M meals to help improve the health of thousands of customers, while avoiding the emissions of ~3OM lbs of CO2 compared to the standard American diet.

We also are working hard to make sure that we reduce our own environmental footprint, that our diverse employees are well taken care of, and that we foster an equitable and inclusive workplace. All of our facilities run on 100% renewable wind and solar power, and we offset all of our emissions from last mile delivery. We’re committed to paying a fair living wage to all of our employees (all roles at Thistle pay a minimum of 20 dollars/hr, plus benefits), cultivate career progression, and make sure DEI is woven into all aspects of our business.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

The movement I hope to continue to inspire is for more people to go plant-based, which undoubtedly is one of the most impactful things you could do for the greatest number of beings on this planet. We’ve lost a staggering ~70% of wildlife populations since 1970, which is disproportionately driven by habitat destruction caused by agriculture — in particular, raising animals and their feed. Growing demand for meat as diets evolve and population grows coupled with climate change (to which agriculture is a major contributor) will only exacerbate these trends.

In terms of a movement to do the most good for the greatest number of people, we need to invest in girls’ education around the globe, which is one of the most effective ways to improve the wealth and health of local communities. Lack of education means more child marriages, more births, higher child and maternal mortality, less participation in the labor force, lower lifelong earnings and living standards, and a lower likelihood that girls can contribute to their families and communities as decision-makers and agents of change. Educating girls is a fundamental right and needs to be recognized as such — but incidentally it will also have major co-benefits for climate: Project Drawdown estimates that this is one of the most powerful climate change mitigation measures, with potential to reduce emissions by 85 GT over the next 30 years due to better education and family planning.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

So hard to choose just one person!

I’m still riding the Olympic wave so I’d have to say Allyson Felix. It’s not just her athletic achievements as the most decorated American track and field athlete in history. She is the epitome of strength, physical and emotional resilience, and using her voice to drive change. Despite an incredibly tough pregnancy and birth experience (including pre-eclampsia and an emergency C-section at 32 weeks), she was back training three months later. She then spoke out about her experience and the role of racial bias in driving disparities in maternal mortality to members of US Congress. And it wasn’t the first time she spoke out: in 2019 she publicly derided Nike’s refusal to guarantee salary protections for its pregnant athletes, leading Nike to a change in their policies. Allyson is also an entrepreneur, launching her own footwear company earlier this year. So when I think about role models, she’s on the top of my list.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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