Hillary Lewis awoke on a clear September morning in 2013 in Charlottesville, Virginia, with an awful feeling. She’d overslept to 7:30 a.m. (she usually rises at 6:00 a.m.), and she was expecting the biggest delivery of her life — quite literally.
A “Wide Load” truck with a 35,000-pound high-pressure processing (HPP) machine was barreling down the highway toward Charlottesville as she lay in bed racking her brain. What was missing?
The crane company had never called to confirm. Was it coming? The HPP machine team had flown in from Spain to oversee the installation — the electrician perth, plumbing, and refrigeration guys were all at the warehouse twiddling their thumbs. She was paying for the flatbed truck by the hour, but without the crane, there was no way to move the machine off the truck and into the new headquarters of her startup. Everyone would be idle while her first serious capital injection dripped away minute by minute.
Lewis, a ’13 Darden MBA, was in the process of launching Lumi Organics, a startup that produces all-natural juices and pasteurizes them with high-pressure processing, instead of the standard heat or chemical processes that often destroy key nutrients. Lumi (shorthand for “love you, mean it”) cold-presses two pounds of organic fruits and vegetables into each 16-ounce bottle. The processing method is a key differentiator in a crowded marketplace, according to Lewis. High-pressure processing is particularly effective for preserving vital enzymes and nutrients, she explains.
WHO’S IN CHARGE?
The Spanish overseer from the HPP installation team demanded to see the man in charge. The then-27-year-old Lewis piped in, “I’m the women in charge.” The overseer mumbled the Spanish equivalent of f*ck under his breath.
The crew crowded around Lewis and bombarded her with questions: Was the crane coming? When? How long would it take? “I look at all these guys that were older than me and was like, ‘Listen, it’s not helpful for anyone to be freaking out right now; there’s nothing we can do about it besides find a solution, so I need everyone to calm down,’ she recalls. Unfazed, Lewis started calling every crane company in the area. She was determined to find the right one or at least someone to come lift the machine off the truck.
THE PRESSURE COOKER
Lewis, now 29, isn’t one to bend to pressure. In fact, her first foray into business after graduating from Penn State in 2008 had prepped her for pressure-cooker situations. After collecting her diploma, she moved to New York City and joined Lehman Brothers.
Her first week at the desk, the firm went bankrupt. “It was tragic for the amount of money people lost all around the world, but it was a really interesting learning experience. It forced me to have responsibility straight of the gate at Barclays after they acquired Lehman,” she recalls. So while the men around her grumbled about the crane, Lewis kept calm and dialed on. “Freaking out about something doesn’t get you anywhere … you have to be cool, calm, and collected. That was something I learned at Penn State as student body president and then also on Wall Street,” she says.
She worked as an analyst for nearly two years at Barclays before joining Avenue Capital Group in 2010 as an associate. There, Lewis worked with teams to turnaround “distressed companies.” Still, something was missing. “At the end of the day, I didn’t feel like my day-to-day work was very rewarding, and I wasn’t doing something that was necessarily improving other people’s lives,” she recalls.
Lewis decided to go for her MBA. In her essays, she laid out three goals: 1. Start my own company 2. Use U.S. manufacturers 3. Provide some sort of public service. In 2011, she enrolled at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business determined to launch her own enterprise.
THE EARLY ENTREPRENEUR
Lewis dived into the school’s entrepreneurship activities. Her first year, she attended the Jefferson Innovation Summit and remembers being inspired by John Mackey, the co-founder and co-CEO of Whole Foods Market. For her summer internship, she worked for Altamar Brands, a spirits startup, while subletting a room in a friend’s Boston apartment. Her bosses were on either coast, leaving her to find her own way and set her own schedule, an experience she says prepped her for running a company solo.
Despite driving hard for entrepreneurship from the get-go, Lewis still experienced doubts. “I was applying for consulting roles, and I remember being in an interview with BCG or Bain, it was one of the two, and the person I was interviewing with just looked at me and was asked, ‘Why are you here?’ … I was like why are you asking me this question in an interview. But it was a good question. It made me stop and think about what I really wanted to do,” she says.
Lewis left the interview and reread her B-school admissions essays. She knew what she wanted to do: start her own company.