2022 Most Disruptive MBA Startups: Berman Foods, Rice University (Jones)

Berman Foods

Rice University, Jones Graduate School of Business

Industry: Food and Beverage, CPG

Founding Student Name(s): Delaney Berman

Brief Description of Solution: Artisanal, plant-based cheeses and spreads that taste delicious and are made from nourishing ingredients you know and love.

Funding Dollars: $1,500 in pitch competition prize money, and we’re about to start raising our pre-seed round.

What led you to launch this venture? I have been predominantly plant-based for over a decade and good, French-style cheeses are the only animal-based food I’ve missed. I’ve witnessed the exponential growth in other plant-based food categories while cheese has lagged. Once I started talking to consumers, I heard again and again that people felt that the nutrition of existing plant-based cheese options was just as disappointing as the flavor. So, I set out to create cheeses that would be both satisfying and nutritious—ones you’d feel excited to include on a cheese plate, and comfortable serving to your kid.

What has been your biggest accomplishment so far with venture? The best part of launching this venture has been watching customers sample the cheeses and seeing and hearing their reactions. It makes me proud each time a customer skeptically takes a sample, and then their eyes go wide as they say, “This is actually good!” Customer feedback is the most rewarding part.

How has your MBA program helped you further this startup venture? While I had been thinking about this problem space for a couple years, I launched my venture in a class at Rice called the New Enterprise, which is basically our Startup 101 class. I had four wonderful classmates who worked on the problem with me for months in that class, where we defined the problem and solution, conducted market research and conducted customer discovery interviews. From there, through our career center, I applied to a VC summer associate internship at a VC firm with strong ties to Rice. I didn’t get the job, but they invited me to incubate at Mercury Fund for the summer, where I gained invaluable insights and support from their team.

I continued working on my venture in classes at Rice through my second year, where my extraordinary classmates and faculty helped me think through critical aspects of the business. A few Rice friends spent their time outside of class trying the prototypes, giving me feedback, helping me make and sell cheeses, buying cheeses, telling their friends and family about Berman Foods, and introducing me to potential investors and partners. The list goes on-and-on. I found a wonderful community through the Lilie Lab, which is our center for innovation and entrepreneurship on campus. The Director there, Kyle Judah, has been an incredible mentor to me. Finally, Rice Business introduced me to a fellow Rice Biz alum and food founder, Turner Hoff of Vegetable + Butcher, from whom I’ve learned a tremendous amount. In short, none of this would’ve happened without Rice. I’ve been met with more support from the Rice community than I ever imagined possible, and I’m eternally grateful.

What founder or entrepreneur inspired you to start your own entrepreneurial journey? How did he or she prove motivational to you? First-and-foremost, my mom has been teaching me about business my whole life. She’s an MBA as well (she earned hers while pregnant with me AND working a full-time job!), and my parents founded and ran their own law firm for many years. I bounce ideas off her and get her feedback daily, and I cannot imagine pursuing entrepreneurship without her guidance.

Additionally, I’ve long admired Reese Witherspoon and Sara Blakely. They both approach entrepreneurship with so much tenacity, authenticity, and passion. They’ve shown me that not only do women build impactful and successful companies, but that it’s possible to do so while remaining generous, funny, down-to-earth, and true to yourself.

Finally, my brother is a fellow food founder. His creativity and innate understanding of flavor and fermentation inspire me. He created a line of lacto-fermented hot sauces, which I’m excited to say he’s bringing under the Berman Foods umbrella to lead our product innovation!

Which MBA class has been most valuable in building your startup and what was the biggest lesson you gained from it? The New Venture (Parts 1 and 2) was the most valuable class I took since it taught me how to build a product and company that consumers want. Professors Panahi, Judah, and Danto helped me hone my entrepreneurial strategy and taught me a framework for building a customer-driven startup, to avoid spending time and resources creating a product that no one wants to buy. Furthermore, they gave me the confidence to bring my idea into the real world and continue to support me to this day.

What professor made a significant contribution to your plans and why? It’s challenging to pick one professor. So many of my professors made significant contributions to my venture. In addition to my entrepreneurship professors named above, I’d also include Professor Ioffe, who taught Dilemmas in Founding New Ventures and brought in founders from a range of fields to speak to us about their experiences and invited me to do a cheese sampling in class. Finally, my marketing Professors Gopalakrishnan, who taught CLV and Advanced Marketing Research, and Dholakia, who taught Customer Experience Management, taught me how to collect and analyze critical customer feedback and insights. They allowed me to use my venture as my final project topic to gain insights from them and my classmates.

How has your local startup ecosystem contributed to your venture’s development and success? Houston is a fabulous place to build a startup. There is a lot of opportunity here, and a close-knit, highly active entrepreneurship scene. Through the Rice, Mercury Fund, and Houston entrepreneurship ecosystem, I’ve found supportive and engaged customers, friends and mentors who have contributed a great deal to Berman Foods. Initially, I only planned on staying in Houston for my two years at Rice, and now I can’t imagine leaving. This is exactly where I want to continue building Berman Foods.

What is your long-term goal with your startup? To get every American enjoying plant-based foods!


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