As promised in last week’s post, we bring you the first Q&A with the first place winner of the Unbreakable Awards for women: Jessica Dang. Jess is the founder of Cook Smarts, a kitchen inspiration company that provides healthy meal plans to promote good health and habits. We asked her about her beginnings, the story behind this successful business, and more about what makes her unbreakable. We hope you enjoy her story as much as we did!
Q: Where does Cook Smarts story begin?
A: I left my corporate job in late 2011 because I wanted to start a company that would improve the health of others through cooking education.
When I was 17, I was diagnosed with Hepatitis C.
For those of you who don’t know what Hep-C is, it’s a virus that attacks the liver and in some cases can be life threatening. I got it through a blood transfusion I received when I was born, and back in 1981, donated blood wasn’t yet tested for the virus. By 1998––when I was giving blood at my high school’s blood drive––donations were tested for the virus. As a result, I found out that I could have a life-threatening virus from a generic form letter from the organization that ran the blood drive.
I went through a year of treatment, which was rough. Fortunately, treatment went well for me. While the side effects were pretty standard and terrible––hair loss, fatigue, loss of appetite, depression, anxiety, cognition loss––my test results were good. If they continued to be good, my doctors said I had a good chance of leading a normal and healthy life.
Even with the good news, I wasn’t quite ready to believe that everything was going to be okay. Not surprisingly, my faith in life had been shaken up.
Instead, I promised myself that if I lived to see 30, I would do something to help others lead a healthier life because I knew how much it sucked to feel unhealthy and helpless.
Until 30, I would try to live life as normally as I could. Every year, I anxiously went to my medical check-ups, but luckily my results remained positive. Birthdays were celebrated, and then I turned 30 in 2011. I made it. To keep my promise, I resigned from my job at Visa a month later to start Cook Smarts.
Q: What was the hardest part about having Hep-C at such a young age?
A: The uncertainty. Until my diagnosis, I was just like any other teenager. I was in the middle of applying for college and determined to go places, but that letter made my future incredibly uncertain. Instead of finishing up high school like a normal senior, I began a series of unending doctors visits and tests. Not a lot was known about Hep-C at that time, and treatments were still fairly new and limited. There were a lot of unknowns, and I just had no idea how things would turn out for me.
Q: What are some of the challenges you faced when you started Cook Smarts?
A: Oh gosh, there were so many!
Figuring out the right product was tough. I really wanted to create a product or service that could teach as many people to cook as possible, and it took a year of working with home cooks in their kitchens to figure out what that was going to be. Most people were going to be too busy to find the time to take regular cooking lessons, even if they were online. That’s when the idea of the meal plan service happened. There were already other meal plan services out there, but ours would differentiate by focusing on the educational component. People had to cook dinner––now they could cook dinner and get a mini cooking lesson at the same time!
It was also a challenge to find the resources. I started this company from my personal savings, which means I didn’t have the funds to hire a web developer at Silicon Valley rates. However, I needed to build a site and a web app to get our meal plan service launched! I thought one solution would be to find a technical co-founder, so I started going on ‘founder dates’, mostly with twenty-something male engineers.
I kept thinking, ‘I thought I got married so that I didn’t have to go on dates with twenty something guys!’
During this time, I got a lot of Nos. They weren’t convinced of the idea. It was challenging to stay confident while also worrying about how this was ever going to get done. After a few months of little progress, I decided to start learning to code myself.
Because of my limited resources, I felt like I had to do everything. I just didn’t have the budget to hire or outsource anything. I was working non-stop, but wasn’t seeing a lot of growth. I felt defeated during this time. I was running a health company but definitely didn’t feel healthy myself!
Eventually, I realized I needed to bring on help. I couldn’t do everything, and bringing on the right people to help Cook Smarts grow was the best decision I could make. It allowed me to spend more time focusing on the right things. Hiring also made me feel like I had a company and not just a personal project.
Q: What are some of the moments you’ve had with Cook Smart that gave you drive to continue?
A: There are so many!
We get such positive feedback from our members! We get the most wonderful emails and Facebook posts from our community. We feel so lucky that they take the time to tell us how we’ve changed their lives. They tell us that they’re more confident in the kitchen, they’re eating better, losing weight, and exposing their kids to cooking and eating well early on. Knowing that the work you do is truly making an impact is such an amazing feeling.
It was also amazing when we got some press! We were voted the #1 meal planning app on Lifehacker, and we were featured on the Today Show alongside venture-backed meal kit companies like Plated and HelloFresh. Being such a small company and getting this recognition was such great validation!
It’s also incredible when your own members want to work for you––and do! We’ve been lucky to mostly hire from our member base. We get lots of inquiries from members about job openings. It makes me feel like I’m running a great company when people are excited to work for you!
Q: Why do you call yourself the Chief Kitchen Cheerleader?
A: I was over corporate world titles and wanted to run my company very differently. I wanted my members and readers to feel like first and foremost, I was their cheerleader and I cared about them, and that all the business stuff was secondary.
Q: Where do you see Cook Smart in ten years?
A: We want to continue making cooking education accessible to as many as possible. My dream is to have a Cook Smarts curriculum taught in our schools, food banks, and corporate wellness programs all over the world.
Thanks for spending some time with us, Jess! You’re truly an inspiration for us women to eat better, live healthier, and chase after our dreams no matter what stands in the way. You really are unbreakable!