Why We Left the Corporate World: The Women Behind Design My Meals
A celebrity chef was never invited into my Mom’s kitchen. Julia Child (and any recipe book) sat on the sidelines while Mom emptied her pantry into a huge pot and everything emerged deliciously. Growing up, she banned all five of us from her sunny kitchen while she sautéed, braised, stewed, and steamed—in solitude.
So as a big girl, it’s no wonder I shunned my newlywed arsenal of Calphalon (and the celebrity chefs grinning at me from the bookshelf)—and instead foraged my nightly dinner from the thick stack of takeout menus in my desk.
But, we all know there is something a little wasteful, artery-clogging, and, well, depressing about feeding yourself from shiny, grease-covered cartons. So almost a decade ago, I visited a local organic farm, signed up for its CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program, and started receiving a weekly basket— overflowing with tall stalks of rainbow chard, dark green zucchini, deep magenta beets, and massive heads of romaine lettuce.
The problem? I had absolutely no idea how to cook anything I’d just bought—and some of it I couldn’t even identify. Do you know what kohlrabi is? Neither did I. I was baffled (and somewhat frightened) by the green and lavender tentacles that sprouted from this cabbage-like vegetable.
Fast forward 10 years, and I’m proud to say my cooking acumen has increased. But, I will admit an ongoing struggle with some ingredients (including ol’ kohlrabi)—so I was delighted to find an online meal planning tool for CSA produce called Design My Meals.
The site, designed for “moms, cooks, CSA members, farmers’ market patrons,” or anyone looking to adopt a healthier lifestyle, is the creation of dermatologist Cara Moretti, MD, and hardware engineer Carla Bayot (who worked on Apple’s very first iPod). For the fourth part of our series on female founders in healthcare, I talked tech, organic farming, and using food as a “health preventative” with this engaging team of two.
Can you describe Design My Meals in a nutshell?
CB: We match what’s in your CSA box against our database, and tell you what do with those items. If you like a recipe, you can drag and drop it into your calendar, generate a grocery list, and even email it to your husband (or your store, if you have a way to order groceries).
CM: What that means for busy moms is not having to think about what to cook or what to shop for. It takes the guesswork out of whether something is healthy for each member of the household.
For patients struggling with conditions such as diabetes or kidney disease, it gives them the tools (our specialized diet filters) to choose and plan meals to help them stick to their diet.
Finally, for CSA customers, it means making better use of every delivery. I don't know if you have ever received one of those baskets, but I can tell you, short of just juicing everything in sight, it can be a real challenge to figure out what to do with all the kale, peppers, and bok choy.
How did you two meet?
CM: I met Carla at a Mommy and Me soccer game. I was with my wild three-year-old boy and carrying an infant in a Baby Bjorn, looking like a total mess, I’m sure.
She told me about her idea for cooking software, and I immediately started in on how I was obsessed with food and health. Later, she said she couldn’t believe she just told this woman her entire idea. We partnered immediately.
Carla, you left the bustle of big tech behind (after working with Apple, Xbox, Microsoft, and Cisco) to start Design My Meals. Why?
CB: I left Cisco to be a stay-at-home mom. I was burned out as an engineer in the Silicon Valley while trying to juggle being a mom and a wife. It’s hard.
My daughter and I started a garden. I talked to the farmer’s market merchants, they gave me a bunch of input, and everything grew as long as I matched its season. I asked the farmers how I could thank them and they replied, “Why don’t you thank us by getting more people into the farmer’s market?”
I then started to create a database on cooking what is in season, and in the middle of architecting this database, I met Cara. She told me why she left her practice and she was the missing piece that I needed.
Cara, you left your practice as a dermatologist to devote yourself to Design My Meals. What was your reasoning?
CM: In training, we had been taught to use $25,000/year TNF alpha blockers [a treatment for autoimmune disorders] to block the inflammation in psoriasis patients when other drugs failed. These drugs are so potent, potentially toxic, and expensive. It felt so backwards as I had become convinced that psoriasis was like acne, a disease with genetic underpinnings influenced by diet and environment.
Your diet and environment can affect the way your genes are expressed—in utero and even generations later. This is the field of epigenetics, and it's very cool.
So that influenced my decision to leave clinical practice and take a chance with Design My Meals, an intervention I thought would be akin to a public health approach. We'd try to reach millions of people with a very low risk and inexpensive intervention—changing their eating habits.
How has the company grown since its inception in 2010? What are your future goals?
CM: We haven't had our “official” launch (as our users are not yet paying for the service). In the meantime, we’ve had incredibly good feedback from people who work in corporate benefits, non-profit organizations like the YMCA, dieticians, doctors, and those in local agriculture. We’ve had more success in signing partnerships in each of those fields (over the past four or five months) than either of us ever believed possible.
We're also looking to build a nutrition and real food curriculum for kids to incorporate Design My Meals into school lesson plans. This way, kids can help cook and be more invested in their food choices. Ultimately, they may even be the driver of good eating habits in some homes.
Any words of inspiration for would-be healthcare entrepreneurs?
CM: Go for it. Especially if you're in the healthcare profession. A healthcare entrepreneur with a clinical background will have a very unique and advantaged perspective. They have worked within the system, with the technologies, with the patients, and they understand the science of medicine.
But, it is a particular type of clinician that can thrive in the entrepreneurial world. We are largely risk adverse in medicine, and that doesn’t work really well in the entrepreneurial world. In a way, we've been taught not to think too much outside the box, not to invent or improvise. We've been taught to follow the rules, and so it's harder to make that leap.
CB: I’ve been asked multiple times, “Why don’t you go back to Apple or Microsoft? Why don’t you go the safe route?” But I’ve done the corporate thing and my values have shifted. Those jobs are resume fillers—they are adding a benefit to a certain part of our culture, but that’s not our culture… for example, I’d be working on just another tool to help answer our phones better.
For me, it came down to the idea of health, family, wellness and education. This idea transcends the two of us and transcends the Design My Meals mission. We all have an unalienable right to be healthy.
For our next installment, in two weeks, we’ll introduce you to Sheryl Flynn, CEO of Blue Marble Game Co., an LA based start-up currently creating digital games to assist in recovery from brain injury.
About The Author
Varci Vartanian is a jack (er, Jill) of all trades. After a successful career in healthcare, she traded her lab coat for her current position as chief temper tantrum tamer/play date consultant for her two-year-old. She also enjoys writing short stories, freelance magazine work, and carbohydrates.