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The Founder Wants You To Trade In Your Vitamins For Real Food

In 2020, the topic of personal health and wellness became front and center for most consumers, with web searches for immunity and natural health soaring more than 75% as compared to previous years. Along with that, the functional food industry had already been climbing, projected to reach $440B by 2022. 

After spending time working as a food researcher for the U.N. and World Bank, Sara Cullen began experiencing a slew of bizarre chronic inflammation issues that impacted everything from her gut to her brain. Her journey, like so many others, led to the realization that she wasn’t getting the right nutrition. 

After working with women farmers and entrepreneurs in sustainable food networks all over the world, Cullen launched GEM in 2018 as a real food replacement for daily vitamins. Since then, 4.7 million of GEM’s Daily Essential bites have been shipped. 

Now, to respond to the demand for immune boosting foods and remedies for stress relief, GEM is launching three new bites: Immunity, Sleep and Calm. I had the pleasure of speaking with Cullen just prior to today’s launch. 

Amy Shoenthal: Tell me more about your background and how you ended up creating GEM. 

Sara Cullen: I am a two time entrepreneur in the food and beverage world. I started my career in an entrepreneurial fellowship called Venture for America, founded by Andrew Yang. I grew up on a farm in Oregon and have long been passionate about the world of food & nutrition. I studied international development through a food & policy lens at Cornell. Then I worked for the UN and World Bank where I conducted extensive research with women farmers and entrepreneurs in sustainable food networks from Morocco to Kenya to India and Vietnam.  

I built my first company in 2015, which opened my eyes to different types of plants in that have incredible healing impacts, most of which are completely unknown. Ultimately, I was inspired to start GEM based on my own experiences and my frustration with our reductionist approaches to health. 

In my mid-20’s I started getting swellings on my face and I wasn’t sure what was going on. I went through allergy and blood tests and it turned out that I was nutrient deficient. The reality is that the food we eat today contains far fewer nutrients than it did 50 years ago. So even though I thought I was doing all the right things, I still was not getting the nutrition that my body needed.

So of course I turned to supplements. But the more I researched the vitamin aisle, the more I found out how broken it was. There were lots of fillers like corn, soy and wheat which were the very things I was allergic to. This experience opened my eyes even further to our broken food system. 

Under the simple philosophy that food itself is medicine, I wanted to create a whole food alternative to the pill or gummy. So I brought people in from all different backgrounds: nutritionists, biologists, you name it. We wanted to build a product that was very holistic but based on modern science, bridging eastern and western medicine. 

Shoenthal: What obstacles did you face as you were building GEM?  

Cullen: We wanted to launch an end-to-end eco-packaging system from the start, but it was incredibly costly and we ran into a lot of challenges in getting it to scale. We had to compromise in certain areas in those early days so we could get a product to market that was affordable and accessible. We initially launched with a recyclable plastic container rather than the tin we have now. With scale and time, we’ve been able to overcome some of our early roadblocks and we’re proud to now have a fully sustainable system with refillable tins, compostable refill packs, and eco-friendly mailers.

Shoenthal: When did you realize you were starting to see success as you built your business?

Cullen: A turning point was the moment we had more than 100 people using our product. We started to hear stories from customers who had been searching for a solution to their chronic ailments for years but nothing worked until they found GEM. Those who were fatigued with swallowing handfuls of pills and cobbling together complicated routines could now simply and delightfully eat one bite of real food. People who were skeptical of the synthetic, artificial, and overly processed pills and candy finally found a whole food solution that they could access affordably, conveniently, and all in one bite.

Shoenthal: How has the pandemic forced you to pivot your business?  

Cullen: We’ve been really fortunate because we create a product that helps your immunity and health – something that people are investing in now more than ever. In 2020 the business grew more than 450% and we also saw customer retention increase month-to-month throughout the pandemic.

There were some educational moments for people when things came out about Vitamin D and COVID-19. For example, 90% of Vitamin D on shelves comes from lanolin, an oil derived from sheep’s wool. In GEM, our Vitamin D comes from natural sources like whole mushrooms and algae. Because we are using whole plant ingredients, the base is dried fruit plants and seeds instead of fillers.

Three decades ago 1 in 400 people developed autoimmune diseases and now 1 in 12 have one. We are overwhelmed by stress and chronic inflammation, and statistically we are not getting healthier. 

We really want people to fill the gap with the nutrients they’re not getting. For example, you might be surprised to learn that calcium isn’t in our Daily Essentials bite, but we want people to understand they can get that in their regular diet. We want to focus on the things that are harder to get from your daily diet. What you’re not getting is a lot of K2 which is something that helps calcium absorb in your body. That’s why we have chickpeas in our Daily Essentials bite, because they’re a great source of K2.  

Shoenthal: What are you most excited about right now?

Cullen: We’re launching a few new products to address the health concerns that are top of mind for Americans: Sleep, Calm and Immunity. Immunity is a holistic bite that is focused on inflammation and prevention which is why we have curcumin in it.

We built our sleep product because most people take melatonin but that can be very habit forming. Your body naturally produces melatonin, so when you take the synthetic form it sends a signal to your body to stop producing melatonin on it’s own. We use valerian root in our Sleep bite which is an ancient remedy. We also use GABA, an amino acid that acts as a neurotransmitter in the central nervous system to naturally reduce the activity of nerves in the brain. It helps combat stress, helps calm and soothe the body and it’s not habit forming. 

All our products are meant to fit together. You can take these bites any time of day. Because these are all whole food based you don’t get nauseous with it. It’s not like you’re taking a pill on an empty stomach, you’re eating a whole food. 

Shoenthal: What’s the best advice anyone has ever given you?

Cullen: Embrace what you don’t know and don’t be afraid of figuring it out. 

Shoenthal: What advice would you give to others starting their own business in your industry or embarking on a new venture?

Cullen: Know your why –- the essence of what you’re building. Why are you different? Why does your customer need you? Ask why, over and over again, until you get to the core. That essence will become your north star and will help steer you through all the noise that will inevitably attempt to cloud it.

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