Portrait of a Girlboss: Why Sakara Founders Whitney Tingle and Danielle DuBois Want You to Eat the Rainbow (But Also Chocolate Cake)
In hindsight, it’s no surprise that childhood friends Whitney Tingle and Danielle DuBoise would one day go on to co-found the coveted, plant-based organic meal delivery company Sakara; while the rest of us were wrapping Fruit by the Foot around our thumbs and going to town, they were snacking on chlorella tablets and eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on “bread with twigs and berries sticking out of it,” Whitney recalls, laughing. The pair grew up in Sedona, a city in Arizona known for its breathtaking red sandstone formations and large population of people who take a serious interest in the “mind, body, food connection,” as Whitney puts it. And yet as adulthood inevitably arrived and Whitney and Danielle set out on their respective paths—Whitney, in a finance career on Wall Street, and Danielle studying biochem in New York with the intention of going to med school—the incessant hustle of city life began to take its toll on them, too.
Whitney gained 15 pounds and the cystic acne she’d battled since high school came back with a vengeance; she found herself exhausted, overworked, and feeling perpetually out of balance. After seeking treatment from New York City’s top dermatologists and coming away with only recommendations to get back on Acutane or get aggressive with antibiotics, Whitney felt at a loss: “I had done those and they didn't work. Something inside of me was saying ‘Don't do it, it's not the answer. Go inside, find the root cause, treat that, and the symptoms will go away.’ That's where I felt like I needed to turn back to my Sedona roots—the understanding that food is medicine—and start there.”
Meanwhile, Danielle was finding herself similarly frustrated with options that were starting to strike her as increasingly unviable and even dangerous. “Since a young age, I’d been battling with body image issues and had tried so many diets over the years. By the time I got to New York, all of a sudden there's everyone doing juice cleanses. Every diet I kept trying just kept getting more and more extreme.” And she’s not kidding about how intense some of these diets were; after signing up for a seven-day “water fast” (which, yeah, is exactly what it sounds like), Danielle came back so ill she had to be hospitalized and put on medication. “I realized that food had totally become the enemy and I looked at it like something I had to do. It wasn't something that was enjoyable. I got to a point where I didn't even know how to eat well anymore.”
And so it was from Whitney and Danielle’s simultaneous frustrations that the first iteration of Sakara was born. In the wake of the water-fast incident, Danielle began to pursue a nutrition track rather than med school, and she brought her education straight into their kitchen, where the pair began developing what they call their “pillars of nutrition,” which contains principles such as making sure you’re “eating your water” through hydrating fruits and vegetables rather than just drinking it, and “eating the rainbow” in the form of a wide, colorful array of produce.
The results were so transformative and quick for them that they knew they’d hit upon something bigger. “We wanted to really help people understand that food is medicine,” Danielle told us, and so in 2011, they started spreading the good word: They held a dinner for 50 people, serving food built around their principles, and from that dinner they raised $700—enough to start their website and establish the building blocks of a meal delivery service. The years that followed came with all the accompanying charm of starting a business out of your own kitchen: 4 a.m. delivery runs and showing up on customers’ doorsteps with coconut flour on their faces and kale in their hair.
But of course, that hard work has paid off. Six years later, Sakara is being touted as the secret weapon of supermodels, and it’s turned the likes of Gwyneth, Lena Dunham, Kate Hudson and Lily Aldridge into superfans. They have since expanded delivery service to all over the country, and for those looking for a more piece-by-piece approach, they’ve launched a line of inventive snacks (watermelon jerky! Chocolate probiotics!).
Danielle and Whitney talked with Girlboss further about the mental shift of thinking about food as medicine, the blissful ignorance of the early days, the importance of eating chocolate cake, and why you can take the girls out of Sedona but can’t ever take the Sedona out of the girls:
So I want to rewind to the early days a little bit, because I think people who are new to Sakara see this super glamorous, polished product. But it wasn’t that long ago that you guys were doing the deliveries yourselves, dodging New York City traffic on your bikes.
Whitney: You know when they say “Ignorance is bliss”? You think about that when you're in it and just starting out. We had such a big vision for what we wanted the business to be and all the people that we could help, and we had so much passion that we didn't realize how difficult it was. We started out doing the cooking ourselves and delivering on our bicycles, and we are not chefs, so that was hard. Eventually, we were able to hire chefs. Managing a kitchen and a kitchen staff was really hard, with organic produce and farmers. There were just so many different factors and things that go wrong. I think that it was our blind faith of just knowing that we're on the right path that kept us going through all the ups and downs.
As co-founders, you’ve had to learn how to lead a team of what is now over 80 employees. What has that process been like? And does being such close friends add an additional layer of complexity to that?
Whitney: I think because we grew up together, being co-leaders works out really well. We're best friends and soul sisters first, and because we've spent more years of our lives together than apart, we communicate really well. We understand each other, and we understand each other's non-verbal communication, too. Sometimes we speak telepathically to each other, which really helps in business and in a partnership [laughs].
Danielle: Because we are friends first, we really want the best for each other first and foremost. But we're also equally passionate about what we're doing because it affected our lives so much. Even though we started this from a young age and much of our leadership team is older than we are, I think that leadership came a little easier to us because we had each other. If we ever had doubts about what we were doing, we could talk about it instead of putting our doubts or fears on the team. I think that for us, leadership really means having certainty in your path and that you're headed in the right direction. You have to maintain the huge vision even though sometimes you have to get in the trenches and worry about the micro things. You have to keep that big vision ahead of you all the time.
I think that is one of the most difficult parts of our job. Everyone comes to their career with hopes and dreams. They want to be challenged but they want to be supported. Building on those connections and inspiring people is something we love to do.
You have all these high-profile clients and great press. Can you talk a little bit more about how you approached marketing in the beginning and how that eventually led you here?
Whitney: It was definitely much more word of mouth. Our very first marketing strategy was to put out marketing cards in cafes and yoga studios and around the neighborhood. I think when you create a product that transforms somebody's life, they want to talk about it. The people who started ordering were ones who were looking for something like this. I think that celebrities and influencers have the pressure to look good and always have a ton of energy and glowing skin, so they have been down a similar path of diets and cleanses and everything else, and they learned that they needed a lifestyle solution, too. They were definitely looking for this and I think that that's why they found us early on and they continue to be some of our best clients.
Danielle: I also think that people can tell that it comes from a very authentic place. Our first few clients really understood that it was [based on] our own transformation, and they just wanted to be a part of that.
So I think a lot of people want to eat clean in theory, but in practice, life tends to get in the way. How do you stay true to your principles when, say, a friend invites you to a crazy delicious steakhouse for a birthday party and it just looks so. freaking. good?
Danielle: We don't believe in diets. We call this a lifestyle and plant-based living for a reason, and that's because we believe that you are what you do the majority of the time. Food is information, so the kind of information that you're feeding yourself most of the time is what's most important. We're not vegans or vegetarians and we don't think that you have to do that to be healthy, but we do mostly eat plants. What that kind of choice does for you is it allows you to understand where your home base is—to understand how you have to eat to feel like your best self. But then you also understand the spectrum of where you get to live with your diet in order to maintain those results. It was just Whitney's birthday this weekend and we went out to dinner. We eat whatever we want when we decide that that's what we want to do, but the most important thing is knowing Monday is Sakara. We eat this way most of the time.
Whitney: It allows you to live guilt-free, too. When you do want to eat that amazing chocolate birthday cake, then that's okay. You should do it with lots of pleasure and enjoyment and not feel guilty about it, or stare at something and say "Ugh, I really want to eat that, but I shouldn’t" and have this conversation with yourself in your head. Just go for it. You know where your home base is. Indulging here and there—and we don't even really call it indulging, because it's just life—that's okay, because your body can handle that.
Any advice you can offer to women looking to start up a business of their own?
Danielle: We usually say a couple things: One, don't wait for things to be perfect until you decide to start your company or start working on your passion. That said, even though you shouldn't wait til things are perfect by any means, we had no idea what we were doing when we started. I do tell a lot of younger girls that they should spend some time becoming an expert in something.
Whatever you decide that is, whether it's social media or it's finance or marketing, become an expert in one thing, because you don't want to use that time while you're trying to build a business to become an expert. You'll have to learn everything else anyways, but at that point it's so helpful to be an expert in one thing so that you can really drive that part of the business forward.