Growing up in Hong Kong to an Indian family, Gayatri Karandikar WG19 knows how isolating it can feel to have a multicultural background. “In every place that I landed, I was like the outsider,” she says.
After working in consulting, Karandikar applied to Wharton with the goal of bringing equity into product strategy, so the Wharton Asian American Association of MBAs (WAAAM) was a natural fit for her. Karandikar’s interest in the food industry grew further as one of the only MBAs enrolled in Penn’s “Nutrition Science and Application” course.
Now, she uses her unique mixture of business and nutritional knowledge to debunk food myths and encourage culinary diversity as part of her role as general manager at HelloFresh, which specializes in food and meal kit delivery. “It’s actually been a challenge,” says Karandikar of helping consumers rethink their food habits. “Consumers have good intentions but aren’t always supported with the best options on their food journeys. My goal is to change that, with a sprinkling of fun and novelty along the way.”
Through WAAAM, Karandikar found classmates who were also pursuing a career in the food industry, but down very different paths. At Wharton, Jenny Mi WG19 went the traditional consumer packaged goods route with an internship at General Mills, while Gina Shi WG19 focused on her Entrepreneurship and Innovation major coursework. But one thing they all shared was a determination to understand the customer.
“My team’s role is to really be the consumer voice,” says Mi, who is now head of product insights at Impossible Foods, which develops plant-based meat substitutes. Mi partners closely with the research and development team and food scientists to make decisions on everything from packaging to pricing to flavoring. “A lot of times, especially with food decision-making, the factors that really drive consumers are not always rational ones.”
As Mi was paving her way in the CPG space, Shi was traveling around the world to find inspiration for her own food brand. After living in China for two years, Shi knew there was a mountainous region in Taiwan that grew shitake mushrooms, but she was blown away by how many snacks revolved around the fungi — from mushroom candies to mushroom drinks. She thought a variation of mushroom jerky would be the easiest for an American audience to comprehend. “The texture and the taste are very similar to beef jerky,” she says.
Because of the cross-continental shipping, Shi also knew she had to choose a product that could travel easily, unlike chips which could be easily smashed. The portability combined with the nutritional and eco-friendly properties made it a no-brainer.
Shi’s Munchrooms launched in the summer of 2020 and currently has three flavors, including a smoked teriyaki. A new sauce in the works involves stewing garlic, jalapeno, green onion, and olive oil for 12 hours. “Asian flavors don’t necessarily need to be relegated to the international aisle,” says Shi. “I hope they’re becoming more mainstream and so they can just be a flavor that you find in the supermarket.”
Mi has also faced the challenge of making Asian American food be viewed as more mainstream. One example is ground pork – because it is purchased primarily by Asian consumers, it is often overlooked as a retail product for grocery stores, she says.
While grocery stores may still have a way to go, Karandikar has been making strides in introducing Asian flavors to home delivery meal kits. During May, Asian American-Pacific Islander Heritage Month, HelloFresh will be featuring meals from Asian American chefs – from a tomato-garlic chicken curry to a dim sum platter. The latter is based on a personal memory from Karandikar.
“Dim Sum Sundays were the thing for my family,” says Karandikar. “So these meals provide that hosting, community-oriented feel as well. Food is so much more than fuel. It’s about connection and heritage and representing yourself. And so why not give people that opportunity through our recipes?”
But when it comes to the corporate side of food, diversity needs to go beyond just the product. Karandikar and Mi have both represented their culture through employee resource groups, keeping the Asian American diaspora top-of-mind for their colleagues. Mi’s group recently presented on the differences between Chinese New Year and Lunar New Year. “There are different traditions if you’re Vietnamese American versus Korean American,” Mi says. “There’s similarities across different ethnicities, but also nuances too.”
Karandikar agrees that there is more work to be done: “Inclusion is at the center of everything, whether it’s flavor or the types of people you’re showing in ads. You don’t have to be a nonprofit to serve the world in a better, more intentional way. You can deliver on your bottom line — and even bolster it — by doing the right thing.”