MIT 100K Thought Leadership Series: Noramay Cadena on investing in the changing face of food and consumers

We were thrilled to sit down Noramay Cadena, an alumna of MIT and an early-stage investor based in Los Angeles, California for our first MIT 100K interview! Noramay is a proud alumna, and holds a B.A. in Mechanical Engineering and a M.S. in Systems Engineering from MIT, in addition to a M.B.A. from MIT Sloan School of Management.

Noramay is a pioneer of culture and diversity-focused investing. Currently, Noramay is building her new firm, Supply Change Capital, along with Sloan classmate Shayna Harris. Noramay chats with us about her entrée to venture capital, investing with a purpose, and why investing at the intersection of food and culture presents some of the biggest investment opportunities of the decade.

Noramay Cadena, founding partner of Supply Change Capital

How did you get into venture capital?

I’m happiest at the intersection of innovation, equity, and impact. I had spent about a dozen years in the aerospace sector, and after business school, I wanted to be in a position to innovate quickly and to continuously bring new products to market. I was working coming off a program in which the team had a hard time wrapping their arms around a fast- moving new entrant as a formidable competitor.

In parallel to my corporate job, I had cofounded a nonprofit organization that was helping young women discover fields of science, technology, engineering, and math. And after several years of burning the candle at both ends, I sought a convergence in work scope. I thought I would find that and tick all the boxes I was looking for through a role at an early-stage venture-backed company in Los Angeles.

Instead, I joined forces with an angel investor who had experience and passion around hardware and together we cofounded MiLA Capital as an early stage firm investing in tech you can touch. Our goal was to fill a funding gap for first time founders bringing physical products to market in health, mobility, climate tech, food/ag tech, and industrial IoT. In what felt like a decade but was really just a Fund I investment period, we ran five cohorts of an accelerator program, built out a 35,000 square foot innovation lab, recruited a mentor network of over 100 experts, and invested in 22 companies.

I found early stage venture capital to be the right-for-me intersection of innovation and community building and once I was in, I became deeply involved in the ecosystem through the Kauffman Fellows program, as a founding board member of Latinx VC, and as a lead investor with Portfolia’s Rising America Fund.

You’ve now started a couple of venture firms, can you tell us about those?

By 2020, our team at MiLA Capital had fully deployed our fund and we transitioned into support mode for our portfolio. I used the inflection point to check in (personally and professionally) with friends and mentors as I evaluated where in the ecosystem I could best scale my impact.

That exploration led me to reconnect with Shayna Harris, one of core teammates from MIT Sloan (go Egrets!). Shayna had spent her entire career in food, from the nonprofit space, to the corporate sector, to scaling venture backed companies, and we found serendipitous whitespace rooted in knowledge that we were like-minded and like-hearted. Our independent angel investments in Omsom naturally led us to develop our core thesis and approach for an early stage venture firm.

Supply Change Capital invests in the changing face of food. We are bullish about the 2045 tipping point where the minority becomes the majority citizen in the US, and the incredible, $100+ billion incremental opportunity that this presents for food. We think about the food ecosystem holistically, and invest at the intersection of food, culture, and technology, specifically targeting sustainable ingredients, high-integrity brands with cultural appeal, and technology from farm to fork.

What is the top question that a founder seeking early-stage investment should be able to answer?

Here are two questions that are often missed, and I’m not sure why.

Firstly: “Why is now a good time for this company?”.

Building a company is like timing arrival at a happy hour (for me anyway). Being early doesn’t guarantee the networking worm. It’s important for founders to talk about the forces that are in play now that make the entrepreneur’s solution relevant, timely, and reinforced by market momentum.

I can apply this to my work at Supply Change Capital. The market forces that are at play now are 1) A ‘better for you’ food movement that has us all thinking about how to eat cleaner. 2) A call for supply chain transparency and traceability; a desire to truly understand where our food originates from. 3) Sustainability is top of mind, as is climate tech. We’re exploring full value streams for harvesting, processing, packaging and logistics that are sustainability conscious. And 4) Collectively, the industry is more conscious and proactive about investing with a gender and diversity lens. Together, these market forces position our firm in unique and beautiful Venn diagram of opportunity.

Similarly, I want to hear founders talk about the forces at play that can yield momentum, provide traction, and create a tailwind for their business.

The second question is also around timing: “Why does raising capital make sense right now? How are you going to put this capital to work?”.

Similarly, I have a fund analogy. I would not call capital unless I had a plan to deploy it.

So I like to hear founders talk about the inflection point that has led them to fundraise. And beyond “use of funds”, I’m more interested in hearing about what the capital unlocks. What opportunities can they deliver on? How will they supercharge the team break linear growth?

Can you tell us about a favorite or best investment that you’ve made?

Tough call. I’ve been in venture for the last six years and between fund investments and angel investments, we’re looking at nearly 40 contenders.

One that is top of mind these days is Omsom, one of my angel investments. Omsom was started to “bring proud, loud Asian flavors to your fingertips any day of the week, sitting in your pantry right between the tomato sauce and olive oil.” The founders are sisters and daughters of Vietnamese refugees who grew up at their family’s kitchen counter, watching Viet dinners being cooked from scratch every night. The love language of food, which I can relate to as a first gen Mexican-American and daughter to an incredible cook, inspired them to reclaim Asian cuisine without cultural compromise and dilution.

And zooming out, this investment catalyzed the thesis for Supply Change Capital. It was debriefing the opportunity we saw in this company that Shayna and I found our niche at the intersection of food, culture, and technology.

What are some of the best ways that 100K competitors and founders build relationships with VCs?

This really depends on the types of investors you want to build relationships with. The community focused venture capitalists are easy to find and often encourage cold outreach via Twitter, email, or website self-selection. These relationships are increasingly based on affinities and don’t require a ton of strategy.

To build a relationship with a venture capitalist that is willing to roll up their sleeves, early stage programs are a good way to connect, as they tend to attract those willing to spend time advising and mentoring.

Top level advice is to practice the art of the introduction email and to tailor this for every receiver based on information you can glean from social media. I’ve received inbounds from some founders who are beautifully skilled at navigating the delicate balance between showing respect and delivering inspiration. When I find those people, I tend to reply, ‘Wow, that’s a killer email, I’m intrigued. Let’s have a conversation’. The homework then is for the founder is to figure out how to keep the investor engaged.

What are some great woman-founded companies that you are excited about?

There are so many! The Portfolia Rising America Fund, where I’m a lead investor, recently invested in Suma Wealth. Suma Wealth is a fintech company in Los Angeles with a mission to make financial inclusion fun, accessible, and simple for the Latino community. They focus on being culturally authentic first before simply multilingual. The founder, Beatriz Acevedo, is an entertainment executive and serial entrepreneur who previously launched and scaled a venture-backed company. Suma creates culturally relevant content, virtual experiences, and financial tools to help the Latino community with financial inclusion. They know trust is incredibly important, so they have focused on building a community first with both a lens for cultural competency and a give-first modality with service and value at the core. They will then slowly introduce financial tools to help their audience climb the economic ladder. No one bank currently dominates this demographic, so there is huge opportunity for Suma to lead and for Latinos to thrive.

You’ve done a lot of work with your nonprofit supporting women in tech and engineering. What do you see are the parallels for getting more women into venture capital and entrepreneurship?

Being in the aerospace sector certainly sparked a desire to inspire more women to enter the industry, and to enhance the culture to help them want to stay. In tech and engineering, particularly in underrepresented communities, being visible was key. The nonprofit I cofounded leveraged a force of women around the country to micro target communities and to showcase both personal and professional journeys that were relevant and approachable.

My take is that venture capital (at the fund management level) is more complicated and multi-layered because access and network are so central to success.

The Kauffman Fellows Research Center has done research on this, and found a strong correlation between female capital allocators and female founders being funded. In certain sectors, female partners were 2x more likely to invest in female founders. Now, at the top one hundred venture firms in the US, only seven percent of partners are women. Women hold under twelve percent of partner roles at accelerators and corporate venture firms. The numbers are low now, but are quickly growing. The community of female general partners is coming in with arms locked together ready to move the needle for venture.

The parallels then, are that women are central to architecting what needs to happen for other women to come on board. Communities like Transact, a group of female general partners building up our own firms, are the type of sisterhood that can serve up whatever you need — hard and soft resources, an ear, an introduction, or a laugh.

What is the hottest space that you invest in or that you don’t invest in?

I’m bullish on food and supply chains. At Supply Change Capital, we invest across the supply chain to meet the growing demand for sustainable, nutritious, and culturally-relevant food. We specifically target sustainable ingredients, high-integrity brands with cultural appeal, and technology from farm to fork.

On the CPG side, we know that the food brands of the future will need to speak authentically to multicultural audiences. The notion of by-the-community, for-the-community foods with mass market appeal open up opportunities for new-to-the-US staples and superfoods much in the way that Chobani enabled Greek yogurt to sweep us off our feet. We may soon be eating nopal (cactus) snacks in lieu of chips!

I’m looking forward to the next generation of iconic brands!

Thank you so much to Noramay for her time and support of the MIT 100K Competition! You can follow Noramay and Supply Change Capital through these links and on twitter.

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