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These Two Female Fitness Instructors Were Dismissed by Investors. Now, the Joke's on Them. Their success came from leaning into their background, not shying away from it.

By Mita Mallick Edited by Jessica Thomas

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Steven Gross

As we have adjusted to working from home, my husband and I are constantly on the hunt for nutritious snacks. Without our employers there to offer us an endless array of fruit, chips, yogurt, nuts and protein bars in our office kitchens, we are left to fend for ourselves and fill our own cabinets. We often find ourselves entering Zoom call after Zoom call, scrambling in between for something to fuel ourselves and keep going, shoving empty calories into our bodies.

"We are challenging the packaged food industry, reinventing the misconception that on-the-go equates to poor quality," says Michelle Razavi, co-founder and CEO of ELAVI. "The food we eat has the ability to impact our mood, recovery, performance, sleep, focus and inflammation levels. And if we can help people feel more energized, productive and overall happier, then we're making a positive impact."

According to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 61% of the food Americans buy is highly processed. Almost 1,000 calories a day of the average American's diet come solely from highly processed foods. "It's important for us to recognize that processed food is not just Coca-Cola and Twinkies — it's a wide array of products," says author Jennifer Poti, a research assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Some of the worst processed foods are ready to eat, convenient and low in nutrients. Working from home and snacking more than usual due to stress means many have gained weight during the pandemic.

Enter ELAVI, which wants to be a wellness brand first and a snack brand second. It's on a mission to help the modern person live a healthier, longer life. Razavi met her co-founder Nikki Elliott when they were both fitness instructors at Equinox who were also juggling demanding corporate jobs. They found they had to sacrifice quality for convenience in the protein bar category and wanted a solution to fight accelerated aging and inflammation. There wasn't an "all-in-one" solution that met all of their needs: clean energy, kept them full but not bloated, boosted with collagen and natural vitamin C for immunity and collagen synthesis.

So Razavi and Elliott created ELAVI, the name a combination of their last names. Beyond food products, ELAVI creates content and community, delivering quick and easy ways to optimize your health. It offers a "snack concierge" for members to text and get ELAVI products delivered straight to their door.

"As group fitness instructors, we took our obsession for curating the best workout class and applied that to ELAVI," Razavi says. "The thoughtfulness that went into the R&D of our food products is unparalleled. We are mastering the art and the science of creating a clean product that can compete on taste with the ultra-processed bars without compromising the structure or shelf-life."

Image credit: Wonderkind

Here are three lessons Razavi and Elliott have learned as they challenge the packaged food industry and the misconception that on-the-go equates to poor quality.

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Embrace unhappy customers

When Razavi was 14 years old, she started her first job as a cashier at a local waterpark. "I grew up in Southern California with Persian parents who had immigrated from Iran," she shares. "Seeing my mom financially dependent on my controlling father imprinted on me a strong conviction to build my wealth independently. I was determined to be financially independent."

She credits that early experience with learning how to deal with unhappy customers. It helped her build her emotional intelligence and empathy for the customer's experience. "I couldn't hide behind a screen," Razavi says. "People were angry and upset right in front of me. I had to learn how to diffuse those situations, to show up with understanding. And at the end of the day, it's an important reminder that people just want to be heard."

Razavi recalls when she and her co-founder Elliott received an irate message from a customer complaining about their ELAVI bars. The customer demanded a refund and threatened to do a chargeback, which in the ecommerce world is almost always to the detriment of the business owner. Razavi decided to email the customer back and include her cell phone number. A few minutes later, her cell phone rang. After more than 30 minutes on the phone, the customer was once again excited about ELAVI. "She appreciated that we took the time to listen to her and went on to tell other friends about the brand," Razavi says. "We turned her into an advocate for the brand."

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Be open to feedback

As owners of a small brand, both Razavi and Elliott obsessed over the product's every detail, because they knew they only had one shot to get it right. They bootstrapped the business, investing all the money they had initially saved for attending business school into ELAVI. The co-founders were hyper-focused on what consumers were demanding: functionality, convenience and transparency in their food products.

And although they knew they had a phenomenal concept, they were still open to feedback. "We originally had a 16g protein bar concept," Razavi says. "Investors gave us feedback that they wanted to see something unique and different in the marketplace. Something much smaller." They were open to that feedback and decided to launch with smaller sizes. They also launched with a stand-up pouch versus a box, which allowed for shareability. Because they had heeded their advice, Razavi and Elliott were able to go back to those early investors to secure funding.

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Own your story

During the fundraising journey, Razavi and Elliott would get frustrated by how dismissive investors were when they found out they were fitness instructors. Some male investors would flat-out ask them for fitness tips instead of listening to their pitch, which derailed conversations. "I wondered if we were men if they would have treated us that way," Razavi says. "Being fitness instructors is a big part of our story, and the truth is, we wouldn't know the category or our customer as well as we do without our background. We weren't going to shy away or hide from that."

One of ELAVI's early male investors has become a close advisor, coaching the co-founders on how to continue to own and tell their story. He calls it out when Razavi and Elliott use disclaimer language that minimizes the journey and work they have put into building the brand. "We used to say, 'We are a small business and a tiny company'," Razavi says. "Our advisor would tell us, 'No, don't call yourself that. You are an emerging brand — own your story.' It really shifted our mindset on how we talk about ourselves.

The future for this women-led business includes launching a new product line, hiring more people and expanding distribution. "We just finished our pre-seed funding round, and we are oversubscribed," Razavi says. "We want to empower individuals to feel unstoppable."

Read More: Her Daughter's Food Allergies Made Finding Healthy Snacks Impossible, So This Mother Quit Her Corporate Job to Change That

Mita Mallick

Entrepreneur Leadership Network® VIP

Head of Inclusion, Equity and Impact

Mita Mallick is a change-maker with a track record of transforming culture and business. Her book, Reimagine Inclusion: Debunking 13 Myths to Transform Your Workplace, is a Wall Street Journal and USA Today bestseller. She's the Head of DEI at Carta, a LinkedIn Top Voice and a sought-after speaker.

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