Brinc Featured Founder Interview Series — We sat down with Sujala Balaji from Rainfed Foods to discuss the importance of balancing work with life as a working mom. From the creation of Rainfed Foods to the challenges of being a working mom and advice to moms looking to pursue a career.
Rainfed Foods is an alternative protein startup creating the most nutritious and delicious dairy-free products featuring underutilized superfood crops like millets that contribute to biodiversity and climate resilience.
You have years of experience and education in the food industry. What made you start Rainfed Foods and focus on dairy alternatives?
The impact of industrial meat and dairy production on climate change is undeniable. We simply cannot sustain feeding the growing population with increase in the loss of biodiversity and limited resources. Over 80% of what we grow and consume in North America is made up of soy, wheat and corn, which supports monocropping, negatively impacts soil health, and does not support sustainable farming. After working in the food and dairy industry for over 15 years, I decided to use my expertise and experience in shaping the future of food by promoting more sustainable crops like millets that are climate-resilient and support regenerative agricultural practices.
While I currently live in Canada, I grew up in India, the largest producer of millets in the world. Although there are many different dairy alternatives, most products have allergens like nuts and soy and none of the products mimic dairy in taste and nutrition. Hence, Rainfed Foods was born.
How long have you been a working mom and how has it impacted you?
My daughter Lenishya is almost 13 and I have been a working mom since she was a toddler. As a single parent for over a decade, it definitely was challenging when she was very young. I used to take her to the dairy plant where I worked for many years, particularly when I had to work evenings or weekends. Being a mom is one of the most rewarding jobs in life, even if it doesn’t have monetary benefits! As a working mom, I found myself questioning if the products I was creating were nutritious for kids and if I was leaving a better world for the generations to come. Being a working mom in the food industry instilled in me a sense of responsibility to shape our food systems to be more impactful and sustainable.
I have memories of teaching her how milk comes from cows, sitting in an office in a dairy company and now about a decade later, she is watching me build a company where milk doesn’t come from cows. Not only did she point out that I wasn’t passionate in my corporate role before I became an entrepreneur but she is now one of my biggest supporters. I also strongly believe she is acquiring life lessons by watching me navigate working and parenting.
What challenges have you faced throughout your journey as a working mom? How did you balance your work and time with family?
I am an immigrant in Canada and that means that I have little to no familial support systems to lean on. So, it is incredibly difficult to navigate life and work and overcome the challenges, however big or small. For example, when my daughter gets sick or when I have to travel for work or when I can’t attend a school event, etc… These are practical challenges every working parent experiences and there are definitely compromises to be made. But, as a driven individual, I cannot imagine not being able to lead an impact focused life.
When my daughter was younger, she would come to the office with me and entertain herself with colouring papers and crayons, occasionally taste testing cheeses when she was not in school. Growing up, she accompanied me to professional events, helping me at trade shows, etc… Because she was the only child in the room, people engaged with her and I believe she is a more emotionally intelligent and social person, thanks to those experiences. Now, she is a product taster and an ‘unofficial’ advisor at Rainfed and provides (sometimes) unsolicited advice on all things product, marketing and sales 🙂
My perspective on work life balance might be slightly different from the historical definition. When you get to pursue your passion and love what you do (like I do), there is no such thing called a perfect balance of work and family time. Especially as an entrepreneur, it’s impossible to not be obsessed while building a world-changing startup. There are moments of balance on any given day that I describe as ‘moments of presence’ which matter most in ensuring quality time and leads to a happier and more fulfilled life.
You’re right, there isn’t a perfect balance every day. What has worked for you to help maintain the balance despite the difficulty?
A practice that I’ve created many years ago when some normalcy existed in life was to put my phone away for a few hours every day to be fully present when I was home with my daughter. Particularly in the last year, with the pandemic, all our work lives have been affected in some way and spending time in nature, going on walks together, playing board games and cooking with my daughter are activities we both enjoy and bond over. I do my best to avoid any and all distractions and be fully present with her, a few times a week which allows us to form a stronger and deeper relationship. In my opinion, the quality of time matters more than the length of time.
Personally, practices like meditation, breathwork and journaling have been hugely helpful. I have also been fortunate to have a community of friends, mentors and entrepreneurs for support when necessary.
What skills have you learnt as a working parent that have also helped you at work?
There are more parallels between parenting and entrepreneurship than one might think. In fact, parenting is much harder because there is no blueprint as every child is unique. Parenting has no instruction manual or a lean startup methodology. Although, what I have learned and cultivated in the recent years is empathy, patience, openness and logic. Sounds simple but you’ll appreciate this and understand better if you are a parent.
Whether it’s team building, multi-tasking, communication strategies, negotiating skills, time management, prioritization, etc… Working parents, especially mothers, are the most equipped to translate these skills to workplaces.
There are many different views about working moms. What do you think are the main misconceptions? Do you have any guidance you can share?
Sadly, there are many myths about working moms, that they are not committed at work or focused on a career path and that they can’t have both a successful career and a family. As mentioned earlier, there are qualities in a working mother that are valuable in work environments. With gender biases gaining more attention and calls for action towards equal pay and gender parity, etc… It is important for children to see both parents play an equal role in society. It’s particularly important for women to be good role models in their daughters’ lives. In fact, working moms raise more independent and emotionally mature kids and my daughter is an example of that. Also, there was a research study a few years ago that discovered that adult kids of working moms are high achievers at work and are happier as well.
What would be the one piece of advice you would give to a working parent?
Communication is important in any relationship whether it’s personal or professional, but there isn’t enough emphasis being placed on communication with our children from a very young age. Creating a positive environment, where kids feel safe and comfortable enough to communicate anything to us is extremely important.
My daughter and I have different practices and routines (for instance, daily sharing of gratitude, highs, lows, monthly and quarterly check-ins with structured questions allowing a safe space for sharing, etc…) that have evolved over time and has helped us achieve better communication gradually and strengthened our mom-daughter relationship.