Category: Alumni Stories, Hoya Highlight

Title:Hoya Highlight: Eric Ji Sun Wu (SFS’17)

Co-Founder and CEO of Sobo Foods

Eric Ji Sun Wu (SFS’17), Co-Founder and CEO of Sobo Foods

What is your professional title and organization?

I’m Eric Ji Sun Wu and my current title is Co-Founder and CEO of Sobo Foods, which is a company that makes plant-based frozen dumplings. Formerly, I co-founded Gainful, a performance nutrition company that’s now based in New York. Sobo Foods launched in the San Francisco Bay Area back in June, and Gainful has been in operation since 2017.

Time At Georgetown

What was your major at Georgetown?

I graduated from the School of Foreign Service, where I majored in STIA—Science, Technology, and International Affairs. I took a couple of computer science courses, which I woefully underuse today, but otherwise, I focused my STIA degree on food sustainability and the future of food.

What was your favorite class, or who was your favorite processor? Why?

I would say my favorite class was actually with my favorite professor, Mark Giordano, and he was in charge of the STIA program at the time. I took a couple of classes with him, but my favorite was called The Future of Food, the topic that’s become my career focus and it has also become one of my personal passions as well. I owe a lot to Professor Giordano, though I’m not sure he even knows it.

What is your favorite Georgetown memory?

My favorite memory was actually from my last day as an undergrad. Many Georgetown students go to the Monuments the night before graduation. We tend to pull an all-nighter and then watch the sun rise before graduation. It’s certainly not good for sleep deprivation, but for me, it was so poignant to be there, surrounded by all these lifelong friends that I made in my four years, watching the sun rise over the Lincoln Memorial together before heading back to campus to formally enter the next chapter of our lives. It was indescribably special, and it’s one of those moments that I look back on and it feels surreal. I’m sure the all-nighter contributes a fair amount to the feeling, but you really can’t put into words how you’re feeling in that moment.

What advice would you give your younger self (or a current Georgetown student)?

I would say that I was definitely that gung-ho kid who came to Georgetown wanting to do everything. I joined every club and every team, and while I was obviously trying to do my best in school, I was overextending myself with extracurriculars. If I were able to give advice, I would say to find the things you are truly and deeply passionate about. It’s okay if it takes you a little longer to figure out what it is in life—or even just in those four years of college—that motivates you and inspires you, but once you do, then I recommend doubling down. Make it a full, four-year project, versus doing what I did for the first couple of years, where I tried a taste of everything. I think the people who had the most rewarding experiences at Georgetown were the ones who went a mile deep rather than a mile wide.

How has Georgetown shaped you?

Georgetown breeds a very specific type of entrepreneurial personality. And that is not in the traditional, techy, Stanford, Berkeley, Silicon Valley style of entrepreneurship where it is about moving fast, breaking things, and trying to be as “disruptive” as possible.

What Georgetown really engendered in me was the idea that you have to be the change you want to see in the world, and there’s nothing more empowering than doing that. It was intoxicating to be in an atmosphere where the other entrepreneurs coming from Georgetown also hold the ideal that business should have a responsibility to people and the planet. For example, my friends Caroline Cotto from Renewal Mill and Phil Wong from Phil’s Finest are both working in food businesses; but, they are very different from traditional CPG (Consumer Packaged Goods) businesses in that they have a strong stance on food sustainability, the environment, and even the intersection of food and social justice. And that, I feel, is uniquely Georgetown. That is the type of entrepreneurial environment that is encouraged among Georgetown undergraduate students, where it’s really about being part of something bigger than yourself, where a business is really only meaningful if it’s part of something bigger. It’s amazing if you build a successful company, but what is the point of building a company if it doesn’t have a positive impact on the world or others?

Career Information & Reflections

What is the best career advice you have ever received?

Some of the best career advice I have ever received is from a mentor of mine, Ann Crady Weiss, and she is the founder of a smart baby products company in San Francisco that I interned at when I was 20 years old. Ann is not only an amazing founder but also an amazing investor at True Ventures. When I was first starting out with Gainful during my senior year, I remember sitting in Lauinger Library doing research on this personalized protein powder idea that I had. In my research, I found that there was another company that was already doing personalized protein powder blends. I thought “Oh, great, well there goes my venture! I’m going to toss in the towel because somebody else is already doing it.” And so I emailed Anne and explained that someone else had got there first and that I would probably just go explore something else. Ann’s response stuck with me—she said, “Why do you care? Don’t stop, it doesn’t matter that there is competition. There’s always going to be competition. You should go ahead and do it anyway.” She instilled in me this idea of “May the best entrepreneur win.” And that was a really empowering thing to hear as a 21-year-old just starting out.

What is the hardest thing that you’ve done professionally?

I’ve found that one of the most difficult things is letting go of people that you’ve hired at your company. Ultimately, running a startup is a very personal business and a super intimate career endeavor. Letting go of people whom you’ve spent time and effort convincing to follow you in this journey is definitely the hardest part. Being a part of a startup is a risky ride. It’s not necessarily always the most fun ride, and people put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into what is essentially your dream. It’s a super, super difficult, gut-wrenching, and heart-wrenching thing to have to tell those same people that their part of this journey is ending.

What has been the most rewarding moment of your career?

Hands down, the best part is that I get to hire and work with some of the best and brightest people in the world. It’s amazing to be able to hire people who—if I had done anything different with my career—would have been my mentors, my bosses, or just names that I dreamed of meeting. The fact that I get to hire them, hand-pick them, and work alongside and learn from them is a blessing I will never take for granted. I think it is honestly one of the biggest reasons why I continue going back for more bites of the apple in this crazy startup journey.

What would you say you would credit your success to?

I credit a lot of my success to my parents. They’re immigrants to this country, they came from China to get their education in the United States and then moved to Canada because that was the only place they could get a visa after they finished school in the U.S. My parents instilled in me a really strong work ethic. They are entrepreneurial themselves, and immigration to a new country, when you don’t know the language, the people, or the culture, is one of the most entrepreneurial things you can do. My parents are people who love food, who would’ve loved to start their own restaurants and catering businesses. They pitch me on their own outlandish restaurant ideas all the time. Instead of pursuing anything remotely entrepreneurial, they got practical degrees and sought stable jobs at huge corporations. Once they landed these jobs, they parked themselves there for 30 or 40 years just to afford me the opportunity to do risky things with my own vocation and take my career in directions that most people would not consider a “real job.” They, in a sense, deferred their dreams so that I could live my American dream.

What would you recommend to anyone thinking about following in your footsteps?

Find something that you feel like you can work on the rest of your life, because it is definitely a grind. Starting a company is hard, and you need to find a way to motivate yourself every morning to pursue something possibly more challenging and less lucrative than other career paths. Back to my earlier point of Georgetown curating the idea that students can be the change they want to see in the world: If there is something you feel like you can’t go another day without working on, then that’s a good place to begin.

A Day in the Life

What does your workspace look like?

My workspace these days is honestly all over the place, and I spend a lot of time in the car. Right now, I’m at our manufacturing facility doing this interview! I’m in the car a lot because, with Sobo Foods, we’re only in the Bay Area and only available in a couple dozen local, independent, family-owned, natural grocery stores. It’s important for me, especially starting this new brand, to be a part of the community—and to be out there meeting the grocery store owners, doing events, and doing in-store demos. Because of that, I have to be pretty mobile: ferrying deliveries, driving from warehouse to warehouse, visiting grocery stores, piling my dad’s Volvo full of event materials, and hosting pop-ups around the city.

What do you have on your desk at all times?

Obnoxiously, I have a massive 40-inch curved monitor on my desk. For some reason, using one small laptop doesn’t work for me to organize my entire life and browser tabs, so I need to spread them all out. Other than that, I always have a glass of green tea, that’s my stimulant of choice, and beyond that, I keep an obsessively tidy desk. Nothing else on it—a clean desk and a clean house helps me think!

What is your favorite part of your job?

My favorite part of the job is meeting incredible people, especially others who work in food and beverage. The velocity at which I’m meeting people who are role models, mentors, friends, and peers is just amazing. I think there is a little bit of a founders union, where we all feel like we are in this together. Regardless of whether you’ve founded a food and beverage company, a coffee company, or a hot sauce company, we meet once and suddenly have so many things we can talk about, commiserate with, and collaborate on, and that’s been a godsend.

What’s one part of your daily routine you couldn’t live without?

Exercise. Exercise is a non-negotiable for me. It’s the way I clear my head. Truthfully, the only time in my entire week that I’m not thinking about work is when I’m playing soccer. I often dream about dumplings in my sleep, so soccer is really the only escape!

Exercise is a through-line from my early childhood into today. Something I am really passionate about is supporting my favorite soccer team and playing soccer, but it’s also just getting your body moving and being on the field with your teammates. If I’m thinking about anything besides the ball, my opponent, and the play, I’m probably not doing a very good job on the field. I really love getting completely lost in an activity that’s good for my physical and mental health, and dedicating myself to something that’s not career-focused.

What’s one book you recommend everyone reads?

One of my original loves is Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma. It, in my opinion, is a must-read for anybody who wants to get a birds-eye-view of what’ s going right and going wrong with our food system in America. In addition, a book I read recently, The Secret Life of Groceries by Benjamin Lorr, completely flipped the way I view food and how it arrives in my pantry or refrigerator.

Do you have any words that you live by?

Something drilled into me when Gainful participated in the Silicon Valley startup accelerator, Y Combinator, was the “Do Things That Don’t Scale” mantra. In a nutshell, this means doing things yourself—the hard, manual, labor-intensive way—when you’re starting something new. Especially in the food industry, so many of the lessons, connections, and community that provide a solid foundation for expanding and improving are learned through personal trial and error. At Gainful, my co-founder and I were total masochists, doing every role ourselves for longer than we should have before hiring any help—including manufacturing and shipping the product ourselves. While this was grueling, both physically and mentally, it allowed us to quickly make decisions for scaling up once we did have the resource and demand. Every conversation with a potential manufacturing partner, marketing agency, and new hire was made easier by the fact that we had personally “been there, done that.”

I’ve found this philosophy not only applies in business (startups in particular) but in life as well. As long as I keep the long-term plan for my life in my periphery, it’s far more rewarding for me to get lost in the minutiae of day-to-day life than constantly worry about where I’ll be in a few years, and what relationships I’ll have, or what accomplishments I’ll achieve. I’d rather be able to pour myself fully into the people and projects around me that matter today.

Who are you Called to Be?

In retrospect, the theme that connects everything I’ve done since college, is being someone who helps people to think more deeply about what they are putting into their bodies each day. Bringing it back to what I learned from Professor Giordano and his class on the Future of Food: Every single day, three times a day, you have the opportunity to cast your vote and make an impact, just by making a decision about what you put on your plate. Eating, in my opinion, is inherently a political, social, and environmental act—and it’s the one thing that most people can most directly control in their day-to-day lives. I want to make it easier, more delightful, more meaningful, and most importantly, more delicious, for people to make the right decision.