Sustaining Agriculture: One HAPPYBABY at a Time
By Daphne Bishop
As the old song says, “You must have been a beautiful baby.” But how does a baby stay beautiful and grow healthy and strong if all she eats are heavily processed commercial foods.
That was the challenge facing Shazi Visram, CEO and founder of HAPPYBABY, a company in Brooklyn, New York that creates healthy, organic foods for infants and toddlers. The inspiration came from a friend who was dismayed by the prospect of feeding her baby commercial baby food, was stressed between home life and job, and did not have the time to make fresh baby food from scratch. After lending a sympathetic ear, Shazi then began the research to see if there was a larger market for weaning babies onto whole, healthy foods.
HAPPYBABY made its debut a few years ago in five small stores in New York City. Now, it is sold in more than 5,000 stores with five lines of delicious, organic foods for babies and toddlers. Under the umbrella of HAPPYFAMILYBRANDS, the independent company is now the leading premium brand of baby and toddler meals.
“I started talking to as many other moms as I could to see if they would be excited by an alternative to the processed, jarred baby foods on the shelf,” recalls Shazi. “I also had conversations with retailers to gage their interest level in carrying a new kind of baby food. When it was clear to me that there was a market for the products, and that retailers were eager to offer the valuable new-mom shopper more innovative choices, I felt compelled to do more market research to move the venture forward. The more I learned about the importance of fresh, whole foods in the first years of baby’s life to create healthy eating habits, the more dedicated I became to making my idea a reality. “
The goal was also to source foods from farms committed to sustainable agriculture, thereby creating the kind of rural-urban partnership that would benefit multiple communities. But, Shazi also knew that the kinds of foods she could make available to the happy baby in America were a dream for infants dying of starvation, or sick and malnourished in many other parts of the world.
For that reason, HAPPYBABY partnered with Project Peanut Butter, a life saving endeavor in Malawi, Africa that was started by pediatrician Dr. Mark Manary. He developed a rich, nutritious paste called PlumpyNut that does not require cooking and is resistant to bacterial contamination because it does not need water for processing. Also, peanuts are indigenous to Africa, and allergies to them there are rare. With each unit of HAPPYBABY sold, the company gives enough money to feed one starving child for one day. There is also the beauty of coming full circle in the partnership, according to Shazi, as her father was born in Tanzania.
“I felt that prior to even starting the business, I wanted to align our brand with an organization, so that as we sold our product, part of our model would also allow for positive social impact,” she says.
Shazi is a graduate of Columbia University, from which she holds a BA in History and Visual Arts. She began to develop her business plan for HAPPYBABY in 2003. As a student at Columbia Business School, she “wrote the first version of it there in a class called Launching New Ventures. I had the idea over the summer in between the two years of the program while working for a Solar Energy non-profit, and was very inspired to use my second year at Columbia to further develop my venture.”
After graduating with an MBA in Management and Entrepreneurship, Shazi teamed up with company co-founder Jessica Rolphe, who worked in the national headquarters of Whole Foods Market. There, Jessica was the Account Manager for SPINS, the leading information provider on the natural products industry and its consumer dynamics. Recipes were developed with the input of pediatricians and nutritionists, always with an eye to giving babies the best possible foods for healthy growth.
HAPPYBABY offers “fresh frozen” organic baby meals in 15 flavors with a variety of meats, grains, veggies and fruits. The recipes are probiotic. That’s the name for the friendly bacteria which are found in mother’s milk and in foods such as yogurt, miso and kimchi. These bacteria live naturally in our intestines and help boost our immune systems and are especially important for growing babies. The company eventually expanded to offer toddler meals with hidden veggies, and a variety of healthful snacks under the banner of HAPPYFAMILYBRANDS. The goodies range from HAPPYBELLIES cereals to HAPPYMELTS yogurt snacks, and are all guaranteed to be free from pesticides and preservatives.
And while HAPPYBABY is headquartered in New York City, with manufacturing facilities spread around the country, according to Shazi, “Our sourcing is always as local as possible.” HAPPYBABY works “with small and large farms alike to source the highest quality organic produce available. “
“Supporting sustainable agriculture is very important to us,” she continues, “and we are committed to getting to visit and know as many of the farmers as we can.” Soon, information about those farmers will also be available to consumers on the HAPPYBABY website.
Shazi readily acknowledges that entrepreneurship “is definitely in my genes.” She credits her parents “who inspired me to go out on my own rather than take a pre-set corporate route, so that I could create my own opportunities and truly be the architect of my own life.” Born in Toronto, Canada, she grew up in Birmingham, Alabama and fondly remembers “eating cauliflower after preschool with my mom.”
She also ran a marketing and media buying consultancy geared to small businesses before the seeds of HAPPYBABY began to grow. Now, she and her husband, Joe, live in Jersey City, New Jersey, and she expecting her first HAPPYBABY this month.
What began with a sympathetic ear to a friend in need, now connects children here and abroad, and supports a dynamic model of sustainable agriculture promoting organic food production and high quality. Or as that same old song says, “Baby, take a look at you now!”