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Busting Out in the Beverage Business


Two UCLA Anderson MBA students launched CPG companies during pandemic
  • Victoria Brodsky (’23) and Emily Smith (’22) launched beverage companies during pandemic and tapped Anderson resources to scale their businesses
  • Both were included in Los Angeles Business Journal’s 20 in Their 20s list of entrepreneurs

Victoria Brodsky (’23) and Emily Smith (’22) are young entrepreneurs — both were included in Los Angeles Business Journal’s 20 in Their 20s list of entrepreneurs— with big ideas. Brilliant ideas. Both are pouring their way into the extremely competitive beverage world. And both hit a crossroads when COVID-19 struck. They embarked on journeys that Anderson helped them navigate successfully during the pandemic.

 

Victoria Brodsky, Founder and CEO, DrinkLyte

Sometimes, ideas for products arise out of situations. Such was the case when Brodsky was invited out by a group of friends to go drinking. The throng reassured the health-conscious Sacramento native that following up the evening with Pedialyte, an electrolyte beverage for babies, would leave her feeling right as rain.

A graduate from UC Berkeley with a degree in nutrition, Brodsky was quizzical. “I’m very passionate about health and wellness, but also the CPG [consumer packaged goods] industry itself,” she says. What did that interest reveal? “There’s a huge discrepancy in how products are marketed, making it difficult for people to understand what’s healthy and what’s not.”

Brodsky knew that artificial-ingredient-rich Pedialyte might be the party crowd’s quick fix for hangovers, but a healthier option for adults was needed. “My goal is, let’s try and make products with the utmost integrity, with the best ingredients based on science. That’s what I wanted to put out in the world.”

She also wanted to make this alternative available in restaurants, bars and nightlife venues with a take-home version, as rehydrating the morning after imbibing is vital. This led to the concept of DrinkLyte, a company that produces a ready-to-prepare and ready-to-drink, two-part recovery and rehydration regimen: MoonLyte and SunLyte.

The path from idea to concept to execution began with determining affordability. “In the past, I’d tried to moonlight a number of CPG products, but couldn’t afford to get an MVP, or minimum viable product.” Through savings and scrappiness, she pulled together enough self-funding to get started. “Our original product and long-term vision was a canned product you open and drink immediately.”

Diving into research, Brodsky realized she’d need to pay for a formulator, ingredients and a co-packer to be able to test DrinkLyte’s offerings in the market. With her nutrition background, she developed recipes using locally sourced ingredients that were fulfilled by a formulator. Convincing a co-packer in the very competitive beverage business to take on a small-batch order was another hurdle she overcame.

With the product in hand, DrinkLyte began test activations on SoCal bar hoppers and club crawlers at venues that included the W Hollywood Hotel and the Bungalow Huntington Beach. “They understood, appreciated and liked our product so we were ready to promote it,” Brodsky says. A second order for inventory was about to be placed and then … COVID hit, along with California’s safer-at-home directive. “All of a sudden, our business that was just about to happen no longer existed.”

Undaunted, Brodsky returned to the drawing board, a step that ultimately led her to Anderson. Her course of action was the development of a direct-to-consumer, powdered version of DrinkLyte products. “This would allow us to sustain our business during the pandemic and stay relevant, even though we had hardly even launched.” It also involved e-commerce, something about which Brodsky had no knowledge.

And then a LinkedIn ad about UCLA Anderson’s MBA program caught her eye. Anderson had been on Brodsky’s radar. On more than one occasion, she’d found herself sitting around a table in conversations about Anderson. “All these young, hungry, excited, extremely smart people were talking about their experience in the program, and none of it was pretentious or competitive,” she recalls. “They were getting a high-quality, hands-on education, with an emphasis on collaboration.” She knew she wanted to attend ... someday.

The LinkedIn notice said application deadlines had been extended because of COVID. Thinking she was a long shot because of the late application, Brodsky applied for fall 2020 admission. “I told them exactly what I was doing with DrinkLyte and why I thought Anderson could help.” In August, she enrolled in Anderson’s fully employed MBA (FEMBA) program.

Twenty-four hours later, she called the Price Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation and spoke with Elaine Hagan (’91) and Trish Halamandaris (’92). The new admit’s message? “I know there are resources at Anderson for entrepreneurs in food and beverage,” Brodsky remembers saying. “I can’t wait until the spring, when most entrepreneur programs for first-years start. I need help right now.”

The Price Center immediately stepped up, configuring a program for Brodsky. Anderson’s Jackee McNitt joined Brodsky’s team of mentors as her executive coach. Added to the mix was the Entrepreneurship Leadership Development Program (ELDP) and Anderson Venture Accelerator.

More recently, Brodsky was awarded the Larry Wolfen Spirit Award, which allots funding for students to work on entrepreneurial projects during the summer between their first and second years at Anderson.

Summer 2021 is busy for DrinkLyte. A team of interns, several from Startup UCLA, is working alongside Brodsky. The original DrinkLyte canned versions are making a comeback to venues as COVID restrictions loosen. The powdered version is still going strong via e-commerce and soon will sell at traditional retailers. “The powdered mixes have been extremely profitable for us, and allowed us to increase our sales channels,” says Brodsky. There are other changes, too. “We’re thinking bigger. I’m using my connections from Anderson to help get bigger partnerships, bigger distribution.” The vision for DrinkLyte remains the same, to make nightlife hydration a new product category in beverage.

Always looking to help other entrepreneurs, Brodsky offers up this advice: “Stay at your paying job as long as possible, because starting your business will always cost more and take more time than you think,” she says. And then, “Test and research as much as possible to prove what you’re creating has a place in the market. And when you do start your business, hustle and have patience every step of the way.”

Emily Smith, Founder and CEO, nuFYX

When COVID-19 hit, Emily Smith followed the same course a lot of people took: The UCLA Anderson student headed home to a familial bubble. This meant Montreal, Canada, and sharing space with her siblings again. Back in the place where her own healthy habits had begun (Smith credits her Moroccan-born mother with teaching the brood clean eating from birth), she was struck by an idea for a new business.

A McGill University graduate with a degree in finance and general management, Smith had been working in the real estate investment sector. Sixteen-hour days led to less time to prepare healthy meals. Maybe she could make that process easier? “My dream was always to be an entrepreneur and build something from scratch that would benefit the world,” she says. This would involve a pivot. “COVID gave me the time to reflect on my next move. I decided to pursue a personal passion and start a nutrition company.”

Smith’s idea was based on obstacles she’d faced trying to take on a plant-based diet with limited access to clean protein. “I felt my contribution could fill a space for local and domestically grown vegan protein options that would be convenient for people in today’s fast-paced world.” The idea for nuFYX’s Heavenly Protein Powder — a versatile 100% plant-based powder that uses organic U.S.-grown pea protein — was born.

“From a young age,” Smith says, “I began investing my savings so I could start a business.” The sale of her Apple stocks went toward self-funding nuFYX.

At 24, with a lifelong dream of living in Los Angeles, she turned her sights to UCLA. “Even though I wasn’t sure where my entrepreneurial life would take me, I knew I wanted to be a leader in whatever space that was,” she says. “I applied to Anderson to develop those skills and build a local network.”

Launching a new idea during the pandemic brought challenges, including networking virtually in an industry that thrived on tradeshows and demos.

Additional support came via Anderson, specifically Elaine Hagan. “She’s a mentor who genuinely wants to help Anderson students accelerate their businesses,” Smith says. “Her network has enabled me to connect with recent Anderson alumni who’ve been through similar entrepreneurial journeys in the food and beverage space.”

This extended to getting advice from experts. “Elaine created an opportunity for me to present nuFYX to the Price Center’s board of directors. It was amazing to have entrepreneurs in a variety of industries watch me pitch and host a live Q&A.”

nuFYX efforts got underway at the end of March 2020 with the goal of getting to market within a year. They hit the mark in 11 months, with nuFYX’s website going live last February. “Because of COVID, sourcing became challenging and manufacturing was backlogged,” Smith recalls. “Otherwise, we could have launched within six months.”

Persistence was key throughout the process. “We needed a manufacturer with very strong R&D capabilities, including in-house food scientists and doctors, people who could convert our vision for Heavenly Protein Powder into a reality based on our ingredient preferences and macronutrient constraints.” During a Zoom meeting with one of the nation’s largest supplement manufacturers, Smith laid out in detail everything nuFYX would require from the relationship and the value-add of working with the startup at the onset. Soon after, nuFYX engaged the manufacturer to produce Heavenly Protein Powder. “It wasn’t easy to convince such a large firm to work with our small startup and adjust their minimum order quantities, but it set us up for amazing growth in the future because they have the capabilities to produce high volume. Once we’re ready for nationwide distribution, we won’t have to change manufacturers, reformulate and repackage. We’re well-positioned for growth.”

Today, nuFYX’s Heavenly Protein Powder, available in three flavors, is looking toward its future with other products. Meanwhile, Smith has visions of marrying two of her pursuits. “I plan to continue my path in real estate through industrial property investments where nuFYX can be one of the tenants,” Smith says.

As for advice she’d give other entrepreneurs, Smith says, “Wholeheartedly follow your dreams.” She’s watched people make the mistake of approaching their new business as a side hustle or a part-time project. “If you treat your business as a part-time project, others in the industry will, too. If they see you’re fully invested, they’ll want to support you because your commitment is inspiring.”