Rosemary Ostfeld, PhD, is Founder of sustainable food tech startup Healthy PlanEat and a Visiting Assistant Professor at Wesleyan University, where she teaches in the College of the Environment and Patricelli Center for Social Entrepreneurship. Her spring 2022 courses include a course called Startup Incubator: The Art and Science of Launching Your Idea, which was co-developed with reSET and has received funding from CTNext and the Robert and Margaret Patricelli Family Foundation.
MetroHartford Alliance Content Manager Nan Price connected with Rosemary through Patricelli Center for Social Entrepreneurship Director Makaela Kingsley and reached out to learn more about her entrepreneurial journey and the importance she places on encouraging entrepreneurial exploration.
NAN PRICE: Give us a little background. When did the entrepreneurial bug hit you?
ROSEMARY OSTFELD: After I earned my Master of Arts from Wesleyan, I moved to California and then moved back to the East Coast and worked for a biofuel startup in New Jersey. That was my first time working for a startup.
I liked it because I was able to do so many different tasks. At a bigger company with many people, you can specialize a little more quickly, but at the startup there weren’t a lot of people, so it was kind of all hands on deck. And I really enjoyed that. I got to do a lot of different things from marketing to business development.
Then I went off to grad school at the University of Cambridge in England. One of my PhD supervisors was in the Judge Business School and encouraged me to take a couple short courses. I participated in a social venture weekend and a program called Ignite, which is a weeklong intensive entrepreneurship experience.
NAN: Is that when you thought about business ownership?
ROSEMARY: Yes. All along, I continued being interested in startups. And then, while I was working toward my PhD and studying environmental certification and sustainable agriculture, I came up with the idea for my business.
NAN: How did you develop the business concept?
ROSEMARY: It’s an interesting chain of events. My mom had started a natural food store in the early 1970s, which my dad’s mother ended up buying—that’s how my parents met. Also, I worked on an organic farm in my hometown the summer after my freshman year at Wesleyan. So, I was interested in farming and providing access to healthy and sustainable food.
I started thinking, wouldn’t it be great if farmers could sell food more efficiently directly to nearby customers? It seemed like it would be much better if supply chains were short and local and transparent and traceable.
I came up with the concept for Healthy PlanEat, an online marketplace where farmers using sustainable growing practices and local food artisans can sell food directly to local customers including individuals, restaurants, shops, and schools. We’re creating a network of farmers who are committed to environmental sustainability and are making it easy for customers to shop locally.
COVID-19 has highlighted how fragile complex supply chains can be. By buying local and supporting farmers in your community, you’re strengthening the local food system and your local economy.
NAN: When did you officially launch Healthy PlanEat?
ROSEMARY: I began working on the idea around 2016 during my PhD but I had to finish my PhD before I could really dive into building Healthy PlanEat. I formed the legal entity as a B Corporation in 2018 while I was applying for some grants and later realized it made more sense for the business to be an LLC. I built the first version of the website by myself. Then, I ran a crowdfunding campaign to build an improved version of the Healthy PlanEat online marketplace. It’s been growing steadily.
NAN: When and why did you start teaching at Wesleyan?
ROSEMARY: I started teaching in the fall of 2018.
After I earned my PhD, I wasn’t initially thinking I would teach right away. All I wanted to do was work on Healthy PlanEat. I thought I would teach later in life. But then the opportunity arose to start teaching at Wesleyan. At first, it was just part-time and then became full-time.
It’s been fantastic. Wesleyan is super supportive and Barry Chernoff, Director of College of the Environment, and Makaela are incredible. They’ve been such great mentors, colleagues, and advocates.
I’m obviously working on my business, too, which is what I really wanted to do after I graduated from my PhD. I also did a postdoc. But teaching and working on my own business has worked out great.
NAN: Let’s talk about your connection with reSET. How did you become involved?
ROSEMARY: Makaela had told me about reSET. I participated in a pitch event in January 2019. That summer, Makaela and reSET Managing Director Sarah Bodley asked if I would be interested in teaching the startup incubator course. So, in the fall of 2019 I taught it with Shane Chase, who was Program Director at the time. I’ve been teaching it on my own since then.
NAN: In what ways does entrepreneurship create new opportunities?
ROSEMARY: Right now, the economy is complicated and students are graduating in a complicated world. Providing students with skills to help them understand the process of turning their idea into a reality is very valuable to at least give them more options, especially for someone who may be struggling to find their first job.
Some people think being an entrepreneur is incredibly risky—and of course it is—but it can also be incredibly rewarding. Also, some of the really big challenges we’re facing as a society can be solved, or at least partly solved, with the help of businesses that are socially and environmentally driven and have that at their core.
I think entrepreneurship can be really powerful and that all businesses should have a social and environmental focus moving forward because we’ve seen what bad business can do. So, as a baseline, how can you make sure that your venture doesn’t do any harm? And how can you make sure it creates a positive impact? That’s what I think of when I think of opportunity.
NAN: What key skills do you teach students about entrepreneurship?
ROSEMARY: We focus on values and try to help students answer the questions: What are their core values? What are their core interests? How can they embed those into their business from day one? Because I think, when push comes to shove or things get difficult, it can potentially be challenging to make sure that you’re staying completely aligned with the true north of your business.
Many businesses are just after profit. So, how can you make sure your business is staying true to a social or environmental cause as it grows? That’s where the course starts. And then the students spend some time talking to experts, learning more about the industry they want to try to crack into. They end up building a minimum viable product (MVP) that they try to test with potential customers.
I think building the MVP is the most important thing, because the sooner you get your idea out there, the sooner you can figure out what needs to change and what can be improved.
When I was launching my own startup, something I got a little caught up with in the beginning was, I didn’t quite realize that I could do something so soon. I thought I needed to wait until I got funding or I needed to wait until I had someone to help me build things. With the MVP, it’s thinking about how to break it down into the tiniest little pieces and just start figuring out if it can work.
NAN: What advice would you offer to those who are contemplating an entrepreneurial career?
ROSEMARY: Just go for it. That doesn’t mean immediately quit your day job and only pursue your business. But I think there’s a lot of time in the day and, whether you’re working on your business at nights or on weekends, it’s very possible to get an idea off the ground. And there’s really nothing stopping you from just trying something and seeing if it can work.