In the best of times, it's challenging to be a food and business entrepreneur. For tech startups, the path to funding can seem clear-cut, but it's less obvious for food and drinks companies or beauty and lifestyle brands. It's harder, of course, when that's coupled with a lack of diversity in terms of who is making decisions as to what types of businesses to fund. As Mikkoh Chen, who works in the tech start-up world in addition to acting as co-director of the accelerator program Gold Rush, told VICE, "Coming from personal experience, I have been in a room where I was the only person of color in the leadership group. It's just systemic why we need to really support and celebrate these businesses."
On March 2, Gold Rush announced the newest class of entrepreneurs to take part in its quarterly business accelerator program, which connects founders of Asian-led food and drinks companies with resources for business development, mentorship, and community. The 27 participants for the Spring program go across the food and beverage spectrum: from Carol Pak of Makku, which cans the Korean sparkling rice wine called makgeolli; to Vanessa Dew of Whole Foods staple Health-Ade Kombucha; to Vincent Kitirattragarn of Dang Foods, known for its dried coconut chips and puffed rice snacks, and many more.
As it did with its Fall 2019 accelerator group, Gold Rush had planned to celebrate these brands with a big party; an online marketplace full of their products would launch the next day, so shoppers could support several Asian businesses at once. In the midst of the global COVID-19 crisis, the in-person celebration was postponed to this summer, but the current climate of restaurant closures and animosity against Asians in America has only pushed Gold Rush to expand its support for the Asian community and its business.
The five-day-long Gold Rush Market launched online this morning as planned, but Gold Rush has also recently partnered with DoorDash and Postmates to promote Asian restaurants on their platforms. During a time of increased instability for food business and restaurants and discrimination against Asians in America, Gold Rush's mission to support the Asian American community seems more relevant than ever.
Photo courtesy Gold Rush
"Our food and beverage founders and companies have disproportionately felt the economic and cultural effects instigated by the COVID-19 pandemic," Chen told VICE in an email this week. Chen attributed these effects of COVID-19 on Gold Rush's participants to a mix of factors: the size of businesses that Gold Rush works with; the already-thin margins under which food companies operate; and the "abundance of racism that’s explicitly (and in many cases, violently) targeted the Asian community."
With a background in consulting and growing companies within the startup and tech sector, Chen works with Gold Rush's nonprofit parent organization Gold House on a volunteer basis, having co-directed the Gold Rush program with Megan Ruan since August 2019. As Chen previously told VICE in a phone call in February, the goal of creating community in order to share resources and knowledge was what motivated him to work with Gold Rush.
"I was trying to start a company by myself, and you know, it's really tough to find the networks to really support you from a resource standpoint, from an advice standpoint. I wanted to build the network," he said.
After sourcing applications from food companies, an advisory council—of which all members are also of Asian descent—votes on who is admitted into the Gold Rush program. For this food and beverage group, that council includes Padma Lakshmi; Bon Appetit editor Christina Chaey; Shawn Tsao, founder of Caviar; and Tony Xu, Andy Fang, and Stanley Tang, founders of DoorDash. Aside from being promoted in the Gold Rush market, the accelerator helps entrepreneurs work on their marketing and branding, creates opportunities for them to meet with potential investors and advisors, and provides learning opportunities through panels and speakers. While Gold Rush is likely to push someone from a "huge company" to the advisor side, it's open to a mix of experience levels within the accelerator class.
As the outbreak spreads across the United States, businesses across all industries have been hit hard, but small and medium-sized businesses—which make up most of the participants in Gold Rush's program—are particularly vulnerable. Makku founder Carol Pak, for example, recently shared on Instagram that COVID-19 is "gravely affecting" her small business: "...Makku is suffering and I, as the founder and CEO, could not let this virus ruin everything we worked so hard for in the past three years," she wrote.
Despite the challenging situation for food businesses, many of them are taking action when it comes to community support, including members of the Gold Rush cohort. Sanzo, a flavored sparkling water company, recently donated a portion of its online sales to employees of Brooklyn restaurants Win Son and Win Son Bakery affected by the restaurants' closure due to COVID-19.
While most businesses in this round of Gold Rush are direct-to-consumer producers, some are also brick-and-mortar food establishments, like New York City's fast casual Chinese chain Junzi Kitchen and poke chain Chikarashi or California cafe chain 7 Leaves. With mandated restaurant closures in many states, COVID-19 has been particularly devastating for the restaurant industry.
As Eater has clearly laid out, restaurant revenue has crashed since February, and though all types of restaurants have been affected, Chinese restaurants took the first big hit from COVID-19-related backlash. Despite having bans on dine-in service, many cities still allow take-out and delivery; accordingly, Gold Rush's new partnership with DoorDash and Postmates will feature Asian restaurants on both platforms and encourage supporting restaurants through delivery meals.
While Chen might not have expected the repercussions of COVID-19, he sees an opportunity for Gold Rush to do more.
"Gold Rush wants to be the champion for our community, especially during this economic downturn," he said via email.
The Gold Rush market will run until March 31.
Update 3/27/2020: A previous version of this article misstated the number of founders and frequency of the accelerator program and the length of the sale. We have updated it accordingly.