Today’s interview is with Heather Jacobsen, the founder and CEO of Stuffed Pepper, an online magazine and resource for the gluten-free and paleo lifestyle. Heather says she is also a mother, researcher and writer, and loves to find order in chaos.
Tell me a bit about your family/background/etc.
My father was a Naval officer, which brought me to exciting places around the world. I’ve lived on both coasts (in the US), went to grammar school in Denmark and even got to spend Christmas in the Philippines when I was three. I developed my wanderlust at a young age, as well as an appreciation for the paradox that this world is vastly diverse, yet at the same time most of humanity shares many of the same values. One of those values I believe we all share is the desire to be healthy and most of us are even willing to take the proper steps to do so. Unfortunately, however, many of us are lost when it comes to knowing how to eat properly.
Being the daughter or a Naval officer, I also developed a great sense of discipline at a young age, which helped me focus my creative world views, so I can really get things done. I have a Master’s in Ethnobotany and have used those skills to delve deep into the science of nutrition and break it down in a easy-to-digest terms for laymen.
What drew you to becoming an entrepreneur?
I never thought I was an entrepreneur. But I’ve always had the wish to do something that would “make the world a better place.” After my second child was born, and I no longer had a career, I was looking for something to do and decided to start a blog. Because I had been gluten-free for almost a decade, I thought I could share my gluten-free recipes and advice; I found I am not alone in my gluten sensitivity and the blog snowballed into a larger, community website as I found others that wanted to share their knowledge and expertise.
I continued to research the far-reaching effects of gluten sensitivity, as well as the proper way to stay gluten-free. It isn’t as straightforward as you think! It wasn’t long before I realized that people needed more than just recipes. Going gluten-free is not easy! Not when most of us have been conditioned since birth to eat bread and cereal with pretty much every meal, including snacks.
That led to developing meal plans, a 30-day program, and other downloads that would help people really stick with the diet and get back to health.
Where/how did you and your co-founder meet/decide to do a startup?
I don’t have a co-founder. But if you know someone who is interested…
Tell me about your company culture.
I work with interns from time to time. Otherwise, I am the sole employee. Other than my own posts, all of the contributions to the website are from volunteers. I have no set schedule. I am a mother of two young children, who are my first priority. So I work when they are at school or when they have gone to bed. I allow the same flexibility with my interns and volunteers.
My interns are rarely local, so we meet over Skype when we need to. I don’t have a set schedule for posting articles or for tasks that need to be done by interns. We all work together to negotiate hours and timing so that it works to everyone’s benefit. Because my company is mostly online, we have that sort of flexibility. That is the nice thing about the digital age.
What values are most important to you?
Truth and integrity are hugely important to me. We are an online magazine giving free health and nutrition advice. Our income comes from our downloads and advertising.
Unfortunately, most people get their nutritional advice from the food industry itself. The food industry has a powerful influence in the FDA and the USDA who create our dietary guidelines, so there will undoubtedly be bias in what we are told we should and shouldn’t be eating.
Additionally, when consumers scan the labels of foods in the grocery store and see captions like “heart healthy” or “low calorie” they assume it must be healthy for them. Unfortunately, that is not always the case.
Our aim is to provide honest, scientifically sound nutritional advice, without industry influence. We work only with food companies that truly understand the importance of nutrition, and are not just interested in the bottom line.
How did it happen? Were there conscious decisions on what you wanted the culture to be?
Yes. I consciously chose to be flexible, casual and also trustworthy. As a mother, I need flexibility. And I am not the only mother out there, who needs this. I have had several interns who were completing degrees in nutrition who were also mothers. Flexibility was also important to them.
I have also always been a seeker of truth. Maybe it’s because I am a Sagittarius, and we are notorious for being so truthful we sometimes hurt people. I try not to do that! Or maybe it’s because I always admired the muckrakers such as Upton Sinclair, who wrote The Jungle which brought to light the ugly truth behind the meat-packing industry of the early 1900’s.
Either way, I believe people have a right to be informed about their own health and that proper nutrition is the first place to start. For that reason, all of our information on the website is free. Its only the extras, the meal plans or the consolidation of information in books, that we charge for.
How do you hire? What are the most important traits you look for in a candidate?
In addition to having the proper experience, such as in nutrition or social media marketing, I look for someone who is enthusiastic about the subject matter, who can demonstrate hard work and commitment, and who has the ability to put their own creativity into the job.
Do you think of yourself as a leader? Why?
I have never really thought of myself as a leader. Which is why, I suppose, I never really thought of myself as an entrepreneur.
But in order for me to be able to stand behind my website, I needed to become an authority on the gluten-free diet. It’s when I began researching it more that I realized most people were not doing gluten-free “right.”
That is, simply replacing food containing gluten with those on the gluten-free foods aisle, was not enough to heal people’s bodies after gluten had done them harm.
This notion is different from what the majority of gluten-free consumers understand, and certainly what the foods industry wants them to believe. When I discovered this, I realized that I needed to take a stand, and become a leader in this new direction.
While there are still some who are resistant, I believe that more and more people are understanding that we really need to eliminate all grains from our diet or even adopt a paleo diet, if we want to truly heal. The paleo diet is receiving a lot more attention these days, and I am happy to help play a role in that.