Startup Life: Why I’m Leaving Silicon Valley For The Big Apple


After 2-1/2 years of trying to build a mobile food tech startup in Silicon Valley, I decided the better place to accomplish my goals is New York City. In October, I was in NYC for a month scoping things out. I am in the process of moving to the Big Apple in the first quarter of 2015.

I know. If you’re going to build a mobile startup, it seems counterintuitive to move away from Silicon Valley, where access to the best technology, networking, and funding opportunities in the world is at your fingertips. Everyone has asked me why I’d leave the awesomeness of Silicon Valley for NYC. After reading this, it will make complete sense and if you are a food tech founder (not in NYC) struggling right now like I was, here is some food for thought.

Silicon Valley is indeed a wonderful place for many. But for me, and how I want to build my company, it is not. As a founder, I’ve learned that the Valley teaches you how to build a great exit in 5-8 years, but not necessarily a great business (that generates revenue from the beginning) for long-term growth in industries that move like dinosaurs, with thick bureaucracies, like health and food. Also, the second you start saying, “purpose plus profit” the attention quickly drops, or you get that trying to be nice, appeasing, “That is admirable. Good for you!”

There is more to food tech than getting Millennials their lunch and dinner faster from their phone.

Sorry. Some of my cynicism leaked out.

I started my career in Silicon Valley in 1995, the year AOL showed up and Steve Jobs was still doing NeXT. I got to participate in a magical time period where tech history was made, and we really did change the world.

I got to work at a startup, NVIDIA, that went public and I lived the dream. I was part of the original team that launched the GPU and elevated video games to the next level. I worked at Microsoft, evangelizing their consumer products. I wasn’t there long, because Apple announced this thing called the iPhone and immediately I knew, game over.

I’ve worked with a dozen startups as a marketing contractor. I became a top healthy-living blogger and social media influencer here. Vibrantly is my third attempt at creating my own startup. Vibrantly was the overall winner of the 2013 SF Food Hackathon. I left Silicon Valley once before moving to Phoenix, and came back because…startups.

I learned and grew much in my time here. I’ve had incredible experiences, for which I am grateful.

An important life lesson I’ve learned over the years is that just because something looks fantastic on the surface, doesn’t mean that it is…for YOU. A great example is dating. You meet someone wonderful who by all accounts would be perfect, but, eh, there is something important missing, and you can’t pinpoint it, but you feel it in your gut. You don’t listen or act upon that gut instinct, thinking it’s nerves or something. You try your hardest to make it work because everything should be great – it should.

But then, it isn’t.

You think it’s you, that you’re the problem because they are great. You work harder. But as time goes by, you just become more unhappy and frustrated. Then you have that harsh realization like in the movies, that although they are a wonderful person, they are not a wonderful fit for YOU.

Being in Silicon Valley, for me, these past few years has felt like being in a loveless marriage too long. We’re both great. We’re just not great together.

I am a food system hacker, an artist, a changemaker, a lover. What sets my entire being on fire is finding ways to better the food system because right now, we’ve got some major problems with our food system that tie into healthcare and the environment. What scares me the most is that the current design of our food system is leading us down a path of destroying the planet and human health for the sake of profit and investment return. On day two of #slowmoney14, private investor Marco Vangelisti illustrated brilliantly and powerfully in his keynote, the cognitive dissonance between nature and making big investment returns.

In essence, we have been destroying the planet and risking human health in order to make shareholders rich. I have nothing against getting rich and earning a return on an investment. I wish that for myself, but there are ways to attain this goal without going down a destructive path.

The rainforests are being torn down to make way for land to grow crops to feed cattle so we can eat more burgers and steaks. Industrial raising of cattle has now become the biggest offender on the earth’s climate. Who knew that cows could impact the environment more than transportation. Here’s more food for thought:

Food has now become a major source of illness in our country. We have become Generation Rx.

Food should create health, not destroy it.
The U.S. spends 17.9% of its GDP on healthcare, the highest in the world, and it is expected to rise to 19.3% by 2023, or about $5.2 trillion. Yes, trillions. Can you hear Dr. Evil cackle? According to the CDC, the majority of healthcare cost in the U.S is related to chronic disease caused primarily by lifestyle choices – namely food. We’re getting sicker by the year. Two of the top three most prescribed pharmaceuticals in the US are for cholesterol and heartburn/indigestion – food-related lifestyle-created diseases. Antibiotic resistance in humans has now become a serious health issue, driven by the high use of antibiotics for animals. Hello Farmaceuticals. 80% of all antibiotic sales in the US goes to livestock.


So, from this food tech founder’s perspective, here’s what I think makes NYC an awesome place to build a food tech startup. The largest and most influential food media brands are based in NYC: The NY Times Food and Mark Bittman; The Food Network, Conde Nast Food; Bon Appetit and Epicurious; Food52, The Kitchn, Modern Farmer, BuzzFeed Food, Huffington Post: Food and Healthy Living, and many more. The James Beard Foundation is also centered in NYC. Partnered with Food Tank, JBF released the Good Food Org guide, a comprehensive directory of nonprofits, nationally and by state, working toward a better food system. The JBF Leadership Awards celebrates the visionaries responsible for creating a healthier, safer, and more sustainable food world. Food + Tech Connect is based in NYC. They are like the Techcrunch of Food. If you want to know what is hot in food tech from investments, trends, startups, and events, FTC is the place to go. What Danielle has done with FTC is amazing, and there is only more to come. FTC also hosts some pretty cool hackathons, local NYC events for food techies, and classes for growing a food business. Local Food Lab, based in Silicon Valley, is a great resource, too, and they have bootcamps around the country, including NYC. TEDx Manhattan: Changing the Way We Eat, a food specific TED event, happens every March in NYC. This is an incredible event to hear about what changemakers are doing to better the food system. My soul sings every time I watch this event. This year, I noticed there was not one talk that involved tech. A few speakers mentioned apps that they built, but I was astounded that not one talk was about how some innovative technology was being used to improve the food system. This is an opportunity for us to come together and do better at co-creating. The food-focused startup incubator Food-X, has inducted their first class, and applications are open for Spring 2015. Deadline is March 31, 2015. Here are 5 foodtech startups from Food-X’s first Demo Day, held this past December. On the corporate level, Chobani has just announced their own in-house food incubator in their offices in NYC. This summer, Farmigo started the Food Hackers Meetup events with the intention of helping NYC to become a hub for food tech startups. While I was in NYC this October, I had the opportunity to be a mentor at a Startup Weekend Food Hackathon, and it was exciting to help and see the work of food system changemakers in New York. I love hackathons! Invite me. I’ll come. One short flight away in Boston is The Food Loft, a co-working space specifically for food + tech entrepreneurs. Bruce Shaw and Adam Salomone of The Food Loft and The Harvard Common Press, a cookbook publisher, are doing industry-leading things in food tech. They have invested in Yummly, Cavier, and Crowdly. I met Bruce and Adam a few years ago and was impressed at how they really wanted to learn about the social and blogging world of food, and dove into going to and speaking at all kinds of blogger and social conferences and events. They have also created a private and very active Facebook page for food bloggers, of which I am a member. Very few investors are that engaged. Wholesome Wave, a non-profit based in Connecticut (where I was born), in partnership with the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund and NYC’s Health and Hospital Corporation, have created and put into use the Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program, or FVRx, at Harlem Hospital Center and three other NYC hospitals. This is a program where whole, fresh foods, fruits and vegetables, are prescribed versus pills. It’s the Farmacy in action in a hospital. I’ve been advocating the concept of the Farmacy for years, so I am fascinated and excited to see what Wholesome Wave has in store. I already see mobile app opportunities all over this one. The United Nations is based in NYC. Much of U.S. and global food policy is influenced by the UN World Food Program. Likewise, it’s a short hour flight away from NYC to Washington DC where, besides being the home of our nation’s capital, it’s the place where food is becoming a bigger political issue ala farm bills and GMO-labeling. DC is home to one of the biggest mobile health conferences, mHealth Summit, usually held in December. Nutrition is a key category in mobile health tech and with Apple’s HealthKit out now, the opportunity for healthy eating apps will just get bigger. Virgin Mobile USA is based in New Jersey. Virgin Mobile Australia has been doing this cool social program called Meal for a Meal, which is about using mobile as a medium for good, which you know I LOVE. Virgin is giving food porn a purpose. For every food photo posted to Facebook, Instagram and Twitter with the hashtag #mealforameal, a meal is delivered to someone in need. Virgin needs to do this in the U.S., because it is full of WIN and I want to help make that happen. *call me Virgin*


A big thing I have been working on is how can we use mobile food photography to help create behavioral change. Can art in the form of mobile food photos help people create healthier eating habits?

Richard Branson has been on this food crusade lately, too. He has given up eating beef for health and environmental reasons, and he’s encouraging others to cut down on beef as well. Virgin Unite recently launched a new study to reverse Type 2 Diabetes, and this year, Virgin StartUp in Britain held it first Foodpreneur Fest #VirginFoodFest, which I would not be surprised if they did one in the U.S., say in New Jersey at Virgin Mobile USA HQ or maybe NYC.

So, are you getting a good picture of what I am seeing here with NYC and food tech?

As a food tech startup founder with Silicon Valley mobile and social experience coming into the Big Apple, I find that many doors are far easier to open, and finding that like-hearted food changemakers like myself are more plentiful. It was refreshing and exciting to feel wanted, and I look forward to seeing what adventures I will have taking Vibrantly to the next step in NYC.

If you are a fellow food system changemaker in NYC, do contact me.

Reprinted by permission.


About the author: Stephanie Quilao

Stephanie Quilao is food system hacker and Good Food advocate. Vibrantly was the overall winner of the 2013 San Francisco Food Hackathon. She is a former top healthy living blogger, and has published four healthy living mobile apps, and books. She is a Silicon Valley veteran having worked at NVIDIA, Microsoft and various startups in consumer electronics, data storage, and wellness.

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