An appetite for business

McGill experience helped dietetics student build a company that’s true to her values
Zoey Li
Zoey Li, BSc(NutrSc)’17, founder and president of Yumi Organics, a rapidly growing overnight oats, hot oatmeals and trail mix company, was recently named to the Forbes 30 Under 30 in the food and beverage category.

Although Zoey Li, BSc(NutrSc)’17, always had an interest in business, she never expected to launch a company that helps people take charge of their health.

Li, who was recently named to the Forbes 30 Under 30 in the food and beverage category, built her success on her ability to find opportunities, develop new skills and make connections, as an undergraduate and afterward.

“I always wanted to be a doctor, but my mom was totally against it,” laughs the president and founder of Yumi Organics, a rapidly growing overnight oats, hot oatmeals and trail mix company. “She’s a nurse and said I wouldn’t like working in a hospital environment. It turns out she was right!”

Li instead decided on dietetics, a program that takes a preventative approach to health and could still be a pathway to medical school.

“My mom is diabetic, so I was aware of the importance of food and nutrition and looking at labels from a very young age,” she explains. “By becoming a dietician, I thought I could make a positive impact through helping people be proactive in improving their health.”

The importance of hands-on experience

In choosing a university, an important factor Li considered was how much practical, hands-on experience was offered. At the time, McGill’s was one of the few dietetics programs to include internships. This cemented Li’s decision to move from her home in Vancouver across the country to Montreal.

“Internships were really important, not only because that experience is necessary to become a registered dietician, but it also gave me a lot of insight into the field,” she explains.

During her time in the program, Li interned in hospital ICU, oncology and geriatrics departments and worked in food service and at centres helping patients struggling with eating disorders. In tailoring plans to address different needs, Li came to more fully understand the importance of creating programs her patients could sustain, a takeaway that became a business pillar for Yumi Organics.

She also got a taste of product development by working at Macdonald Campus’s Food and Nutrition laboratories, which feature industry-standard equipment.

“I took two courses that were in the student kitchen. They were more science-based, but I remember we made cheese and would work with ingredients like yeast, or we’d study how different sugars affect the body,” she says. “I really loved working in the kitchen, it was a unique feature at Mac, and I loved the state-of-the-art appliances!”

Finding opportunities in unexpected places

Although she mostly studied at Macdonald Campus, Li would go downtown for some of her classes. It was while waiting for the University’s shuttle bus in 2015 that she noticed a flyer advertising McGill’s Dobson Cup Competition, an entrepreneurial contest for students.

“I saw that they were offering $100,000 in funding as prizes at the time, and I thought ‘Wow! That’s a lot of money!’” laughs Li. Despite her busy schedule filled with student society activities and a full courseload, the ambitious undergraduate decided to enter the competition that year – and failed.

“My ego was definitely bruised, but it gave me a taste of the business world and I was really interested to learn more,” she explains.

She met her first business partner, Mengyin Hong, a McGill PhD student, at a 2015 Cup mingling session, which pairs students to develop concepts and prepare pitches. The two pitched their idea for YUMiTRITION the following year.

“The Dobson Cup was amazing. It helped someone like me, who had no experience in the business world, really understand its different aspects,” says Li. “We had a lot of support and resources, and the judges asked me questions that would influence my future business model.”

The two went on to win the 2016 Small and Medium Enterprise Track Dobson Cup competition, and the foundations for Montreal-based Yumi Organics were set.

Help from the McGill community after graduation

Her experience at the Dobson Cup showed Li a new way to make use of her degree.

“I really wanted to influence consumer psychology when it comes to nutrition, and my experience working with patients along with what I learned at the Cup helped me build a sustainable and scalable business.”

Turning again to the McGill community for support and resources after graduation, Li applied to the McGill X-1 Accelerator program, a bootcamp to help startups. It was through this program that Li further expanded her network and Yumi Organics found its first angel investor, whose seed funding helped the company get off the ground.

Yumi Organics continues to grow, with the company recently securing a deal with Costco Canada. Its products already are sold at 3,500 Canadian retailers, including Walmart. Next? Tackling the U.S. market.

“I met a lot of key people through my McGill network,” explains Li. “I didn’t intentionally build a business around my values, but being able to help people with a streamlined business model that works because of the feedback I’ve received has been invaluable. I guess you really are what you eat, and you build a business around the ethics of who you are.”

Her advice to students?

“You should try an array of things; you never know what will end up sticking!”

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