Innovation Bug: Food & Culture with the Co-Founders of Bitten
Naz Riahi and Emily Schildt are the co-founders of Bitten — a conference that brings together innovators and pioneers passionate about tech, pop culture, entertainment and design to have conversations about the future of food — happening on February 12th in NYC. We recently caught up with them about being female entrepreneurs, the advanced palates of Gen Z and what our protein choices might look like not long from now.
Bitten Co-Founders Emily Schildt and Naz Riahi. Photo by Margo Sivin/Dig Inn.
How did you two meet?
NR: In a way, we met on Instagram. I was living in LA at the time but I often traveled for work and on one of my trips to NYC — and after admiring her beautiful Instagram page and brand work for some time — I suggested we meet and she suggested lunch at The Smile Cafe.
ES: We’ve covered a lot of ground in just a little over a year—from strangers to business partners to friends.
Why did you decide to work together?
NR: I had a feeling I would do something with Emily in the future. I didn’t know exactly what, but when I had the idea for a conference, she was the only person I wanted to be partners with. And I can’t tell you exactly why. Sure, I respected her aesthetic and smarts and enjoyed our lunch together, but there was something bigger at play. It was just meant to be.
ES: Naz was very convincing in her pitch to put on the first Bitten food conference. She made it sound so simple: get a venue, get speakers, get sponsors and get people to come. I was on the phone with her for about five minutes, in the middle of the grocery store, and I agreed. Little did I know those were not four easy steps. Not in the slightest.
Where did the inspiration for the Bitten conference come from?
NR: I love a good story. Especially an inspiring one. And I’ve been fortunate to hear some of the most iconic people in business and philanthropy talk. Literally some of these talks have changed my life. The idea for the conference came to mind because Emily wanted to build an inclusive community around food. And we wanted to bring these amazing people together to talk and to share and to connect our audience with them and each other. There is so much innovation happening in food, but while food affects everyone, the conversation had been very insular and exclusive. We wanted to open it up.
ES: I’d been to a ton of food events before, and had yet to feel educated, motivated or fulfilled by one. We wanted to create a day where you left feeling enlightened and inspired, and excited by the opportunity to meet new and interesting people with varying perspectives.
How did you come to be involved in the food and tech space?
NR: I have an innovations marketing background. So I’ve both worked with a number of food clients — from Pepsi to Nestle to Chobani (in addition to a lot of non-food clients) — and focused on trends and innovations and new technologies and how brands can best utilize them to create meaningful connections with their consumers. When I left my agency job, I decided to start my own marketing firm (which we’ve done with Bitten) and I knew the food space was one I wanted to explore further. So now, we’re working with a number of really exciting clients. We’re really hands on with everyone and particular about which clients we take on.
ES: I fell in love with food in Italy when I studied abroad there in college. Food in my family had always been a point of contention, a chore. But I saw the Italians approach food for pleasure and use it as a means for connection. I was forever changed. When I got back, I started a food blog which eventually led me to get hired at a rapidly growing food startup. I spent four years there building their internal social and digital marketing operation. It was a tremendous growth experience for me — personally and professionally — that helped me fall in love with food all over again, this time from a business perspective.
What do you hope people get out of the conference?
NR: I hope that they’re inspired — inspired to think differently, to start something, to be creative, to make a difference to meet someone new. Just inspired. And also, of course, I hope that they have a good time and feel that it was a day well spent.
ES: I hope people are able to leave everything else aside for one day and just be present and enjoy themselves.
Are there any themes you’re seeing in the conversations happening around food, tech and culture?
NR: The future of protein is a really interesting topic — whether it’s insects or cultured meat and beyond. We also love that big brands are tapping into us to get insights on how to position themselves to be more relevant to the millennial and Gen Z consumer. This is not an easy conversation to have because it often requires short-term sacrifices (like getting the product that’s riddled with artificial ingredients off the shelf or being more transparent) but it’s a matter of survival and IS the future of food.
ES: In general, I think people’s willingness to explore and try new things is exciting.
Food is another proof point to the cultural shift of open-mindedness we’re seeing. People are using food as a microadventure because it’s accessible — from buying a spiralizer to trying the chicken sandwich at Fuku to going on a soup cleanse.
In what ways do you think pop culture trends affecting the way we dine out—whether on menus, through social media, or the way restaurateurs run their businesses?
NR: Well, social media has had a tremendous affect on how we relate to and talk about our food. It’s one way we now distinguish ourselves from our friends and peers. That trend has manifested itself in actual restaurant design. A lot of places think about Instagram when looking at how their space is designed and decorated — from the lighting to the picture on the wall.
ES: Consumers today have advanced palates — they grew up on sushi and with access to diverse cuisine and flavors. There’s a lot of pressure from a menu perspective, as a result, to create something truly distinguished and memorable. And, because food choices now are so much a statement of identity thanks to social media, there’s also a lot of pressure on the diner to select restaurants that are aligned with her personal brand.
How have you seen women’s roles these fields—business, food and tech—evolve in the last few years?
NR: There’s still a great and frustrating gender gap and women aren’t advancing as fast or as far as men, not just in food but in most other industries. There’s certainly a lot of focus on this right now and I hope that we continue to discuss the sexism that working women face everyday.
One thing I’ve noticed that I love is a spirit of sisterhood, in that women are realizing that they have to band together and help each other rise. The guys at the top aren’t going to give up their seats just to be nice.
We have to drastically change work culture. So, a lot of women’s entrepreneurial networks (in food and beyond) have popped up in the last few years and all the women are incredibly encouraging with their cheers and their advice and their connections. In food, the
ES: Naz and I are very conscious of keeping a gender balance in our speakers, but honestly, it has proved difficult. Women’s unequal representation is not new, but it is particularly disappointing when it comes to food. I once read that it is more likely for a woman to become a CEO than be hired as a head chef. And with the celebritization of chefs these days, it’s more important than ever to change this.
What do you think we’ll see more of in the future?
NR: In food specifically we’re going to see a drastic shift in agriculture (especially where vertical farming is concerned), there is a newfound trend toward vegetarianism — it’s about taste, as much as it is about health and the planet. Big brands are still failing at changing their business to appeal to the younger (and very important in terms of consumer power) generations, so we’re anticipating some big shifts there. And we’re all still holding our breath for the next cronut or broth, of course.
Any advice for female entrepreneurs?
NR: Just Start. That’s our motto. If we had known how hard it was going to be, we never would have done it. I’m not advocating for stupidity, but a certain amount of naivete paired with guts and persistence can get you far.
ES: Obstacles are a constant in entrepreneurship. Make sure you reward yourself for the little things. They add up to something big, that you just can’t see in the moment unless you pause.