Bitten Founder Naz Riahi Interview
For people across the world, food is one of the most common bonds we share. No matter where you are or what your culture, everyone has to nourish themselves and the act of sitting down for a meal with someone can be the perfect icebreaker for exploring shared experience. But while we may all spend a good deal of our time thinking about food (as in, what’s our next meal, where is it coming from, and omigod I’m so hungry right now) for many of us it’s rare to actually spend much time thinking about food. But Naz Riahi, through her company Bitten, is trying to change that.
Bitten was built on the idea that food is a pillar of pop culture and as such it is a space that can be explored through the lens of creativity, innovation, technology, trends and art and engage a wide, creative audience. No wonder, the company’s founder and creative director, Naz Riahi, is an Iranian American writer and filmmaker who built a career in advertising. All of this helped her merge her interests and find the intersection between the future of food and a thought-provoking event (it’s latest iteration happens to be taking place next week in NYC) that anyone can enjoy.
We chatted with Naz about her experience in the advertising industry and the gender discrimination which led her to found her own company, as well as about the ins-and-outs of launching a startup, how she works with clients and practical tips for anyone considering starting her own business.
Teen Vogue: Tell me about how you started Bitten
Naz Riahi: Bitten is a strange hybrid of a lot of aspects of my life. I’d worked for a number of years in the advertising industry honing my skills through work with these great iconic brands and learning the ins-and-outs of what it takes to build something, how to communicate, how to cultivate community, how to be disruptive. It was a hands-on business school and something that came quite naturally to me. As a writer, I’m a storyteller and so much of a brand is its story.
While I loved the work,I knew my future at a traditional agency wasn’t promising. I’m a smart, confident brown woman and there aren’t enough of us in executive roles, which means that ascending the corporate ladder is many times harder for me than if I were a white man. So, after my last agency job, I thought I’d give going out on my own a shot.
I created Bitten, the conference, because I believed the future of food was something that ought to excite everyone, whether they worked in the space or not and certainly the space’s impact affects al of us, be it environmental, economic, health-related, etc. I wanted to gather people in a room and inspire them and get them to meet each other, to collaborate, to come up with new ideas, to go back to work feeling motivated.
What surprised me most is that in addition to the conference and brand strategy Bitten has also evolved into an extension of my creative practice. I’m working on a few interactive art pieces that are grounded in Bitten, a well as some writing and a short films which are all food related.
TV: How did your history in the corporate world drive you to create your own space?
NR: There’s nothing more demoralizing than working really hard and knowing that you are good at what you do but coming up against wall after wall that your male colleagues don’t have to climb as they get promoted up the corporate ladder.
In my case, my clients were happy with me (and I loved working with them), my agency had won a global account on an idea I’d devised for the pitch strategy, I’d personally brought in a multi-million dollar account and yet i was constantly being told that I had to be “nicer.” None of the men who were getting promoted in the group were told that, of course, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. It’s gas lighting and after a while you start to think “maybe there is something wrong with me.” I had to leave that toxic environment to be able to look back and see all the gender discrimination and sexism that I had to deal with. Not to mention sexual harassment. I spoke with Cindy Gallop about this experience and she told me, “you should have left sooner.”
She’s right. But it’s like a bad relationship, it was hard to know when to leave and I kept thinking, I could work harder and prove myself more and maybe that would fix it. In retrospect, I realized that more women need to go out on their own and start businesses. It’s one way to equalize the playing field faster. We can create our own space and space for each other. Supporting woman-owned businesses is another important aspect of achieving gender equality. I’ve created a spreadsheet of a few woman-owned brands that I love and I’m encouraging my friends to shop those brands first.
TV: Why did you decide to go from advertising and marketing to food?
NR: I have continued to do brand strategy and creative direction work, but I am mostly focusing on food clients while also building and growing Bitten as a human-facing brand. Food is multi-sensorial. It’s an incredibly fun, innovative space. And it’s a common thread that connects all of us. It can trigger memory, it can make us happy. it’s a great place to build community and to start meaningful conversations. It’s a beautiful space to be in.
TV: What does the future of food mean to you?
NR: To feed the growing population we need to innovate rapidly, change our eating habits greatly, and embrace new ways of growing food. In 30 years steak might be a once or twice a year treat and crickets may be our daily source of protein. Instead of a community garden, every neighborhood could have a vertical farm. And vegan animal products may be as good or better than the real thing. It’s all very futuristic but it’s happening at an accelerated rate unlike anything we’ve seen before, but that’s a good thing. Because if we don’t come up with solutions that are healthy, safe, and environmentally sound, we’re all doomed.
TV: What is your goal for Bitten?
NR: I plan on hosting more events in more places. I’d love to take the conference abroad and explore the intersection of food and culture/art/tech/trends in other countries. I’m also expanding my branded partnerships and will be doing a few activations each year in collaboration with some really cool brands. And, I’m expanding the creative practice and launching a dinner series that’s more art than food, called Let Me Comfort You. These are going to be invite-only at first and then will expand to larger groups.
TV: What’s your advice to young women who want to be in the food world?
NR: Don’t hesitate.
It’s a fun and meaningful space. Whether you work in a restaurant or at a brand, whether you gravitate towards the arts or science, through food, you have the opportunity to touch someone, to affect their life, to make them happy. You also have the chance to change the world by creating solutions that will affect all of us. Just remember to do your homework before approaching a person or brand, strive to do good work that your’e proud of and reach out to women you admire for mentorship.
TV: What advice do you have for young women who want to start their own business?
NR: I have three pieces of advice…
First, In its own time. I think there is so much pressure in our culture to be an entrepreneur in our early 20s and to be an overnight success. I was in my 30s when I founded Bitten. All the years before this I had the chance to live a few different lives, to experience different industries, to explore my passions, to get an MFA, to work in the arts, to travel, to learn to be in this world. None of it was time wasted, it was all an education, some of it fun, some of it hard, some of it heartbreaking, but it led to this and this will lead to something else.
Second, Don’t talk about your idea so much that you give other people the space to stop you. Many of my friends thought I was crazy when I came up with the idea for Bitten. They told me it would never work. And they were trying to be good and supportive in telling me this. They wanted to stop me from potentially making a mistake. But if I had given them the opportunity to change my mind, I wouldn’t be here. If you believe in something and are passionate enough to pursue it, then it’s worth doing. Everything morphs, many things fail, but it’s the experience, what you learn about yourself and your peers and your industry, in launching a business, that is worth the effort.
Third, Be the first to back you. What I mean by that is if you are launching a business, make it work on your own dime first. If it’s your own money you’re going to work a million times harder to make it grow and you won’t have to compromise your vision or meet investor goals and timelines that might not benefit the business. Further, the bigger you grow your company independently the less of it you have to give away once you’re ready to bring on investors. I heard the designer Rachel Comey talk about how she put her line on credit cards for the first several years and that’s what I did. I downsized my life and gave myself a loan by putting a lot of my expenses on credit cards. It’s scary as hell, but it also shows how much I believe in what I’m doing.
TV: What other women inspire you?
NR: Hillary Clinton. Her resilience has been a great source of inspiration and strength for me. Jane Campion is one of my favorite filmmakers. Her early works (shorts and first feature) are so exquisitely strange. Everything she makes is breathtakingly beautiful. Issa Rae for forging her own path. Jenni Konner and Lena Dunham for showing how women working together can elevate each other. My friend Homa Dashtaki who is making Iranian yogurt mainstream and disrupting a category of copycats, all on her own terms. And my friend Veronica Gonzales Pena whose book The Sad Passions blew my mind. And, of course, my mother, for picking up and leaving her home, her country, her family, starting it all over in her 40s and all alone, just so I could have a chance to be who I wanted to be.
TV: What’s your favorite thing you’ve gotten to do as part of Bitten?
NR: I was invited to President Obama’s White House for SXSL last year. Especially because I’m an Iranian immigrant, the experience was incredibly profound and emotional. I wrote and published an essay about it the next day and President Obama responded to it publicly in the comments and mentioned me by name several times! The White House even posted the piece on their Medium page. I’m still on a high from that one.
TV: What else would you want Teen Vogue readers to know about you and what you’re doing?
NR: It took me a minute to realize that I have a stage and with that a responsibility to give women and people of color access to that stage and that microphone. As a woman of color, doors to great opportunities aren’t often held open for me. And I’ve found that I have to really work hard and push my way in. Now, in a sense, I’m someone who can hold a door open for another woman or a person of color and it’s my responsibility to do so. I go to event after event where the majority of those with speaking roles are white men. As a curator I can tell you that the reason for that is because more white men get funding for their startups, more hold executive roles, more are featured in the media than women, people of color, and especially women of color. It’s not an imbalance of talent, it’s an imbalance of opportunity that continues to perpetuate itself unless we disrupt it. It’s not easy, but it’s essential and it gives me great pride to try and make a tangible difference.