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Kavita Shukla: Fighting Food Waste with FreshPaper; Rallying Women Innovators with FreshVoices

L-R: Kavita Shukla with HSN host Marlo Smith on August 7, 2017 | Image credit: YouTube

What started as a simple home remedy and a middle school science project has exploded into a viable and affordable solution for fighting food waste across the globe.

During a trip to India to visit family when she was 12 years old, Kavita Shukla’s grandmother gave her a homemade tea of different spices to ward off illness after having ingested a glass of unfiltered tap water. The spicy concoction prevented Shukla from becoming sick and ultimately became the inspiration behind years of experimentation with rotting fruits and vegetables that would lead to the creation of Shukla’s revolutionary FreshPaper.

Infused with a unique blend of spices, FreshPaper — which looks like an ordinary square of paper — extends the life of fresh produce up to 2-4 times, thereby curbing food spoilage, which contributes to roughly 25 percent of the food wasted around the globe each year. After FreshPaper won the grand prize in the 2013 Sustainable Brands Innovation Open, Shukla was named one of Forbes’ 2014 30 Social Entrepreneurs Under 30; and after a chance meeting with HSN CEO Mindy Grossman in 2015, FreshPaper launched on the network in September 2016, sparking a full-blown grassroots movement. Shukla has since sold over a million FreshPaper sheets on HSN and brought her innovation in front of 90 million households across the US.   

Earlier this week, Shukla reappeared on HSN in a 24-hour marathon, as part of its American Dreams initiative — a program designed to highlight new entrepreneurs and help them bring their products to fruition — to present a newer FreshPaper product for bread and unveil a brand-new product for cheese. The event marked an important milestone for the FreshPaper creator, who became the only American Dreams entrepreneur to have a dedicated Today’s Special, in which the majority of HSN programming featured her product.

In addition to the roll out of the new FreshPaper products, Shukla launched the FreshVoices campaign, a partnership between HSN and nonprofits Women in the World and Vital Voices, which aims to highlight the stories of women entrepreneurs and inspire more women innovators to take the next step with their business ideas.

As part of the FreshVoices campaign, Shukla made in-kind donations to Vital Voices for each FreshPaper package sold during the marathon – which turned out to be over a million – to support women entrepreneurs. As Shukla said in a recent HSN interview, the goal of the FreshVoices campaign is to “highlight incredible women role models – because you can’t be what you can’t see.”

We caught up with an exhausted Shukla after her marathon stint at HSN to hear more about FreshVoices and what’s next for FreshPaper.

We’ve been big fans of FreshPaper since we met you in 2013. Tell us about your new products for bread and cheese.

KS: Yes, it’s really exciting. When we launched the FreshPaper for produce, it’s a product I’d been working on, I guess, since middle school - for over 10 years; when I had developed the technology, I had also been working on it in other applications, including for grains and for cheeses. So, when things started to take off with HSN, it was so tremendous for us because I finally had the resources and the platform to be able to bring these inventions to market.

The first innovation we brought to market just a few months ago was the FreshPaper for bread, which is a similar concept – only made with edible, organic ingredients – and it keeps bread fresher for longer by inhibiting the growth of mold. So, you just toss it into a bread bag or actually, any baked good – even cookies, or any other fresh baked item.

And then the brand-new product, which we’ve just had the worldwide launch for on Monday, is a wrap for cheese, which creates the optimal environment for storing cheese. It’s also infused with our proprietary blend of organic ingredients that allows cheese to stay fresher for longer.

 

FreshPaper for cheese | Image credit: YouTube

With bread, cheese and produce, you’ve covered some of the most common perishable foods … what are you looking at next?

KS: There are meats, seafood and flowers – believe it or not, flowers are put a tremendous strain on our resources in terms of the energy we have to put into transporting them and then the amount of waste happening at both the retail and consumer levels. So, that is an area that I am really interested in exploring.

But what this has really shown me is that there is a tremendous consumer demand for products that are sustainable and that are better for the environment, and that has been really encouraging — that people are responding so positively to the idea of sustainable design. And so, for us it’s really unleashed the creativity because we’re saying, ok – what are the other ways we can apply [this] really natural technology to reduce mold and keep things fresher for longer? There are so many applications. But also, having the platform of support of the HSN network is allowing us to do this much faster than we ever could have imagined.

Can you tell me more about the FreshVoices campaign?

KS: When I started FreshPaper, I wanted to bring it back to the people like my grandmother, [who] grew up in a village that didn’t have access to refrigeration, and even today over a billion people live without access to refrigeration. So, when I designed FreshPaper, it was a technology that I created for the developing world, and that was the type of person I had in mind – because I couldn’t imagine that food waste was such a major problem, even in places like the United States, where we have refrigerators, where we have cold chains. But I could not get [it] off the ground for several years. Right after I graduated from college, I actually gave up because I felt like I had spent my whole life working on this idea and it wasn’t going to be able to go anywhere because it was so hard to raise money. I felt like I needed a lot more experience. As a young woman, I remember I deeply internalized all the time that I needed more degrees, more experience and a lot more money to pull it off.

So, when I went to the farmers’ market — and I literally started with about $300 – and I started to take the first step with the idea, that was 10 years after I first started to develop it. It really changed the trajectory of my life. I think it was a year after that I came to Sustainable Brands, where I got the tremendous support from your community – that was a really pivotal moment for us, as well. We started to see that this was an idea that could really be brought to market as a consumer product and that there was also the ability to have social impact. But for me, personally, I think that it was really eye-opening in the sense that taking the first step with my idea was something that changed my entire life and that I never imagined that the farmers’ market would end up leading me to where we are today.

So, the whole idea with the FreshVoices campaign was to pay it forward. So many people supported us and Women in the World has been such a big part of our story, providing support and enabling not just me but many other women entrepreneurs to start taking the first steps with their ideas – and that’s where I approached Women in the World about doing a collaboration. I was acutely aware that when I thought about myself as a person that could bring an idea to the world, it never really felt like I could be the CEO – I didn’t really know any women who looked like me or any women at all who were CEOs or inventors or entrepreneurs. And so, the primary goal of this is to start to highlight the stories of the women entrepreneurs. There are incredible women entrepreneurs whose stories of grit we can’t even imagine. We all know the story of how Facebook came about in a dorm room, we know how little Steve Jobs started with, but we don’t often know the stories of the women we look up to in the brands we look up to.

So HSN, with their tremendous platform and their ability to reach more people in an instant than almost any of the other network that I’ve seen, as well as Women in the World – who has a long history of identifying and supporting ordinary women with great ideas – I thought that would be an incredible collaboration. I started to think about how we can highlight women’s stories — how can we show the grit behind their glory and how can we take women that have an amazing idea and show them how they can take the next step, and start to help them build their businesses, their ideas — something that has real impact.

Part of the reason why I wanted to do the campaign, too, is because there is so much research [around] how difficult it is — especially for women — to raise funding, and that was one of the struggles I faced.

Such a great, and important, message! Does the campaign extend beyond your appearance on HSN?

Yeah, that was actually just the launch. We wanted to launch it because the 24-hour live event was such a huge deal for us – it was kind of a milestone because we were the first entrepreneur from the American Dreams program at HSN to have a 24-hour marathon. We also hit a milestone of one million FreshPaper sheets right around when this was going to happen. I realized that looking back at myself five years ago, if I had even just known that somebody could go from a farmers’ market with a couple hundred dollars to being able to have a national consumer brand, I might have thought differently. I might have found that courage a couple years earlier — it might not have taken me 10 years.

So, the first thing we’re doing is just collecting the stories and highlighting them on our platform. You know — having a partner like Women in the World that has such tremendous reach is really important, because they really identify and support women of impact. And we’re also working with Vital Voices, which have a 20-year history of providing women with the tools and skills and the experience to build businesses and build movements.

I encounter so many women, really of all ages, that now approach me and say, ‘I have this idea, but I don’t think I have enough money’ or ‘I don’t know what to do, I have a job’ – the whole idea with this [was], let’s launch this during the 24-hour marathon where we’re getting all this exposure and show them that this is exciting, but it’s also possible for someone to take the first step with their idea.

That’s so exciting. You mentioned having sold a million sheets of FreshPaper — how many were sold during Monday's HSN event and how many were donated because of that?

KS: It’s pretty crazy – we never imagined that FreshVoices would resonate in the way that it did and so many people came forward. We had [Women in the World founder] Tina Brown call in and Sally Field called in, all showing their support for the campaign and women entrepreneurs. And we ended up selling over a million [more] sheets just on Monday.

What I’ve been amazed to see is that there is such a hunger across so many networks for a platform that enables women to connect on the idea of moving forward with their businesses and looking at other women entrepreneurs. We were really amazed walking out of it.

So, what’s next for you – for the company, for you personally, for the campaign or all of the above?

KS: I really want to start to build FreshVoices into the communities that are already starting to form – we’re really excited about what comes next there. And then for FreshPaper, we’re just moving onto getting our next innovation ready to launch.

We feel so grateful that we have these partners and platforms and so many people that have supported us, like Sustainable Brands and some of the organizations that threw their weight behind us. We also feel a tremendous responsibility to bring innovation to market, to create more sustainable supply chains in many different industries.


Jennifer Elks is Managing Editor at Sustainable Brands. She is a writer, editor and foodie who is passionate about improving food systems, closing loops and creating more livable cities. She loves cooking, wine, cooking with wine, correcting spelling errors in… [Read more about Jennifer Elks]


Libby MacCarthy is an Editorial Assistant at Sustainable Brands, based in Maine and France. She is a former urban planner specializing in sustainable cities, and an urban farming and film photography enthusiast. She holds a BA in Environment, Society and…
[Read more about Libby MacCarthy]