This is the final part of a two-part series called Escape from Corporate America, which highlights people who have left their traditional jobs for entrepreneurship.
At 27, Lavinia Davolio was the director at an investment bank in London. She loved her job: the hum of the trading floor, the rush of closing deals, and the buzz of her team.
But when the global financial crisis hit, everything changed. In 2012, shortly after the bottom fell out from the global economy, Davolio showed up to work and couldn’t get into her office. “Security guards escorted me out the back door,” she remembered, “I was given a piece of paper saying, ‘We’re restructuring the business, and we’ll let you know what will happen.’”
Instead of panicking, Davolio said she “took it as a sign” — and as an opportunity. Not yet 30, she had the chance to change professions and build a career around something she was truly passionate about: food. Today, she runs Lavolio, a London-based confectionary company that makes all-natural chocolate covered nuts, fruit and other treats.
Davolio is far from the only former banker to start a food business following the recession. At first, many were forced into the pivot after losing their finance jobs. But as the economy continues to recover, another, more positive narrative is emerging: it’s never been easier to launch a small food business.
Part of this is about access — today, entrepreneurs can sell directly to consumers through a variety of online channels — and part of it is about financing. “Investors care about food products now,” said Hamilton Colwell, a former trader at JP Morgan who resigned to found a greek yogurt company. “Food is just as attractive as tech.” Indeed, big-name investors such as Khosla Ventures have begun investing in food startups, while smaller firms and accelerators, including Powerplant Ventures and AccelFoods, exclusively fund early-stage food companies.
These developments are relatively new. When Paul Nasrani quit his stressful job as CFO of a midsize corporation in the early 2000s to focus on Adirondack Creamery, his artisan ice cream business, a lack of interested investors was the least of his concerns. “You couldn’t buy the equipment to pasteurize your own ice cream,” he said. Back then, it was either buy an industrial-size machine, or go bust. He eventually bought some machinery from a maker going out of business and got to work.
As small food labels, including Brooklyn-based Ample Hills and Penny Ice Creamery in Santa Cruz, have grown in number and popularity, that’s changed. Today, there’s a market for machinery built to make artisan products, greasing the way for the next batch of food entrepreneurs.
A change of flavor
Entrepreneurs like Conor Horrigan. After college Horrigan, 34, got a job as an investment banker at Bear Stearns. The pay was good, but when you eat most of your meals at your desk, as he found himself doing, “it doesn’t matter how much money you make,” he said. Sometimes after pulling another late night at the office, Horrigan would grab drinks with coworkers. To blow off steam, they’d fantasize about doing something else for a living: “We were all having a quarter-life crisis.”
His profession of choice was to brew and sell “Spite Light,” a beer “you drank because you felt so spiteful,” he said (which says a lot about his mental state at the time). In 2008, just after Bear Stearns was sold to JP Morgan, Horrigan finally worked up the courage to leave. He enrolled in business school, interned at the New England Brewing Company, and founded his own brewery in 2011. Today, Half Full brewery (a more positive, marketable spin on “Spite Light”) employs 20 people and plans to expand from Connecticut to New York and Boston.
Horrigan has found that many of his skills translated between industries. “Surviving in a tough work environment allowed me to build so much confidence,” he said. And more tangible abilities, including working with clients and developing financial models, are a daily boon. For Nasrani, the ability to read and negotiate a contract made it far easier for him to get Adirondack Creamery up and running.
More importantly, the switch can be incredibly rewarding. “Knowing I can have an impact on how people eat and think of food helped me launch the business, and gets me up every day,” Horrigan said.
“I didn’t want to do finance, because that world didn’t reflect me,” said Davolio. “Now, I feel like I’ve invented a job to fit who I am.”