A conversation with Rosa Li
Today we're chatting with Rosa Li, founder of wildwonder, a SF Bay Area-based sparkling superherb drink company. We discuss food as medicine, running a heritage-inspired business, AAPI identity and what it's like being an AAPI woman founder.
Cut Fruit: Hey Rosa! Could you introduce yourself and tell us about your business?
Rosa: I'm Rosa, founder of wildwonder. Wildwonder was inspired by healing tonics that my grandmother in China brewed for me growing up. She made a lot of tonics – not all of them are delicious by the way. So tonics with wild herbs, plants, botanicals and all sorts of things that I wouldn't even be able to name. But they were all supposed to be really good for me. In Chinese medicine, there is a lot of use of herbs and herbal teas. My mom does this still too when I go home. She makes these various teas with goji berries and herbs to calm my stress or help my digestive system. So that's really the inspiration. My grandmother really instilled in me the philosophy of food as medicine from a very early age. I've always believed in the power of natural remedies.
I'm also a foodie, as you know, and I love delicious flavors. I’m always traveling in search of the yummiest flavors. As a foodie, I don't think anyone should be giving a taste for health.
So I wanted to combine yummy flavors with the philosophy from my grandma (food as medicine) and herbal wisdom to create gut healing superfoods. And that's really what we're trying to do with wildwonder. We talk a lot about duality in our company. We’re using ancient wisdom combined with modern flavors. It's rooted in Asian culture and tastes like a California produce stand.
Our packaging is very whimsical, but at the same time our product really digs deep into the idea of food as medicine. If you think about kombucha (our product is not kombucha), kombucha is really rooted in Eastern culture as a fermented, better-for-you drink. We really bring that idea to the forefront and pair it with delicious trendy flavors.
Cut Fruit: Love that background of growing up with grandma with the herbal tonics. Are there specific herbs from a specific region in China in the wildwonder?
Rosa: That’s a good question. Even though this is a heritage-inspired product, it isn't necessarily tied to a city, specific region or country. Asian pear and mango are some of my favorite fruits, and that is reflected in the flavors of some of our products. But more importantly it’s the philosophy. I think heritage also means nostalgia to me. So really we are about bringing this aspect of my heritage and childhood and putting a modern twist on it. It’s about herbal philosophy, healing an idea about healing, and putting that in a drink.
We derive the fiber and prebiotics from all of these botanicals such as Jerusalem artichoke and chicory root. And all of the health benefits of our drinks are derived from the ingredients. For instance, in our Guava Rose flavor, we put elderberry in there and that’s really good for immunity. We also use turmeric and ginger in other flavors and that's very prevalent in Asian cultures as an anti-inflammatory with digestive benefits. So we’re kind of all over the place in terms of ingredients and not sourcing from one region or one country. It’s really about bringing this whole healing philosophy to the forefront.
Cut Fruit: Yeah that makes sense! Could you tell me a little bit about your journey to the US and your experiences growing up?
Rosa: I spent the first 12 years of my life in Beijing with my grandparents. So I actually didn't know my parents very well as a child. My parents came to Indiana for grad school and as immigrants were very focused on making a living. They initially focused on finishing up school, getting a job, and making sure that they had stability before they brought me over.
[Coming to the US] was definitely a shock. I didn't know anything about Western culture. I didn't even know any English outside of the alphabet. So I went from one very non-diverse place (China) to another very non-diverse place, but kind of in the opposite direction for me. At the time I didn’t even truly process that there was a cultural shock. Everything was so different.
I actually didn’t come here with any expectations. I just thought, I'm going to Indiana, I'm going to America, and I don’t know anything. I'm just going to go with an open heart.
I picked up English – I had an ESL teacher, which is actually a very funny story. I went to the largest public high school in Indiana that had 800 people in my class and I can count the number of Asians one one hand. They didn't have an ESL teacher who could speak Chinese. My school had found a Vietnamese ESL teacher assuming all Asians probably knew how to communicate with each other, though we obviously could not.
For me, it was very much about fitting in and learning English as fast as I could. I was trying to assimilate while also trying to really pick up American culture because I didn't know anything about pop culture. I didn't know what music people were listening to, or shows people were watching, all while struggling to understand anything that's going on.
So I think my whole middle and high school experience was just about learning and adopting new habits, new foods, new everything, and just about fitting in. We talk a lot about this idea of embracing differences nowadays. Now we have more representation in media, entertainment, and everywhere. But when I was growing up here, honestly, that thought of [embracing my differences] never even occurred to me. I didn't want to be too different even though I was already very different. I was just trying to be part of the community.
Cut Fruit: That’s such an incredible personal journey. In some ways it sounds so difficult. Do you feel like your parents understood how hard it would be for you? Did they prepare you in any way before you came over?
Rosa: My parents went through a very similar experience – they didn’t know English initially either [when they came over]. They were able to survive and make it through so they probably just assumed that I could do the same. They tried to support me, but they also didn’t really know how. There weren’t any resources out there on how to do that. I can give an example: they didn’t know about SATs or how I could apply for college. So that was very much a learning experience for me. My mom tried to help me a lot. I sometimes wish she had just let me watch TV to learn English and American culture. But instead she tried to go through American history with me. My first year here I obviously didn’t know any, (and neither did she). So we would read this history book together and we literally had to look up every other word in the book. That was challenging.
But ultimately, this experience of just learning by storm is also very similar to being an entrepreneur. I was very much used to that – throwing myself in the deep end hoping for the best but expecting the worst. I would never have any expectations.
One of the best decisions I made – honestly couldn't tell you why I even did this to myself – I wasn’t yet fluent [in English] and I decided to join the debate team as a sophomore in high school.
Cut Fruit: Oh wow!
Rosa: Yeah, my line of thinking at the time was that this is the best way for me to learn. And that was a very stressful and challenging experience because I wasn’t exactly fluent at the time. So having to defend my statements, understand counter arguments all in a time-limited fashion was very hard. But I would say it really helped me to present confidently, speak confidently and ultimately got me ready for college.
Cut Fruit: Wow, well good for you for doing that! Definitely see that theme of just taking the plunge! Kind of touching on that idea of culture, we’ve seen a lot of AAPI owned businesses lately that are really starting to move towards embracing heritage. What has that journey been like for you as someone who moved to Indiana in her adolescence and now runs a heritage-inspired business in San Francisco?
Rosa: Um, I mean, I'm loving it! It's so exciting to see this movement. There's so many organizations and businesses really embracing culture, embracing the differences and uplifting our voices. I think that's really exciting to see and it's really exciting to be part of the movement.
I would say part of the reason I started wildwonder was to connect with a personal passion of mine – food and beverage. Because food is such a central part of Asian culture. And it really connects me with my grandmother. My grandmother raised me so I have a very close relationship with her. So it’s also about doing something that’s meaningful. Because entrepreneurship is really hard. If there’s no soul or personal purpose, then it’s really hard to keep going. Especially when the times get tough. Especially during COVID, our business basically got wiped out in the beginning. We were very much focused on offices and food service initially and had to switch to retail and online.
But yeah, if I didn’t have the mission portion of our business, I probably would have just given up. Without the mission and personal meaning there’s no passion. You’re just selling products.
I'm not sure if that's really answering the question. But I think generally speaking, I'm excited to see everything that's out there right now. Wildwonder is not not particularly focused on Asian flavors – we’re not an Asian sauce company, or Asian flavored sparkling water or seltzer company (like a lot of my friends are doing!), but we are focused on what's meaningful to me. Our business is about heritage, and heritage means something different for everyone. But for us, we believe there is a universal language around heritage and nostalgia that we all miss.
Cut Fruit: Yeah, for sure! What did that journey of entrepreneurship look like for you, especially as an Asian American woman?
Rosa: I would say I'm very big on doing something that's meaningful to me. We all know Maslow's hierarchy of needs, right? Once we have achieved shelter, food, we start to look for something deeper. And it's really key to find something that we're passionate about, because entrepreneurship is just so challenging. It's not what we see in the media. We only obviously see the highs.We don't see the lows. Yeah, there's definitely a lot of lows, and it can go very low.
So I think making sure that there is meaning behind what we spend time on is most important because that's really going to drive us forward. It's a lifelong journey to find one's passion. And that's an ongoing process for everyone. But if it's something that we’re passionate about it creates fuel for us to go forward every day.
Cut Fruit: Finding meaning in the work is super important! Can you walk us through how to even get started in the food and beverage industry?
Rosa: Great question. I spent a lot of time Googling to be honest, at the beginning. In terms of starting, the best way is to reach out to people who are already doing it. In the early stages, if I had talked to someone who was a food entrepreneur or a beverage entrepreneur, it could have saved me many months of struggle. There are so many questions: should we go with a commercial kitchen or a manufacturing partner like a copacker? What are some challenges working with copackers? Is that option right for us? Those are questions people struggle with for years and advice around those experiences can be shared very easily.
So I would say talk to as many people as you can. Just get as much advice as possible. And I will say every business is different. Everyone who is giving advice is also projecting from their own experiences. So everyone will give advice, but don't take all the advice. Get a good balance.
And then the next step is to just launch something. Because a lot of people, especially women, are so focused on perfection. And I think as girls we are taught to be perfect and people pleasing. There's some sort of societal expectation that we just want to make everything perfect before we put it out in the world. Yeah -- don't do that. You know, I know no one, honestly I don't know anyone, who got their product right on try number one. Everything's iteration. The goal should be to iterate as fast as possible, and as many times as possible. And that way we can get to that more perfect product in a short period of time as possible. For the first launch, don't even have any high expectations. The key is to talk to as many customers as possible and get feedback. Just put something out there in the world. The learning is much more valuable than that first actual product.
For wildwonder, we've learned so much since we've launched and we've iterated the product so much. I think my friends even stopped tracking exactly what I'm doing, because I've iterated so many times. And right now what you're seeing on the website is, gosh, like 10 iterations after the first product we launched. Its name has changed. It was in a glass bottle, in a very different shape. Then we changed the bottle. Then we changed to cans, we changed the packaging many times. Everything's changed.
Cut Fruit: We definitely feel that, especially about just launching something! It does feel like there’s a very real desire for perfection, especially for Asian women. Do you ever feel like because you’re an Asian woman or a minority in a certain space, that there is more pressure to get things right on the first try?
Rosa: Yeah, I definitely think the bar is higher. And not necessarily because people have double standards. When we have that conversation about representation, I think it can feel like there's just not that many so-called "spots" for women and minorities, let alone together.
There's not that many people like us higher up. There's this idea of psychology around similarity attraction. People tend to like, hire and work with people who are similar to them. And so if every industry is dominated by the white male population then there are just fewer opportunities for women or for minorities. Representation really does matter in this case. There's this feeling that we have to make sure we don't make any mistakes since people aren't going to give us as many opportunities. So we do feel the pressure to outperform. It's unfortunate. I do think that we are making progress slowly. But [as Asian women] I think it's important to give ourselves more opportunities to put ourselves out there. Putting yourself out there is a good thing. If we fail once or twice, sure, people will ding us more for the mistakes we make. At the same time, if you put yourself out there more often, it means more No's, but it also means more Yes's!
Cut Fruit: Thanks for sharing that with us. And so we’re coming to the end of the interview, but we have to ask: what's your favorite fruit? And do you have any fruit based memories that you'd like to share?
Rosa: I like a lot of Asian fruits, but I love Asian pear -- I feel like it's just sweeter and more delicious. Growing up, my grandma would poach pears for me and she would make pear juice and poached pear for me whenever I was sick. It was very healing. I've always viewed certain fruits as healing and related to the philosophy of food as medicine. Wildwonder's first flavor was pear turmeric, so pear has played an important role in my childhood as well as my business. 🍐