Thanks for Making Me a Fighter
The Happy Family offices perfectly embody the brand. Spread across two floors in a high-rise on the eastern edge of Manhattan’s Financial District, the bright space emblazoned with rich colors feels startlingly clean and… well… happy. The rows of Happy Family’s organic baby food products form a rainbowlike effect on the white walls.
While the Happy Family brand has a sunny and cheery temperament, founder Shazi Visram’s disposition is a stark (and refreshing) contrast. Though she may have created a company whose logo features a smiling baby surrounded by bright orange sunbeams, Visram, 39, balances her company’s peppiness with the determination of a fighter. Visram’s difficult, poverty-stricken childhood—and struggle to make ends meet when she first launched her company—contributed to the determined, tough woman she is today.
Visram is energetic, but it’s a deeply focused and unrelenting energy. She’s intelligent and well-spoken, but if it’s a sparkly, bubbly CEO you’re looking for, you’ve come to the wrong place.
“We were living hand-to-mouth, sleeping on the floor of the office and struggling to meet payroll,” Visram says of the first six years running her company, which she launched out of her tiny Brooklyn kitchen at age 28. “But I knew in my gut that this was it, that this was right.”
“I grew up thinking it was almost shameful to work for someone else. I could see that if you wanted to build something, you could—and you should—build it yourself.”
And right she was. The Happy Family brand, launched 10 years ago, sits poised to rake in an estimated $150 million in sales this year.
A Rocky Beginning
At her core, Visram—who sports her dark black hair in a layered bob—is a survivor. The youngest child of immigrant parents, Visram’s childhood was one big lesson in maneuvering obstacles.
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“My parents really taught me that you can do anything,” says Toronto-born Visram. Her father, Amir, was a Pakistani immigrant by way of a village in Tanzania, and her mother, Zarin, grew up in Pakistan. In Toronto her dad spent his days working the loading docks at IBM, and her mother, who Visram says was one of the first female doctors in Pakistan to have her own practice, worked as a nurse because her medical training was not recognized in Canada.
Eventually they saved up enough to buy a small cash-and-carry store. “They really struggled and lived very poor,” Visram says. “When I was born, my first crib was literally a drawer. There was no furniture in the apartment. If you look at old pictures of me, there is just paper on the floor and me playing with a pot.”
Her parents packed up Visram and her brother, Rahim, when she was 3 years old and drove to Birmingham, Alabama, with only $200 in their pockets. They scraped together a deal to buy a motel despite no experience in the hospitality industry.
“I grew up in a motel room in the sticks of Birmingham, far away from the action of the city.” While Visram considers Alabama her childhood home, her enunciation—completely devoid of a Southern accent—fails to give it away.
A Formative Upbringing
The struggle Visram’s parents faced always stuck with her. “From the second they bought the motel, they were hit with insane challenges,” she says. “But they figured it all out, and I saw them hit every hurdle and challenge with the attitude that they were going to deal with it and overcome it.”
It’s a strategy that paid off. By the time Visram left for college at Columbia University in New York City, her parents were the proud owners of five motels, three dry cleaners, land and a number of other ventures.
“Being their own bosses and owning their own businesses was my parents’ biggest point of stress, but also pride,” Visram says. “I grew up thinking it was almost shameful to work for someone else. I could see that if you wanted to build something, you could—and you should—build it yourself.”
Yet when Visram initially started college, she distanced herself from her parents’ challenge-ridden living and pursued a double major in art and history.
“I just wanted to paint pictures. I felt like being creative. At the time I had a disdain for business and it was something I never thought I would do,” Visram says with a wry laugh. Little did she know nearly a decade later, in 2012, she would appear on Crain’s New York Business’s “40 Under Forty” list.
Upon graduation, Visram quickly realized painting pictures would not pay for New York City’s sky-high rent. And returning to Alabama was not in her plans.
“I realized I couldn’t ask my parents, who spent their entire lives working ridiculously hard, to support an artist’s life in New York City. I needed a job. I needed to do something.” After a stint at a tech nonprofit, Visram worked her way up at a media-buying agency, eventually running the digital division. There she realized she could no longer fight off her entrepreneurial drive. She felt as though her salary didn’t reflect the long hours and hard work she put in at the company.
“They weren’t giving me a piece of the action. It wasn’t my business, and that really bothered me.”
She ran her own media-buying company for a short time, but she didn’t find it fulfulling. She wanted to make a difference in people’s lives.
She went back to Columbia, this time to pursue her MBA. She wanted the tools to start her own business. Then, a lightbulb clicked on. “I recognized that building a business comes from being really creative. If you are creative and you know how to execute your ideas, you can win and you can build something that is a living, breathing work of art.”
An Unlikely Calling
Visram wanted to launch a business that could have a genuinely positive impact on people. She never imagined baby food would be her life’s calling.
During business school, she had a conversation with a new mother who unintentionally set her on her path. Her friend, whom Visram describes as “one of those amazing people who graduated from Harvard, had an amazing job, a beautiful family and seemed perfect,” was consumed with shame because she didn’t always have time to make all of her baby’s food from scratch. “It was the first time I saw an opportunity to assuage guilt and create value,” she says.
Visram—a self-professed health fanatic—frequently fasts, doesn’t eat processed food and met her husband at a yoga class. It shocked her to find out that, in the U.S., most babies start out on a diet of processed foods and additives. When she first looked into jarred baby food, she realized many of the products hadn’t changed since the 1930s.
“I looked at it and I was like, This is not one of those problems you need nine rocket scientists to come up with a solution. This is something I could fix and could make an impact on children’s health.”
And so her business began. She wanted to create a “modern and warm” baby food brand that could teach people about the value of whole, fresh and organic food. “That may be idealistic, but I truly believe in it.”
Joe Kulak, Visram’s husband, attributes her success to the way she looks at the world. “I’ve never met anyone who thinks like Shazi does,” he says. “She just sees things differently, sees beyond where other people see. She really is a visionary.”
A Bumpy Ride
Still, a strong vision wasn’t enough to pave the way to success for Visram, who describes her journey as a trek down an “incredibly long road,” filled with disappointing news, funding issues and family health problems.
Visram and Jessica Rolph, chief operating officer and founding partner of Happy Family, began selling their products on Mother’s Day in 2006. When the duo launched the company under the moniker of Happy Baby, they sold jars of frozen baby food. It failed to take off.
“Everybody in business school puts together a business plan with this hope of $50 million in sales by year five. Our first year, it was so disappointing,” she says. They did just over $115,000 in sales.
The company’s sales increased and a couple of years later, they were at $2 million. Visram realized that frozen baby food—found in a different section than the middle aisles, where moms typically look for products for their child—wouldn’t have the national impact she dreamed of.
Giving up was never an option for Visram, so she pivoted. The solution to the company’s growth problems came in the form of a pouch.
“It was such a revolutionary packaging concept,” Visram says. “You could create really high-quality products, but increase the convenience 10-fold.” The plastic pouches do not need to be frozen, they are lighter than glass jars, and they don’t require a spoon. Her sales jumped from $2 million to $7 million in one year, and then to $13 million the year after.
The product was selling, but Happy Family’s problems had only just begun. “The first six years of the company were a real economic struggle. I was constantly raising money.”
Kulak—a yoga teacher—reveals that during this trying time, the couple lived in a tiny, cramped New York apartment as Visram attempted to grow the company. She refused to take venture capital funding and instead spent her time convincing regular people to invest. She didn’t want a venture capitalist because she worried the focus would be too much on profit and not the company’s mission.
From there, her business started to take off. American Express filmed a multimillion-dollar campaign starring her company, and she received numerous awards, including the International Achievement Award sponsored by the International Women’s Entrepreneurial Challenge. As a way to thank her parents for their hard work (and the lessons they taught her about being her own boss) she took them to Cape Town, South Africa, for the award ceremony.
“I wanted to take my dad back to Africa,” she says. “He hadn’t been since he left. He grew up there with a dirt floor underneath his feet. I wanted to take him back and wine him and dine him, and so I did with basically my life savings at that point.”
The trip quickly took a turn for the worse. On the plane ride back home, Visram’s father suffered a heart attack and nearly died. Luckily, he was rushed to an Abu Dhabi hospital in time. Her father has since died from Alzheimer’s in 2013.
Visram remembers being ready to pull out her hair in frustration during that time, partially because they were also struggling to keep up with demand for the product. “For the first time in six years, we had a product that was flying off of the shelves, and we just needed more money to make more of it.”
At the time, only two facilities in the U.S. could produce and fill pouches, and they had a monopoly on the industry. Happy Family was small and had trouble acquiring enough time on the manufacturing line to fill the product. “The challenge was making it happen, but we did it.”
A Touch of Luck
While Visram believes hard work and willpower have helped her succeed, she doesn’t discredit good old-fashioned luck. “There are a lot of people who say they don’t believe in luck, but I believe in it.”
Visram—whose 6-year-old son, Zane, has autism—chooses to believe that “positive things attract more success and more positive energy,” and that running a company not to make money, but with a bigger goal in mind, is the best way to operate.
She also believes in creating a warm and fun atmosphere for her employees—one in which she pushes people to strive for the best.
“Shazi is like a dreamer,” says Regina Lee Fechter, director of innovation and business development at Happy Family. “In business there are a lot of people who are very practical and focused on money. Our core is babies before business. Shazi is always saying when we have strategy sessions, what can we do to truly change things?”
They also remember to have fun.
“We eat the products all the time in the office,” says Fechter while pointing to the colorful wall of pouches. “I like to squeeze a pouch over yogurt!”
While Happy Family mainly focuses on what a baby needs in its first 1,000 days of life, the company has expanded to help feed the entire family—the product line now caters to older children and pregnant women too. The company also places an emphasis on transparency—both literally and figuratively. It is the first company to offer transparent baby food pouches so parents can see exactly what their children will be eating, plus the ingredients and recipes are listed on the products as well.
Despite her success, Visram doesn’t plan on coasting with what she has built.
“By 2020, I’d love to see that Happy Family is really synonymous with helping parents through their children’s first few years of life. I want to continue making an impact by releasing nutritious product lines that continue to address gaps in the marketplace. For me, I see a half-billion-dollar brand, easy.”
Despite her lofty goals, Visram still looks at her company with the eyes of a founder just getting started, not a 10-year veteran.
“We’re 10 years old, but I am just so excited about everything we are going to accomplish in the next 10.”
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This article originally appeared in the June 2016 issue of SUCCESS magazine.