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Territory Foods CEO On Striving Outside Of Your Comfort Zone And Believing In The Power Of Failure

March 8, 2021

The Crunchbase “Female Founder Series,” is a series of stories, Q&As, and thought-leadership pieces from glass-ceiling-smashers who overcame the odds and are now leading successful companies.


Ellis McCue became the CEO of Territory Foods in 2019 after being with the company for less than two years. She is responsible for Territory’s overall vision and strategy, and is currently leading the company through multiple phases of rapid growth. 

Territory is a female-led fresh food platform that offers a fresh take on the food preparation and distribution industry. Its proprietary food recommendation engine determines its subscribers’ personal preferences to deliver high-quality chef-prepared meals with nutritionist-approved menus tailored to their health and taste preferences, for example keto, Whole3, Mediterranean, paleo and plant-based.

The platform partners with over 40 local chefs and restaurants, such as Cafe Gratitude, Founding Farmers and Gracias Madre, and is hyperfocused on culinary innovation and design because its fundamental belief is that eating should be a joyous occasion. It is also focused on creating bounty for customers on their path to health to underscore the fact that eating well can be delicious and enjoyable, not restrictive or stressful. In 2021, the company will be scaling-up its reach with customers and increasing its impact in the restaurant community and its role in the evolving food landscape. 

Ellis was recently crowned as a top 25 Consumer Health Tech Executive for her foundational work in the Food as Medicine space and among the top 15 CEOs of start-ups and small/midsize businesses. Territory was also rated as one of the top places for women to work in the U.S. in 2020.

Before joining Territory Foods, Ellis led successful, forward-looking business strategies for major global companies such as Deloitte, Gap Inc., and ZX Ventures (AbInBev). Ellis received a bachelor’s degree in international studies and East Asian studies from Johns Hopkins University


 

Q: What led you to a career focusing on the business of food?

I have an extensive family history of cancer-related illnesses, and in my early 20s I felt an impending sense of dread that I couldn’t control or change my future. I felt like I had no path forward. When I began researching the preventative steps I could take, I found very little information or reliable data. Instead, I realized that traditional medicine was hyperfocused on treating cancer and cancer-like illnesses, and there wasn’t much discussion about prevention. 

That experience inspired me to find a way to enter the conversation and help arm people with the knowledge and tools to take preventative steps to make necessary lifestyle changes to manage their health. I wanted to make an impact; to create a way for healthy food to be accessible, convenient and easy to understand. My background in technology means I’ve always approached problems from a standpoint of systems, data and process. Considering that the market for healthy eating and personalized food is roughly $702 billion, I saw an opportunity for the food sector to employ new technologies that can leverage the power of the direct-to-consumer relationship and machine learning to drive better health for customers while delivering a product they love. This is what drove me to make a move to Territory.

 

Q: Before joining Territory, what issues did you see in the food business? 

The diet culture of the 90s and 00s blurred the definition of healthy eating — it was also a time when the natural foods movement had been relegated to a specific shelf in the grocery store. Early pioneers like Whole Foods taught consumers a new understanding of what natural and healthy food could be. They gave people a lexicon to start questioning the brands they love about their sourcing, ingredients and health standards.

Coming to Territory in the late 2010s, I saw there was a crush of commercial diets; paleo, primal, Whole30, keto and even plant-based to some extent. The issue wasn’t the diets but the lack of education for the customer on how these different styles would impact their health and how their food processing played into the conversation. At the same time, nationally we have seen an epidemic-level increase in obesity, Type II diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, sleep apnea and cancer — all impacting more of the population and earlier in life. 

The new and emerging world of D2C food trends (meal kits, restaurant platforms, prepared meals) presented us with the right business model. Territory’s superior technology enabled the company to leverage an honest, data-driven relationship with its customers while building a strong level of trust. The platform effectively empowers customers to A/B test and find their personalized version of health. It then keeps them on that path through a limitless variety of delicious and responsibly sourced food prepared by our network of chefs. 

Data tells us that people are looking for everyday support to make better choices in their lives, especially when it comes to food. Unfortunately, there is a misconception that you need to compromise on quality and taste to eat a healthy meal. While you might start with the best intent, add packed schedules and lack of time for meal preparation to the mix and people will make the easy, unhealthy choices if the healthier option isn’t something that excites them. 

When Territory launched in 2011, we were the first-ever chef-to-consumer delivery platform. We took the extra step to develop the data-backed curation for our customers to build individualized plans that serve preferences, lifestyles and fitness needs. This was a game-changer for the market because we enabled our customers to make the small, sustainable changes in their health that ladder up to the more significant systemic changes in our world. This is what both the food and health system need in order to build a healthier future. 

 

Q: How did you network, find communities and make the connections you needed to succeed? 

Honestly, I got comfortable with being uncomfortable. As a female entrepreneur I reminded myself that I have an equal right to be in the room, even if I don’t have all the answers. I think women, especially, have trouble with this because we (generally) create constructs of how things “should” work, but then we are the only ones that play by those rules. The result is that fewer women get their ideas off the ground because they are telling themselves, “it’s not ready,” “it’s not worth the risk,” or “I have to wait until …”. It’s this mindset that will keep you looking down instead of up at the world around you and will prevent you from jumping at opportunities when you see them. 

I am always amazed that we are one of the few women-led businesses in our category, but last year Crunchbase reported that only 3 percent of business investment goes to women. Having raised venture funds, this doesn’t surprise me at all; the questions and scrutiny women receive are different than their male counterparts, and you have to go in knowing that. Be prepared. Be brave. Be tenacious. Be confident. Coffee also helps.

I also knew early on I would need a network of people who know me, know the industry, or are passionate about leading the way I am, and I started building my team of advisers — my personal board. They are the mentors that help me stay on track, keep me moving, and sometimes help me avoid the pitfalls that early-stage company CEOs fall into. You need people to whom you are accountable and you need to admit failure, because you’re not always going to win. 

 

Q: What is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned in your career?

Don’t give up. Strive for something outside of your comfort zone and believe in the power of failure. 

There are many versions of success in your future, and only you can decide which path you take. The next step might not always be clear, but when looking back it will all make sense to get you to your goals. Also, you have to find the passion inside you that drives you to your version of success. You have to be happy, because happiness is everything; it’s how you become the best version of yourself in all dimensions of your life, which will have infinite payoff personally and professionally. 

 

Q: What is your advice for other female executives at the beginning of their career or entrepreneurial journeys?

Resilience is a myth. It’s not a virtue that you should aspire to — it’s a coping mechanism to find your way through a temporary, difficult situation — focus instead on getting to the other side. Take a hard look at what you’re doing and the people with whom you’ve surrounded yourself, and be brave enough to change your situation if you are not happy. Be both passionate and logical: Make a plan, but know it will have to change. You probably don’t know where your career is heading — no one does — but that’s OK; you need to focus on the next step. 

Also, for women specifically, I’m a huge believer that proximity helps. Seeing someone like you achieve success in your field gives you a blueprint for your success. For me, Kara Nortman from Upfront Ventures (a longtime investor in Territory) is a huge inspiration. She has built an impressive career, from co-founding All Raise, becoming a managing partner at Upfront to co-founding Angel City. Kara is creating a template of success for female entrepreneurs to follow for the next 10 years. I’m always awed by her and strive to lead in my community and drive my career the same way she does. 

 

Q: Do you have a favorite quote or “personal mantra” you use to keep yourself motivated?

The boss says “go,” the leader says “let’s go” – Harry Selfridge

While 2020 was a massive test of Territory’s culture, I’m proud to say that this ethos drove us to new heights of success amidst the crisis. As a leader, I work in the trenches with my team. I have to inspire my team to believe the Territory dream as feverishly as I do. That’s how we drive growth, returns and enterprise value while creating a thriving, inclusive, and sustainable organization where people love to work. It’s this culture that inspires real innovation. A culture of transparency and empathy will also help you fail fast and evolve as an organization. 

 

Q: What challenge are you most proud of overcoming in your career?

Institutions. I don’t have an MBA or graduate degree. I come from a nontraditional background (East Asian Studies at Johns Hopkins University). It’s been a clear and obvious ceiling above me, especially at larger companies, compounded by being a woman — it’s like a double-hitter. I saw male colleagues with less experience and less demonstrated performance get promoted above me, paid more than me, and handed better opportunities. When I brought results-based evidence to make my business case, I was told they “weren’t quite sure.” At times I felt like I was talking into a vacuum, and I had to have an honest conversation with myself about how to find my way through it.

I left many high-potential, lucrative careers behind and vowed to chart my course, but it’s tough. It takes a lot of mental fortitude to realize that the track you have bought into may not be the right one because of who you are. I have a tremendous amount of empathy for my BIPOC-LatinX and LGBTQIA+ colleagues because this has been their everyday. My passion in building Territory is to create a high-performance culture grounded in diversity across background, ethnicity, race, experience, and education.  

 

Q: How have you integrated your values and mission into your own work?

My parents owned a small business and were committed to being great employers and building their community’s health. They worked incredibly hard, which set the foundational work ethic that has carried me through the toughest challenges. I have a lot of respect for small business owners because I have seen the unglamorous everyday grind, and that is why I love Territory’s business model.

Working with a small business network allows me to drive positive change for them and their communities as we all navigate the challenges of our rapidly evolving world together. In a restaurant industry where just 7 percent are woman-owned businesses, 38 percent of Territory’s chef partners are BIPOC-LatinX-owned businesses, and 42 percent are woman-owned. We provide a platform for our chefs and culinary communities to promote and amplify their brands.

I’m incredibly passionate about creating a mission-driven company with diversity, inclusivity and social good at its core; suitable for the employees, for our partners, for the environment and our local communities. Food has the unique power to change our customers’ lives in profound ways that have larger societal and community impacts.

 

Q: What qualities do you possess that you think have contributed most to your success?

Tenacity and positivity. 

Anyone who has worked with me for any stage of my career knows I bring an incredibly positive and optimistic attitude to everything I do. I’m a huge believer in the team, and I don’t always have to be the captain. I love listening and want to imbue my passion for the business with employees across the organization. 

I also believe that mistakes are necessary to grow, so we need to embrace them with both hands and learn for the future, especially in the startup world. There is no playbook, so you have to keep forging on. Most weeks, we are creating something that hasn’t been done before, and that’s exhilarating!

I also never give up — I have a ton of energy and passion, and I want the people around me to feel the same electricity and excitement. When you bring energy and positivity, paired with an analytical approach to the conversation, everyone wants to be a part of it.