Making a difference with a plant-based superfood brand

Yang Di
Christiana Zhu, the founder of Marvelous Foods, is committed to developing and promoting coconut-based superfood options that are completely plant-based and beneficial.
Yang Di
Making a difference with a plant-based superfood brand
Courtesy of Christiana Zhu

Christiana Zhu founded Marvelous Foods, the makers of the plant-based coconut superfood brand Yeyo椰优格.

Please introduce yourself to our readers.

I'm Christiana Zhu, founder of Marvelous Foods and creator of the plant-based coconut superfood brand Yeyo椰优格. I'm a Chinese Kiwi (aka Chiwi) living in Shanghai with my French husband and our Beijing rescue dog.

Why did you decide to start your own company?

I first created Yeyo's signature coconut yogurt for my own health needs. When I moved from New Zealand to Beijing in 2014, I started developing food allergies that gave me severe eczema and low immunity. I became particularly sensitive to dairy, including dairy proteins. Yogurt was always my go-to gut healing remedy, but I couldn't have dairy anymore, and when I couldn't find any plant-based yogurts in China (not even on Taobao!) I started making my own.

I never dabbled in vegan or vegetarian eating before, and I wasn't ready to compromise on the rich and creamy flavor that I loved in dairy yogurt, so I found that coconut was the best alternative vs other ingredients such as soy or almond. I made my yogurt sugar-free by default because I also used it to make savory dishes like tzatziki, pasta sauce, soups, and curries.

When I started sharing my dairy-free coconut gourmet creations with friends, one invited me to make the yogurt in their restaurant, which allowed me to explore the possibility of scale, and another invited me to sell the yogurt at their farmers market, which helped us grow a cult following. All of this led to VC investment, which enabled us to make Yeyo products available on Tmall, ALDI, City Super, and Epermarket. We're also working to expand into restaurants, schools, and company canteens.

Making a difference with a plant-based superfood brand
Courtesy of Christiana Zhu

Yeyo emphasizes coconuts' therapeutic properties. It sells dairy-free and sugar-free probiotic coconut yogurt, low-calorie gelato, and eco-friendly coconut water electrolyte sports drinks.

Making a difference with a plant-based superfood brand
Courtesy of Christiana Zhu

Yeyo's newest product is a coconut-based electrolyte sports drink.

What makes Shanghai's business environment so remarkable?

Shanghai's vibrant scene offers fertile ground for budding brands and innovative products. With open-minded, worldly consumers and a cosmopolitan vibe, it's a playground for creativity. The diverse array of global goods nurtures unique tastes, making it perfect for niche products to flourish in this dynamic environment.

What were you trying to bring to the local community?

I started Yeyo with the simple goal of boosting my own immunity and gut health, but the drive behind growing it came when I realized the positive impact it could have on the health of others and the health of the planet. Given that plant-based dairy has a 75 percent smaller carbon and land use footprint than animal dairy, and that 20 percent of the world's population resides in China, significant reductions are possible. On top of this, 80 percent of Chinese are lactose intolerant, so dairy alternatives have huge market potential. We can make a big difference by providing more delicious and nutritious plant-based dairy options in biodegradable packaging that's stylish and fun.

Making a difference with a plant-based superfood brand
Courtesy of Christiana Zhu

Team Yeyo enjoys Yeyo coconut yogurt.

What are the biggest challenges in setting up a business here? How do you stay motivated?

Success is a moving target in the business world, and even more so in a startup. Growing it from 0-0.5 to 0.5 to 1 was challenging because of the step changes. It was like running a completely different company, with each step changing, because we needed to re-think our operational model, formulation, and revenue model every time. For me, the mission of providing more healthy and sustainable options for consumers keeps me motivated. It keeps me motivated, especially when I hear from customers who tried plant-based yogurt for the first time and loved it, or from those like me who are lactose intolerant and were glad to have yogurt and ice cream that they could eat and share with friends and family.

What was the moment that made you proud?

I don't think there's one single moment. It's the small notes of appreciation from customers whom we can delight every day that count as a whole.

What are you working on?

Something delicious — follow us on WeChat & RED to find out! (Yeyo椰优格)

Who is your female role model?

Helen Clark, New Zealand's first elected female prime minister, profoundly impacted me. Discovering her alma mater aligned with my own instilled a profound sense of possibility. Her groundbreaking tenure as the first female head of the UNDP further exemplified her trailblazing leadership. Continuously advocating for causes dear to my heart through her foundation, she remains a beacon of inspiration for societal progress.

Do you have any advice for women entrepreneurs?

1) Start acting even if your idea is small, so you can get tangible market feedback rather than sitting on theoretical ideas for so long that you talk yourself out of action.

2) Never cling to a hypothesis too preciously; test and iterate to find the "truth."

3) In the end, just go for it; never live life with regrets.

4) But also be brutally honest with yourself about the repercussions that may come with losing any bets you make (there will be many), and make sure you are mentally equipped to face that before you go all-in.

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