Lessons In Leadership From A Food Truck: A Conversation With Deepti Sharma – A Forbes ‘Millennial On A Mission’.

I love food trucks and food carts! Who doesn’t? The opportunity to taste enjoy ethnic cuisines folded into recipes that on one end of the scale are typically handed down from generation to generation within a family, or on the other end of the scale are the brainchild of a budding soon to be discovered chef, combined with the ability to support someone’s entrepreneurial spirit, at a very reasonable price point, fills my tummy and my heart with satisfaction all at the same time.

So it was a no-brainer to me that I had to interview Deepti Sharma. Featured on the Forbes ‘Millennials on a Mission’ list, Deepti is the founder of foodtoeat.com – an online service people use to pre-order from restaurants, food trucks, even street carts, and teaches vendors—many from immigrant communities, some who start without so much as a cell phone—how to use technology to engage customers and increase their business. Users put in their address and zip code in order to find food trucks and restaurants in their neighborhood. Using smart phones and GPRS printers, food truck and cart owners are able to receive orders via email, click on a link to confirm receipt and print them out. With 50 food carts and trucks and 700 restaurants and caterers throughout Manhattan currently represented on the site, foodtoeat.com is off to a good start in its quest to revolutionize how New Yorkers satisfy their hunger pangs and access street food.

Deepti didn’t start out in the food industry. In college she was a politics and business major. She interned for a political campaign for the Mayor of New York city. Any political campaign requires a combination of a lot of strategy as well as the ability to jump in and do a lot of different things. Deepti stepped up and delivered the goods on both fronts, taking on various leadership roles along the way. In doing so she learnt a lot about herself, what she was capable of doing and what other people saw in her. She had a great opportunity to follow the candidate, listen to strategy sessions, hear what they were doing and understand why. Deepti believes a campaign is a lot like a company. You may have a great idea about the platform you are going to run on, how you can make a difference and why you are better than the competition. However, you have to execute your plan, you have to establish yourself, build credibility, go out into the market and tell people who you are. Deepti spent five years working various campaigns. She applies everything she learnt to the running of her company. Politics was Deepti’s first love, and she still loves it!

So how does someone go from political campaigning to founding and running a food related business? Deepti went to law school. Studying for the LSATs at the NY Public Library, she logged many hours waiting online for the Treats Truck during her lunch hour. This experience, combined with a focus on operations management within the food industry and some hands on restaurant training and experience inspired her to think about a better way to make street food available to local businesspeople.

While living in India in 2009, Deepti began conceptualizing the idea for her company and secured half a million dollars in angel funding from family and friends to get started. She decided to stay in India and work with a company to develop the product during 2010, and by June of 2011 she was ready to go live with a beta launch for family and friends. After a successful seven month run, foodtoeat.com officially launched in February of 2012, and their 2012 revenues hit the $300,000 mark.

[text_box class=”blue”] ‘What is my tomorrow going to be?’ [/text_box]

In conceptualizing the business and getting it up and running, Deepti never thought of what she was doing as risky. It was just a path she decided to take – to challenge herself to do something she never imagined: stepping out of a career path in politics and diving into a different industry. She has entrepreneurs in her family so the mindset and philosophy was familiar to her. She goes to family and friends for advice, sharing the good and the bad, the questions and the problems with them. She saw an opportunity to tackle a field that had never been approached about increasing their business through the use of technology. Food trucks are a very seasonal business as they are only open during certain conditions. People aren’t always willing to go stand outside in a line to place their order, but they are willing to run out and pick up an order that is ready. Deepti viewed this as an opportunity to work with vendors to help them sustain their business and have a workable model all year round. She is still trying to grow and get established. She still lives a roller coaster lifestyle – not having a set paycheck, something different happening every day. Risk to her has translated into not having the comfort of knowing if her company will survive and make it, of constantly asking herself ‘What is my tomorrow going to be?’

It’s not just her tomorrow that is unknown.  It’s also the tomorrow of her employees. Deepti employs a six person marketing and sales team in New York with a four person tech team back in India. The ability to handle the ambiguity that comes with the unknown, to lead a team with grace and dignity in the face of uncertainty, to motivate and inspire employees, customers and prospects to travel the road with you even as the path is still being laid, is the mark of a leader. Deepti fits that profile.

It might be tempting to question what a millennial knows about leadership. But if, like me, you believe that what matters is what you are exposed to and what you do with it, you’ll be very interested in what Deepti has to share around lessons learned in leadership. As we talked about her experiences with the food trucks and the development of her business, it struck me that what I was hearing could be considered to be ‘lessons in leadership from a food truck’.

Lessons in Leadership from a Food Truck:

  1. Leaders listen to their customers. They take the time to sit down with their customers and really understand their needs so they can create something the customers can and want to actually use. Don’t think that you can just go build something and push it onto your customers. The food truck owners didn’t want to affect the customers that were standing in line. That was something they were very worried about. Deepti and her team developed the products and tested it out for 30-60 days, they showed their clients that it doesn’t negatively affect their daily routine. The food truck owners shared their concern for taking in more orders at a point in time than they have the capacity to turn out, so foodtoeat.com is now working on a system that accounts for how many people can place an order at a certain time so as not to overload the system.
  2. Leaders sit down with their prospective customers and ask them what they are currently unhappy with in terms of what they are getting from their competitors. The decision for foodtoeat.com to go into restaurants was risky. Once again Deepti and her team sat down with restaurateurs and asked them what they wanted and what they were unhappy with. A big topic of discussion was that other vendors charged too high of a fee for processing orders. So foodtoeat.com decided to come up with a model that would charge a much lower fee – they charge only 10c per order. They make up the revenue gap by charging for targeted advertising of vendors that sell their goods to the restaurants. The advertising effectively supplements the revenue stream.
  3. Leaders know that Quality Assurance is important; it’s not all about volume. Deepti’s goal wasn’t to just have everyone using their system. She wanted the food trucks, food carts and restaurants that were willing to take on the accountability of making it work successfully for their location. She knew that customers who didn’t embrace and fully adopt the technology would not be able to obtain the intended benefits and that would hurt her brand in the long run, because word travels fast in any business community. So she learnt to evaluate which customers shared her vision of what could be possible with the technology, which customers understood the mutual value proposition, and to focus on those customers, placing more importance on having the right customers than on having loads of customers.
  4. Leaders value cultural heritage and diversity. Growing up in a city like New York, Deepti learnt to appreciate people of varied backgrounds, to understand where people are coming from, and to build teams made stronger by their diverse makeup. As she build up her business, she has continued to appreciate the inherent diversity that comes through her working with food trucks, food carts and restaurants that span a multitude of cultures and heritages.
  5. Leaders build and maintain trust: Trust can mean a ton of things to different people. In her case, they had to build consistency into the relationship they were establishing with the food truck owners. There was concern on the part of the food truck owners that once they signed papers and joined foodtoeat.com that no-one would show up again, that they were simply being used by foodtoeat.com to grow their business. Continuous and consistent communications and collaboration in the relationship, being very involved, showing respect and proving capable of working together, following up, showing care and understanding everything they did became threads that wove through the relationship Deepti and her team established with the business owners. All of those combined together to build and maintain trust between foodtoeat.com and their customers.
  6. Leaders are willing to get their hands dirty. The food business is a high risk business. 80% of food vendors close on first year. Rules and regulations abound. To succeed, you have to be willing to get into the details and understand all the parts of the business.
  7. Leaders persevere. There is a lot of competition in the food business. Truck, cart and restaurant owners have to persevere and keep going to prove that their food idea is viable.
  8. Leaders treat their staff with respect. You see a lot of families starting up food trucks. Even if it’s not a family per se, you see how the team behaves like a family – in it to work together and win it as a team.
  9. Leaders have to be willing to take risks, not regret decisions made in the past, and never take ‘no’  for an answer. Deepti learnt early on to not be afraid of the competition and the big companies out there. She knew that they were there when she started the business. Somebody said she started that business because she was crazy enough to take those risks. To become a CEO you need to be able to risks.
  10. Leaders must have a story, and how they deliver that story is important. A big part of the food truck experience is hearing the owner’s stories as you stand in line waiting for your food. Where they are from, where the recipes are from, what inspired them to go on the road with their food. Similarly, Deepti has learnt the power of story as a leadership tool. Where she came from, what she has done one step at a time, lessons learnt and how they apply – all these make up Deepti’s story. Leadership comes from within, and your leadership message and what you are trying to achieve is shared through your story.

All this talking about food trucks was making me hungry. I asked Deepti about her favorite foods. She told me she is a vegetarian and a huge fan of spicy food. She loves it when people try to get creative and accommodate vegetarians. She loves Thai food, Indian food, and doing her own cooking. One of her favorite pastimes is to wander through ethnic neighborhoods, pick out local ingredients, pick a recipe and try it. When she travels to other countries, her favorite trip memento is to pick up a bottle of local hot sauce. These things really resonated with me, as I love foods of all different ethnic origins, and I also love browsing the grocery stores in foreign countries. My suitcase when I return home from trips tends to be stuffed with food items more so than any other type of souvenir. I figure next time when I am in New York I need to spend a few hours with this lovely young woman entrepreneur, Deepti Sharma, in person, walking and eating our way through the cultures, tastes and flavors of street food together.

When I was in New York City over Memorial Day weekend with my husband, we happened upon a food cart festival. A triangle of space across from Madison Square Park packed to the gills with roughly thirty food carts. We were in our element, meandering from cart to cart, a taste of this, a bit of that. This was before I had the opportunity to interview Deepti. In retrospect, I feel like to some extent I under-appreciated everything they have to offer me, because it really is about so more than just the food alone. Whether it’s Chicago, New York, or any city for that matter that is lucky enough to have food trucks and carts grace their streets, I’d encourage you to look at them with a fresh set of eyes. Go visit them to support their entrepreneurial spirit, to hear their stories, to think about what lessons in leadership you might be able to glean from them, and of course last but not least, to fill your tummy with their yummy!