Artwork by Anna Zhang

Upon graduating from UBC Sauder with a Bachelor of Commerce in 2010, Shizu Okusa began her career at Goldman Sachs as a Research Analyst and Head Trader in Bank Loan Distressed Investing. A proud alumnus of the UBC Portfolio Management Foundation, Shizu currently serves on the program’s Board. Wanting to expand her experience outside of finance in the U.S., she moved to Maputo, Mozambique, to work as an Investment Advisory Consultant helping entrepreneurs and smallholder farmers raise capital for their projects. Before returning to the U.S. as one of the first associates for the private equity arm of the World Bank, she completed her 500-hour yoga teacher training certification in Bali. 

It was while working for the World Bank in Washington D.C. that the idea for Jrink, her first venture, was born. Jrink was the city’s first subscription cold-pressed juice and healthy meals business. Seven years later, she had bootstrapped, scaled, and fundraised the business to a multimillion-dollar valuation. She sold Jrink in 2019 and set her sights on her next venture: Apothékary, an online herbal wellness company that offers 100% natural, sustainable, and ethically-sourced alternatives to synthetic drugs and beauty products.

Before we start, we would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Could you give us your backstory? Could you tell us about your journey from being part of the UBC Portfolio Management Foundation to working in finance in different settings and eventually starting your first business?

Sure! My name is Shizu like she-went-to-the-zoo and I was born and raised in Vancouver, British Columbia. While I was at Sauder I was part of the PMF program and I’m currently on the task force that is working to hire a new PMF supervisor. I got so much from the program, including friends, community, my old boss, and a really strong framework that helps me think not only about investing but also how to couple logic with creativity. I was one of only a handful of students in the program that didn’t choose the investment banking path directly after graduating. My sister was in investment banking, which helped me realize that I didn’t want to work the hours. I would rather wake up early, so I began my first job on the trading floor at Goldman Sachs in New York. 

I then worked at the World Bank, but took a break between that and Goldman by spending a year working in Mozambique on a banana plantation, which was really fun. It was sort of a year long break to reassess and figure out who I was as a person, what I wanted to do, what made me happy, what my “eulogy virtues” versus my “resume virtues” were, and how I could create a life that blended the eulogy and resume stuff. In Japanese the word that refers to this is ikigai. Most people choose one or the other, doing the eulogy stuff on the weekends, after hours by volunteering, or by donating. I felt like I was wasting my time doing one or the other when they should be at the same time. I just wanted to do everything at the same time. I want to live life, I want to build, and I want to create. I was deeply curious about the intersection of wellness, spirituality, and business — how does one do well, and do good, sustainably?

Aligning my career with the eulogy stuff is what I was wrestling with during that year of living abroad. I was trying to figure out what my path forward was, or as the Buddhists say, what is my Dharma? This is going to sound morbid, but we’re all going to die. It's just a fact, and maybe we don’t like talking about it because we don’t have a good outlet to talk about it in a healthy way. I think if we talked about death in a more healthy way we would actually be less concerned or less fearful of what our parents think and about all the things that we fail to accomplish in our own lives. Thinking about my death was an exercise that was quite healthy for me in terms of looking at all the things I wanted to do before that. Death as a precursor to living your best life — that would make a great subject line. 

So once I returned to the U.S., I worked at the World Bank and shortly after started my first company called Jrink. I ran that for eight years. Ultimately it sold and got acquired in 2019 and then I finished my earn out or the transition period throughout the pandemic, which was really fun. I’m joking - it was not so fun. It was really intense. Luckily none of the valuation, the numbers, or documents had changed, so the payout was all the same. I was able to invest all of the money that I got from Jrink’s sale over to Apothékary. A lot of our investors with Jrink also came along with me to Apothékary if and when I wanted to raise capital from certain investors. So now I'm on my second business. It's been about a year and a half and we now have an amazing team of people behind it. I spend most of my time on top of funnel brand awareness and making sure that we have a product roadmap over the next 12 to 24 months.

I'm much more open and comfortable talking about an exit timeline now than with my first company. Talking about exiting used to have a slight feeling of guilt around it. I think I now am much more clear about what kind of entrepreneur I am. I think there are three types of entrepreneurs: the creator, the builder, and the founder. I'm much more of the creator type. I'm good at ending, but I'm not very good at the slow burning or building stage. I just love to create. I love to inspire. I love to get into the market, quickly test and iterate, raise capital and sell. I want to build a great team to do the building part. So I focus most of my skill set on areas that I think I'm good at so that I don't waste people's time and I don't waste my energy. I focus on our team, product, and R&D. I’m already thinking about my third company.

How did your Japanese heritage inspire your latest venture, Apothékary? 

Apothékary is a plant-based farmacy offering natural alternatives to synthetic drugs and beauty products. I think Apothékary was always inside of me, probably even before Jrink, mainly because it was an area of my life that I grew up with. Whenever I was sick or even just feeling tired, my very traditional Japanese mother would give me black and oozy drinks that were broths containing old age herbs and mushrooms. I had grown up with all these icky powders, mushrooms, and dried things that didn’t taste great and were very strong. At Apothékary, we’re trying to provide a more digital and modern experience to the world of signature blends and food science.

While juices made from fruits and vegetables can nourish you, there isn’t an area where juices can necessarily help heal you in areas of stress, skin, anxiety, and sleep. These are things we may not see visually but are incredibly important, so Apothékary is more of a natural pharmacy in providing solutions to those ailments and less like a food product. What I find exciting about Apothékary is that it sits at the intersection between food and consumer product goods (CPGs). Food is more of a daily ritual or a daily product that you consume. Comparatively, CPG has much higher velocity and volume because your market size is much bigger. Plus you get the extra bonus of being in the industries of both health care and beauty. From the perspective of a business model, with healthcare you can justify higher margins because you have a level of medicinal research and investment that needs to be done on the education side. On the beauty side, you can again justify higher margins because you’re offering an aspirational lifestyle and everyday ritual. From a business standpoint, I think I put a lot of thought and emphasis onto all the things that were wrong with Jrink to make sure that Apothékary could accomplish things differently by sitting at this intersection. 

Apothékary and Jrink both have brick-and-mortar locations in Washington, D.C. What has it been like selling your products through digital channels?

Jrink started out digitally and moved into retail afterwards because we realized that the business fundamentals for a drink business warranted a storefront. The main factor was the shelf life of the product and that people don’t want to buy food unless they’ve tried it before. But when COVID-19 hit, it forced people to buy food without trying it. Apothékary was originally a store before it went digital as well. Even though COVID-19 has accelerated digital adoption I think there’s still a lot of opportunity in retail right now.  If you’re launching a CPG business, it's actually very helpful to know your customer before you launch digitally. This way you have a good sense for the questions that people are asking about your product. What are your best sellers? How are people navigating your store or do they take a product quiz? What is the user experience in person and how do we replicate that online?

What lessons did you carry over from Jrink to Apothékary?

There were three main things from my first business that I carried over to Apothékary. The first one is how to make quicker decisions. I can do this now because I've had the experience doing it at Jrink. I know now not to mull on certain things much longer than I need to or second guess myself, something I did a lot in my first business. Now, I try to decide quicker and not go back. Jeff Bezos would call this one-way door decision making. The second one is how to hire. As a first time founder, you’ve never been a bookkeeper, operations manager, or store manager so it's hard to know what to look for, but I know now. The third one is I now know how to fire people faster because I have experienced when things don't work out, why they don't work out, and the warning signs well in advance.

So I don't put as much emotion or intensive thinking into some things because as a founder, you just don't have time. Time is literally my everything, and if I'm spending my time and energy mulling on something that I just know deep down is the right choice, it's just time to lock it in. It's important to make decisions respectfully, but also quickly. So those are the main three things that I've learned from the first company. 

There are weaknesses that come from a second or third time founder too, and it probably gets worse and worse over time. There are two main problems. The first is that I don’t have a lot of patience and the second one is blindspots. That's why it's so important that you have a really great team that is not afraid to call you out, because my blind spots can be really big if I'm moving at the speed that I am and if I don’t have a great team. Blind spots can be bad for me personally and the company. So the respectfulness, transparency, and openness to call each other out and say maybe we’re moving too fast here, have we considered this, or how about this etc is super valuable. It's also on me to hire the best people who are able to do that for me.

What are two mantras that have helped you stay grounded as you navigate the life of being a busy founder?

The first one would be my knowledge of the first and second arrow. What that means is essentially we have two arrows that we can shoot when we are going through a hard time. The first arrow is shot outwards towards someone sometimes in the form of confrontation. It tends to be when we're stressed, angry, disappointed, or something externally driven has happened. The second arrow usually comes eight hours later. I'm in bed and I really regret what I said to someone. I come to them the next day, guilty and shameful for what I said. But I don't say anything, I just mull on it for myself and let it simmer. So then I feel really shameful for the next week. That's the second arrow. You’ve shot it at yourself, which is very unproductive because no one else is thinking about it. The other person doesn't know what I’m thinking. They just think I'm a horrible person for shooting the first arrow when a more productive way to shoot that arrow is to probably not shoot it at all. It's better to go back and apologize. Shooting the arrow is irrational and emotionally stressful. Have a conversation instead. It is transparent, constructive, and respectful. This analogy has always been really helpful for me to use whenever I feel shameful or guilty because it helps me recognize what to do to channel that into productive energy instead.

My second favourite “life lesson quote” is that in general, life happens for you, not to you. I recently had a great opportunity to film for Shark Tank. Unfortunately, we did not get to air. I think for the rest of my life, I will probably always see something about Shark Tank and wish it could have worked out. But, I think that whenever you are aiming for something, there are three possible answers. There’s a “yes,” a “maybe not now but later,” and a “next time.” We didn’t get Shark Tank this time but maybe it will come later or there will be something better in the future. I think we have to operate that way as a founder, otherwise, there are so many moments in any given day or week that you could throw your hands up in frustration in response to and not want to keep going. Things are just too hard to not have this mindset. 

That's the thing about being a founder. It exponentially increases your self-awareness as a human being, something you're not necessarily asked to do in a regular job. You have to push yourself with so much on the line (your money, your job, other people's jobs, and your reputation). There's this ongoing pressure that we put on ourselves that makes it easy for the valve to burst one day. So it's incredibly important to use our self awareness. Self-awareness means absolutely nothing if we don't accept it.