Susie Hultquist worked as a professional investor for over 20 years, specializing in consumer and internet companies that in many cases helped make life more efficient. When a co-worker asked her to buy a box of Girl Scout Cookies, she spent 15 minutes determining which kind, if any, might be suitable for her daughter, who has a nut allergy. That experience sparked a revolution for Hultquist.
Determined to help the 32 million Americans with food allergies save energy and time, Hultquist left Wall Street and created an app called Spokin. The app connects members of the food allergy community to each other, and to safe resources like information about cookies, restaurants, travel and more. Originally based on user-generated reviews, Spokin is now working directly with companies to increase transparency with verified information. Hultquist, who is based in Chicago, is seeing her goal become a reality: to reduce human error, keep people safer and make living with food allergies less stressful.
On making the move from Wall Street to startup
In that moment of trying to order Girl Scout Cookies before a conference call began, I was aware of the time. Unfortunately, I was unable to figure out if the cookies were safe by the time the call started. I realized that if everyone in the food allergy community spent the same 15 minutes, that would equal 5 million hours on the same task ― and if my daughter spent 15 minutes a day, every day for the rest of her life, it would add up to a full year of her life spent researching if food was safe.
This incident coincided with my daughter entering her teens, a new stage of life with a lot more social freedom. I realized this burden that I’d been absorbing would soon be 100% hers, that self-advocating would be hers to carry for the rest of her life.
I thought about how the impact of my daughter losing 15 minutes a day would mean the difference between learning a new skill, exercising, talking with a friend or meditating. I felt like I had no choice but to build something that I wished existed for her. My instinct just took over. There was no going back.
I also was at a point in my career where I was ready to take on a new challenge. I loved what I did, but I had this gnawing feeling that there was something more for me. I wanted to do something bigger that would help people. I really didn’t know what that was until that moment. I decided not to wait for the world to be safer for my daughter. I was going to create a tool that makes a real change: to make it easier, faster and safer to manage food allergies.
“I’m helping people honeymoon in the country of their dreams, and the girl with the milk allergy who just wants to go with her friends to Starbucks. When you’re in the position to help people, it fuels you. You don’t even have a choice.”
In spring 2015 I left my previous position and spent a full year in research mode, talking to CEOs of the companies I had invested in to get their best advice, building a prototype of the Spokin app and interviewing almost 100 people with food allergies to get their feedback. We launched a beta of the app in June 2016 and we went live on the app store May of 2017.
How an app became a game changer
People with food allergies deal with dozens of decisions each day, and many have more than one allergy to accommodate when making those decisions. From reading to food labels to menus, we all need transparency. My goal was to create a platform where the food allergy community could come together to share their experiences with one another. That firsthand experience is invaluable.
I committed to making a tool that’s empowering and easy to use. Like most teens, my daughter would more often remember her phone before her EpiPen, which is why I believed the tool should be an app. A mobile app has the added benefit of showing what is nearby, a request we often heard in our research. Opening the app is designed to provide as many ‘yeses’ as possible, eliminating a lot of ‘noes’ and often fear that comes with living with food allergies. Our app users share reviews, so that one person’s ‘find’ can help the whole food allergy community.
I’m a math person, and I figure if everybody shared five things ― from a cookie to where they get their pizza ― we could come together and build a resource with 160 million data points based on 32 million people in the food allergy community. Before Spokin, all of those experiences were fragmented in texts, emails or in people’s heads. The added advantage is by having all of that data in one place, we can use it to help raise the standard of care for the community.
Perhaps more powerful than discovering safe products and places has been finding a community on the Spokin app. The food allergy community will often trust each other before a food company, and finding each other isn’t easy. The Spokin app also provides a social network where users can connect with each other via our in-app chat feature.
Today, Spokin is the fastest growing review platform in the food allergy and celiac community. We also are the largest content creator publishing restaurant, travel, recipe guides and more. We’ve created an ambassador program with some of our most active app users who have been helpful in driving new app features and showing off our verified partners. The majority of the Spokin team personally manages food allergies, so it’s not just a job ― it’s our life.
On creating an environment that uplifts women
In my recent job, I worked on a team that was 100% men. I was the only female investor. While I never gave it much thought back then, I’m proud to share that the Spokin team is 80% female and 100% women and minorities. As a working mom myself, I’m creating a culture that embraces the flexibility that parents need.
On the need to take the fear out of dining out
Food labeling is regulated by the FDA. There are rules around clearly identifying the top eight (soon to be top nine) allergens in a product. In contrast, there is no such regulation overseeing the restaurant industry, which makes knowing what is in your food even more challenging to navigate. Eating out with food allergies is so time-consuming. You can’t just pick a place that sounds good, or be spontaneous.
While I’ve always had a clear vision on how the app reviews could be helpful, it was through my own family’s experience that I witnessed it firsthand. My 18-year-old daughter shared late one night that she had plans to meet her friends for an early-morning picnic breakfast. Her friends planned to bring vegan doughnuts, which in my experience often contain nuts. After a lot of stress about if the doughnuts would be safe, my husband said: “You know your mom has an app for that. Why don’t you check Spokin?” My daughter did, and to our elation, she found that several shared reviews [...] noted the doughnut shop was nut-free. That was our “tears to cheers” moment, as everything we’ve worked for unfolded in my own home.
The North Star that guides me is not just helping my child, but others too. It’s about the little girl who recently had an allergic reaction in one of the biggest restaurant groups in the country and spent the night in a hospital, missing her big night out at the theater. I’m not done until she’s OK. I’m helping people honeymoon in the country of their dreams, and the girl with the milk allergy who just wants to go with her friends to Starbucks. When you’re in the position to help people, it fuels you. You don’t even have a choice.