Exeleon Magazine

Katie Thomson: From ‘Nutritionist’ to Becoming CEO, My Journey in the Nutrition Industry

Katie Thomson_Exeleon Magazine

That moment you realize everything you’ve been through — every lucky break, every failure, every disappointment, every open and closed door — has led you to exactly where you’re meant to be.

That’s how I feel on a daily basis.

Reminiscing on the memories of being a very picky eater growing up, I became determined to create a healthy life as a young adult. Despite my parents’ best efforts to get me to eat a more diverse diet, like so many 80’s kids, I grew up on chicken nuggets, fish sticks, canned green beans, and plain pasta. As a teen athlete, I started to have an appreciation for how food fueled me and made me feel. And as I started to discover all of the amazing cuisines I was missing out on as a picky eater, I started training my palate to learn to love the foods I’d loathed like salmon, sushi, eggs, beets, anything spicy or non-Americana. This began my passion for ‘palate development’.

My Beginning at Starbucks

In college, I pursued Pediatrics — driven by my combined appreciation for health and love of caring for babies and children. After I graduated from the University of Oregon with a Pre-Med major and minors in Business and Chemistry, I decided to move to Seattle to pursue a Masters in Nutrition at the University of Washington. During my Masters and Registered Dietitian programs, I nannied for a wonderful family in our neighborhood, John & Karen Culver. John worked for Starbucks. 

After I completed my education, John so kindly offered to send my resume to the QA/Regulatory Affairs teams at Starbucks to see if they had any need for a dietitian. And the stars were aligned for me that day as they’d just decided they needed someone to come help with Nutrition Analysis for their first Beverage Nutrition Brochure. It was just a 3-week contractor role, but I was elated! I didn’t care how mundane the work felt, I was working for one of the biggest and most respected brands. I completed the 3-weeks of work in 2 weeks. Begged to stay. And I did.

Over the course of the next 6 years, I’d create the first ‘Nutritionist’ role at Starbucks as a full-time ‘Partner’. It was the first ride of my life. Knowing there was so much more a dietitian could do for a company than nutrition/data analysis, I took an early opportunity to present to the then-CEO, Jim Donald, and share my thoughts on the company’s Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. 

I talked about the health benefits of tea and coffee, and the nutritional impact that a daily latte can have on a population that is largely in need of calcium and vitamin D. I talked about the sugar, sodium, trans fat, and saturated fat across the food and beverage portfolio and recommended healthier options, smaller portion sizes, and a focus on communicating to the customer how to customize their beverage to meet their needs.

Learning the ‘Ins’ and ‘Outs’

I started my career on the Regulatory Affairs & Quality Assurance team — in charge of the accuracy of every nutrition facts panel and claim on the packaging. I learned from the best regulatory and legal specialists who trained me to understand the FDA’s regulatory ins and outs as well as have an appreciation for and dedication to marketing and packaging that was ‘truthful and not misleading’. Essentially, this work prepared me to walk through a grocery store and see through the BS marketing that often plagued the aisles.

Over the next several years, I’d take on a strategic role in the company as Health & Wellness became one of the 4 strategic pillars of the company. I’d work alongside Marketing and Category teams to determine product priorities and with R&D chemists to reformulate existing food and beverages — going to a Skinny Vanilla Latte taste testing was a fun ‘meeting’ to have on the calendar! 

We made some incredible progress together as we created the first Nutrition Guardrails (caps on calories, fat, saturated fat, sodium, etc.) and Ingredient Standards (removing artificial flavors, colors, preservatives, HFCS, and artificial trans fat across the US and International food and beverage products.) Hundreds of products were reformulated to be better for you. 

And dozens of new products were launched like wholesome smoothies, oatmeal, egg white options, and a beautiful assortment of salads and protein and veggie-packed bistro boxes. I also consulted the Strategy and M&A teams on retail assortment and potential acquisitions for the Starbucks brand.

With all of these product launches and nutrition initiatives, I started to have the opportunity to act as a spokesperson for the Health & Wellness Agenda — doing TV, radio, and print interviews as well as numerous desksides. I found that I loved storytelling, especially on behalf of a brand I was so proud to be a part of.

Another Task Added to the Checklist

Everything — and nothing — changed when I became a mom in 2008. Everything changed in that my focus shifted from Frappuccinos and breakfast sandwiches to baby purees and infant cereals. And nothing changed in regard to the fact that I was always focused on creating healthy solutions for customers and was a champion for transparent, authentic brands and truthful marketing. 

As a new mom, I cruised the aisle for baby food options and was fed up with what I found — many baby foods were unbalanced, lacking premium proteins and healthy fats, and misleadingly marketed. I saw a sea of uninspiring, shelf-stable, muted flavors. And rows and rows of unrecyclable pouches that don’t encourage the important motor development skill of spoon-feeding.

So, I left my dream job at Starbucks to set out to create a better solution for parents. 

Filling up the Baby Aisle

We didn’t want the next generation of babies growing up on so much applesauce. Did you know many baby food pouches have the same grams of sugar as a bowl of LUCKY CHARMS? 

Babies deserve better.

I was determined to solve mealtime for parents. To take the guesswork out of feeding baby balanced meals. To offer a variety of foods, flavors, and textures without spending hours in the kitchen. 

So, I put in the work. I dove into the research surrounding infant nutrition — understanding the developmental milestones and important nutrients like iron + vitamin C, calcium & Vitamin D, zinc, biotin, choline, probiotics, omega 3’s, healthy fats, fiber, protein, etc.

I developed the Square Meal System™, the first-ever customizable meal plan service that offers 100% Daily Nutrition. That means any 2 or 3 Square Meals per day (depending on babies’ age) offer 100% of the baby’s daily recommended servings of veggies, fruit, whole grains, and protein-based on USDA and AAP recommendations.

After several years of nutrition research, recipe development and baby taste testing (the best part!), developing a business plan and model, and creating our brand — I moved to the Bay Area in 2014 with my husband and 2 kids, Nolan and Jackson who were 2 and 5 years old at the time.

Everything changed when I met Kendall.

The Perfect Business Partner

She was one of my first friends in my new town of Orinda. We both had kindergartners and a passion for health and wellness. Together, we volunteered in our community to raise money for local children’s hospitals and organizations, start a nutrition education program at our elementary school, revamp the School Lunch Program, and more. I quickly learned that Kendall was the perfect business partner for me — a solutions-based operator and executor and a born leader. She’s also insanely smart and accomplished with a Masters in Biophysics & Molecular Genetics. Kendall started her own business by the age of 30 — the first private Perinatal Practice in San Francisco. 

In 2017, following one of my insistent gut instincts, I asked if she would join me in launching Square Baby. To my surprise, she accepted! We got to work reviewing and refining all of the research and business plans and developed our go-to-market strategy. This was a turning point in my life.

In July 2018, Square Baby was born.

Solving the Hunger of Parents

We created Square Baby to solve for every pain point we had when feeding our kiddos. To solve all of the fears and questions we had when first feeding our own children. How do we know we’ve given him the right amount of the right foods? Is he getting enough protein, veggies, and healthy fats? When is he ready for gassier foods like beans and cauliflower? And how about herbs & spices? How do I help prevent food allergies? And how can I assure he’ll grow up to be an adventurous eater who loves beets and sushi — and not a picky eater who demands chicken nuggets and plain pasta?

Everything I’d learned and experienced as a young picky eater, at graduate school, and at Starbucks helped me design premium and safe products with the most optimal nutrition, a trustworthy brand with transparent packaging, and a solution for parents that was always laser-focused on the customer experience. 

We are so proud of what we’ve built with Square Baby. Our organic meals are made fresh in small batches and delivered frozen— giving you as close to ‘homemade’ quality & nutrition as possible. And we are the only brand that offers 100% Daily Nutrition and a comprehensive Allergen Introduction Menu.

There’s a lot More to Come

We are beyond excited to announce that our regional, bootstrapped brand is growing! West Coast parents have been loving our meals and service and we quickly outgrew our Bay Area commercial kitchen. We are scaling into a new state-of-the-art facility and expanding nationally with our direct-to-consumer service in early 2022.

Any entrepreneur will tell you that launching and operating a startup is a crazy roller coaster – to put it mildly. But there’s one thing I know for certain: I’m doing exactly what I should be. And I’m so grateful every day for the opportunity to chase this dream and make an impact on the next generation.

Read Digital Version.

Visit Square Baby Website.

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