Randi Zuckerberg Unites Food And Tech in Glorious Harmony


Randi Zuckerberg just can't help but think of technology, no matter what time of day, even dinner time. The NYT best-selling author, serial tech entrepreneur and Founder and CEO of Zuckerberg Media, has now set her sights on the food industry with a new interactive pop-up shop she launched this summer.

Housed in Chattanoga's Tomorrow Building, Sue's Tech Kitchen contains everything to make a child of 2017 shriek with delight (think: 3D printed desserts, code lessons with candy, and fruit-flavored music creation). With the goal of uniting an appreciation of science and technology with entertainment, Zuckerberg saw a white space in the kid's restaurant model of today.

“I have two kids of my own, and I feel like a lot of dining experiences out there-either the parents are dragging kids to things that are good for adults or kids are dragging their parents to Chuck E. Cheese"

Zuckerberg has said.

Designed by NASA scientist Sam Pfister, the tech playground offers parents and kids alike the chance to learn about futuristic technologies while feasting on delicious bites. "We're re-envisioning the way you sit at the table."

In addition to her food business, Zuckerberg is the Founder of Dot Complicated, an online community focused on simplifying lives overburdened with technology. She has also penned a children's picture book called Dot, whose protagonist is a "spunky little girl well-versed in electronic devices." And, for the record, Zuckerberg, a talented singer, invests in musical theater, and additionally realized her dream to sing on Broadway, in the musical Rock of Ages.

Beyond her accomplishments, Zuckerberg is also a warm and spirited human being with an infectious and bubbly personality. Her imagination seems to work in overdrive in everything she does, including her newest venture.

Here, we catch up with Zuckerberg to chat about kids, tech and why playing with food is the next big thing.

What was the lightbulb moment that led you to Sue's Tech Kitchen?

I was at a restaurant with my two boys and thought, 'How cool would it be if a drone could deliver our food? Or if we could code with candy while we wait?' I wondered where the modern day Chuck E. Cheese was, why it didn't exist. So, in the middle of a family dinner, I decided to create it myself. I'm always encouraging parents to embrace technology in an interactive and healthy way with their family instead of being afraid of it or taking a more limited view. Modern children love technology experiences. Not only can they be entertaining, but they can be educational and help inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers, too. And so I thought Sue's would be the perfect foray into STEM.

Photo Courtesy of Rob Shook Photography

Why did you decide Chattanooga was the right place for this venture?

I went to Chattanooga on a business trip and completely fell in love with the city. In the wake of losing factory and manufacturing jobs, Chattanooga has been attracting an innovative tech startup community, rebranding itself as a new technology hub, wholly embraced by its creative people and it's fabulous forward-thinking mayor, Andy Berke. Chattanooga really has an exciting model that a lot of cities could learn from. I couldn't imagine launching Sue's anywhere else.

What is the mission behind the venture?

To create experiences and content that help kids, families, and the young at heart fall in love with tech and science in a fun, joyful, and positive way. We're aiming to make STEM a bigger part of children's lives through memorable adventures with their family.

Randi Zuckerberg- Founder of Sue's Tech Kitchen

Did you run into any challenges throughout the launch process?

Fortunately, our challenges were more of a blessing than a curse. At $5 per family with only 30 slots a day for three days, we sold out pretty quickly, which left us scrambling to fit in the press and last minute requests (we really didn't want to turn anyone away). Plus, we chose the innovative Tomorrow Building to host Sue's and they were spectacular at helping us arrange everything from shipping of equipment to set up.

How do you bridge online and offline worlds, via Sue's Tech Kitchen?

We wanted to blend the analog, age-old tradition of family dining with the digital sense of adventure so we created a world where visitors could compose music with their food, 3D print their dessert, code videos game with candy. Plus, what could be better than the intersection of food and tech!

Photo Courtesy of Rob Shook Photography

What are some of the standout technology experiences on offer? What do they teach kids?

My hope is that children walk away remembering their adventures at Sue's so it fosters an appreciation and desire to learn more about technology. So while every experience stands out, my personal favorite is teaching kids how to code using different color candies. At this station, kids learn how to move, turn, and spin a small robot to go where they choose. Looking back on many of the photos taken from Sue's launch, the biggest, most wide-eyed smiles are from kids experiencing how to code for the first time—and with candy no less!

How do you ensure adults have a good time too?

Most parents haven't had the opportunity to experience virtual reality, interactive dining tables, and 3D printed food themselves so it's always fun to watch the adult reaction the first time they eat a 3D printed S'mores as much as it is their kid's. And since we take the time to explain each experience thoroughly to each group, parents get the opportunity to learn something new as well. Plus, I'd imagine that seeing their child's imagination and fascination blossom would be something that knocks their socks off as well.

Photo Courtesy of Rob Shook Photography

Since the launch, what feedback and reactions have you gotten from kids and from their parents?

The feedback we've gotten has been so positive it's hard to believe we were beta testing! Even the interns we had helping out at Sue's had a wonderful time. That's what's so special about creating a new world—since not many people have been introduced to dining-meets-tech we could really blow some minds! And thanks for the forethought of Sue's co-designer, NASA engineer Sam Pfister, our hard work in planning made implementation a breeze! Of course not without a few snafus—we are working with technology after all!

You've been a disruptor in the children's space for a while now, and we would love to know your thoughts on navigating such an ever-changing, ever-evolving demographic.

I think first and foremost we have to change our mindset so that when we think about kids and tech we don't immediately imagine a kid glued to a screen. Technology is definitely not going away anytime soon and our children are the ones who will be eradicating diseases, building flying cars, and making human teleportation possible.

Big ideas don't come from limited thinking so parents have to be aware of their feelings of technology in the household. We shouldn't be looking at screen time as a punishment or reward. Tech is the new normal so it's important children learn about it sooner than later in healthy and educational ways.

Photo Courtesy of Rob Shook Photography

Tell us about your expansion plan. Would you like to franchise?

The ultimate goal is to get as many families to share the Sue experience as possible. We're currently in talks to bring the Sue's to a few major cities in 2018 as well as partnering with schools and kids' educators. We hope Sue's Tech Kitchen can plant the STEM seed and to do so we need to be in as many places as we can, which means more place than just off the coasts.

What is one thing that most people don't know about you?

I think I'm pretty much an open book. But something that most people don't know about me is that I like to lift weights without shoes on. I feel like I'm more grounded and strong when I'm only in my socks.

What is your life motto and/or philosophy for success?

It's what I call 'The Entrepreneur's Dilemma': Work, sleep, family, fitness, friends—pick three. When I choose a different three to focus on every day I can forgo attaining the impossible work/life balance and find a much more healthy and realistic work/life lopsidedness. No two days are the same and neither are the to-do lists. Focus on what needs to get done without the pressure of being unattainably perfect.

Photo Courtesy of Rob Shook Photography

What is something you've learned from this new venture/ Any advice for women following in your footsteps?

Aside from learning how to run a pop-up restaurant, I've learned what interests you will most likely interest other people so what makes you interesting is also your biggest asset.

With that, don't let anyone tell you that all the things you want to accomplish are keeping you from success. What makes you different and willing to try to new things is what makes you unique, which is especially important for women to remember since we are so often told to “be less interesting" and focus on one thing at a time. Women are nature's multi-taskers. Embrace your ambitions, goals, and hobbies and create your own world around those.

What do your kids think of Sue's Kitchen?

Today, and probably for the next couple of years, they think I'm the coolest mom on the planet! But I know soon they'll be teenagers and say, “Geez mom, coding with candy? Liquid nitrogen ice cream? That's soooo pre-2020." But I'll take what I can get for now.

3 Min Read

Five Essential Lessons to Keep in Mind When You're Starting Your Own Business

"How did you ever get into a business like that?" people ask me. They're confounded to hear that my product is industrial baler wire—a very unfeminine pursuit, especially in 1975 when I founded my company in the midst of a machismo man's world. It's a long story, but I'll try to shorten it.

I'd never been interested to enter the "man's" world of business, but when I discovered a lucrative opportunity to become my own boss, I couldn't pass it up—even if it involved a non-glamorous product. I'd been fired from my previous job working to become a ladies' clothing buyer and was told at my dismissal, "You just aren't management or corporate material." My primary goal then was to find a career in which nobody had the power to fire me and that provided a comfortable living for my two little girls and myself.

Over the years, I've learned quite a few tough lessons about how to successfully run a business. Below are five essential elements to keep in mind, as well as my story on how I learned them.

Find A Need And Fill It

I gradually became successful at selling various products, which unfortunately weren't profitable enough to get me off the ground, so I asked people what they needed that they couldn't seem to get. One man said, "Honey, I need baler wire. Even the farmers can't get it." I saw happy dollar signs as he talked on and dedicated myself to figuring out the baler wire industry.

I'd never been interested to enter the "man's" world of business, but when I discovered a lucrative opportunity to become my own boss, I couldn't pass it up.

Now forty-five years later, I'm proud to be the founder of Vulcan Wire, Inc., an industrial baler wire company with $10 million of annual sales.

Have Working Capital And Credit

There were many pitfalls along the way to my eventual success. My daughters and I were subsisting from my unemployment checks, erratic alimony and child-support payments, and food stamps. I had no money stashed up to start up a business.

I paid for the first wire with a check for which I had no funds, an illegal act, but I thought it wouldn't matter as long as I made a deposit to cover the deficit before the bank received the check. My expectation was that I'd receive payment immediately upon delivery, for which I used a rented truck.

Little did I know that this Fortune 500 company's modus operandi was to pay all bills thirty or more days after receipts. My customer initially refused to pay on the spot. I told him I would consequently have to return the wire, so he reluctantly decided to call corporate headquarters for this unusual request.

My stomach was in knots the whole time he was gone, because he said it was iffy that corporate would come through. Fifty minutes later, however, he emerged with a check in hand, resentful of the time away from his busy schedule. Stressed, he told me to never again expect another C.O.D. and that any future sale must be on credit. Luckily, I made it to the bank with a few minutes to spare.

Know Your Product Thoroughly

I received a disheartening phone call shortly thereafter: my wire was breaking. This horrible news fueled the fire of my fears. Would I have to reimburse my customer? Would my vendor refuse to reimburse me?

My customer told me to come over and take samples of his good wire to see if I might duplicate it. I did that and educated myself on the necessary qualities.

My primary goal then was to find a career in which nobody had the power to fire me and that provided a comfortable living for my two little girls and myself.

Voila! I found another wire supplier that had the right specifications. By then, I was savvy enough to act as though they would naturally give me thirty-day terms. They did!

More good news: My customer merely threw away all the bad wire I'd sold him, and the new wire worked perfectly; he then gave me leads and a good endorsement. I rapidly gained more wire customers.

Anticipate The Dangers Of Exponential Growth

I had made a depressing discovery. My working capital was inadequate. After I purchased the wire, I had to wait ten to thirty days for a fabricator to get it reconfigured, which became a looming problem. It meant that to maintain a good credit standing, I had to pay for the wire ten to thirty days before my customers paid me.

I was successful on paper but was incredibly cash deprived. In other words, my exponentially growing business was about to implode due to too many sales. Eventually, my increasing sales grew at a slower rate, solving my cash flow problem.

Delegate From The Bottom Up

I learned how to delegate and eventually delegated myself out of the top jobs of CEO, President, CFO, and Vice President of Finance. Now, at seventy-eight years old, I've sold all but a third of Vulcan's stock and am semi-retired with my only job currently serving as Vice President of Stock and Consultant.

In the interim, I survived many obstacles and learned many other lessons, but hopefully these five will get you started and help prevent some of you from having the same struggles that I did. And in the end, I figured it all out, just like you will.