Despite the lack of representation in the food science industry for Black women, Zuri Masud knows how to take up space and go after what she wants. It is more profound than understanding science. It's about cultivating learned methods to create tasty products that offer solutions to environmental and community problems. The co-founder of Hidden Gems Beverage Company is half of the duo responsible for turning avocado seeds into delightful drinks. She also embodies an infectious, innovative spirit that will pave a pathway for future generations of young Black people interested in the food science field.
Assuming a nomadic lifestyle as a child introduced Masud to an array of neighborhoods. The food scientist was born in Virginia, later moving to Chicago, Pennsylvania, and then New Jersey, where she spent most of her adolescence.
Education always came easy to Masud, who reflects on understanding the importance of being self-sufficient and stern. “I did well in school most of my life and was an athlete year-round. Honestly, a lot of that had to do with having a single mom and needing to be involved in programs after school,” says Masud.
While participating in her high school's African American club, Masud took a college trip where she first encountered Howard University. “I remember stopping at Howard and talking to one of the professors in the science department, and it being clear that it was one of those schools where I was not going to get lost,” reminisces Masud. The beverage co-founder's determined demeanor landed her at the historically Black university to pursue her undergraduate studies in clinical laboratory sciences.
While still maintaining a passion for science, there was a desire for the future entrepreneur to learn about business management. Deciding to switch her major introduced hurdles because Masud was in her third year of undergrad. However, still tenacious, she assumed a new path in health management. “I was able to take business classes but with a health approach,” says Masud.
Applying her health management studies, Masud embarked on a new journey in New York after graduation and assumed a role as an intern for the New York Immigration Coalition. “We went around and talked to people with different immigration statuses about health care and their available resources.”
When the internship ended, Masud moved back home to New Jersey and found herself in limbo. Still passionate about public health and sciences, she wasn't sure where her devotions would lead her. She says, “I was just trying to sit down to figure out what I want to do.”
Discovering Food Sciences
“I have always been into food but never explored it as a career path. It was not until I found the food science program at Drexel University that it felt like a perfect marriage to tie in my strong background of science with culinary,” shares the business owner. This moment of revelation provided a new lane for Masud to truly excel in.
“Entering a food science lab for the first time at Drexel was not shocking for me. In high school and undergrad, I had such a heavy science background that I knew the environment and workload,” reflects Masud. While the culinary science program offered many familiarities for Masud, she still faced challenges. “I am not great at math, and the food engineering courses were very math-heavy, and that was hard for me,” says the food scientist.
With the food science industry emerging, Masud hopes that if young people are interested in the field, they will explore it because of the vast career opportunities. “If there is a field you are interested in, do not be afraid of barriers. Barriers will always present themselves. If you can find other people of color within the field, make connections. As many barriers exist, there are just as many people out there ready to help,” says the co-founder.
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Other obstacles with food science being a newer professional path include the lack of diversity. “In any field, you want to see representation. That is the only way you will have diverse points of view and thinking. There are perspectives that people of color have and ways that we navigate the world that others don't,” shares Masud.
Launching a Business and Navigating Cultural Differences
In 2017, Masud met Sheetal Bahirat through Drexel's culinary science program. The two were connected on the first day that courses began and immediately bonded over their differences. “I just moved to Philly from India, and I remember just having a light sweater. Zuri could tell I was freezing when she realized I had no winter gear. She took me shopping,” says Bahirat.
A friendship turned partnership, Bahirat was doing her master's thesis on the avocado seed, and Masud was working with a mutual professor on a sustainable dining hall project. Masud's interests in food waste paired with Bahirat's desire to turn avocados into an edible product birthed Hidden Gems Beverage Company.
Together, they launched Reveal Avocado Seed Brew, similar to what is most commonly known as kombucha. The two mastered turning avocado pits into delicious drinks through an innovative steeping process. When drinking Reveal, options such as rose mint, grapefruit lavender and mango ginger are available to consumers. With three times the number of antioxidants as green tea, consumers of this beverage can also enjoy the added health benefits.
It took more than developing a tasty product to make the partnership work; the two co-founders needed to learn about each other's cultural differences. At first, this involved slight contrasts, such as Masud learning that Bahirat prioritizes rest as a part of her culture. “Sheetal takes breaks, very similar to a siesta. Honestly, this is something that Americans should do. As I got to know her, I needed to learn not to bother her during these times,” says Masud.
Other cultural learnings included discussions about racism faced in the Black community. “When protests were happening very heavily in Philadelphia, it was important for us to have a lot of conversations,” reflects Masud. “The national guard was here in Philly. It was scary. As a company, we needed to pause. Our normal daily tasks began to feel unimportant, and I was drained and emotional,” says Masud.
Navigating this space after coming to the United States, Bahirat shares, “I grew up imagining the U.S. as a country of freedom and the land of opportunity. My education was lacking an understanding of the inequalities baked into this system.”
Revitalizing Reveal's Core Values
Having conversations about the Black Lives Matter movement and the blatant racism Black people experience organically caused Masud and Bahirat to be vulnerable and rethink their entire business model. “We want to be mindful about entering spaces and our business practices being equitable,” says Masud.
As a Black business owner, Masud says, “This is what makes it different being a person of color running a business. I have all of these things going on in society that is affecting me, so they are ultimately going to impact my business.” Beyond the difficulties that many founders face when starting a business, dealing with constant racially targeted current events and microaggressions adds a dynamic workload for Black people.
“We have learned that redefining business and achieving balance means allowing time for breaks and allowing time to process, and those are values that we intend to keep even as we grow as a company,” shares Bahirat.
Tackling Food Waste
The co-founders are redefining what it means to launch and operate a consumer-packaged goods business, and a considerable part of that is redirecting and repurposing food waste. However, despite these altruistic business practices of addressing food waste, added layers of company challenges arise.
“Having an upcycled product, there's an added educational piece behind what it means to use the avocado seed,” says Masud. Masud and Bahirat have faced confusion from customers about the coloring of their beverages because of preconceived notions of the appearance of juiced avocado seeds.
“People also view the upcycled avocado seeds as trash. Consumers sometimes will think our product is unsanitary, so there is an extra educational component that we need to add to our marketing campaigns,” says Masud.
The business partners also have to build relationships with restaurants and grocery stores to retrieve avocado seeds. “There is no standing operation procedure or quality standards. Simple things like understanding how many avocado seeds fit on a pallet were all of the learnings that we had to figure out on our own,” says Bahirat.
“My brother and I go to grocery stores and restaurants and collect avocado seeds every week, clean them, freeze them, and then send them off to production where we ship them to a manufacturing facility. From there, we can use them in our drinks. The part of the avocado seed that doesn't get used gets composted,” says Masud.
The Future of Hidden Gems Beverage Company
As the food scientists navigate the typical challenges of starting a new business, they are still dreaming about how their business can grow in the future despite the stressors. “In the future, we hope to create a space where we can help other people in this field with their businesses. We want to form points of collaboration so that we can all succeed,” says Bahirat.
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As an expanding company, Masud and Bahirat prioritize hiring previously incarcerated people to their teams. “In the United States, it is so hard for previously incarcerated people to find jobs. We are in a position where we are building our own company. We have the opportunity to set our norms. We want our employees not just to have jobs but build careers with us,” says Masud.
Further, Masud and Bahirat hope to use other discarded foods to make delicious products. Masud adds, “We have other ideas about using the avocado seed, for example, extracting starch. Our long-term vision is to continue as an upcycled company that is socially driven.”