• Elaine Chon-Baker •
Elaine Chon-Baker founded Mokja Ventures as a natural outgrowth of her love for food, finance and start-ups. She’s an experienced investor whose career spans a variety of industries, such as environmental consulting, global telecom and eCommerce. She has invested in and provided operational and leadership support for several successful food and beverage concepts, including Water and Wall and Buttercream Bakeshop. Elaine is a global citizen who spent many years in London, and who now uses her aptitude for connecting people and organizations to inspire remarkable results in DC’s thriving hospitality sector.
We chatted with Elaine about her vision for the future of food in DC, her role as an investor in this, and how and why "the future is female."
All photos provided by Elaine Chon-Baker
What draws you to the food industry and in particular, what gets you excited about the food industry in DC?
"The number one reason I invest in food is because everyone has to eat. There has been a huge surge in growth of the food and beverage industry in recent years, especially in DC. People have always loved to eat but what is different now is that we have the opportunity to choose how we eat. DC is a hotbed of collaboration and innovation - I love it!
“What keeps me excited about investing in the food industry is that I am looking for those opportunities where we can bring good food - good for both our bodies and for the earth - to people and with messaging that is easily accessible.”
I want to invest in people and food businesses that are striving to do the right thing. Every little bit helps in getting to “tomorrow’s kitchen.” I love how Espita sources their corn for their tasty tortillas from Masienda, a company that works with smallholder farmers in Mexico to grow non-GMO, organic and heirloom corn. Whaley’s does a brilliant job with sourcing sustainable seafood and teaching the diner more about where their food comes from. What keeps me excited about investing in the food industry is that I am looking for those opportunities where we can bring good food - good for both our bodies and for the earth - to people and with messaging that is easily accessible. Not an easy task. I love what sweetgreen, & Pizza and Cava are doing in DC - they’re resetting consumer expectations and the fast casual dining experience.
It’s not easy [running a restaurant] because the margins can be tight but as an investor, I get to choose what gets out there and help these businesses succeed. My dream is to be able to sit in that no-compromise sweet spot and invest in the leaders of tomorrow’s food movement. Some may attain great success and others not but that is the gamble I take when I look for people with the vision, drive and hustle to make it happen.
What are the lessons you've learned about crafting your own career path? What are the factors that have both bolstered you and that you've had to overcome?
I’ve always felt this entrepreneurial spirit in my family - my dad was a engineer/creator and an entrepreneur and my mom stayed at home to raise seven girls. She ran the household and made sure we learned how to do everything and excelled everywhere possible. The most noticeable thing in our childhood was that we grew up knowing we were not boys. There was a huge amount of pressure from my Dad’s family to produce a son to carry on the family name. There was always some disappointment that it was another girl. We always felt the need to prove to ourselves that we were just as good as boys. All of my sisters are high achievers and we always questioned “was this good enough?” even if our parents never explicitly wanted that from us.
Throughout my life is this thread of proving to myself and to my parents that I can do things just as well as anyone else. I think this has given me a sense of hustle - for taking what you have and turning it into something. I had other jobs in IT, telecom and startups before being an investor but landed in this because I was able to be an entrepreneur without taking on a full-time operational role. Food has always been important to me - every day we would sit down for a family meal growing up. I think because of this foundation, I’ve chosen food to invest in because at the end of the day it makes me really happy.
I came from the outside - I knew very few people in the food and beverage world. My big leap into DC’s food scene was spurred by my divorce. I needed something tangible to do, something to feel like I accomplished something every day since marriage wasn’t working out so I started working the back office at Water & Wall. I began to go to lots of events, met some great people and joined industry groups, like pineapple, where you have a framework for interacting and finding ways to support one another. When we support and boost each other up, we can do great things.
How would you describe your work? Is investing an art, a science - what has remained consistent in your investing philosophy, what has changed?
More of an art... I would describe my work as an investor as the desire to help someone succeed and providing the means to do so. Our goal in the VC fund is to be a supportive investor once we decide to invest in a concept. We want to invest in the right operators from the get go. There are lots of great chefs but only a small percentage that are strong operators. We trust you with using the funds we’ve invested to execute on your vision and plan. This means that a lot of time and energy goes into deciding who and what to invest in. We seek great operators who make great food but also understand the business, especially the numbers, and are always learning and growing. Most important thing is that we want to know about issues before it’s too late. Happy to advise, mentor, give an opinion or give a hug, but at the end of the day this is your business and you have to fulfill your obligations to your investors. We trust you to run a successful operation. Mutual trust is so important.
My ex-husband and I first made an investment in Catoctin Creek Distilling Company and that investment was made from a place of excitement and belief in the people and the business. But I had no idea how distillery economics works or what the fine print meant. The second investment was in Tim Ma’s Water and Wall, and my ex and I were his first investors so we worked together closely to find an agreement that made sense for both sides. This was an important lesson in investing time and energy up front in building the relationship as a partnership from the beginning. I made my money back in just 15 months. In retrospect, I realized that if I was going to continue to invest after getting divorced, I needed to be as knowledgeable as I could be about everything that I could be - especially the numbers.
“Gut instinct has a place in investing. If you do not feel good about the people or the situation, don’t do it. ”
Another big lesson over the years is that working with the right people is critical. Gut instinct has a place in investing. If you do not feel good about the people or the situation, don’t do it. I have made this mistake before and not listened to my gut - I ended up losing a lot of money and that was a lesson in listening to my inner voice.
From this, I learned that even if there is no hard penalty for saying no to a deal, I - and I think a lot of women - have great emotional resistance to hurting someone’s feelings by saying no. I have to remember that I have fiduciary responsibility for all of my investments and am making decisions based on the whole package - leadership, team, concept, location etc. Even though it is hard to say no, I have to if it is the right decision. I am in the tricky position of having to make decisions in advance of what I think will be successful and what will be less so, and my instinct is what helps me make those decisions.
Can you share more about the type of relationship or partnership between investor and investee? Is the dynamic different when the investee is male or female?
“When I talk to some women in the industry to understand their vision and goal to open their own concept, the one noticeable trait is that they do not have the confidence to move forward. They say no to themselves before others say no to them.”
There are two sides to this - women as the investors and women as the investees. In DC, there are very few female restaurant investors - the only other big player I know is Hilda Staples. There are women operating at a high level in the food industry but you don’t hear a lot about them. It’s refreshing to talk to women who are interested in investing! We need more female investors! We have a different sense for investing, in all sectors.
On the investee end, I have two investments in women-run businesses and I want there to be more. They are rock stars! However, when I talk to some women in the industry to understand their vision and goal to open their own concept, the one noticeable trait is that they do not have the confidence to move forward. They say no to themselves before others say no to them. I do not see this as often with the men I speak with. A lot of these women do not have the “bravado” for success yet. I would love for them to know that I think they could run a better business than most of the men who think they can do it.
“I believe great female leaders can foster an entirely different operating environment. They tend to be better managers because they listen and empathize, can engage their staff and encourage development and progress.”
I believe great female leaders can foster an entirely different operating environment. They tend to be better managers because they listen and empathize, can engage their staff and encourage development and progress. Even if there continues to be more women in the food industry, men still dominate it and I think it’s related to this lack of confidence and pushing ourselves forward. Women have to prove themselves all the time and I want all the women in this business out there to know that you can do this - whether it’s running a business or making great products or building an industry group. We have to take the steps to get out there and meet the right people. I think that is why pineapple DC is so important - your network matters and pineapple brings us together to achieve our goals. It is hard work but with great support, you feel stronger, bolstered and therefore do more.
“The future is female” is a concept/slogan that has gained prominence in recent years. You are a mom - how do you contextualize this statement in your parenting? What are the things you want your daughter to know as she grows into her own as a young woman?
My parents obviously knew that the “future is female” through raising 7 daughters! And I believe in the power that all women have. We are the ones that really lead the dance. I want my daughter to have confidence and inner strength no matter what challenges are facing her. I want my boys to be awesome men - and by that I mean, be a support to awesome women. The chilling part of moments during this election is that you have to find a way to rationalize things even when you are scared inside and then find ways to raise your kids to be compassionate global citizens in the face of all of this rhetoric. But I will and they will be okay. Our three family rules still apply in all situations: 1. Always be kind, 2. Show gratitude and 3. Don’t shame the family name.
My brother-in-law said recently, “women are are going to dominate and this is just the beginning.” He turned to my daughter and said, “you are poised to do great things,” and her immediate response was, “I already am.”
At pineapple DC, we're all about creating a better food system in ways big and small. What's one hope (or more) that you would have for DC or our country's food system?
I think that ultimately, this generation and the next have to be driving towards the same goal and movement towards a better food system because it will take everyone to do this. We all have a role -- everyone from the farmers, suppliers to the investors, food writers, owners/operators to the staff and especially, the diners and consumers. We are all delicately interconnected and we have to be in it together. With everyone playing a role, we all get closer to doing the right thing. Everyone has to make money and it’s still a business but we need to take the right steps towards reaching these bigger goals of a better food system - one investor, one supplier, one operator, one diner at a time.
The hardest thing right now is that we have to change habits and that’s not easy. I know we are all busy but we have to schedule it in - food can be the last thing we think about and that’s when we make rushed, poor food decisions. But I know from personal experience that if I plan on cooking dinner or making our lunch for the next day then the chance of it happening is really high.
“We need to take the right steps towards reaching these bigger goals of a better food system - one investor, one supplier, one operator, one diner at a time. ”
Restaurants will never go away, but teaching ourselves and our kids the value of cooking and gardening is even more important. Very few people know how to garden these days! There are so many things we’ve lost touch with - cooking, gardening, sewing, cleaning etc - and now as a parent, we have to be intentional about this. Thankfully, with my parents living with me and the kids, we are able to share in learning from each other - I teach them to cook, my dad to garden, my mom makes sure they know how to sew a button back on and the kids provide tech support in return. We all lead fast lives and sometimes we use that as an excuse for why we can’t do better, but it is absolutely possible if we make the time for it."