How Plantable Founder Nadja Pinnavaia Leapt from Finance to Food
September 06, 2019 | Filed in: Woman of the Week
Born to Italian parents, Nadja Pinnavaia grew up eating healthy, whole foods at home. It wasn’t until she moved to the United States and had her own children that she realized how hard it could be to maintain a healthy, nutrient-rich diet. Though she’d spent the majority of her career in finance (she worked on the trading floor at Goldman Sachs before going on to lead the firm’s hedge fund team), she shifted gears in 2014. Having lost various family members to cancer and other health-related ailments, she turned her attention to the healing power of food. In 2016, she launched Plantable, a meal-delivery-and-coaching service that helps people transform their health through food. Below, we chatted with Nadja about swapping her corporate ambitions for the scrappy startup life.
WHEN I WAS YOUNG, I got it into my head that I wanted a “bright lights, big city” kind of career—I wanted to manage a multinational company. My father was the CFO of a big Italian company, and he died when I was just 10 years old. That early loss affected me. I wanted to be in finance and have a big corporate job like he’d had. I was very driven by the importance of being independent as a woman, having a career, making my own money—and finding security in those things. Yes, I wanted a partner and a family, but I knew I wanted to be financially independent first.
I WAS QUITE GEEKY. I did my undergraduate degree in London, and then I went on to do a Ph.D. in quantum chemistry at Cambridge. I ended up going into finance at Goldman Sachs in London, where I was kind of deemed a nerdy rocket scientist. This was 1995, and derivatives were all the rage, so I ended up on the trading floor working in equity derivatives. It was a wonderful learning experience, being a young woman on a male-orientated trading floor. I spent six years there and then moved into asset management.
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ULTIMATELY, I ENDED UP RUNNING GOLDMAN’S HEDGE FUND TEAM, and I was responsible for business as a whole. I spent my time with some of the largest institutional money managers in the world—the large pension plans, insurance companies, some ultra-high net worth individuals—advising them on their investment portfolios. That was the early 2000s, when this movement into hedge funds was really just getting underway. In 2007, I met a very nice American man, and after a year of trans-Atlantic dating, I decided to leave Goldman and move to New York.
I HAVE HAD A FEW REALLY IMPORTANT MENTORS in my life. The first was my former boss—a lady called Gerrie McManus—who is a brilliant, dynamic, and incredibly successful woman. She helped elevate my visibility in a tight corporate culture, where senior leadership was predominantly male. As young women, we have a tendency to “keep our heads down” and get on with our jobs. That works well as a strategy in the early days. But managing the transition from a hard-working junior person into one of more senior leadership requires a different approach. It involves getting noticed, being heard, having a voice, and building consensus among one’s peers and with senior management. A mentor can be really helpful in reminding women that success is not just about performance—it’s also about softer, people skills.
TWO IMPORTANT THINGS HAPPENED in 2014. On the personal side, my mother-in-law was diagnosed with stage-three kidney cancer. My own mother had died of breast cancer, so I thought, “Oh no, not again.” I didn’t want to be passive this time, so I started researching and looking for ways to help her, and I came across a book called Anticancer: A New Way of Life by David Servan-Schreiber. I learned so much about how today’s modern diet compromises our immune systems. And then on the professional side, I had started a company called Whitecap, and one of our clients sold a well-known weight-management shake product. I put my chemistry hat on and did some research, and I realized that I didn’t believe in this product at all. I told my colleagues, “I’m not putting my reputation on the line to turn this brand around, because this isn’t the way to improve health.” So I walked away from the opportunity and that job.
I SPENT THE REST OF 2014 reading every single physician-authored bestseller there was so that I could better understand how our food impacts our health. My two main conclusions were: one, health is not about calorie restriction, it’s about switching to a nutrient-dense diet; and two, many of us have an addiction or dependency when it comes to food, and we have to break that psychological cycle. The idea for Plantable came out of those revelations.
I ATTENDED A COURSE at the Natural Gourmet Institute in culinary nutrition in 2015. I wanted to bring what I had learned into the kitchen, so I launched a pilot program. I tested my healthy recipes on 10 people for 28 days, and the results were incredible. People lost weight, but more importantly, they felt amazing. They were glowing; they were on a high. So I thought, “Let’s do this for real.” I hired a renowned chef, Nikki Bennett, and we launched in 2016 out of a little kitchen in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn.
THERE WAS A HUGE LEARNING CURVE at the beginning. We have wonderful chefs, so the food prep was easy, but the fulfillment and distribution were challenging. At first, I was literally driving our branded truck around Manhattan and Brooklyn, and people would come meet the truck and get their meals for the week. I almost had multiple heart attacks driving that thing, especially after big snowstorms. And then once we grew, we had to figure out shipping to the west coast. Getting up to speed on logistics and technology was a challenge.
I WAS ON THE TODAY SHOW a couple of months ago, and I thought, “Gosh, what am I going to wear?” I ended up in heels, navy suede pants, and a white shirt with bat wings—I’m lucky I didn’t get the wings in the tomato sauce we were cooking! In general, my style is simple, elegant, and a bit sexy. Back when I was in finance, I used to love wearing power suits and pinstripe waistcoats. Now, I really just want to look elegant and a bit cool, but nothing overly trendy.
I’M DRIVEN BY WANTING TO HELP PEOPLE feel better. If I dig deep, the pain of losing both my parents at a young age is part of why I started this company. I’m an older mum—I was 39 and 41 when my two kids were born—and I want to be around for them as long as I possibly can. We can’t control everything in life, but we’ve got more control over our health and our longevity than we think. I wanted to bring that knowledge to people. Plantable is more than a meal-delivery company; we’re a wellness transformation program.
Photographs by Heather Moore. Styling by Nyjerah Cunningham.