In 2014, Wharton and University of Pennsylvania students Roopa Shankar, Alina Wong and Rachel Stewart founded NOMsense Bakery, a Philadelphia-based wholesale bakery specializing in handcrafted cookie sandwiches. While Stewart left the partnership last summer to work on other projects, Shankar and Wong are investing lots of time and energy into their creative cookie concept. This week, NOMsense won the Northeastern Regional Round of the Global Student Entrepreneur Awards, earning $5,000 for their start-up. KWHS editor Diana Drake recently sat down with co-founder Shankar to find out more about the “NOM” story.
Below is an edited transcript of the conversation.
Knowledge@Wharton High School: Roopa Shankar, a senior studying marketing at the Wharton School, is co-founder of NOMsense Bakery, a business that specializes in handcrafted cookie sandwiches. She’s here today to talk with Knowledge@Wharton High School about the “NOM” story and her life as an entrepreneur. Roopa, thank you for joining us.
Roopa Shankar: Thanks for having me.
KWHS: How did your passion for baking start, and how did that evolve into a company?
Roopa Shankar: For us, the coolest thing about [becoming] an entrepreneur at school is that it wasn’t forced at all. It was completely natural. Me and [my] co-founder, Alina Wong, also had a natural passion for baking. We would spend a lot of our free time on campus just baking, innovating in the kitchen, as a de-stressor from everything that was happening on campus.
It got to a certain point where a lot of people who were tasting our products were saying, “These are so good, we would actually pay you to make these for us.” That was when we took a step back and realized, maybe there was something that we could actually do with our baking and converting our natural passion into a for-profit business. That’s how it started. Ever since then, it’s been a blast. And it’s always been easy to balance, because it’s been a natural passion-hobby for us all along.
KWHS: Why cookies? That’s a really interesting category. And it’s also a crowded category, correct? Tell us a little bit about your product.
Shankar: When we thought about desserts, we wanted to take something that was classic, and then add our own innovative spin on it. We definitely saw that there were a lot of desserts just around Penn’s campus overall, but nothing that was really innovative, handcrafted, hand-made, and spoke to a greater brand experience. That’s what we wanted to do with our cookie sandwich model.
All of our products follow a four-step process and four-step model. We do cookie sandwiches with a “NOM-sensical twist,” which is our tag line, and a fun slogan that we always use. We start off with baking two cookies, and then we stuff it with some sort of interesting filling. Then we top that with a drizzle, and sprinkle an added topping on top of that.
As a sample flavor, right now we have our take on the classic chocolate chip cookie, and it’s called “the classic flavor.” It is a snickerdoodle cookie, and then the inside is edible, eggless chocolate chip cookie dough. It’s topped with a semi-sweet chocolate drizzle, and then topped with toffee crunch.
KWHS: Sounds delicious.
Shankar: It’s a little bit more exciting than a standard, typical cookie. But it definitely does play into our whole model of innovation and experimenting with different flavors and ingredients, which we didn’t really see in the cookie or dessert environment near campus.
KWHS: You’re a marketing major, right? Talk to me a little bit about brand ethos. What is brand ethos, and how did you develop yours?
Shankar: I think the main thing for us was noticing that the market is super-saturated. [There are] a lot of dessert offerings on campus. The No. 1 thing we wanted to start off with [for] our business was understanding what our competitive advantage was going to be. So that [meant] taking a step back, analyzing what the market was offering as a whole, and then seeing what white space we could use to play into what students would want in a dessert.
Brand ethos, for us, is the philosophy that we live by in terms of what do we want to be saying about our brand, and how do we want to be communicating that to our end consumer? And that, for us, was encapsulated in this word that we call “dessert maximalism.” We hear a lot of talk about minimalism now. It’s the new trend. For us, dessert has always been about more. It’s always been about experiencing rich moments, celebrating indulgent memories, bringing people together over the experience of dessert. That’s what we wanted to wrap up in our brand, and our brand ethos.
So we always talk about dessert maximalism. And we’re extending it beyond just our product, into who we are as a brand. Alina and I are firm believers in being super-passionate people — always bringing energy and soul to everything that we’re doing. And we hope that people who are enjoying our cookie sandwiches are also living that [brand] philosophy, too.
KWHS: You’re in the Wharton Venture Initiation Program (VIP), right? [VIP is an educational incubator program managed by Wharton Entrepreneurship that assists University of Pennsylvania students as they build businesses.]
KWHS: Talk to me a little bit about where you hope to take your concept. Where are you going from here?
Shankar: That is the ultimate question. Being a student entrepreneur, the No. 1 thing that we think about is sustainability of the business, and what we want to do long-term, in terms of our vision. VIP has been a huge stepping-stone for us, in terms of realizing the potential of our business. Right now, we serve as a catering and wholesale bakery business. We actually are selling to two coffee shops. One is Petrus Ky Café, which is located on Penn’s campus near Chestnut Hall. And the other one is Elixir Coffee, in downtown [Philadelphia]. [We are] satisfying both the Penn consumer, as well as the downtown young urban professional community.
That’s been really cool for us, and we love that strategy, because we’re tapping into the experience that we want to create around our brand. We envision people coming into coffee shops, sitting down to enjoy a nice warm drink with an interesting dessert, and sharing that experience with people. In terms of a long-term vision for our business, we hope to be in a lot of cafes and coffee shops in the Philadelphia area, staying in line with who we are as a heritage company that was founded in Philadelphia, on campus.
We also recently hired eight new people to join our team. So, we have previously been a team of just two, manning all the baking, all the marketing, all the partnerships that we’ve been developing. But now we have eight extra people on-hand that we’re hopefully going to be training to execute a lot of the campaigns that we’re doing with our business.
In the future, we definitely see a storefront: having a NOMsense Bakery store where people can come and enjoy our brand’s experience. Those are just long-term goals for now.
KWHS: It sounds like the income and revenues that you’ve been generating throughout have gone back into the business to expand it.
Shankar: Absolutely. We are very much still at our growth stage. And our priority right now is not to make as much money as we can. First and foremost, this is a learning experience for us. And we definitely want to be reinvesting all of our proceeds back into the business, so we set ourselves up for long-term success.
KWHS: What are the three greatest lessons that you take away from your entrepreneurship journey thus far?
Shankar: The first thing is definitely, if you have an idea, go ahead and pursue it. We’re all so young and at the stage in our lives where we can afford to take those risky pathways. Learn from every step along the way. I think being at a school like Penn, where there’s such an amazing culture for entrepreneurship, nothing should be holding you back from thinking about who you want to work with — potentially getting those ideas down on paper and thinking about a business plan.
People on campus are also so supportive of the business, always coming to our events, asking us questions about the business, and wanting to get involved. We had a handful of students asking us as soon as we started our sophomore year: “Is there a way that I can get involved?” With all those banks of resources around us, it doesn’t hurt to start early. And everything, again, is a learning experience.
I think the second [greatest lesson] is that a lot of people say the balance is really hard when you’re an entrepreneur. You also have full-time work on the side if you’re a student. I think that if you are doing something that you truly love, then it doesn’t feel like work. And that’s how you know if your idea is going to be worth it in the long run. For me, when I’m working on NOMsense Bakery, it doesn’t feel like, “Oh, I have so much other work to be doing right now.” I always love it first and foremost. That’s why I know that I found the right space for me.
The last thing is that your team matters a lot. My best friend and I started off working on this business together. That was ultimately the best decision for our business. Starting off small helped us really streamline our decision-making processes, and then allowed us to reach the growth that we’ve reached now, and to be able to hire the extra eight people that I was mentioning.
We also both complement each other really well in terms of strengths and weaknesses. That’s also one of the key lessons I’ve learned from being an entrepreneur. [Alina] definitely owns the product and the culinary side of things. She has a lot of creative ideas with how to bring in new flavors and ingredients and tap into seasonal trends and foodie trends. And then, since I’m the one that has a little bit more of the business background, [I handle] a lot of the marketing campaigns and understanding the consumer, and developing our brand’s image and communication strategy. I think the team aspect is huge. And again, it’s going to contribute to an overall incredible, rich experience.
KWHS: Excellent. Well, I wish you luck.
Shankar: Thank you so much.
KWHS: And next time, bring samples.
With a product like cookies where the market is already full of options, branding is key. How has NOMsense Bakery used unique branding to gain a competitive advantage in the marketplace?
What business would you start with your best friend? Pair off with a partner and discuss some ideas based upon your passions and your experiences.
Roopa Shankar says, “Our priority right now is not to make as much money as we can.” Were you surprised by this statement? Lots of people equate business with money. Why do you think Roopa and Alina Wong have other priorities right now? What does that teach you about entrepreneurship?