Meet Julia Collins, the first Black woman to co-found a unicorn company

BY Preta Peace Namasaba April 15, 2024 4:26 PM EDT
Julia Collins. Photo credit: Carta

Although Black women are America’s fastest-growing demographic of entrepreneurs, their ingenuity is often underestimated and overlooked at the nexus of money and power in Silicon Valley. Most entrepreneurs dream of founding a unicorn, a privately held startup company with a value of over $1 billion. However,  seemingly impenetrable structural barriers limit Black women’s realization of such tremendous business success. Julia Collins overcame all the prevailing limitations and obstacles to become the first Black woman to co-found a unicorn company.

It all began with food. Collins discovered her passion for food when she was just a little girl. She witnessed how cooking brought people together at her grandparent’s home in San Francisco which acted as a central place for the community to gather. Despite her upbringing and love for food, Collins did not immediately get into the food industry. The pressure to succeed loomed large.

“There was nothing that would please my family more than for me to get this incredible degree in [biomedical engineering]. The problem is I wasn’t living my authentic truth. You know, even at 18 years old, I knew that it just wasn’t for me. It wasn’t until I came to Stanford Business School and I permitted myself to live in my authentic truth and to say to myself, ‘Julia, it’s food, this is what is meant for you. This is what the universe is calling you to do.’,” Collins said about the leap of faith she took to enter the food business.

She attended Harvard University as a biomedical engineering major to make her family proud. Collins then went to Stanford Business School where she realized she could turn her love for food into a career. After grad school, she partnered with friends to grow a Mexican and BBQ fusion restaurant chain. The enterprise successfully expanded throughout New York, Maryland, Connecticut, and Washington D.C. and Collins saw the opportunity to return to her roots in Silicon Valley.

Combining technology and her love of food, Collins founded Zume Pizza in 2015. The company’s initial business proposition was the automated production and delivery of pizza, which would largely be made by robots and cooked en route to customers. The pizzas were cooked in a van equipped with GPS-automated ovens, timed to be ready before arrival at the address, and sliced by a self-cleaning robot cutter. Zume managed to raise $6 million in Series A investment funding within a year of its establishment.

“When I co-founded Zume Pizza, I had no idea what a unicorn founder was. I didn’t know that was something that people aspired to. I just did my work. I built my company, I thought about the impact that I wanted to have, I thought about the kind of culture that I wanted to build, I thought about the value that I wanted to create in the world, I thought about the value that I wanted to create for my customers. But I never had that billion-dollar target or the unicorn label on the horizon as something that I should aspire to. And I think that that was actually really smart,” Collins explained how she founded a unicorn.

The company patented its automated cooking technology that could be used for making much more than pizza. It subsequently pivoted from pizza to become a platform for automated food trucks. A larger umbrella company, Zume, Inc. was established to develop kitchen technology and AI for the food production process. With patents for sustainable food-delivery boxes, the company began licensing its automation technology and selling food packaging to other companies.

In 2018, Zume raised $48 million in Series B funding and was valued at $170 million. The company raised $375 million from SoftBank a year later, bringing its valuation to $2.25 billion. The founding round was so tremendous that according to Forbes, it surpassed all the money invested in food robotics since 2013. Through Zume, Collins became the first Black woman to found a unicorn company.

Having achieved unprecedented success in only three years with Zume, Collins stepped down as President to prepare for her next phase in food tech. She has since founded Planet FWD, a company dedicated to fighting climate change by making it easier to bring climate-friendly products to market. The carbon management platform also sells Collins’ own brand of carbon-neutral snacks called Moonshot Snacks which offers climate-friendly snacks.

“Although I recognize that I am the first, the thing that I spend the most time thinking about is how to make sure I am not the last or the only one,” Collins said of what being the first Black woman unicorn founder means to her.