This International Women’s Day, we’re celebrating by highlighting two important women who lead our company daily: Splendid Spoon co-CEO’s Nicole Centeno & Elise Densborn!
Nicole founded Splendid Spoon in 2013, seeking a solution for easy, healthy meals as a busy mom. Elise found her way to Splendid with a similar need - on the hunt for ready-made plant-based meals to fuel her days in business school.
Elise transitioned from customer to COO at Splendid, just as our smoothie line was taking off. Elise was solving problems left and right, and the team knew she was a great fit. She then joined Nicole as co-CEO during the start of the pandemic when Nicole was pregnant with her third child.
We interviewed Nicole and Elise to chat about their dynamic, how they’ve succeeded as female leaders, and all things Splendid.
Elise, what were you doing pre-Splendid?
ED: I was living, working, and schooling in the Midwest! During the week, I worked at a family-office that held middle-market industrials business in Indianapolis. My day-to-day was spent parachuting into different operating companies to solve acute financial and operating problems. Sometimes this looked like joining the operating leadership team on an interim basis, sometimes I worked on a deal. On the weekends, I went to business school at Northwestern in Chicago to build on my foundational financial skills. So, there I studied marketing, organizational behavior, and entrepreneurship. Consumer brands & health were calling my name, but I didn’t know what that would look like until Splendid entered the scene.
We hear you were a customer first – how did you find Splendid Spoon?
ED: It was fate, actually! I was in New York for a friend’s birthday and met Nicole’s co-founder, Sathish. I was living this full time work and school lifestyle, and trying to eat plant-based in a place where those types of options were limited. Small talk about “what you do” turned into, “how do I sign up?” When I decided to take a little time off to find a new path after school, Sathish called with a “helicopter” problem with the newly launched smoothie line, so I dove in, and the rest is history.
Why Co-CEO? It’s not so common.
ED: Which is interesting, right? So much of life is done in partnership, in community. Why not in business building? There are of course studies about the impact of diverse perspectives and healthy governance. Two strategic heads are better than one. Of course, we believe in that, but this decision was an organic and personal one. My mom and I used to talk about how her career twisted and turned — how sometimes career was on top and other times, she chose family. She always said felt like she couldn't have it all, all of the time. That stuck with me. Why not? When Nicole had her daughter and COVID-19 struck at the same time, we looked at each other and said, we have to figure out a new way to operate that provides strong leadership at work and at home. It just made sense. So we got to re-designing our days, our roles, and deepening our trust.
What’s your favorite part of the co-CEO dynamic?
ED: The co-creation. I find the work so much more rewarding and enjoyable when doing it with someone I trust and respect. We invite feedback, push each other, expand each other’s perspectives and even skills. The business and I am better for it.
NC: The trust and respect. I feel seen which means I can execute at my highest potential, and I will do whatever it takes to ensure Elise feels the same.
What do you do to avoid stalemates?
NC: Play ‘Just Name it’ Name when your ego is in the room, Name what you fear. This is a form of respect for the partnership – when we are transparent we are better able to help one another, identify real threats, crystallize real opportunities, and define emotional situations that are getting in the way.
ED: Pause when it counts. Having a Co-CEO is like having a Board of Directors you talk to every day. Stay in sync on the tactics, but spend the majority of your time together on the big, abstract ideas and defining the most important problems to solve. This can feel messy, but that’s the point. By making space to name signals, surface alternative perspectives, and synthesize out loud together, you wind up crafting and aligned strategy and the plan for who leads execution of what naturally rises to the surface.
Being a leader can be scary, does a co-CEO dynamic help with this?
ED: Yes! Undoubtedly. It can be scary…and sometimes lonely. A co-CEO dynamic gives you a partner to gut check big decisions with, who you can trust will call you on your biases and challenge your assumptions, and also share in the emotional journey that comes with the ups and downs of creating, building, and leading a team.
Elise, you’ve taken the business to new heights, but you weren’t here for the earliest days. Any advice for leaders who aren’t joining a business at ground level?
ED: Get curious. About the customer, about the product, about the team, about the business, and write down your observations at the end of every day until you have a cohesive story of the strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities. This isn’t to say, just sit back and watch. On the contrary - get in there and get moving, but do so with a curious mindset and style. There’s always a “why” things are the way they are. Learning the context, and building trust through quick collaboration helps you to prioritize and unlock impact quickly while preserving the heart and soul on which the business was founded.
At Splendid we all believe more plant-based is the future, and we hold space for all the variations of plant-based eating out there. It’s not all or nothing. What does ‘more plant-based’ look like for your lifestyle?
ED: I’m still very much a customer! I eat Splendid for breakfast, lunch most work days and sometimes as part of a dinner hack with my partner. It’s truly my foundation. From there, there aren’t a lot of rules. I tend to be veggie (and cheese)-forward in my cooking, am drawn to beautiful seafood meals when we explore new restaurants, and don’t hold back from family celebrations and meals that are centered on meat.
Favorite Splendid meals?
ED: It changes! Beans and Greens soup, Carrot Ginger Chia Smoothie, and Veggie Bolognese Grain Bowl are always in the mix, but right now I am on a Creamy Mushroom & Spinach Noodle and Green Juice kick.
NC: Coffee Frappe and Coconut Lime smoothies, all the juices, Chana Potato, and Cauliflower Tikka Soup.
What is your favorite food memory?
NC: Big Filipino holiday meals. We’d all pile our plate with rice, and then dig into the different stewed and grilled meats and vegetables, pickles, patis (fish sauce) – there’s a little of everything. There’s always something soup-y too (sabao). Then, you mix your favorite bits together onto your spoon so you have the perfect combination of flavors and textures in every mouthful. This eating style is a major influence on the ‘spoon’ in our name!
ED: Making cappelletti each Christmas with my Italian family! It is a stuffed pasta with holiday spiced (nutmeg and lemon) pork filling and served in broth. We get together every year to make enough for 50 people to enjoy on Christmas day. It takes us a full day to get it done, so we have to do it ahead of time. We all get together and get to “work” in our assigned roles, I’m currently “in training”. My mom and aunt are still on point for dough, and I’m a folder. It’s a proper event. The pasta is of course -- we talk about it all year -- but the ritual, the love that goes into it is just as special.
What are some ways to sneak healthy habits into a busy day?
NC: No sneaking! Name what you need – whether it’s a therapy session, a midday workout, or extra time at the playground with the kids. Schedule time for it, and trust that taking care of yourself will help you better care for your team and your customers. Making this public information to your team is important to help model self-care behavior.
ED: Take your meetings on the move. Nicole and I’s weekly 1:1 is a walking meeting. This helps us add more movement in our day and forces us to step away from our to-do list to truly connect and clear out the noise for our time together.
Only 2.3% of Venture Capital reaches female-run brands. What worked for you?
ED: First, find values and mission-aligned investors interested in evolving the way businesses are built, and then showing them our unique dynamic as Co-CEO’s that celebrates our customer, the creative process of innovation, and shows command of operating disciplines.
NC: Name what your must-haves are - mission-alignment, customer-centric, and name the values you want at the board level. Collaboration is the name of the game for us.
What advice do you have for women who want to lead a business one day?
NC: Just jump in, just start. There’s never a perfect time or perfect circumstances. If it’s something that calls you, just get going.
ED: Trust yourself, and trust that you will figure it out along the way. It’ll be hard, you’ll doubt yourself, you’ll make tough calls, and you’ll make mistakes. That’s all part of it. If not you, then who?