“Everyone said you’re kind of late to the game and I don’t think that’s true at all… This is a ten, twenty year evolution.”
Nicole Bernard Dawes thinks we’re just at the beginning of the sparking water craze. Inspired by a lifetime of experience in food and bev (and having previously created Late July chips) Nicole founded Nixie: a line of sparkling water with groovy flavors like Watermelon Mint and Lime Ginger.
But even better, all her drinks are certified USDA organic, non-GMO with no synthetic solvents, carriers or artificial preservatives. Nicole believes creating sustainable, nutritional products is her life’s mission, so here’s how she’s movin’ and shakin’ as a woman at the top.
KCM: You were raised by parents who dedicated their lives to making quality food. Did starting your own natural food company feel like destiny?
Nicole Dawes: A natural food entrepreneur was really the most obvious path that I would take, after growing up sitting on the counter of my mom’s natural food store in the 1970s and being on the factory floor of my father’s potato chip company, Cape Cod Chips. But beyond that, I love the idea that food creates memories. Creating food that people are serving at their parties or life events or family dinners is one of the greatest honors you can have in life. It’s just an incredible feeling. And a huge responsibility.
How did you decide to enter the sparking water, and previously, the snack spaces?
When I first started Late July, I was pregnant, wandering the streets of New York City, looking for organic saltines. I was in the third natural food store that day when a light bulb went off: These stores had a robust produce section. And I saw a lot of innovation in the dairy aisle. But the middle part of the store, the snack section, looked almost identical to my mom’s store in the 1970s. It was 2002, but it was as though nothing had changed. So it hit me, this was long overdue.
I had a very similar moment that prompted me to start Nixie. I think that creating a sustainable food system is my life’s mission; to create products that move our society closer to sustainability by making them delicious. I wanted to bring that same sustainable focus to the sparkling water sector. So I basically created products that I couldn’t find for myself.
Sparking water is having a bit of a renaissance! Why did you decide to enter such a crowded space?
Everyone said you’re kind of late to the game and I don’t think that’s true at all. I think sparking water is a trend, but the bigger trend that I see is an evolving beverage aisle. We’re seeing soda sales decline, healthier beverage sales increase. This is like a ten, twenty year evolution. So if we’re just at the very beginning of it, there’s so much room for people to create healthier, more delicious options. In the new generation of beverage options, people want things that are delicious without having to sacrifice. It’s up to us as manufacturers to make sure that we’re delivering really satisfying choices.
You started Nixie at the end of 2019, with plans to fully launch in 2020. Then the pandemic hit. I can only imagine how challenging that must have been.
Nicole: This has been an incredibly difficult year, full of sadness, so for me to be worrying about kind of launching a new brand was a very strange experience. But we had to make it successful; there were a lot of people relying on this company succeeding.
As an entrepreneur, you’re going from one crisis to the next pretty much all the time. This crisis happened to be a global pandemic. Starting late July during the recession, we experienced millions of problems. Having had that experience helped me approach this calmly and tackle it like I would anything else: figure out the problem, solutions, and how we would get to the next step. I thought, this is not going to be a long-term problem. It’s going to be a short-term problem. We’ll get through it.
When I look back, it’s really remarkable what we were able to accomplish–we left the year in over 5,000 stores nationwide.
You’re not only the founder of Nixie, you’re also the CEO. Have you had to combat sexism, being a woman at the top?
I mean, I think we’d have to schedule a whole separate call to go over that. It’s just depressing that in 2021, we’re kind of still having these conversations.
One instance: My father was involved in Late July in the early days, and when he passed away, a shareholder was trying to get the other investors to have a shareholders meeting. And he didn’t say it outright, but it was clear to me he was worried that I was a mother. He was worried I was spending too much time with the kids. I couldn’t help but think if I had been my father’s son, if I had looked the part, he might have had a different reaction.
Another time, when I was presenting to a customer, someone asked me, ‘Do they put you on the presentation because you’re pretty?’ What an obnoxious thing to say–I put my photo on the presentation to show I was a person who cared deeply about their brand. I just looked at him and said ‘Let’s just go over the presentation.’ I mean, how do you even answer that?
Have you gotten more support with Nixie, compared to starting Late July?
Nicole: Things have changed quite a bit since I first started Late July twenty years ago, when it was very hard for me to find a lot of peers. Most of my mentors were men. I didn’t have access to a lot of women that were in my same position. Now, with Nixie, I have the most incredible, wonderful, talented network of other female CEOs. We turn to each other, we ask for advice, we support each other. I think so much has since changed for the better but it still has a long way to go.
From 12:01AM EST on April 29 through 12:01am EST on May 7, Wake-Up Callers can get 20% off Nixie orders on Amazon with code “20NIXIExKCM”.
This interview was edited and condensed.