WTRMLN WTR co-founder Jody Levy tells SEEN how she came up with the idea to turn misshapen watermelons destined to be thrown away into a drink enjoyed by Americans nationwide — including Beyoncé.
By Stephanie Steinberg
Title: Co-founder and CEO of WTRMLN WTR
Current city: New York City + Denver
1. Tell us about your professional background: I have spent the past 18 years bridging the world of fine art and immersive storytelling. I have a passion for creating brands and launching products that are meaningful to people, that educate people about complex science, that advance our society in positive and inspiring ways. Before developing my own brands and products I worked with global companies, including Chrysler, Ford, Toyota and other multinational brands with the philosophy of telling stories in ways that appeal to invoke memory.
After spending over a decade working with global brands launching many alternative energy vehicles, power trains, and focusing on sustainability and our ecology, I got into the beverage industry with a passion to bring awareness to the ugly waste produce epidemic. With this passion and a drive to build a brand with a bigger purpose — to educate people about clean healthy food and drinks and how that impacts our overall wellness — I founded World Waters and our first lineup WTRMLN WTR. This was my foray into the beverage space, and now I have several companies in food and beverage, including a clean spirits brand called GEM&BOLT Mezcal.
2. Our women’s issue is focused on women innovators, and WTRMLN WTR is a pretty innovative product you created. Can you tell us how you came up with the idea?
When I met my co-founder of WTRMLN WTR, Harlan Berger, on a rooftop at a party, he shared an astonishing fact with me that opened my eyes to the immense societal issue of food waste in our country. He told me that there are over 800 million pounds (at that time) of unused watermelons in America every year. After trying and failing to make ethanol with this waste watermelons, I dove in to develop the category, brand and the world’s first Watermelon Water — WTRMLN WTR.
3. What was one of your biggest challenges in getting started and getting the drink on the market?
As an entrepreneur with a startup beverage company that has created a new category in the market, the list of highlights and tribulations are lengthy. While we were creating WTRMLN WTR, each and every success was a celebration, and with it, a vivid and often humor-filled story. There is glory in so many of the details: from convincing a university professor in Canada who was doing an experiment on wheat grass to sell us our first juice press, seeing our first few bottles on the shelves at our first retailer Whole Foods Market, celebrating the opening of our small but mighty retail store on Spring Street in the heart of New York City’s SoHo neighborhood.
The challenges are equally appreciated. Every step of the way was a roadblock where we had to explore all possible angles and choose the best path forward. But every challenge, without exception, has, and I have no doubt, will always lead to knowledge and growth and continue to define this great adventure.
4. What were people’s reactions in the food industry when you told them what you wanted to do?
This question makes me giggle. Mostly because I am known as the girl who showed up in the beverage world and told people, “Oh, I have an idea that I am going to bring to the world” and nothing more! It was way too easy for the big guys to copy us! Once we launched and were up and running in the world, people celebrated what we were doing. People got excited about having a hydration product that tastes good and really got excited about the fun and sassy vibe of our brand itself. The spirit of our brand and our focus on health and happiness really drove a lot of awareness and loyalty and created a wave in the industry where everyone really worked to help us succeed.
5. For other women who have an idea for a product that could change the world, but don’t know where to start, do you have any advice?
I offer women the same advice as I do men. It takes stamina, intensity and a relentless drive to never give up. You have to love the flow, shift as the wind changes, be nimble, stay inspired and have as much fun as possible. Most importantly, get into the process; because the moment is all that is real, and building and sustaining a business takes a lot of forward planning, always considering the future while guiding the present. It’s being a conductor.
6. Beyoncé is one of your investors. Can you share how you got her support?
We launched WTRMLN WTR on Dec. 17, 2013 on the shelves at Whole Foods Market in New York City. A few hours later Beyoncé released her track “Drunk in Love” that ends with the lyrics “I’ve been drinking watermelon.” It was wild synchronicity considering the concept of drinking watermelon had never really existed before that morning.
I made a phone call to a friend who I know from my time in the hip-hop music industry, and she immediately connected me with Beyoncé’s producer. We had product to her an hour later. We kept her office stocked for months, and her team reached out about a year later saying they wanted to be part of our company and help amplify our mission and message. In spring of 2015 we announced her partnership.
7. WTRMLN WTR is in Whole Foods, Kroger, Target, you name it. Do you have any advice for women who have a product they want to expand to stores nationwide?
Get a really great head of sales that has a lot of connections with the people who matter most! I am the first to tell people what I am not good at — and selling our product to the customers (the retailers) is on that list.
8. What do you love most about your job?
No two days are ever the same.
9. What motivates you each day?
My teams — my work family — and the purpose that drives our business.
10. Who’s been a mentor in your career and why?
Richard Branson is one of the most influential professionals who has shaped my way of doing what I do. His rebel spirit has always worked within the confines of existing industries to blow them open and expand beyond what anyone could imagine. When I was young I used to read his books and listen to his stories and realize now how catalytic that was for my own thinking.
11. Best career advice you’ve ever received?
Do not waste time or vital life force on anything you do not love.
12. A book that everyone must read?
“Shantaram” by Gregory David Roberts.
13. Favorite Instagram accounts to follow?
@BlackJaguarWhiteTiger – It’s the best!
On to your style…
14. You can’t leave home without…?
My B May bags.
15. Three words to describe your style?
Artistic, black, practical.
16. Your go-to clothing shops?
I love supporting small businesses – so it depends on the city. My favorite store is called Hotoveli in West Village, New York City.
17. Having grown up in Metro Detroit, do you return often or have any draws that bring you back?
Yes as often as possible. My Moonie (grandma) is here, and we love to see art at Cranbrook and the galleries downtown and hang at the zoo and go on adventures together.
18. Favorite local clothing shop?
Zeiben Mare in Franklin.
19. Go-tos for breakfast, lunch and dinner?
Breakfast – Commonwealth in Birmingham
Lunch – my mom’s kitchen
Dinner – Takoi in Detroit
20. Favorite quote or words to live by?
“only this moment is life.”
Bonus: What’s something people don’t know about you?
I am the most sensitive person you will ever meet.