December 11, 2015

Making Friends With Rejection

by Benjamin Chesler '15

Ben is a young kid who found himself running a business. He has a history of social activism and entrepreneurship and is currently the Chief Operation Officer at Imperfect Produce.

After graduation Ben received the Embark Post-Graduate Fellowship which has enabled him to work full-time on Imperfect after graduation. Applications are open for the Embark Fellowship until 12/18.

“So there’s no tech component? Look, I think what you’re doing is good, but to be honest, it’s just not interesting to me.”  

The man’s face was a bit blurry on my computer’s monitor, but I could easily make out the vineyards and blue skies behind him as he sat on a deck in California sipping a glass of Cabernet. And of course, I was sitting in my freezing cold apartment, drinking whiskey straight from the bottle.

This felt like a make-or-break moment. We were getting close to launching the company and hadn’t received a single funding commitment. If we didn’t get this funding, we didn’t know what we were going to do.  

That was the first rejection we got from a potential investor.

Turns out, over the next few months, we would get many more rejections, as well as our fair share of investors who enthusiastically committed to funding our business. But the first rejection is always the hardest and it stuck with me for a long time. Too often, when it comes to social entrepreneurship, we only see the highlight reel: $300,000 raised, a mushroom-growing kit on the shelves of 1,000 Target stores, the price of Apple’s stock, 1,000 meals served to hungry people - but we rarely see the journey it took to get there.  

When I co-founded Imperfect, I thought it was going to be easy. We had an awesome idea: take produce that was going to waste on farms and sell it at a discount to consumers. We had amazing press coverage and everyone we had talked to about the business thought it was a great idea.  

But, as I should have known when I started, nothing in life is easy. Raising money, opening a warehouse, storing and packing produce - all things that I hadn’t even considered - became my daily chores. When you’re at a start-up, you do whatever it takes to get the job done, even if you don’t know quite how to do it.  

Which brings me back to rejection. It’s easy to internalize the rejections and start to doubt yourself:  “I’m not smart enough, my idea isn’t good enough.”  But it’s a dangerous game that can lead to paralysis. We need to instead view the rejections as constructive criticism that should be balanced with the positive feedback we receive as well.  

Another potential investor told us they would only invest if we worked retail sales into our business plan. So we talked about it as a team, decided they were right, and we came back to them with a plan for retail sales. They turned out to be our biggest investor.  

Social entrepreneurship and social change are about creating disruption – they are about venturing out into the unknown to introduce the world to a new mode of thinking, and there will undoubtedly be resistance. If there weren’t rejection, it wouldn’t be real social change.  

Every day we think about how to make Imperfect better and more “interesting.”  But we do it on our terms, instead of bowing to the opinion of every nea-sayer we’ve encountered. And that’s what I would say is the guiding light of any good business - believing in yourself strongly enough to not let rejection get under your skin.