Power Women: Michelle Razavi of ELAVI On How To Successfully Navigate Work, Love and Life As A Powerful Woman
An Interview with Ming Zhao
Be kind and relentless. I heard somewhere that all great leaders exhibit these two qualities, together, and it stuck with me. People buy from people. And people will always remember how you made them feel. The most memorable leaders are kind and beloved for how they made people feel. At the same time, they need to push boundaries, take up space, and status the challenge quo. Balancing both is key to succeed.
How does a successful, strong, and powerful woman navigate work, employee relationships, love, and life in a world that still feels uncomfortable with strong women? In this interview series, called "Power Women" we are talking to accomplished women leaders who share their stories and experiences navigating work, love and life as a powerful woman.
As a part of this series I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Michelle Razavi.
Michelle Razavi is the co-founder and CEO of ELAVI, a modern wellness brand delivering elevated nutrition to support optimal physical and mental health. She is a certified fitness instructor, yoga teacher, and meditation guide at Equinox in Los Angeles, CA. Michelle brings a modern, longevity-focused approach to her classes and integrates holistic wellness into her daily practice.Michelle co-created ELAVI’s unique, never-done-before snack formulation, combining functional protein sources (marine/bovine collagen and plant protein) with ancient superfoods like dates, honey, and cacao to create longevity-focused snacks. Key ingredients like dates and honey come from Razavi’s Persian upbringing, where she was taught by her grandmother the power of natural sweeteners.Her approach to formulation is intentional and inventive — collaborating with food scientists, Michelin-trained chefs, and dietitians to reimagine shelf-stable food products as both nourishing and uncompromised.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?
I grew up in a bilingual household as a first-generation American with parents who immigrated from Iran. With an unsupportive, abusive father, I saw my mom wake up at 4:30 am every day, made sure her two kids were fed and taken care of, obtained her master’s degree, and made ends meet as a school teacher. This imprinted a strong work ethic seeing her hustle at an early age, as I involved myself in countless extracurriculars and graduated at the top of my class. My dream from an early age was to be a business owner and the financial independence that my mom always wanted for me.
Can you tell us the story about what led you to this particular career path?
I was working a corporate job at Sephora in San Francisco and teaching fitness classes in the evenings after work. My days were long and demanding, and I struggled to keep my body energized to handle it all. I relied heavily on bars but every option either upset my stomach with their inflammatory ingredients, tasted awful, or was too high in sugar to keep me full for hours. Frustrated by the lack of options that I could rely on, I began making my own collagen protein bars to solve two problems with one solution: challenge the protein bar industry that cut corners and integrate collagen into my diet more efficiently to help promote recovery, youthfulness, and overall health. I created a formula nobody thought of before, integrating natural sweeteners influenced by my Persian culture (dates and honey) at a time when everyone used low-carb, artificial sweeteners. Then I integrated a unique blend of proteins (collagen, pea protein, cashew butter) that each delivered essential nutrients to help our bodies thrive. I believed that food should be medicine and that we’re on the precipice of a new era of packaged foods delivering convenience and clean ingredients and delicious taste: how modern nutrition should be.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
I mean, just 3 months into launching in the market, we had to deal with a global pandemic, getting furloughed from our jobs as fitness instructors, seeing our category decline as our target consumers were no longer on-the-go, and struggled with our own personal mental health struggles with a quarantine. Bootstrapping a company is already a huge risk, so to layer in an unforeseen pandemic in our first year of business was the ultimate test as a company and as founders. It forced us to grow a tough skin and be extremely capital efficient.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
- Passion. This is number one for me. If you don’t have a strong “why”, if you don’t have something that gets you out of bed at 6 am or keeps you working until 2 am, then you’re going to struggle. I didn’t start ELAVI to make money. That was never the goal and I went nearly 2 years without a reliable paycheck. I started ELAVI because I passionately believed in helping people feel better. Whether it’s someone like me who has a multitude of food intolerances and just needs a quick snack they can trust to fuel their long days, a busy new mom who is hungry after breastfeeding and in need of nourishment, an older parent who needs to integrate more protein and collagen into their diets, or an active go-getter who doesn’t want to sacrifice delicious taste for clean ingredients, I created ELAVI with a passion to deliver something better. Passion will get you through the sleep deprivation, the loss of friendships, the confused family members, and the persistent self-doubt.
- Curiosity. Both my co-founder and I share this mindset that “if you don’t know, Google it.” We took our savings initially set aside for grad school and invested it into ELAVI, treating it as a real-world MBA — but with higher stakes. If we didn’t know how to do something, we would either teach ourselves or ask others for help. That curiosity to figure things out is critical for entrepreneurs and the mentality that anything can be learned was instrumental. Need to code a webpage? Build your own Facebook ads? Pitch a retailer? Merchandise a shelf? Deliver an order? Answer customer service complaints? No task was too big or too small, and that openness to learn more and do better helped us get to where we are today. I also applied that curiosity towards our customers. I am obsessed with them — What do they need? What are their pain points? How can I serve them? What do they not like? What do they love? Being a digitally-native brand allowed us to build a relationship with them and I used every touch point I could to understand how they heard about us, what’s their favorite flavor, and what they would like for the next flavor. I would often direct message them on Instagram, have conversations with them (sometimes befriend them), email them asking them how we could be better, and looked at every complaint as an opportunity to show up as a company that cares.
- Self-Awareness. This is something that’s extremely important and usually overlooked. To be a business leader, you need to know your strengths, weaknesses, triggers, and optimal energy levels. I’m grateful that I started my company in my late twenties because in my early twenties I was insecure, impressionable, and unaware of who I was and what I needed. To be a leader, you need empathy and strength. You need to understand the dynamics of partnership with your vendors, of navigating industries that historically have favored men, and how to not let your personal issues affect your performance. Additionally, I think it’s worth asking your close friends for feedback, for where they think you are holding yourself back, for what they think is your strongest asset. We may think we’re being perceived one way, when it can actually be another. I’ll provide an example — I know that I’m a more optimal leader when I workout, am hydrated, sleeping 7 hours, and feeding my body nourishing foods. If I don’t meet those things I’m irritable and unproductive, and that doesn’t help anyone. To ensure that I have time for those essentials, I’ve learned that I need to sacrifice some things — I don’t drink alcohol, I don’t watch tv, and my social life isn’t super active.
I think almost every woman has had an experience either early or later in life where she was discouraged from being a strong woman. Whether it’s in grade school when girls are labeled “bossy” for being assertive or for “talking too much.”I’ve noticed this recent wave of female entrepreneurs being torn down and vilified in the media for any misstep e.g. Sophia Amoroso, Tyler Haney, Anne Mahlum. The media has this fascination with sensationalizing mistakes of young female founders, but when a male of equal age and experience makes a mistake, the media glosses either over it or celebrates it. It’s definitely intimidating as a female founder myself to witness this. Take a male-founded company with raunchy and offensive ads in their marketing campaign and they’re called brilliant. But we all know that if a female-founded company did the same thing, they would be slut-shamed or not taken seriously.In politics — we witness Hillary Clinton nearly crucified for email scandals, yet male presidential candidates can brag about it being okay to sexually harass women and receive far less criticism. More recently with AOC — the level of harassment and hate she receives on social media would never happen to a male saying the exact thing.Ultimately, I think it’s years of patriarchy that is still persistent in our culture, making it uncomfortable for both men and (sadly) some women to see strong women.
Without saying any names, can you share a story from your own experience that illustrates this idea?
Absolutely. I produce all content for our ads and our Amazon ad buyer expressed hesitation on publishing it saying that he showed it to two women who said that our ad was “objectifying to women” and they didn’t like it. For context, it was my co-founder and I doing a very challenging workout with heavy weights in our sports bras and leggings. My co-founder and I are fitness trainers who love empowering women to feel stronger in their bodies and lift heavy weights. We weren’t dancing in bikinis. We were doing very complex exercises and celebrating our strong bodies. Instead, these women were uncomfortable with strong women confident in their bodies. Despite his hesitancy, the ad performed the best and drove the most sales.
What should a powerful woman do in a context where she feels that people are uneasy around her?
Say hello and smile. It’s the fastest way to disarm strangers. I learned this from my friend Katie when we would go for morning walks together and construction workers would gawk at us whenever we walked by. She would proactively say “good morning!” to them because it humanized her to them and made her less of an object to be catcalled and sexualized. I would apply that to other situations where people might have one perception of you, and to initiate a conversation and build rapport is a quick way to make everyone feel comfortable.But if it requires a bit more than a smile, I try to read the situation and act accordingly. Sometimes I’ll ask for help so I appear less intimidating, for some, I’ll share a vulnerability so that they can see that I’m a real human, for some I’ll crack a quick joke to show that I don’t take myself seriously.
What do we need to do as a society to change the unease around powerful women?
I think it starts with little girls. We need to provide them equal access to playing with tools, encouraging them in math and science, and champion them having their voice. We can also challenge the way we value them. Instead of complimenting girls for being so “cute” and “pretty”, we need to compliment them for being smart, funny, opinionated, and strong.
In my own experience, I have observed that often women have to endure ridiculous or uncomfortable situations to achieve success that men don’t have to endure. Do you have a story like this from your own experience? Can you share it with us?
I’ve had a male investor hit on me once and make suggestive comments. After I pitched him, he randomly brought up that he typically dates girls closer to my age and invited me to go on a hike with him and bring my protein bars. Would he have said that to a male investor? Absolutely not.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women leaders that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Fundraising. Lack of access. Not being taken seriously by some vendors.
Let’s now shift our discussion to a slightly different direction. This is a question that nearly everyone with a job has to contend with. Was it difficult to fit your personal and family life into your business and career? For the benefit of our readers, can you articulate precisely what the struggle was
Absolutely. I feel like you’ll never be 100% at every aspect of your life — some days you’ll be more focused on your career and other days on your personal life. Personally, I’ve lost some friendships to people who weren’t understanding of the demands of entrepreneurship — which I’ve learned is okay after chatting with other entrepreneurs. Some will understand and some won’t. The true friends are the ones who are understanding that you are following your passion and won’t always have time to talk. That being said, I’ll make notes in my calendars to remember birthdays and try to multitask social outings (e.g. do workout classes with friends so that I’m filling my cup simultaneously). I’ll also set aside time on my walks or drives to check-in with friends and family. In the end, we’re all doing our best but I think it’s important to communicate upfront with people in your life that you’re going through a busy season with work and generally people are understanding.
What was a tipping point that helped you achieve a greater balance or greater equilibrium between your work life and personal life? What did you do to reach this equilibrium?
I remember chatting with my friend who’s also an entrepreneur about assessing where I spend my time and assigning a dollar amount to it. For instance, I shouldn’t be focusing my limited time/energy on a task that is worth $5/hour for my company or myself. I should be focusing on things that really move the needle, things that are worth $500/hour and outsource the rest. It’s easy to fall into the trap of “I can do it all, I got it” but that’s what leads to burnout and working harder, not smarter. This mindset shift helped me prioritize my time smartly by focusing on people and tasks that really matter. Now I look for any opportunity I can to save time and energy (e.g. auto-recurring payments, healthy snacks on subscription delivered to my door, outsourcing contractors to help with smaller tasks, etc).
I work in the beauty tech industry, so I am very interested to hear your philosophy or perspective about beauty. In your role as a powerful woman and leader, how much of an emphasis do you place on your appearance? Do you see beauty as something that is superficial, or is it something that has inherent value for a leader in a public context? Can you explain what you mean?
This is a very interesting question and I feel like we can have a whole hour talking about this. I think “beauty” is so subjective — but I won’t deny the value placed on individuals who look healthy and youthful. It’s crazy that the first thing a woman in power is commented on is her appearance. Whether it’s “wow, she looks so good for her age” or “she looks tired” or “she needs to lose weight.”Personally, I prioritize looking healthy and fit because that’s my personal brand as the founder of a functional snack company and fitness instructor. It would look contradictory to be the face of a brand that advocates for wellness without taking care of myself. I think all leaders should prioritize their health on a basic level — get enough sleep, stay hydrated, eat nutrient-dense foods, and move daily. It shows that they care and are committed to being their best and that’s inspiring. Now taking it to the next level of having work done or going to extreme levels will achieve the opposite effect, so there is a line to not cross. Overall, I think there are higher expectations for women as their appearance is the first thing they’re noticed for, but I think it’s also important for men too.
How is this similar or different for men?
While I rarely hear comments made about men’s appearance to the extent of women, there is research that shows that political leaders and business leaders that are tall, fit, and deemed as “generally attractive” are more successful. Psychologically, people carry a subconscious bias that they are more reliable, trustworthy, and competent so there is credence to prioritizing your appearance. For women, however, I think there’s a double standard where if you’re “too beautiful” you aren’t taken seriously and seen as “just a pretty face” or vapid, and if you’re not attractive enough, you become forgotten. It’s an unrealistic balancing act, but I’m optimistic that things will improve with conversations like these that call it out.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, what are the “Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Powerful Woman?” (Please share a story or example for each.)
Personally, I’ve found it most helpful to approach everything as an opportunity for growth and to accept that there’s going to be an ebb and flow with life. There will be moments where you feel on top of the world and moments where you want to curl up into a ball and cry. What I’ve learned is that it’s important to have a strong foundation — a strong support system, a prioritization for health, and reminders of your personal “why” in life. In love, I’ve learned that it’s important to communicate your boundaries, understand your love languages, and seek out a partner who champions and empowers you. I’m also a huge fan of therapy to process emotional wounds + traumas, reading books or listening to podcasts on personal development and mindset, and prioritizing daily workouts for mental and physical health.1. Invest in your health, both physical and mental. Your business can’t thrive without a functioning, healthy leader. For me, that looks like daily walks + yoga, connecting with loved ones, eating nutritious foods, hydrating, and doing personal work (journaling, meditating, self-work, and therapy).2. Check-in. I think it’s important to frequently pause and check in with yourself — what’s working and what isn’t? This applies to work, relationships, and yourself. So often we caught up with doing, with checking off our to-do list, that we don’t ask ourselves if we’re living in our highest expression of self. I’ll check-in anytime I’m feeling triggered or upset by something — I’ll ask myself “What am I feeling? What is this bringing up? Why am I feeling this way? What can I do about it?” This 5 minute pause has saved me hours and hours of ruminating.3. Protect your energy. As a former people-please, I now love saying the word “no”. I think women, especially, struggle with setting boundaries and we end up giving so much of ourselves to be completely void at the end of the day. This can be saying “no” to toxic people, exhausting events, opportunities that are not in alignment with you, or even your own negative thoughts. If it’s not serving you, let it go. Our minds can either help or hurt us. Choose the former.4. Confidence in your voice. Many women keep their thoughts to themselves, out of fear that they would be perceived in a negative way (e.g. sounding stupid, inexperienced, unqualified, etc). I’ve seen the most powerful women speak with intention and it’s captivating. Confidence doesn’t just stop at the words you use though — it includes being aware of your body language, eye contact, intonation, word usage, omitting fillers such as “like” or “um” and eliminating phrases at the end of sentences like “but that’s just my idea” or “does that make sense?”5. Be kind and relentless. I heard somewhere that all great leaders exhibit these two qualities, together, and it stuck with me. People buy from people. And people will always remember how you made them feel. The most memorable leaders are kind and beloved for how they made people feel. At the same time, they need to push boundaries, take up space, and status the challenge quo. Balancing both is key to succeed.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Sara Blakely. I look up to her so much as a business leader and champion of female entrepreneurs. Her tenacity to keep going, to self-fund Spanx, and to not take any outside funding is truly incredible. I’d love to have breakfast with her to ask her how she successfully built her team through growth, how to approach innovation and new product development to stay relevant, and how she’s handling supply chain issues with covid.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.