When it comes to buying plant-based milk, the possibilities can feel endless. Walk into any grocery store or coffee shop, and you’ll find a variety of oat milk selections that are marketed as healthy for our bodies.
Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. Many oat milks on the shelves are packed with artificial ingredients and sugar. As a plant-based milk drinker, entrepreneur Christina Dorr Drake ’05 was tired of these so-called healthy alternative options. She was driven to create a more honest and sustainable nondairy alternative for consumers with real ingredients.
She teamed up with her husband and sister to found Willa’s Oat Milk - a healthy, organic plant-based milk product that tackles the issue of food waste, one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions.
“We’re on a mission to create the healthiest and most sustainable oat milk that aligns with our values and lives up to my grandmother's name,” she said about what drives the 'why' for Willa's.
Tackling the issue of food waste with better oats
Dorr Drake and her team saw an opportunity to completely redesign how oat milk is made after discovering the shocking amount of food waste that goes into making plant-based milk.
Typically in the milling process, 20%-30% of the material – usually the healthiest parts – is discarded in landfills. This approach produces oat milk high in sugar and low in nutrition.
Christina Dorr Drake ’05
In the food industry, innovation is being fueled by the small brands and entrepreneurs who want to create healthy options that are good for the planet.”
To tackle this issue head on, the team figured out how to use the whole oat, virtually eliminating all landfill waste. They worked with local farmers to source organic, non-GMO oats and ensured that every step of the production process was done with minimal waste and energy consumption. Unlike other oat milk, they use the whole oat to draw out the grain’s fiber and protein.
“When we started Willa’s Oat Milk, we didn’t know if people would care as much as we do about the sourcing, sustainability, and health benefits,” she said. But in the past year, the team has seen an enormous shift with plant-based milk drinkers taking a closer look at the nutrition facts, product sourcing and values behind the brands they buy.
Networking with other purpose-driven businesses
Dorr Drake heard about the gBETA St. Thomas program through one of her investors and was excited to get plugged into an entrepreneurial ecosystem supporting Tommie businesses.
“The gBETA team are tapped into loads of tools to help you maximize your time,” she said about the seven-week program. “They helped us solve challenges big and small – from identifying time-saving digital sales outreach tools or connecting us with other founders and potential customers. They’re a supportive, wonderful team.”
Although Dorr Drake wasn’t an entrepreneurship major, she credited St. Thomas as a driving force to pursue a career that’s true to her values. She recalled how ethics were embedded in every business class and served as the foundation for learning and life after college.
“In my first years out of college, I remember being in different situations where I was seeing people faced with serious ethical questions,” she recalled. “Coming from a background where it’s not a given to prioritize profits was so important when I started my career.”
Doubling down on a purpose-driven mission
Besides creating a zero-waste and healthy plant-based milk product, Willa’s also prioritizes diversity, inclusion and belonging. Actively supporting nonprofit groups like the National Black Food & Justice Alliance and Immigration Equality, the company donates 20% of profits to combat inequalities in our food system, ensure access to healthy food, support human rights, and more.
“As a small brand, our impact can only be so big, but we want to embed these practices into everything we do,” said Dorr Drake. “These beliefs and values are part of who we are and serve as our guiding force as we continue to grow a brand.”