The path to success was not a linear one for Sharon Flynn. She travelled the world in search of the best fermentation practices for 20 years before returning to Australia, where she committed to putting her newfound knowledge to use. Her first task: re-educating Australians regarding their choice of food.
Sharon’s passion for traditional fermented foods stems from the positive effects on our health her family experienced first-hand. In 2013, she founded The Fermentary to reverse the trend of highly processed food consumption by spreading the concept of “gut democracy” – a term she coined to describe an ideology for improving our diet.
Sharon is also blazing a path forward for women in business. The success she has garnered in a male-dominated field is a testament to her leadership style. Her collaborative approach and relationship-building skills are just some of the ways she is modernising business practices.
Sharon Flynn discussed with WiFB’s Ramia El Agamy and LiquidGold’s Susanne Bransgrove a return to traditional foods, gut democracy and women leaders in business.
This episode of Conversations with Women in Family Business is co-produced with Susanne Bransgrove, director of LiquidGold Consultants.
What is the mindset behind The Fermentary and ‘gut democracy’?
Sharon: When I started teaching fermentation, there was great fear of bacteria. Most of us have been taught that once you take something out of the refrigerator, it is not long before you have to put it back. The concept of leaving food out for extended periods of time and then consuming it was terrifying to many back then.
The reality is that we have an incredible variety of bacteria all around us, including on and in our bodies. The vast majority of them are safe. Bacteria only become unsafe when they are left to reign in unnatural circumstances. It is the regular exposure to antibiotics, chlorine and other means that is mutating bacteria for the worse.
We tend to feed the unhealthy bacteria, such as clostridium, and starve the good ones. Clostridium will feed off of simple carbohydrates, making you crave pasta and white bread. However, if you give a voice to the weaker bacteria by feeding them, their voice will grow stronger, and you will wake up feeling that your body is in total balance. I call this ‘gut democracy’.
I have made it my mission to let people know that the diversity of bacteria is healthy and positive. In Australia, food politics is a pressing issue right now, and many food health authorities are stressing the use of static cultures for fermentation. I do not support the cheap static cultures that are widely lab-produced in Denmark or Canada. The main struggle with The Fermentary was getting that diverse array of bacteria into the food in a balanced way.
How have food politics and awareness around fermentation changed over the years?
Sharon: Before I started the business in Australia, I was living in the USA. I rekindled my interest in fermentation in Seattle and then moved to Belgium to expand my knowledge of ferments through beer, wine and cheese. Returning to Australia, I noticed that we did not really eat anything sour anymore. Even the immigrants who arrived in the 1960s had changed their diets and would hide their food culture in fear of reprisal. The knowledge was lost over time.
Speaking to Chinese chefs, I was hoping to hold a workshop on hairy tofu. I discovered that now they just buy the ingredient and do not know how to ferment it. Even though the presence of ferments is not completely absent in Australia, it pales in comparison to many other cuisines. That absence of bacteria in our diet is compounded by the lack of knowledge of fermenting practices and our reliance on heavily manufactured products.
Susanne: What I find most interesting is the radical shift in food culture and politics. The industry has been more focused on profit margins; they have poorly educated us about consumption. The emphasis has been on low-fat and other dieting trends, which has been detrimental to both our physical and mental health.
Yet, I see a lot of positive change in the next generation. Younger people are taking a keen interest in fermented foods and drinks like tofu, kimchi and kombucha. My niece has been influential in educating me around improving my diet. So, we have to re-educate ourselves around wholesome eating.
Sharon: The rush to have healthy, easily accessible foods was also driven by another trend. With women in the workplace, the emphasis shifted to easy-to-make foods. It was supposed to create equality in the household, but women were still handling most of the domestic duties.
Traditionally, food and fermentation were a very masculine field. However, if you look at food marketing now, the men are always portrayed in masculine poses, while women are laughing. It shows that food politics still has a long way to come. For me, fermented food brings back slower living and is a way to reclaim healthy eating.
What obstacles and victories did you experience as a female entrepreneur?
Sharon: As the founder of my business, my main focus has been on fermenting and creating products on my terms. I fought hard to make it clear that our fermented products are food, not medicine; we have simply forgotten how to eat wholesomely. It was an uphill battle to steer people away from that mentality.
After many successful workshops, I looked back and assessed what The Fermentary had done for food politics. I realised that I had made great advances in an industry dominated by men. I had written a book and built a solid reputation amongst my peers. Part of my success came from influential industry leaders adopting my products in their restaurants and hotels. I could see that my work was making a positive impact.
Susanne:As female entrepreneurs, we tackle issues very differently than our male counterparts. When we encounter obstacles, we look to build relationships and find ways forward that are good for all. The goal is to be as collaborative as possible.
The traditional model that we have been operating under has been more about exploiting relationships and making deals to advance individualistic interests. However, the prevalence of female entrepreneurs is increasing, with an unbalancing effect on that traditional model. The more women get involved in business in a sustainable way, the more positive changes to practices will occur.
In what ways has being a mother shaped your business and your entrepreneurial style?
Sharon: My children have enjoyed this journey with me, and some of my proudest moments have been watching them work at a market with me and talk about our products with such passion. Even if they are uncertain, I can see them improvising and showing leadership.
When I started a blended family, my partner brought his daughter and son into the family. Having my partner’s children in the house has taught me how to raise and support them, as well.
In turn, my children have taught me so much. Their generation has a different take on things, and their insights have given me a lot of strength. They reinforce the positive things I do, such as how I treat our employees and my leadership approach, and have helped me realise how incredibly supportive and dedicated my team is.
What future plans do you have for The Fermentary?
Sharon: If I think back to when I first imagined The Fermentary, I can say that things happened almost as I dreamt them. At times, it has felt a bit haphazard, but in reality, I have been quite strategic. I mirrored other businesses along the way and asked them important questions to inform my decisions.
I am now meeting with investors to inject more equity into the company. When they asked me to write a wish list, I realised that we have already achieved 70 per cent of what is on it. The remaining 30 per cent is what I feel will be groundbreaking.
I would love to acquire land and have a farmer who can harvest soil microbiomes and supply us directly according to our standards. Perhaps our most important project at the moment is our drinks line. We are currently supplied from spring water, but we are also looking at ways to harvest rainwater because I feel that we can source more ethical supplies.
As a driving force behind advancing food politics, it is critical that we make positive changes that reinforce our company’s mandate. The Fermentary will be an industry leader in ethical products. Transparency is incredibly important to the way we do business, and I want our customers to be able to make informed choices about what they are buying.
We are also looking at our international footprint. We recently started sending products to Singapore, and I am also talking to a supermarket chain in Shanghai. Initially, I was against selling products beyond locally. I changed my stance because I can pass on gut democracy to cities with millions of people. It is my hope that in 20, maybe 30 years people around the globe will have re-evaluated how they consume food.
About Susanne Bransgrove and LiquidGold Consultants:
Susanne Bransgrove, one of the directors of LiquidGold Consultants, is known for her passion for supporting Families in Business manage the complexities of balancing multiple generations and for encouraging female founders and future leaders to be the best they can be. Growing up in Germany as part of a third-generation family business has provided her with a sound foundation for understanding the range of issues that arise when family members work together. Susanne puts her heart into the businesses and individuals she spends time with and believes in a strong foundation of love and compassion.