Andrea Stykker, co-founder of Vitaegum

Photo of Andrea Stykkert

Andrea is the CMO at Vitaegum, a social start-up on a mission to combat global malnutrition and oral health challenges amongst at-risk populations, with their innovative chewing gum. Viteagum was created by Harriet Lester in 2020 after observing widespread malnutrition and oral health problems in Calais refugee camp. The gum is infused with 9 vitamins and minerals absorbed directly into the bloodstream through the mouth, and contains ingredients with potent oral health benefits. As part of the three female founders at Vitaegum, Andrea is using her background in marketing, social entrepreneurship, and UI/UX to launch their e-commerce website. Launching the product to consumers allows Vitaegum to build a social model, allowing them to use profits to fund distribution of Vitaegum to at-risk groups. The team has already given gum to hundreds of refugees and people with substance addictions through pilot distributions alongside NGOs.

What is your background? What made you decide to get involved in entrepreneurship?
I became interested in entrepreneurship at 15 after working alongside a traditional NGO development project, through conversations with other teens my age in the area that shared a lot of my concerns for the longevity and sustainability of the initiative. We ended up starting our own social start-ups locally to create something by and for the community, an impact that has stayed with me in the decade since. This is why I chose to take a degree in marketing and then in development studies, to build a skillset that would allow me to make an impact through socially driven enterprises. I think my young self would be proud of the project I’m now part of – a start-up that is truly social at its heart, with ambitions to use scale and growth as a way to amplify it.

What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
Entrepreneurship is the process of building a vehicle for change – you make something that wasn’t there before, and in the process you change people’s lives in small or big ways.

How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop?
Harriet had the idea after returning from a Calais refugee camp, and I knew as soon as I heard it that it was a good idea. I’ve got years of work experience in the third sector working with displaced groups and knew first-hand that this was a real issue without good solutions.

What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
I used to think it was hard skills – knowing how to build a financial model, a marketing campaign, or a web platform. But all of those can be learned or sorted through good mentorship and partners. Now I think it is persistence, team cooperation, and faith.

What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
The possibilities!

What has been your most satisfying or successful moment in business?
I will never forget when our first manufactured batch of Vitaegum arrived at Balliol.

What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
There have been plenty of failures, but I’ve arguably learned more from failures than what we’ve done right. The greatest lesson is perhaps that people are key. You want to be in the room with the right person – whether that’s your product user, mentor, buyer, or investor. Lacking the bravery to approach people is a big reason for previous failures, and the right cup of coffee has been key to our biggest breakthroughs.

How have you funded your ideas?
We began by competing in pretty much all of the innovation competitions in Oxford, building the funds for early prototyping. We then secured pre-seed, allowing us to get our 1st manufacturing batch, piloting it, and are now giving it a proper shot.

Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?
OX1 demo day
Social Enterprise Awards
Oxford Seed Fund
Oxford University Innovation

Have you faced any challenges as a woman entrepreneur? If so, how have you overcome them?
I recently came across an interesting study from 2017. Females and males are asked very different kinds of questions when pitching to funders. These findings reasonate very closely with our experience as a female founding team, making the study an affirmative but also concerning read. Men are asked affirmative and prospective questions – how big is the opportunity? What’s your next step? What’s your dream? Whereas women receive questions for risk-prevention: How sure are you that you can do this? Who might take this opportunity away from you? How exactly did you validate this? Women have to be better, smarter, and more hard-working to get ahead. We are so proud of everything we have accomplished so far, and in a way – the obstacle has only made us work harder. However, we wonder if we might have hit some of our milestones a lot sooner if we had been asked different questions.

What resources would you recommend for other women?
We’ve all built connections to other female entrepreneurs that has been invaluable.

How could institutions such as the University of Oxford better support women entrepreneurs?
A lot of the challenge seems to be rooted in a bias towards female founders, and there is no easy answer to how it is solved. We probably have this bias ourselves, influencing our work every day. There are already networks and resources available for female founders, but I’d love to see more debates that engage the people with significant decision-making power influencing the future of start-ups.