Everyday Icon: Naz Riahi, "Disruptive" Food Conference Founder

This culinary trend expert and all-around force of nature hosts her "disruptive" event series because she believes food matters in modern culture – but, more importantly, the modern world needs more female entrepreneurs.
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Leah Pellegrini
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This culinary trend expert and all-around force of nature hosts her "disruptive" event series because she believes food matters in modern culture – but, more importantly, the modern world needs more female entrepreneurs.
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Whether she's walking her terrier around her Brooklyn neighborhood or noshing on appetizers at the city's newest culinary hotspot (as research for her groundbreaking food event series called Bitten), Naz Riahi is always winning over a crew of surrounding strangers with her charming zest. Naz means business, and she's unafraid to ask for what she wants, but her boldness ripples with warmth. Her presence brings out the best in people, and her energy alone is inspiring.

Below, Naz tells us why she launched her "disruptive" business and how she's tackled challenges as it's expanded across the country — plus, the reason she believes the world needs more female entrepreneurs. (Don't miss the "p.s." at the end for a special discount to her next big event.) 

First things first: why food? How does food serve as a lens to explore modern culture as a whole?

Food brings people together. It nourishes us. It makes us happy. It is nostalgic. It is beautiful. A good meal can make us FEEL things.

And then there is the fact that it is the common thread that connects all of us. Not only does it cross all verticals (Think about your favorite fashion or sports Instagrammers — they're snapping pictures of their food, too!), but how we deal with it in the future affects so many aspects of our lives as well. It's universal.

Okay, and why a conference? What drew you to the idea of hosting these conversations through a live, all-day event (rather than, say, a new magazine or online community), particularly in today's internet-obsessed world?

Well, because food brings people together and so does a conference. Let's face it, there's way too much content out there. We're inundated. And I didn't just want to add to that clutter. I wanted to give people a chance to step away from their desks, their computers. To sit next to strangers, hear new ideas, connect, be inspired. And that's also why we are always encouraging people outside of just the food space to join us. I believe, very much, that stepping away from your area of everyday focus to learn something new can be the source of incredible inspiration.

Bitten seems to be going through some big and exciting transformations right now, including leaping across the country for your first conference in LA after two successful years hosted in NYC. As the business has grown and evolved, how have you adjusted and adapted accordingly? 

It feels like Bitten has both grown incredibly quickly and also been a long, slow journey. The last two years have been a whirlwind. Looking into the future we are excited about expanding to new cities and countries, unveiling more intimate events and capturing an angle of food that hasn't been captured in the way we imagine, yet...All of this with the hope of tapping into vastly different food cultures and communities. 

As we've learned with Los Angeles, that can pose its own challenges, namely that we're not as well-known outside of New York City. This can be incredibly frightening, but I've also learned to just take it one step at a time with small goals and milestones. And to, whenever possible, pat myself and the team on the back, even for the tiny victories.

Amid all of the intense planning for your conferences, we're guessing that a big bulk of the workload comprises pitching and confirming your dynamic lineups of speakers — the show can't go on without them, after all! Are there any tricks or rules of thumb you’ve learned when it comes to communication and outreach during an era of email inbox overload?

I love our speakers. Bitten wouldn't be possible without them. And every single one is someone who's work and life I greatly admire. So, it's nerve-wracking to hit the "send" button on an invite to them. I was recently speaking with one of my favorite chefs, Dominique Cren, and nervously speeding through my pitch on the call because I wanted to be cognizant of her time. She had to stop me and tell me to slow down, that she'd made time for our call!

So, I have a few rules in reaching out. I always know the person I'm reaching out to and I know why I want them to be a speaker. Seems basic, but I think sometimes we can forget the most basic stuff. I also think it's important to be human. I don't want my emails to sound like they're coming form a big organization, because, well, they're not! They're coming from me. And finally, be persistent. That one is a bit more tricky, because you don't want to annoy them, but with one of our speakers, Todd Carmichael of La Colombe, I had to reach out on email, Twitter and LinkedIn for nearly two years before I got a response! And we knew each other! But the simple truth is that he's incredibly busy. It's not personal.

You tend to use the term "disruptive" to talk about both yourself and your event. Talk to us about that word. Why does it feel important to turn its older connotations (which are typically negative) into an empowering positive force?

This goes back to my goal of getting people outside of the food space to leave their office for a day and come to Bitten. It's about shaking things up. Getting myself and everyone around me to see something new, something unexpected. To learn something from someone we may not normally come across in our daily lives. That's usually where the best ideas, the most empowering connections come from.

You've said that you believe we need more female-owned companies. We're so with you, and we’re curious to hear your personal reasoning. Why does it feel crucial that women step up to the plate and launch their own businesses?

We could have a whole interview just about this. And I'd be delighted.

On a very basic level, gender discrimination permeates every industry at every level. According to a recent McKinsey study, women won't reach equality in the work force for another century if we continue at the pace we've been going. Can you imagine that? 

Along with every woman I know, I have experienced gender discrimination. There are a lot of ways to combat it, and one is to help more women become business owners. That's the fastest, most direct way to get to the top. And whether or not we stay entrepreneurs or go back to working for another company, the women who ran their own businesses will have rich connections, a skillset and incredibly valuable experience that they wouldn't have had before. I also would like to mention that we need more people of color as business owners for the exact same reason.

Totally agreed. Can you tell us about your role models? Are there any icons you look to for insight and inspiration as your chart your own life and career? 

I adore Hillary Clinton. She's had to live out all of our society's sexism and deal with its double standards in a very brutally public way for such a very long time. But as Michelle Obama said in her DNC speech, Clinton just keeps getting back up. She doesn't quit. It's incredibly inspiring and I have to remind myself of that, sometimes on a daily basis.

What's your proudest moment or accomplishment thus far? 

Every time the audience begins to pour in for a Bitten conference, I have a moment of reprieve from the anxiety, and I'm so proud. That feeling can't even truly be put into words. So much work goes into this and so much of it is uphill, it can be daunting and demoralizing and exhausting. And then when it comes together, it's like, I can take a breath after a long time of not breathing.

What does true success look like to you?

The definition of true success has really changed for me over the years. It used to be this goal I had. When I was in my 20s, I thought true success was owning a home and being [free of] credit card and student loan debt. It was all about money. But I very quickly learned that the more I have, the more I spend and the more I want. 

So, today, success means happiness. I have a tough road ahead of me and am further from debt-free than I ever imagined I would be. But most days, I wake up, and I'm happy to be doing what I'm doing. I see how fortunate I am. 

What's something you wish more people knew or understood? 

I think it would be helpful for more people to talk about their doubts and their failures. When you look at someone's life from the outside, it can look so perfect and easy, and we tend to be ashamed when our lives aren't that

In my case, I started Bitten when I was fired from my agency job. And while the last two years have been thrilling in a lot of ways, I feel like a failure on an almost daily basis. So sometimes I have to take a step back and remind myself that I've been able to do this for 2 years! And even though it's not where I would like it to be, it's a big deal to have accomplished that.

Okay, one more thing, because we can’t resist: what's your current favorite food or food trend?

I am obsessed with matcha! I have it almost every morning and it's as much about the taste as it is about the ritual for me. I like it plain without any milk or sweeteners.

I'm also really excited about the potential of algae as a food trend. It's so good for us and so good for the environment. I'm really watching closely how chefs incorporate it, whether as part of the meal or in oil form, and very interested in the farmers that grow it and the ecosystems flourishing because of it. 

p.s. Meet Naz in person (and dig into oodles of flavorful wisdom) at Bitten on October 28 – the code Bitten25 gets you a 25% discount on your ticket.