By: Alex Pierce and Mackenzie Hannum
Recently, Mackenzie and I were able to sit down and interview Jhaelynn Elam, not only a Sensory Scientist at a global consumer products company but also the CEO and founder of Sizije, a company that sets out to empower modern day travelers through cultural experiences and global communities. We both had the sincere pleasure of working with Jhaelynn during graduate school and have witnessed firsthand her passion for the work she creates, her drive and motivation as she follows her dreams, and her unending curiosity for the world around her. We wanted to interview her to provide our readers with a direct example of someone our age who has set out to make a mark on history. I know personally both Mackenzie and I left the conversation feeling refreshed and re-motivated for the future ahead.
Hopefully you will feel the same!
Jhaelynn Elam is a Sensory and Consumer Research Scientist at a global consumer products company. By day, Jhaelynn manages a descriptive panel, works with cross-functional teams to understand client needs, supports product innovation from ideation to launch, and also designs and executes consumer tests that support product development decisions. But by night, Jhaelynn is the founder of Sizije.
syz·y·gy : A pair of connected or corresponding things.
The Journey of Sizije
Sizije is a unique combination of many of Jhaelynn’s talents and curiosities. She did not wake up one morning as a child with the thought, “I’m going to be an entrepreneur of a travel experience company one day.” Rather, it was a voyage to develop Sizije – which was often not a straight path. As a child, Jhaelynn had many idyllic professional pathways: law school, landing on the moon, and seeing patients-both for therapy as well as illness. In high school, she considered becoming an electrical engineer, but after an internship, she decided she lacked passion for engineering. When it came time for college, she attended Tuskegee University in Alabama. Far from home (Ohio), Jhaelynn’s independence was nurtured quite a bit. She had learned to lean into her curiosity which had served her well. Looking back, she remembered doing Science Fair projects that always revolved around food as a child. And therefore, she eventually settled on her major: Food Science and Technology.
Upon graduation in 2016, Jhaelynn was primarily interested in product development and quickly learned graduate school would better position her to land that type of position. She researched different labs and came across Dr. Chris Simons’ lab out of The Ohio State University. Dr. Simons’ lab is a multidisciplinary lab studying psychological and contextual influences on human sensory experiences. She felt it was a good fit as it could provide her with another side of product development – the consumer side – so she dove right back into school.
Grad school can become quite tedious. Jhaelynn found herself needing something different to balance out the technical aspects of her school work. She was hungry for more artistic and creative opportunities, which prompted her to start a blog on one of her favorite topics: food. She would write about different places she ate and the experiences around these meals. It was simply a creative outlet meant to be fun for her in her free time.
One day her friend posed a question to her that changed the trajectory of this passion project: What would do you do if you could do anything and get paid for it? Jhaelynn thought about this and realized in an ideal world, what she would want:
“I would just travel and eat food…but that doesn’t exist”
This initial reckoning of her passions may have been nurtured subconsciously by the themes of her graduate studies – context, experience and consumer expectation, to name a few. Most students during grad school are too swamped to do much else other than research and attend class. However, Jhaelynn could not shake that question and decided to start a business. Sizije was conceptualized and brought to life steadily while Jhaelynn earned her master’s degree at The Ohio State University.
As Jhaelynn realized she might actually create something for people, she was convinced her passion could be bigger than a blog. But first, she needed a dry-run. She tried out her idea by planning a trip with her friends to the closest drive-able destination that would offer unique experiences. She landed on Montreal, Canada, a city with the most restaurants per capita (Um, sign us up)! She planned an entire trip for her friends that included an epic experience where the group actually dined in the dark. There are now a handful of other destinations in the planning process. They include learning how to cook authentic Cuban or Balinese food and are heavy on the absorption of the surrounding culture.
These are certainly a once in a lifetime experiences.
Over time Jhaelynn explained that her project changed–or evolved–as entrepreneurial endeavors often do. She realized the main themes of her travel destinations were the cultural influences and experiences. Food was a conduit for cultural learning. So much of a culture can be emphasized by food and vice versa. A true connection, or should we say Sizije?
Jhaelynn says, “Everyone you talk to thinks they have the best food. Everyone takes so much pride in their food.”
What Jhaelynn is also excited about is how this creates a more global community. With updated technology, our world is more connected than ever but this also, unfortunately, can create starker cultural divisions. Sizije is a way of branching that gap and bringing people together from all parts of life to appreciate each other for who we are and where we come from.
Sizije is a company that sets out to empower modern day travelers through cultural experiences and global communities.
At first Jhaelynn was managing this project alone, but now she has a small team that helps her mostly with marketing and branding – her friends. These friends came into the picture after graduate school when Jhaelynn was just getting started. Most of these friends also attended the first trip she planned to Montreal and still talk about it to this day. They, like Jhaelynn, are also helping her while working full-time jobs, of which Jhaelynn is extremely grateful. One of the most interesting aspects of this team is Jhaelynn’s current intention to not have true employees – at least not yet. She likes that her team is built up of diverse problem solvers, all working because they are passionate about creating these experiences for others, just like her. This keeps it very flexible and convenient for everyone involved. She has even found that being a Sensory and Consumer Scientist offers a lot of transferable skills that enhance both her day and night job.
Her business is still very much a new enterprise, but she is proud to note the 2020 “Bubbly in Bali” trip is officially sold out (don’t worry, you can get on the waiting list). Sizije organizes an average of 2 trips per year, focusing more on quality, not quantity. In addition to Bubbly in Bali, Jhaelynn has worked with a mentor from a prior internship whose family is Ghanian to organize a Sizije trip to Accra, Ghana.
We got a little deeper with Jhaelynn before we let her go. She was able to give us some advice on following your passion–even if you have another job!
Jhaelynn’s advice for following your passion:
1. Know your Why
Jhaelynn emphasized this point because your ‘Why’ or the purpose of your project must be at the forefront of your mind when asked about what you’re doing and especially when you find yourself dealing with challenges. This even comes into play when you look for people to work with. Additionally, nothing is perfect, and when you need extra motivation it’s essential to understand why you started.
2. Be disciplined
Being disciplined is how you keep your project growing and progressing in a positive way. This is also easier to focus on if you know your purpose.
3. “Stay authentic to who you are and what you are doing and don’t waver when someone doesn’t get it”
“Not everyone is your target market anyway, so it is okay when someone doesn’t get it.”
4. Just start
“The reality is it will never be perfect, or the right time. If you chase perfection, you will never start. Start with what you have where you are. – It’s become a part of my brand. I don’t like to wait on anybody, I feel like I have resources, somehow, some way. What do you have right now that you can work on? Don’t get caught up in the whole vision. It can’t happen by tomorrow. So, what can you do right now with what you have? Start that now. You just have to start somewhere.”
5. Fail fast – fail often – you can’t fail fast if you don’t do anything. Fail and bounce back.
Thank you so much Jhaelynn for speaking with us – we can’t wait to find ourselves on one of your trips one day.
Mackenzie Hannum | Linkedin
Mackenzie graduated with a B.S from The Ohio State University in Food Science and couldn’t get enough of it so decided to stay at Ohio State to pursue her PhD in Food Science with the focus on sensory science. Overall her research investigates panelist engagement and ways to improve sensory methodology. Fun fact about Mackenzie is that her 5th grade science fair project explained the concept of the 5 basic tastes so in a way she has come full circle. As much as she prides herself now on being a true foodie, ready to try all things sans olives, she will admit her two all-time, indisputable favorite foods are pretzels (any kind) and plain bagels. Truly…if she was stranded on a deserted island with only one food item it would be a tough battle between the two but pretzels would win out. Hard, soft, sourdough, sticks—you name it!
Alex graduated with a B.S. from the University of Illinois in Food Science and completed her PhD at Ohio State University in a lab revolving around sensory evaluation and psychophysics, potentially the functional or cognitive benefits from food and food ingredients. Alex is currently a sensory scientist at MANE, a flavor company. An avid study-er of the nose and its wild contributions to flavor, potentially how aroma affects different aspects of cognition. Alex dabbles in triathlons and fitness-ness. She has an ice cream tour every Sunday, every ice cream place (that is good) is on her list and it must have sprinkles. Grocery stores, sunrises and puppies are everything!