Emily Darchuk, MBA '18, calls herself a corporate hippie. She is also one of only 40 entrepreneurs selected and the first profiled in Inc. Magazine's March/April 2019 issue as part of the publication's 40-year anniversary Founders Project.
After attending the University of Illinois for her undergraduate degree, Darchuk received a master's degree in food science from Oregon State University (OSU). And this December, Darchuk earned an MBA from the University of Oregon, with a specialization in innovation and entrepreneurship.
While in the MBA program, Darchuk developed Wheyward Spirit, a farm-to-flask premium spirit company. As part of Inc's Founder's Project, Darchuk and her company were paired with a mentor, Gary Hirshberg, founder of Stonyfield Farms. The start of their mentorship was also featured within a series of videos and profiles.
In the past, Darchuk worked a variety of internships and jobs within the food industry, including with major players like Coca-Cola as well as big names in the natural food industry like Silk. She also interned at NASA and Kellogg's, translating consumer needs to tangible products with science.
“I would work to develop the initial formula, do all the tests, perfect it there. Then, I would go to the actual production facilities and make it work," Darchuk said.
“I'm really glad I worked in a corporate setting," she continued, but her frame of reference and love was always the natural food industry.
A vegetarian for more than 20 years, Darchuk tried to push boundaries in the relatively constrictive world of corporate food manufacturing and product development. While in the master's program at OSU, Darchuk took some business courses.
“It made me a better scientist," she said. “It gave me the vision to create a stronger voice to communicate." When Darchuk was ready to go back to school to get her MBA, she was looking to return to Oregon, and UO's Lundquist College of Business popped onto her radar. It was a case of the right place at the right time.
“I knew I was coming back to Oregon, and this seemed like the best fit for me," Darchuk said.
“It just felt like this is going to be a good place for my journey. I really clicked with the business program here. The University of Oregon has an amazing alumni network. They have an amazing business school."
Before attending UO, the idea for Wheyward Spirit was in the back of her head, but she didn't come to business school specifically to launch the company.
“I came to the Lundquist College because I wanted to expand my opportunities in the food industry—to see what else is out there," Darchuk said. “I knew I had a voice and a talent to do more. I thought the Oregon MBA would help me with that."
Darchuk enrolled in the accelerated MBA program, so when the opportunity was presented to pitch her idea, she took it.
“I was like, ‘I'm only here a year and a half,"" Darchuk said. “I need to make the most of this, I need to pitch this. I think it has legs."
Darchuk's idea was to make an ultra-premium specialty spirit from the excess whey produced by the dairy industry.
“Let's say you're a cheese maker," she explained. “You bring in 10 pounds of milk to create your product. You'll only make one pound of cheese. You're left with nine pounds of whey. Imagine that every single day. Across the country, it's a problem. There's over 100 billion pounds of this produced every year. I knew alcohol could be made from that and there was research being done and momentum around the topic, so timing was perfect.
“I used my product development background to perfect the fermentation and start the process of commercialization through manufacturing trials," she said of her product. “I didn't want to just make a commodity spirit. I wanted to keep some flavor in there. It's naturally very smooth, velvety, doesn't have that burn. It also has hints of vanilla crème, and pear, and a warm spice—no flavors added."
Soon after graduating with her MBA, Darchuk has brought Wheyward Spirit to the cusp of going to market with a vision of it being a nationwide brand.
The University of Oregon and the Oregon MBA was an absolutely critical part of her journey.
“We had an amazing cohort," in the MBA program, Darchuk said. “Tons of different skills and strengths."
In particular, she appreciates the support of Lundquist College of Business instructor and program manager Ryan Cabinte.
“He's a sustainability leader," Darchuk said. “He thought my business was interesting—a fundamentally closed loop."
Cabinte recently joined the Lundquist College from the Presidio Graduate School, where he was the former dean and a core faculty member. At the Lundquist College, Cabinte mentors and guides MBA students as part of the Center for Sustainable Business Practices.
“Everyone's in the business school for a different reason," Darchuk said, and that cross-pollination was everything. She chose Oregon because she knew she'd find the support to find her own path, blending entrepreneurship with sustainable business, finance, and core business strategy.
“I worked hard and learned lots but also really had a lot of fun pushing myself along the way," she said. “During the past year I have definitely developed personally and professionally through the experience and am so glad I chose this program and all of the opportunities it presented."
For more information about Darchuk and Wheyward Spirit, check out Inc. Magazine's profile and video series.
Photo courtesy of Kathryn Elsesser