While May marks the annual celebration of Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, this year’s commemoration takes on perhaps even more significance because of what the community continues to endure during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, while unfortunate circumstances may have led to a brighter light being cast on the AAPI community, The Balance aims to focus on the success stories of founders across regions and industries who’ve faced their own set of challenges and persevered—all the while maintaining their cultural roots and heritage. These are their experiences.
For Alessandro Roco, the sameness of sparkling water brands and lack of Asian representation on grocery store shelves was enough to compel the 31-year-old to kickstart his own New York City-based beverage company, Sanzo. However, the path that led Roco to entrepreneurship was somewhat unorthodox, as he started his career by putting his chemical engineering degree to work for a nuclear power company before eventually dealing in credit default swaps on the trading floor at J.P. Morgan.
According to Roco, though, his past professional experiences have all played a role in how he operates Sanzo. In a recent interview with The Balance, the founder spoke about why this is, what inspired his business, the underserved market it addresses, and offered advice for budding AAPI entrepreneurs.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You've said that Sanzo is a celebration of Asian flavors, so what does that mean?
The gist of why we even started the brand in the first place was because I was working at a technology company, and our fridges were stocked with La Croix and other private-label sparkling water brands. But all of the flavors were the same exact lemon, lime, and grapefruit varieties. I was like, "There's got to be space here on our shelf for other flavors that just aren't these basic lemon and lime." That's where the idea started from.
But from the AAPI perspective, I feel like especially being Filipino American, a lot of the, I'll say, Asian juice, drinks, or sodas that I'd had like Wild Delicious just weren't things that I was drinking as much in my adulthood. I'm a little bit more health-conscious, and don't want to be drinking as much sugar. I had a feeling that maybe other folks felt the same way. There's just this whole world of flavors that are out there, and we're highlighting Asian flavors through a beverage. That was the real genesis of the inspiration.
You once said Asian beverages have been relegated to a small aisle In the grocery store for the most part. Have you seen any change since you started Sanzo?
We've been fortunate. I think part of it might be the fact that it's a relatively simple offering. We're sparkling water with fruit juice in it, so I don't want to overcomplicate what we're doing. But two of our main retail partners are Whole Foods and Erewhon, and we are on their main beverage shelf. We're not in the ethnic aisle, the international aisle, or whatever other names are given.
Fortunately, we have buyers, the people who make the decisions to place what products on which shelves, that are willing to take a chance. They have been open to giving us the “mainstream” locations that are more highly trafficked.
But then frankly more importantly, we're staying on these shelves because customers are pulling it off them. It's high time the sparkling water category has more flavors in it, but also specifically Asian flavors. In consumer packaged goods for the most part, folks are judging by the cover, and we've been fortunate that our packaging has resonated with a lot of folks.
Growing up in Filipino culture, did that inspire this specific beverage or career decisions?
It's a combination of things. So I am Filipino on both sides, born in Queens, but also raised entirely in New Jersey and in a neighborhood where we were among the first Filipino families. I feel like that upbringing definitely helped shape Sanzo, even the packaging. Over the last five to seven years being in New York City, I definitely have been tapping a lot further into my identity as an Asian American than I probably ever had before, from cuisine, to music, TV, and film.
With Sanzo, it was very much from the idea that a lot of my friends have perhaps never had these flavors. So how do I make sure that from a packaging and from a formulation standpoint, this is accessible enough, where folks will not have to think too much about it and just be like, let’s try it out. And hopefully the quality of the product itself would get them hooked.
You've had a very wide-ranging career, from J.P. Morgan to nuclear energy. How did any of those past experiences inform your Sanzo business?
As recently as three years ago, before I started the brand, I would have told you that I didn't think there'd be anything that could ever actually mesh all three—especially the engineering side, which I had waved bye-bye to a while ago. It turns out all three have actually been quite helpful in this industry. The engineering experience has definitely helped me communicate pretty well with the supply and manufacturing folks. We don't manufacture our own beverages. We contract that out to third-party services, so having those kinds of conversations with a degree in chemical engineering has been helpful.
And then certainly the finance and startup experience played a direct role—specifically in beverage. It takes a balance of both growth and margin control to make sure you have control over your business as it's scaling. In my time in finance, it was understanding the [profit and loss] side, for example. And on the operating side at my last startup—which was in apparel so still in physical goods, it was learning about manufacturing. I don't know that I would have gotten this far, this quickly, had it not been for those experiences.
Was there a defining moment or career achievement that you're proudest of?
The ability to start paying myself to do this. For nearly the first two years, I really wasn't taking a salary. And I really poured a lot of the savings that I'd gotten from my time in banking and at the startup to seeing this take off. Getting this off the ground is something I still pinch myself over every day. The idea that I get to wake up and be able to sustain some level of living in a city like New York while pursuing a brand, a company that had just been in my head. And I don't take that lightly, especially as a son of immigrants. My parents came here specifically so that I could have an opportunity like this.
They would never put that pressure on me, and if anything, I put it on myself. [About my parents], I thought you came here, you sacrificed a lot. You traveled halfway across the world to give my brothers and me the opportunity to choose to do something like this. And I don't want to throw it away.
What would you say to AAPI individuals who are trying to get their own businesses off the ground, and maybe unsure of the next steps?
I have found that for the most part, entrepreneurs, or aspiring ones, tend to spend a little too much time in their own head, as opposed to building and testing and getting feedback because it's easier to be in your own head. It's much harder to get customer feedback and have them potentially reject it.
But getting over that is probably one of the biggest things that I would tell any aspiring entrepreneurs. And then in a similar vein, let's say you don't know where to go. Basically, what I have found is that folks actually tend to be a lot more collaborative than they’re given credit for. So for me, it's been finding other like-minded folks. And you would imagine, especially with beverages, it is very competitive because it's fixed shelf space.
But at the same time, even amid all that competition, it's still super-collaborative. Everyone still wants to see each other win. We're all going for the bigger player. We want to take down Coca-Cola or Pepsi or maybe be acquired by one of them. So in order to do that, you do need to work in concert to some degree. I'd say for the person who is super-stuck and doesn't know where to begin, just begin. And then for the person who has been going, but doesn't know where to go, I have found that you just need to externalize it. Talk to other folks who are in your same position, a founder or someone who's been in this situation before. I just find those kinds of conversations often spur some kind of thought of like, oh, OK, maybe I'll try this out. It's kind of simple.
So circling back to AAPI Heritage Month, what does it mean to you?
There's obviously been a lot of bad in the world. I think every AAPI sub-community has in some way felt the racism that has persisted throughout the last year.
At the same time though, we as a brand, as a company, as a team, what I always try to tell our folks is just we want to stay on the optimistic side of it. Sanzo could not have existed five to 10 years ago if it hadn't been for the work that was being done by the [AAPIs] that enabled us to exist now. Let's not forget that progress has been made, and we should celebrate that.
It's important to just stay in that mental state. Obviously we have to be attuned to and give proper justice to what's going on in the world. But also, I don't want us to get lost in that. I just think there's so much good out there that if we just get lost or mired in the negativity, it can be self-defeating.