How J.J. and wife Catherine are preventing childhood food allergies one puff snack at a time
Enterpreneurs share many common attributes – they’re innovative, tenacious, passionate, creative. But social entrepreneurs have something extra – they want to make the world a better place.
When J.J. Jaxon was named a Coca-Cola Scholar as a high school senior in 1994, he didn’t plan to be an entrepreneur. After college and a fellowship, he instead began a career as an investment banker. Twenty years later, he left banking behind with a new mission: to eliminate childhood food allergies.
Read in his own words how after learning their daughter’s nut allergy might have been prevented, J.J. and Catherine Jaxon worked together with one of the world’s leading pediatric allergists, Dr. Gideon Lack, to create Mission MightyMe, puff snacks that could put a significant dent in the childhood food allergy epidemic.
What is Mission MightyMe?
Mission MightyMe is a revolutionary food company that makes it simple (and delicious) to follow new pediatric guidelines for preventing peanut allergy by including peanut in babies’ diets early and often.
We founded the company with Dr. Gideon Lack, whose groundbreaking food allergy prevention research (the LEAP Study) has revolutionized pediatric feeding guidelines around the globe. We’re on a mission to end the food allergy epidemic.
What inspired its creation?
When our first child was born, the prevailing pediatric guidance was to not feed babies any common food allergens – like nuts – in infancy. We followed that guidance, but when she had her first walnut at three years old, she had a terrible allergic reaction. She’s allergic to most nuts now, and likely will be for life.
Our third child was born the same year the LEAP Study was published, which showed that children who avoided peanut (like we had done with our daughter) were 5 times more likely to develop peanut allergy than those who had peanut in their diets early and often. And in fact, the rate of nut allergies tripled over the 20 years after the avoidance guidelines were put in place. So the LEAP Study was a game-changer!
We were frustrated that we didn’t know about prevention when our oldest was born, but very hopeful that there was now something we could do proactively to help prevent our newborn from developing a food allergy. And it seemed so simple – just feed babies food! But in practice, it was really difficult, because nuts and nut butters are a choking hazard for babies…and the entire baby food industry is peanut and tree nut free.
So, we partnered with the lead doctor on the LEAP Study and together we’re making the very foods we wished we’d had when our own children were babies.
What is life like for a child with a food allergy and their family?
It can be hard. Every snack, meal, and certainly anything outside of their home can become a field of landmines to navigate instead of an occasion to enjoy.
Imagine what it would be like to feel some level of fear every time you ate something. Food is so communal and is often what brings us together, but for kids with severe food allergies, they can feel constant exclusion and fear.
Do you remember when you first found out about her allergy? How did you feel?
I remember it very well. We were shocked. It wasn’t even on our radar as something to be concerned about and it was scary because some food allergies can be life-threatening.
I once heard a mother compare seeing a child have an anaphylactic reaction to watching them drown and not being able to stop it. It’s a helpless feeling and my heart goes out to any parent who has experienced it.
What made you take the leap from managing your daughter’s allergy to launching this company and formulating this product?
Three things sprung us into action.
First of all, when the LEAP Study came out in 2015, it made so much sense to us. It showed the world that there’s a magic window in infancy, before food allergies develop, when the immune system in children can be taught to tolerate a food rather than fight it.
Secondly, we were drawn to how simple it should be to feed babies these foods, yet so frustrated by how difficult it was, because there were no baby-friendly foods on the market to help parents do it.
And then finally, we knew from our own experience as a food allergy family that food allergies are an enormous problem. Did you know that 1 out of every 13 kids in the US today has a food allergy? How crazy is that? As a food allergy family, we felt uniquely positioned to do something about it, so it became our family’s mission and we haven’t looked back since.
How did you and your family feel when taking that leap?
Honestly, it was daunting. We wrestled with a lot of uncertainty and it was a true start from scratch situation in every aspect. But we really believed in it and we received a lot of encouragement from friends and family to give it a shot.
When Dr. Lack, the author of the LEAP Study, said he wanted to partner with us, we knew it was what we were supposed to do. Nothing about it has been easy, but the mission keeps us going.
What was most surprising to you when trying to find a solution to this problem?
The most surprising thing was just how difficult it was to make the product we wanted. There are plenty of manufacturers with the capability to do it and who also believe in the mission. But, because most big food companies require manufacturing facilities to be completely peanut-free, very few manufacturers could even bring a peanut in their facility without giving up huge contracts. That was hard.
Have you encountered any obstacles along the way? If so, how have you overcome (or working to overcome) them?
We have encountered tons of obstacles! We are going against the grain of the entire baby food industry and the food ecosystem, so while almost 100% of people in the industry that we talk with believe what we are doing is right and good, nothing we are doing fits comfortably inside anyone’s box. Manufacturing, supply chain, shelf placement, marketing – it’s all full of unique obstacles for us.
As a result, however, we’ve had to find the most imaginative, resourceful, and entrepreneurial people in the industry and we could not be more proud of and excited about our team and partners!
Throughout your journey creating Mission MightyMe, is there a particular moment or memory that stands out for you?
There are so many moments that stand out, but one in particular was the first time we ever talked in front of a big group about our mission. We were probably a year and a half into our work, but well before we had a product.
We competed in the Plywood Presents Big Ideas Competition for social good companies in front of a panel of judges and over 1,000 people in the audience. We were pretty nervous and worried that people might think we had lost our minds. But I remember thinking that if sharing our story in front of all those people helped even one person prevent a food allergy from developing in their children, it would be worth it.
What change do you hope this will create in the world?
Our mission is to help raise an entire generation of kids one day that is free of the danger and burden of food allergies.
How has this changed you and your family?
Personally, it’s introduced me to a depth and understanding of both mission and entrepreneurial work that I haven’t experienced before. I have so much respect for entrepreneurs, anyone who has started something from scratch, and people who are using business as a force for good.
It’s also the first time I’ve ever worked with my wife, Catherine, and getting to be with her in the trenches and see her work has been incredible. It’s just further deepened my respect for her and has been really good for us.
We also hope this journey will encourage our kids to follow their ideas, be willing to take risk when they believe in something, and try to make an impact.
What does being a Coca-Cola Scholar mean to you?
Well, first of all, it means I’ve been really lucky. The numbers and probabilities of it are nearly baffling. So, for me, it’s almost inconceivable that I earned it. It’s more like a responsibility that was placed on me, for whatever reason, and the question is whether I will use it and all my life experience behind me and in front of me as a force for good. I don’t mean that in a pressure-filled way, like we all have to become martyrs for good, but more as an opportunity that I hope to be proud of one day. I just want to leave it all a little better than I found it.
How has it impacted your life?
Well, the scholarship itself helped me go to the school that I thought would fit me best. But maybe even more importantly for the long-run, it helped instill a confidence that, despite growing up in a really small town, I could go and compete on any level.
What makes the Coca-Cola Scholar program and family unique?
It’s the people. I’m so inspired by what everyone is doing – from the bright-eyed high schoolers heading off to college all the way up to alumni from some of the original Scholar classes. There’s a hope and optimism that is pervasive (and contagious) amongst everyone. I’m just inspired by it all. That’s also largely in part to the foresight of the leadership team to make the Coca-Cola Scholars Program scholarship about much more than money, and the work they do every day to inspire connectivity and advancement for all of us.
J.J. Jaxon is Co-Founder & Co-CEO of Mission MightyMe, a revolutionary food company that makes it simple to follow new pediatric guidelines for preventing food allergies in children. J.J. and his wife, Catherine, founded Mission MightyMe with world-renowned pediatric allergist Dr. Gideon Lack, whose research (the LEAP Study) discovered that peanut allergies can be prevented in children. The company is based on Dr. Lack’s research combined with the Jaxon’s personal experience having a daughter with food allergies and their difficulty trying to prevent food allergies from developing in their son. Prior to Mission MightyMe, J.J. spent more than 20 years in investment banking in New York and private equity investing in Atlanta. J.J. believes strongly in business as a force for good and spends time helping and learning from other businesses and nonprofits in the social good arena. J.J. and Catherine have three children and live in Atlanta.
The Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation celebrates and empowers visionary leaders who are refreshing the world. With its 32nd class of Coca-Cola Scholars, the Foundation has provided more than $72 million in scholarships to over 6,300 program alumni who together have become a powerful force for positive change.