A Life Making Ice Cream & Defying the Status Quo: Robyn Sue Fisher at TEDxStanford (Transcript)

Robyn Sue Fisher – TRANSCRIPT

So September 27th, 2009, I parked my wagon on a grassy knoll in Precita Park in San Francisco. On that wagon, sat a milk crate; bungee-corded to that milk crate was the ice-cream machine I’d spent the last two years designing, inventing, and developing. Under the milk crate was a battery pack I built out of an old motorcycle battery, rewired and reconfigured to power that ice cream machine for about four hours on the streets.

To the right of the wagons, sat a tank of liquid nitrogen, and to the left of the wagon, was my cooler, which held the fresh ingredients of the day. I picked up my phone, and I scrolled over to the Twitter app, I tweeted my location, the flavour of the day, and it ended with: “Come and get it before I sell out, or before the cops come.”

Two years after I graduated from this place, from Stanford Graduate School of Business, that was my life. Soon thereafter, I went to our reunion at Stanford GSB. I was talking to a classmate and she’d asked me: “So what are you up to?” and I said, “Quite honestly, I’m selling ice cream on the street.”

And another classmate, who’d partially overheard us, came over and said, “Oh, you’re in Wall Street.” Now that, that was the moment I realized just how far off of the beaten track I had gotten. So how on earth did I get there, you guys? Well, it’s a long story, but I’ll do my best to tell it in about 9.5 minutes. So, let’s rewind. I was four. My twin brother was on a hunger strike because I was rushed to the hospital for an emergency surgery, and he and I were both absolutely terrified.

To make a long story short, I was physically fine but psychologically scarred because at four, I learned what most people don’t learn until they’re a lot older: that my parents couldn’t keep me safe forever, that there are so many unknowns in this world and in this universe, and most of them are unsolvable. And my mind’s energy when I was a kid spent a lot of time actually trying to solve those unsolvable things and focusing on the “what-if’s” that often consumed me.

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So I found myself grasping onto the things that made me feel connected with the present, and that had the promise of joy, even if joy was only momentary. Naturally, one of those things was ice cream! My mom used to tell me that she and I both had two stomachs, and one of those stomachs was solely reserved for ice cream. I still believe that by the way. I also fell in love with sports at an early age. Not only am I a very very very competitive person – just ask my family – but I also loved the feeling of being in the zone when everything else melted away, except what was right in front of me.

But the thing about sports is that unless you’re good enough to become a professional, and unfortunately I wasn’t because I was too scrawny, unless you’re good enough, sports naturally come to an end. So after college, I found myself in the corporate world, and candidly, in the corporate world, I felt lost and empty. So my mind brought me back to ice cream. If you think about it, ice cream is all about being in the present, and indulging in that moment, and making it the best it possibly can be. In contrast, think about frozen yogurt for a second.

Now, frozen yogurt is all about over-analyzing and sacrificing joy in the present. But ice cream is about the here and the now. Yes! So I came to Stanford GSB, and I dove headfirst into entrepreneurship classes, and I focused on ice cream. I started looking at the back of ice cream cartons. I was surprised at what I found. There were all these ingredients that I could barely pronounce: emulsifiers and preservatives and stabilizers. And I realized: “Holy shit!” Excuse my language, but holy shit! Ice cream is not about the present anymore. It’s being tarnished and contaminated, for shelf-life concerns. It’s not about taste anymore. This was sacrilegious in my world. This was blasphemy! I needed to restore order to the universe!

I also started becoming a super nerd on ice cream. I studied the science behind it, and a lot of the science of ice cream comes down to ice crystal formation. The gist is that the faster you freeze ice cream, the smaller the ice crystal can be, because it doesn’t have time to grow. And the smaller the ice crystal is, the smoother the texture can be. [The science behind ice cream (Let’s get a little nerdy!)] Enter liquid nitrogen! [Why LN2? Because it’s so damn cold!] Cold, check that box. Liquid nitrogen is actually negative 321 degrees Fahrenheit. So I had this “Aha!” moment: if I could freeze ice cream that cold, then I could freeze it so fast that I could actually freeze it to order in about 90 seconds, and if I could freeze ice cream to order, then I could throw all of those extra ingredients out the window and not worry about shelf life. I could make ice cream about the present again.

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So naturally, I started tinkering in my backyard. I started renting a tank of liquid nitrogen from the local welding shop, and I bought a bunch of parts off Craigslist, filters, old mixing parts, and duct-taped them together. Duct tape is my favorite tool. I’d duct-tape them together; I started making ice cream for anyone who would eat it. I even catered a friend’s wedding and business school. And I learned that it’s actually really, really easy to make ice cream with liquid nitrogen.

Unfortunately, it’s really hard to make it well. And why is that? It’s because liquid nitrogen is so so cold, that everything actually just wants to stick together, and it’s really easy to form ice balls and it freezes very inconsistently. So I graduated from Stanford GSB, without a job, and I told my parents, “I am going to build a machine that perfects this art of making ice cream with liquid nitrogen.” They probably thought I was quite mad, but luckily they’re very supportive and never told me that.

So I spent the next two years in a basement workshop, building prototype, after prototype, after prototype. And unfortunately, all those prototypes failed because they did not make ice cream that was any better than what was out on the market. And we set our bar incredibly high. It had to be the best. Those two years, honestly, were filled with so much blood, sweat, and tears, and by blood, sweat, tears, I mean blood, sweat, and tears.

But finally, we had a breakthrough. We realized that we needed something that scraped every surface of itself, so that all particles of the ice cream were in motion at all times, so that nothing could stick. We developed the set of double helical beaters that not only when they were moving in a downward motion, they not only scraped every surface of themselves, but they also compressed the ice cream into itself to turn in an exceptionally small ice crystal.

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We built our first prototype out of two clothes hangers, and then we welded it up and we built the rest of the machine around that interaction. That has now become a patented piece of double helical beaters, and we also started developing software that actually sensed viscosity, so the machine can actually stop when the ice cream is the perfect texture. I named this machine Brrr, B-R-R-R, and I became the first-ever Brrrista! And I started writing patents in my spare time. And yippee-ki-yay and hallelujah! I could make the best ice cream in the world! It was the freshest, it was the purest, it was the smoothest!

But timing is everything. And it was 2009! Do you guys remember 2009? It was not the best time to start an ice cream company. It was probably not the best time to start any company. So I had to get creative. I needed something that was inexpensive, because at that point, I was pretty much broke. I needed to carry a heavy load, and I really wanted it to be associated with old-fashioned nostalgic and purity. The Radio Flyer wagon was the perfect vehicle to carry my Brrr machine. I named my company Smitten, because similarly, smitten is a word that is all about joy and the present. And this brings me back to that day on the grassy knoll, the first time I ever served ice cream on a street.

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