AKRON, Ohio — Anyone who’s ever tried a low-carb, high-protein keto diet likely knows how difficult it can be to enjoy a tasty treat without blowing your diet. Especially if you’re vegan, which means no dairy.

That’s how Denise Williams, a data tech by day, became an entrepreneur who not only is developing plant-based ice cream, but is catering to the needs of people with all kinds of dietary restrictions.

What You Need To Know

  • Data tech professional Denise Williams is developing plant-based ice cream for people with dietary restrictions

  • Williams won Bounce’s ‘Life’s a Pitch’ competition after participating in the Mortar business accelerator

  • During the pandemic, Williams experimented with hemp seed, monk fruit and other ingredients to create healthy ice cream

  • Diva de la Creme plant-based ice creams could be available at local farmer markets this summer

With her new company, Diva de la Crème, Williams wants to ensure her products are made with healthy ingredients, she said, right down to the sweetener.

She’s definitely onto something — Williams won $3,000 in Bounce’s "Life’s a Pitch" competition after participating in the 15-week Mortar business accelerator.

Bounce, Akron’s hub for innovation, supports startups of all kinds, helping the entrepreneurs learn and grow their businesses through mentors, classes and competitions. The goal is to strengthen the local economy and create jobs.

Diva de la Crème is plant-based ice cream. (Courtesy of Denise Williams)

Mortar is designed for established entrepreneurs, specifically minority- and women-owned businesses, helping them better grasp the nuances of business ownership so they can grow.

Williams said making ice cream is not much of a departure from Tech Diva Consulting, her existing business.

“It's the same type of principles with experimentation that you use in regular science,” she said. “You add different ingredients together and you see what the experiment is going to yield; if whatever you do will be something that tastes good. Sometimes it doesn't.”

But Williams didn’t set out to start another company, she said.

Stuck at home, like many during the pandemic, Williams was unaccustomed to not being busy — she teaches data tech at Cuyahoga Community College in addition to running her tech-consulting business.

At home, Williams became focused on her health and tried a program that included a keto diet. She ended up losing about 60 pounds in five months, she said, but because she is vegan, she was highly disappointed she couldn’t find a suitable healthy sweet-treat.

Denise Williams wants to ensure her products are made with healthy ingredients, down to the sweetener. (Courtesy of Denise Williams)

Williams tried her hand at creating one, drawing from a childhood spent learning culinary skills from her mom and grandma.

“That's where my learner kicked in,” she said. “I started doing these massive studies, reading all about dairy-free ice cream production and the science of plant-based ice cream.”

Better-quality, plant-based vegan ice cream tastes great and is good for you, she said. But even though they substitute dairy with almond milk or coconut milk, the products still contain extra sugar fillers.

“I would love to create something that doesn't do that,” she said. “That's more health conscious so people who want to indulge can and not feel guilty about after they ate it, like, ‘Oh. This has got sugar in it.’”

Because her mom is lactose intolerant and her dad diabetic, Williams also wanted to create something they could enjoy, she said.

She experimented with hemp seed to make the product creamy and monk fruit rather than sugar. She used her food processer to mix up batch after batch of ice cream, relying on her two grown sons as taste testers.

“They were really good subjects because of course, I can say, ‘Does this actually taste good to you?’ and they weren't gonna lie,” she said.

After honing in on a couple recipes with ingredients she was happy with, Williams developed a business plan and gathered the other elements she needed to enter Bounce’s Mortar program. The program opened her eyes to the many resources available to her in the Greater Akron community, she said.

As part of Mortar, Williams also received professional assistance from accountants at Cleveland-based Pease & Associates to help her calculate financial projections for Diva de la Crème, she said. She also got help with a marketing plan, designing labelling and securing licenses.

“I've been trying to source more funding, and also be strategic and open-minded about what really the journey takes, you know. It's kind of the ebb and flow of entrepreneurship,” she said. “People don't realize all that backstory work that goes into that. You don't just have an idea and then suddenly, you have a business.”

Williams is still in her research and development phase as well, she said, creating recipes and establishing nutritional analyses for the various recipes.

She secured kitchen space at Akron Food Works, a commercial kitchen, an incubator for food businesses, located at The Well Community Development Corp. in Akron’s Middlebury neighborhood.

While the products are still under testing, Diva de la Crème has three product lines. Her almond- and hemp-based chocolate and vanilla ice cream, and hemp-based chocolate-hazel nut and vanilla pecan caramel are fairly complete, she said.

She’s also working on alcohol-infused ice cream, experimenting with tequila, bourbon and other spirits. Boozy ice cream is already available on the coasts and will come to Ohio markets soon, Williams said.

If all goes as planned, ice cream lovers could see Diva de la Crème products at local farmers' markets this summer, she said.

Williams would like to help people get back into the habit of knowing where their food comes from and eating high-quality food, she said. That goes hand-in-hand with the ways people experiment to lose weight.

“The goal is to really help people individualize their health journey and what that means nutrition-wise,” she said. “Everything doesn’t work for everybody.”