Leadership Network member turning reject cherries into winning desserts

Read about how Leadership Network member Cleo Gilmour and three friends founded their award-winning start-up turning unwanted cherries (and now blackcurrants and kiwifruit) into delicious desserts.
Cleo holding packs of her dessert Lilo

 Cleo displaying Lilo Desserts' cherry, kiwifruit and currant puddings

Kiwi travellers overseas are familiar with being far from home and having people exclaim “the All Blacks!” or “Lord of the Rings!” upon hearing a mention of New Zealand.

But when Cleo Gilmour would introduce herself during her “OE” in Taiwan, she remembers that spark of recognition as people said “New Zealand – cherries!”.

Taiwan and China are by far the largest export markets for New Zealand cherries – during Chinese New Year, demand is virtually insatiable.

But, having grown up in Otago, Cleo understood one extreme weather event can devastate a cherry orchard’s harvest, and saw an opportunity.

With some outside-the-box thinking and a heap of marketing and branding nous, Cleo (along with three friends) began Lilo Desserts.

Earlier this year Cleo attended the Foundation's reunion for former business interns

Earlier this year, the company’s plant-based cheesecake, made using cherries that would otherwise have been thrown out because of imperfections, won the start-up category at Foodstarter, New Zealand’s biggest food innovation competition.

In May, Cleo joined an Asia New Zealand Foundation delegation at E-Tipu, a national agri-summit bringing together representatives of the primary industries.

She admits being slightly wary it may have been a tough crowd for a businesswomen touting a cheesecake without a whiff of dairy in it.

She needn’t have worried – movers and shakers in New Zealand’s primary industries are increasingly innovative, and focused on sustainability, she says.

Lilo Desserts sits well in an industry that is needing to redefine itself and starting to do so.

It’s no-longer enough for a Kiwi product to rely on “being-from-New-Zealand” as its unique selling point offshore, Cleo says.

“Chinese consumers have the world’s products at their fingertips, so I think it’s key to know what value your product brings to their lives.

New Zealand’s always been good at selling primary produce, but markets are moving towards value-added products, Cleo says.

“Living in China, I saw so much innovation, I saw how fast food moves, and all the value-add opportunities.”

Lilo Desserts is a good example – taking a primary produce like cherries (and now blackcurrants and kiwifruit) and reimagining it. 

“It’s the New Zealand food story, but we’re doing it in a funky, collaborative way.

“I think collaboration between New Zealand brands is a really good space to be in.

“We’re tiny little drops in a big ocean, so banding together is always a good idea.”

As a young adult, Cleo says she knew she wanted to carve out a life where she had “one foot in and one foot out” of New Zealand.

“I’d always been quite typically Euro-focused, thinking I’d do an OE in the UK or go live in Europe.”

Instead, Cleo’s first-taste of life offshore was as a student in Taiwan, where she studied Chinese for nine months.

“Taiwan was just fantastic for how fast-paced it was, how much innovation was going on there, people trying new things, the different opportunities.

“It was really somewhere where you felt: New Zealand is in such a lucky position.

“It opened my eyes up to Asia and the possibilities that are there.”

Her next trip: Shanghai, where Cleo took up an Asia New Zealand Foundation internship with United Media Solutions (UMS), a Chinese digital marketing company.

Cleo standing with cloud-covered mountains behind her

Cleo: “Living in China, I saw so much innovation, I saw how fast food moves, and all the value-add opportunities.”

Marketing global brands online forced Cleo to navigate local digital culture, apps her work colleagues relied on daily, and that helped her as an outsider make the most of life in China.

“Once you can open up and learn to work the system, you can never be bored.”

Cleo returned to New Zealand to complete a law degree, before returning to Shanghai and UMS to work for a big chunk of 2020.

“China is this awesome place but is not life as I know it in New Zealand, and sometimes that can be so challenging. 

One of her best lessons: Things aren’t necessarily wrong they’re just different.

“You go with what you know of the world and your experiences as your status quo. And I think it’s good to have that status quo challenged.

“That’s so often where the cool innovation comes from.”