How Suffolk University is responding
to the coronavirus outbreak
Story by Kara Baskin
Photograph by Jeffrey Danford
Jibran Malek is intent on disrupting what he calls “the pet food industrial complex.”
“We want to go toe-to-toe with Purina and Meow Mix,” says Malek, the director of partnerships at Smalls, a direct-to-consumer e-commerce cat food startup. “We specialize in human-grade, fresh food, the closest thing to nature a cat can eat. We believe pets have a consciousness and a humanity that is on par with us, and we want to make sure people treat cats on that equal level.”
Smalls makes and sells all-natural, preservative-free— and delicious, if Malek does say so—feline cuisine. It offers filler-free food such as lean ground beef with cow heart, turkey, and chicken liver. The food is available in smooth or ground mouth feels, depending on a cat’s finicky preferences. It’s flash-frozen to lock in protein and shipped to customers on a subscription basis, much like Blue Apron or HelloFresh for humans.
Malek, BS ’14, a 2015 Suffolk 10 Under 10 alumni honoree, was initially headed for law school. But he detoured into startups after Suffolk’s career counselors connected him with an internship at the Progressive Business Leaders Network (now the Alliance for Business Leadership), a coalition of leaders focused on economic inequality and social mobility. An internship with MassChallenge began with policy research, but quickly morphed into handling their social media and marketing full-time, a role he balanced with his studies.
“This opened up my entire career in innovation and in startups, all basically because Suffolk University gave me a push,” he says. “Going to a school in the middle of the city really helped me in terms of being available to break into Boston innovation.”
As his internship grew into a full-time position, professors were accommodating, understanding how much the career path meant to him. His ambition hasn’t faltered, although now he’s focused on four-legged clients.
Malek and his company recently spearheaded a rescue partnership program with 15 nonprofits to provide free cat food to new pet owners. The partnership was especially important during the pandemic, when adoptions among shelter pets increased. He built relationships with animal adoption agencies, ensuring adoptees had access to healthy food.
For Malek, the kind of animal aficionado who rescues cats off the street, his job seems, well, purr-fect.
“I just feel really close to animals, and I’ve always cared about animal welfare,” he says. “I can talk about cats, work with really incredible people, and build really cool relationships with nonprofits and expand that vision. It’s been really empowering.”