Adopting Two Boys From Ukraine Inspired Her Idea for a Business–and an Even More Ambitious Venture

Danielle Dietz-LiVolsi.
Danielle Dietz-LiVolsi. Photo: NuttZo.

In the early 2000s, Danielle Dietz-LiVolsi had a good life and a steady job managing ad sales at a San Diego radio station, but found herself haunted by a single television news show she’d seen years earlier.

It was a 1990 episode of 20/20, detailing the horrors at a Romanian orphanage. “It really got under my skin. It changed everything,” say Dietz-LiVolsi, now 53. Not only would watching the show transform her personal life, but over the next several years it would lead her to embark on an unexpected dual career in entrepreneurship and philanthropy.

She left her job and pursued adopting a child from Romania. Strict laws in the country barred most international adoptions, though, so Dietz-LiVolsi and her husband, Kevin, traveled to neighboring Ukraine and adopted two boys within two years. One of them had trouble gaining weight, and adjusting to a solid diet. Dietz-LiVolsi, who says she grew up eating Jif creamy peanut butter by the spoonful, had an idea.

“What if I take peanuts and add a bunch of different nuts and seeds, and make a complete protein? I could put it onto a banana,” she says. “He loved it. I wondered why there wasn’t a nut-and-seed butter out there on the market.”

Within a few years she changed that, in 2008 launching NuttZo, a nutrient-dense nut-and-seed butter and snack-bar company based in San Diego. With ketogenic diets becoming in vogue, it launched into a suddenly crowding market–high-end nut-butter company Justin’s debuted in 2004, and Yumbutters was soon to launch in 2010. Dietz-LiVolsi’s sales and marketing experience served the brand well, though: Within a year her products had debuted in local natural foods store Jimbo’s, and soon were in many California Whole Foods locations.

Today, although NuttZo has just eight full-time employees, it sells products at 7,500 stores across the United States and Canada, and is working on expanding internationally. Dietz-LiVolsi would not disclose the company’s revenue, but from the very start she had a vision for what to do with some of the proceeds once the business got its footing. Also in 2008, she and Kevin launched a separate venture, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit called Project Left Behind, which would use donations to fund children’s homes and educational opportunities for kids in need in communities around the globe.

The two entities would be financially separate, with the nonprofit soliciting outside donations, and the for-profit NuttZo taking most of Dietz-LiVolsi’s time, but their missions would be melded. On every jar of nut-seed butter would be mentions of Project Left Behind–and many employees of NuttZo would volunteer their skills and services, both on company time and outside it, to help build and maintain Project Left Behind.

To date, NuttZo has given $250,000 to Project Left Behind, which has sponsored three children’s homes to facilitate their education, daily living activities, and nutrition. Two of those were in Nepal and India, while the charity’s current focus is Hogar Semillas de Jesus, in Urubamba, Peru. It’s a weekday home for indigenous children whose families live in remote regions of the high Andes, and allows them to attend nearby school and still return to their families and local cultures on weekends.

The Covid-19 pandemic nearly halted Dietz-LiVolsi’s plans to expand Project Left Behind’s giving efforts to other children’s educational projects in disadvantaged communities. She didn’t feel safe traveling abroad to meet caretakers and tour facilities–a big problem since it’s in Project Left Behind’s mission to ensure that 100 percent of every donation goes directly to aiding disadvantaged children’s health and education. She is hoping to travel, possibly with some of the NuttZo staff, to Peru this fall to witness some of the Hogar Semillas de Jesus students graduate elementary school, and see one graduate culinary school.

Most recently, Dietz-LiVolsi’s attention has turned back to Ukraine, as the invasion by Russian forces intensifies. She’s been searching for ways to directly help children in shelters or orphanages there, but is encountering barriers. She’s been in touch with logistics companies in an attempt to get supplies to some of the country’s estimated 100,000 orphans–but with border-crossing becoming dicey and airspace locked down, those organizations aren’t certain they can even get into Ukraine. “I’m getting really concerned about the kids there–because they aren’t getting out,” she says.

Silicon Valley and U.S. startups’ donation efforts in Ukraine have been accelerating in recent days, with Amazon pledging up to $10 million to organizations providing support in the besieged nation. Kids’ clothing startup Primary pledged $25,000 to Unicef for on-the-ground support of children. Others are simply providing their services: is waiving money-transfer fees to Ukraine, and Vodafone and SpaceX are providing no-cost data and satellite internet services.