Edit: Due to unforeseen schedule changes, Will Rosenzweig can no longer speak at this year’s fest. We are looking to schedule him in the future.
William Rosenzweig, Dean and Executive Director of The Food Business School, at The Culinary Institute of America, has spent his career as an educator, entrepreneur, and venture investor. Will was founding CEO of The Republic of Tea, the company that created the premium tea category in the U.S. He is co-author of “The Republic of Tea, How an Idea Becomes a Business,” named one of the ten best business books of all time. He is managing partner of Physic Ventures, the first venture capital firm to focus on health and sustainable living. As Dean and Executive Director of The Food Business School, Will works with industry experts and academic leaders to create experiential educational programs that enable entrepreneurs and innovators to deliver impactful solutions to address the world’s most pressing food challenges—and its greatest business opportunities.
What’s one thing anyone can do to help the good food movement?
As ‘eaters’, we can become more aware of how the food choices we make in our daily lives impact local and global food-systems at large. We can become more intentional in our eating decisions. Ideally, the values we hold to be integral to our lives–to be happy and healthy and (hopefully) wise–would be reflected in the food-related actions we take. Right now, most of us participate automatically and habitually in a very opaque food system. We don’t really know how or where our food is grown or how it gets to us, or understand the implications of the growing and distribution practices we inadvertently participate in. Maybe we could become informed, active food “citizens” rather than unknowing, passive consumers. We need to be thinking and acting long-term, to preserve and protect safe and healthy food options for future generations. ‘Good’ food is ultimately our source of health and well-being.
There are tremendous challenges and changes afoot in the food system–challenges to healthfully feed a burgeoning global population in a sustainable manner on a warming planet. There are also rapid changes in science and consumer preferences that are driving rapid shifts in eating behaviors and consumption patterns. And of course, there are farmers and chefs and writers who are educating our minds, hearts and palates with wonderful ingredients, dishes and ideas for us to devour.
At The Food Business School, we help foodpreneurs leapfrog many common obstacles to success. We prepare entrepreneurs and innovators to develop winning plans and strategies, to recognize and anticipate obstacles and to resourcefully compete and win. We help young companies become more “investable” and more likely to succeed. We focus on the skillsets, toolsets and mindsets entrepreneurial leaders need to be successful in an incredibly competitive and dynamic marketplace.
We are intently focused on the design and growth of purpose-driven companies. The kinds of companies that win financially, and deliver meaningful social and environmental impact.
How has the environment for foodpreneurs changed since you founded your first purpose-driven food company, The Republic of Tea (TRoT), in 1992? What has stayed the same?
In 1990, when I began to draft the ‘Constitution’ for The Republic of Tea, the natural foods industry was in its infancy. Whole Foods was still a regional market and the distribution of healthier food was relegated to a highly fragmented set of specialty retail and gift type stores. Healthy food was on the cusp of merging with gourmet foods and there was a specific “specialty food” customer who was prepared to go out of their way and pay a premium for ‘healthier’ products
Also, the idea of “doing well and doing good” in business was very new at that time. We were at the earliest stages of entrepreneurs experimenting with business models and strategies to differentiate themselves through their values. Some notable organic and natural food companies borrowed values from the social and environmental movements of the 1960’s–like Ben and Jerry’s, Stonyfield Farms, Odwalla— and incorporated them into every aspect of the brand identities of their businesses.
There are several things that are very different now:
- Mission-driven food businesses have proven that they can compete and take significant market share from large traditional food brands. They do this by innovating with their products and processes and through the way they express their values in their business strategies and brand identities. These values-driven businesses create meaningful and loyal relationships with their customers, and as a result are worth more in the marketplace. “B Corporations”–which create a standard of excellence in terms of transparency and social and environmental responsibility– have become the industry standard for values-driven businesses.
- Consumers are much more attuned to issues related to health and sustainability in the food system. We now have incontrovertible scientific evidence that diet and nutrition are directly linked to an explosion of chronic disease and that industrial farming practices cause tremendous negative impacts to the earth and to climate change. Neither the burden of costs (and suffering) associated with diabetes and cardiovascular disease are sustainable. Nor are the climate and soil impacts from the way we’ve come to produce food during the past sixty years. People are waking up to the need to act responsibly and consciously in their eating and purchasing habits. And new companies are making it easier and effective for us to do this.
- There is substantially more capital available to new food businesses than there was 25 years ago. Almost all of the pioneers of the natural and organic food industry boot-strapped their businesses with small amounts of capital from friends and family for many, many years–until they reached proven thresholds of acceptance and success. The rule of thumb was that you generally needed to reach $10M in sales with $1M in profit before an institutional private equity investor would put money in a company. Today, the venture capital industry has become enamored with the possibility of food businesses delivering fast and extraordinary returns. There is also a new “class” of capital coming from values-focused “impact investors”—foundations and family offices providing patient capital with long-term financial expectations.
- Finally, technology is transforming every aspect of the food industry–particularly in the realms of production, processing, distribution and consumer experience. In the near future, we will also see increased understanding and application in the sciences—of human and soil biology and sequencing of the microbiome to catalyze a complete transformation of the field of nutrition and disease. It’s a very exciting time to be reinventing the food industry!
Part of the American entrepreneurial culture is that inexperienced young people start the business in their garage (or in our case, on the farm or in a rented kitchen). Of course, that notion is quite romantic, but most foodpreneurs (and entrepreneurs in all industries) fail. You started a school that trains prospective foodpreneurs – how are you changing the odds for your students?
The food business is very special. It is one place in the tech-driven mechanized world of industry where passion and purpose and deliciousness all come together. Food offers a unique and intimate gateway into people’s bodies and lives and souls. It has meaning and is a truly transformative place to work. It is an industry that comes with special responsibilities. It is very easy to get into the food business but exceptionally complex to scale up and be successful and sustainable.
Yet, the food business is different than other business sectors. It comes with complex safety and legal requirements and rapidly changing consumer behaviors and preferences. It is a field that combines many disciplines and as such has specialized opportunities for learning and business education.
I’m fascinated with the process of how to design new businesses to deliver both great financial results and meaningful social and environmental impact. I’m working on a “business model toolkit” for purpose-driven companies. Purpose can be expressed and operationalized in many ways: Through a company’s culture and practices, through its production processes, through its governance and the choice of investors. There is an emerging toolkit for this kind of mission-driven business model design that is not taught at conventional business schools. At FBS, we specifically focus on helping entrepreneurs design their businesses to deliver these special “both/and” results.
Besides my experiences as an entrepreneur at Republic of Tea, Odwalla and Brand New Brands, I’ve probably learned the most from my association with Revolution Foods. Revolution Foods is now the leading purveyor of healthy school lunches and nutritious family meals in the country-serving a million meals a week. It was started ten years ago by Kristin Richmond and Kirsten Tobey who developed the blueprint for the business in the Social Entrepreneurship courses I teach at UC Berkeley. They took a holistic, mission-driven approach to everything they’ve done. They have created an incredibly competitive and effective business that is built on a deep-rooted intention to make fresh, healthy, chef-crafted meals available to all kids and families. They work in a daunting world of small margins and intense logistical demands. They have created a business that has core values that serve not only as a moral compass of “how to do business” but also as an engine of competitive advantage. This approach to integrated “business design” is now core to everything we do at FBS.
At a traditional business school, the principles and strategies taught in courses like social entrepreneurship, corporate social responsibility and environmental sustainability are still offered as electives. At FBS, these principles are integrated into the core curriculum of every program we offer. We offer a special pathway for entrepreneurs to be learning in a very practical, action-oriented manner. We are experimenting and perfecting hybrid approaches to learning–in person and online, with lots of peer to peer interaction and connection to an expert network
We have started the first online mentor platform in the food industry. It has dozens of experts who generously give of their expertise and experience–people students wouldn’t otherwise have access to. The mentor platform lets our learners search for the type of expertise they need, and then they can effortlessly book a live video session online. We not only help the students develop the skills of entrepreneurship and company building, but supporting the development of a valuable network and ecosystem to support these businesses.
Finally, we are offering our courses and programs in a way that makes them affordable, accessible and available to entrepreneurs everywhere. More than a third of our first year’s students came from around the world, making us a global program from the start. The potential for innovation in the food system reaches far beyond the US–and we intend to continue to be open to partnerships and collaborations that extend the reach of our courses and learning experiences. The potential for rapid, positive impact is profound.
The Food Business School is an excellent example of a supporting pillar to the good food economy. Why do we need one?
As dean of a startup business school within a larger, established academic institution, I’m now working like an ed:tech entrepreneur. Business education also has to change and adapt to our shifting cultural, social and business values. There are lots of exciting opportunities to innovate in terms of the way we design and deliver education. At FBS we are pairing academic leaders with expert practitioners to create a unique and effective practice-based educational experience.
We connect our student learners, academic faculty, expert practitioners and mentors through an innovative learning technology platform that encourages interaction and collaboration. We blend in-depth, in-person experiences with online based team learning activities. Our curriculum is participatory, active and practical. These are not lecture courses – people participate on teams with peers and mentors–participating in projects and simulations that they will encounter in their businesses. They learn as they do. It’s like a business accelerator–but stronger–because the courses are developed by expert educators who understand how to teach, and how to design projects that foster strong and confident entrepreneurial leaders. FBS goes well beyond the typical folkloric storytelling that constitutes the curriculum of many accelerators.
We are building FBS to provide an approach and an environment to create and scale mission-driven, sustainable food businesses, and leapfrogging the isolation of entrepreneurship, the common pitfalls unique to the food industry, and the shortcomings of traditional business education.
How can we learn more about your work?
Please check out our current course catalog at The Food Business School website. Our in-person courses are in San Francisco and New York, and many of our classes are available online. I also host a monthly, interactive video blog called FoodBiz+ of thoughtful conversations with good food innovators. It would be great to have you participate and join the conversation.
Blog author Stephanie Miller is a food tech and digital marketing consultant who grows the market opportunity for sustainable food economy brands and products. She is a volunteer supporting the Change Food Fest.
The Change Food Fest “Growing the Good Food Movement” will take place in New York City on November 11, 12 and 13, 2016. We will explore and celebrate change happening in the food system. Rather than simply talk about problems, we will actively look at solutions that are leading us to the sustainable food system we wish to see. Our focus will be on both real and visionary change and will include an exploration into seafood, plant based vs meat diets, possible impacts of new businesses and investment money coming into the food space – and much more. You can purchase a ticket or host a viewing party of the live webcast in your local community. Follow the action at #CFFest2016!