Food is one topic that gets everyone gitty and happy.
Sharing a good healthy meal for lunch can easily put you in a happy mood for the rest of your day. While the opposite can make you feel grumpy and even sick. That’s probably why we can’t get enough of it. We talk about it, take pictures of it, write about it, sing about it, create films about it, decorate with it, and even use it as company perks at big firms. This means that people who work in the food industry have to be constantly mindful, loving, and serious about their decisions in food preparation, selling, operating and delivering.
Interestingly, despite food being a product we consume and relate to daily, there is little understanding of where the ingredients originated in the meals we eat, what processes it took to get there, how to handle food waste, how to provide more healthy organic food options, nor how to handle obesity and hunger. These are all serious issues that continue to grow while we enjoy our lattes and organic salads without thinking. This is why innovation in food is critical. And this is why we were so excited to invite these five innovators working in food in Washington, DC to Beyond The Box.
On August 25, 2016, InnovatorsBox and WeWork co-hosted the fourth Beyond The Box speaker series to debunk people’s perception about food. Five innovative leaders joined us to challenge our perceptions and understanding of this industry that many think lacks creativity. Our goal for #BeyondTheBox is to demystify people’s perceptions about innovation in five industries, learn from local innovators about how they effected change and innovation, empower participants to embrace creativity and celebrate small milestones to bring greater change.
I am excited to share key insights from our conversation.
DC is more known to be a city full of politicians, lobbyists and federal employees rather than food innovators. Yet, what we learned from Kim, Jeff, Maya, Kyle and Danielle is that this very same perception is one reason why DC is a great place to engage in the food business.
Let me first introduce you to our speakers:
- Kim Bryden is the CEO & Founder of Cureate and Cureate Connect who is supporting the growth and scaling of food and beverage businesses as well as bridging together large business buyers and small business producers through procurement. She has been working in the food and beverage industry for over 10 years.
- Jeff Kelley is the COO and Co-Founder of Power Supply who is increasing the accessibility of nutritious, locally-sourced, and tasty meals in DC, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. His lifelong goal is to have a sustained and meaningful impact on people’s lives in terms of health and wellness.
- Maya Atlas is the Member Development and Sales Manager of Union Kitchen who is forming relationships to support the efficient and successful growth of food businesses. With a keen interest in food systems, Maya has engaged in opportunities across the food spectrum from organic farming to retail.
- Kyle Arkie is the General Manager of Le Pain Quotidien on 17th Street who is offering guests artisanal meals with the use of simple, organic, local ingredients. Through the appreciation of healthy food and good company, he encourages forging relationships and community building.
- Danielle Starin is the Director of Nutrition of Nutritionix who is combining her passions for food and technology to ensure quality nutrition data, insight, and direction. Her interest in nutrition started when she was a cheerleader for the Baltimore Ravens, and she’s now a trained dietitian.
As I got to learn more about their stories and expertise during the interview, I saw how their decision to take the road less traveled paid off.
This is what I learned:
Be a curious sponge who loves to learn and find what you love.
Your willingness to learn will impact your ability to grow. As children, we all had a hunger to learn with curiosity. At some point along the way, we stopped doing it for fear of being judged. This is where these innovators differed. Their willingness to ask questions, be curious, and dig deeply into situations helped them deepen their expertise and merge their multiple interests to build something new.
For instance, Jeff’s food journey started during a conversation with a friend. They recognized how hard it was to get healthy home cooked food delivered and scale it in a sustainable way. Fortunately, his previous role, as a U.S. Army Veteran, required him to do mass operations and production. His knowledge in military operations became a key ingredient to establishing the platform for Power Supply. Danielle’s love for nutrition started because of her time as a cheerleader. Healthy eating was crucial to be able to perform consistently, yet it was hard to understand and keep track of nutrition facts. She wanted to understand how to eat healthier and help others do it better. Because of her former experience, she is able to now relate to her customers’ challenges better and create better nutrition education and solution-based tools.
So don’t be afraid to ask questions, dig deep into different industries, and ask yourself ‘why, how, what, and so what’? You may be surprised at what you learn along the way.
Don’t just wait for the perfect door to open. Go knock on all those doors! If you don’t see a door, go make a door.
If you wait until everything is perfect, you would never start anything. Be persistent. Because the truth is, you will never really know what is the right door except in hindsight. After watching many food startups grow, build, and stumble, Maya says to imagine throwing a spaghetti dish on a wall. Some of the pasta and sauce will fall while some will remain on the wall. But you will never really know what will stick versus not. It’s important to proactively reach out, talk to users, and try new recipes instead of waiting until everything is all set in stone. People’s attention spans are getting shorter and to get their attention, you have to be persistent and constantly provide quality.
Kim takes a step further and emphasizes that one should go create doors if they don’t exist yet. In fact, that is how her business came about. After working at Whole Foods and handling liquor licenses, she recognized a consistent problem. While small business owners were struggling to sell their products in big markets, there were many corporations, hotels, and grocery stores that wanted to regularly buy from and support smaller local businesses but didn’t know how to find them. She did some market research and found that despite the strong need on both ends, the connecting platform did not exist. She decided to create the door of opportunity - a new platform where smaller businesses can connect with bigger players.
Opportunities will present themselves to those who work hard and look for them.
Why > How: Never forget your “why”s
As you continue to grow, your methods and strategies will change. But, one thing you should never forget is your ‘why’. There was a reason why you decided to walk this path and take on these challenges. When we face unexpected difficulties, it’s easy to feel a bit crushed. Change will be needed but let your ‘why’ guide you. Each decision you make, each step you take, should relate back to supporting your ‘why.’
Kyle shares how reconnecting with his ‘why’ has been crucial in his journey. When he first stepped into Le Pain Quotidien (LPQ) as a customer, he never knew he would find his new home of eight years. It was a dark time in his life. He was stressed, had bad eating habits, and wasn’t sure how to change. Joining LPQ became a tipping point in his life, where he learned to eat healthier, built new friendships, developed tangible skills, and learned to become a better leader. His willingness to learn, be open to opportunities and face new challenges helped him become a better leader where he now welcomes new LPQ members and staff as a General Manager.
Let your ‘how’ evolve as you strengthen your ‘why.’
Don’t forget, there is always more than one way to reach your goal.
If the traditional problem-solving methodology doesn’t work, take a step back and ask, ‘What other ways can we solve this problem?’ and ‘How might I find that new method?’ This kind of questioning may look simple but is powerful when done regularly with an open mind. As our speakers highlighted, it’s this attitude of always reminding themselves to look for new problem-solving methods that helped them find a better solution that was more effective and sustainable.
For instance, Jeff wanted to teach youth at a school how to build healthy eating habits and understand the origination of food ingredients. It was challenging. They quickly learned that young students didn’t necessarily care why eating greens is important nor why they should care which farm or what process it took to get there. To change the perception, Jeff and his team decided to take a different approach to traditional nutrition education. To produce a lunch box, you would need someone to cook the food, pack the lunches and deliver them. Instead of dividing that role into three different departments, Jeff had the same person cook, pack and deliver the food. After having the same person deliver the food for a couple weeks, students were more at ease as they built trust with the chef who delivers their special treat and objected less to random green ingredients that are added. In fact, they were willing to learn more and ask more questions as they became curious about the process. A great way to educate youth.
Danielle and her team at Nutritionix use technology to find various ways to educate the public about nutrition. They started with a mobile app that can easily keep track of the nutrition information of food you consumed. Then, they developed an integrated Google tool that helps you easily understand what kind of nutrition is in what food. By creating these tools, Nutritionix provides individuals multiple ways to learn nutrition facts more easily and more frequently.
All still agree that there is still a long way in tackling food waste, food insecurity, organic food, and the hunger gap. However, with such determination, persistence, and passion, I’m confident that these individuals as well as many others will help us change the food industry for the better.
As you continue to grow and build, face challenges with curiosity and wanting to understand more. When a challenge was presented, the speakers kept asking questions, sought out facts, and evaluated how they felt about it. It’s this persistent attitude to understand that will enable you to connect new dots, think differently as a multi-disciplinary problem solver and find new opportunities.
Thank you for reading. I look forward to your thoughts.
I look forward to seeing you at the next Beyond The Box in the evening of September 1, where we will meet five innovators in the media and education industries. Tickets are free, but you must RSVP to participate.
P.S. For friends in New York, check out our pop-up speakers' event with Diversability “Innovability” on September 13, 2016. Tickets are free but an RSVP is needed.