September 16

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Food Industry Leader Robyn O’Brien Talks Supply Transparency

By Mimi MacLean

September 16, 2021


Robyn O’Brien of RePlant Capital

Going from finance to non-profits, Robyn O’Brien is the epitome of a badass CEO. She is a nationally recognized leader in the food industry and is the co-founder of rePlant Capital. While managing rePlant, she also runs her non-profit, Allergy Kids Foundation, focused on bringing awareness to the need for transparency in our food supply, and that’s not where it ends; she is also the author of The Unhealthy Truth. Robyn is a true entrepreneur who is always hustling and fighting for what she believes, even if it puts her in the crosshairs of some of the most extensive food and agriculture companies.

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Episode Contents:

From Finance to the Food Industry and Non-Profits

Robyn, thank you so much for coming on today. I'm so excited to talk to you because you are the epitome of a badass. I mean, you've gone from finance to starting a not-for-profit to where I first met you reading a book when I got into my whole healthy living world. What was that? Almost 18 years ago, 15 years ago. I don't even know 20?

Robyn:
Yeah. The book came out in 2009. 20 years ago, right?

Mimi:
Yeah. So, a long time ago. So, that's where I first heard about you. And then you went on to start this not-for-profit and you're now back into the finance world. So, I'm just so excited to kind of dive into your path just because you're a true entrepreneur. And so, what took you from finance to starting a non-for-profit?

Robyn:
You're right. I come from a very entrepreneurial family. My dad is an entrepreneur, started his own business. So, I grew up seeing what it was like for someone to work for himself, the flexibility that he had, the ability he had to build the business that he wanted. And I knew that I wanted to have kids. It was why I had gone to business school because I wanted that flexibility. I studied a lot of entrepreneurship coursework when I was in business school. So, it was very intentional and it's definitely in my DNA. And I started a website called Allergy Kids when the kids were little to educate parents about food allergies and the risks and the different opportunities to get involved. And it was just really an informative website because at the time other organizations charged a fee for you to have access to the information. And I thought that's crazy, parents need to be able to protect their kids so let's get this information out there.

And the more that I continued to populate that website, the more research I was doing. And it was really drawing from experience that I had had in the investment world. I was a financial analyst on a team that managed $20 billion in assets before becoming a mom. So, it enabled me to sort of have, keep one toe in that, and I was still in touch with a lot of the analysts that cover the food industry as I was researching food allergies. And then as you know, all of a sudden, I started pulling on this thread in the research and what resulted was my book, The Unhealthy Truth. So, that in and of itself is a business venture. Becoming an author is an experience quite unlike anything else you think you're going to get a lot of support along the way. And it really requires a lot of sweat equity.

It was a fascinating experience to write a book that was so enormously controversial calling out the pollution in the food system, that double standard, how science had been for sale, much like the tobacco industry science. It was sort of feeding into the profitability of the industry. And again, I was able to leverage this experience that I had had in the finance world plus being a mother of four. Somebody said it's a real 360. So, after offering the book, I started the Allergy Kids Foundation, which was a non-for-profit. It was really to continue to educate and inspire parents, I felt that the diagnosis of food allergies could be pretty terrifying and I didn't want people to feel like their life was over. That's how it had felt when my daughter had first been diagnosed. I thought I am not equipped as a mother to handle this condition.

And something as simple as feeding a child suddenly became very complex. And I thought the more information we have the better and the more support that we have the better. So, it was always from the beginning and tended to be a very supportive platform. And I knew that it is a mother of four that I couldn't do everything myself. And so, I really invited a lot of collaboration early on in the work. I knew that I didn't have science in the background. So, I had amazing science advisers who are still very dear friends today. And there are some of my most trusted contacts when something comes up to be able to use them as sounding boards. And they really have all of them go on with just remarkable careers over the last 15 years. And then as I continued to really speak out about this with the book and the website, I was invited to give a TED Talk and like you know, some of my friends from high school, it was a friend that I had played soccer with in high school who connected me to the curator.

And that was really the game-changing moment and that was in 2011. And with that TED Talk, you take the stage. It is very raw and is very vulnerable and you have the opportunity to tell a story. And I had learned through publishing my book, that the publishing house has a lot of control over the title and the way the book is packaged and the artwork. And there were things about it that in hindsight, now I know if I were to go through it again, I would push a lot harder to have a title and artwork on the cover of the book that resembled my message. But at the time it wasn't that way. So, it was a very sort of terrifying approach that had been presented with the book. And I felt then when I had the opportunity to give the TED Talk, it was really, I got to stand on the stage and just be, and I said a quick prayer before I started just to let my heart speak.

That was a game-changing, absolutely life-changing event. What happened after that is something you cannot prepare for. The talk went viral and it's been translated into dozens of languages and viewed by millions of people around the world. But the thing that happened was the CEO of Nestle's frozen-food division reached out. And he said, "You can say things I can't say, could you come out here to Ohio and meet with us?" And that was not what I expected at all. When the book had been published, I had been attacked by the industry. A couple of the companies, multinational food companies have been very aggressive in their attacks. And so, it was a complete surprise to have the CEO reach out and also incredibly validating. And it was really the first time that I felt like we had the possibility of really fixing this. And then that's what continued to happen.

So, I spent about 15 years running a consulting firm strategy firm called [inaudible 00:08:43] that I founded. And it was really just to help these companies do good. And some of them were little. Some of them were in the allergen space. Some of them are multinational food companies, but to really work at a very high level to help them understand the shift that was happening with consumers wasn't a fad or a trend, that we were asking for a fundamental change in the way that they were formulating their products and that we wanted them free from these junky ingredients that they weren't using overseas, free from genetically engineered ingredients, free from as many of these pesticides as they could get out of it. And it had been fascinating work, which then led me to where I am today, which is as a co-founder of rePlant Capital.

And what happened there was, as I was working with these multinationals, Nestle was a great example. It took them seven years to release the USDA, Organic Allergen-Free Nestle Morsel after we had had that first meeting. And that email that I got seven years later was, "We finally did it." And I thought this is amazing. And it's also like turning the Titanic. And I realized that they didn't have the supply chain they needed to meet the needs of 21st-century families. And so, now if you look up organic, 85% of consumers that are trying something organic, 75% of grocery store categories carry something organic and only 1% of our farmland is organic. So, if I'm the CEO of General Mills, that math doesn't work. I can't source enough organic to meet the demand here in the United States. So, we're importing it and there are all kinds of checks along with that.

So, that was really sort of this aha moment where I was giving these back-to-back keynotes to General Mills Nestle. And I thought, "You guys, even if you had complete sign-off across the board, the supply chain isn't there. So, how do we open the bottleneck of the supply chain? How can we provide capital that can help finance this transition to organic agriculture and do it in a way that accelerates this change?" And so, that's what we're doing at rePlant. We have launched a $2 billion fund to help transition the supply chains of these multinational food companies at scale. And as you convert the supply chains to regenerative and organic agriculture to meet the needs of the consumer, you're also getting rid of these chemical inputs that are better for soil health. And something I've learned along the way is that soil has this incredible capacity to serve as a vibrant sponge that when it is healthy, can draw down carbon from the atmosphere and it can hold water. And so, you have water conservation metrics that begin to emerge and the bees return and the pollinators return, and suddenly it can hold carbon.

Robyn:
And now here we are standing on this incredible asset and this incredible resource, that's our soil. And we were just thinking about it only for the food products that are coming off. Well, at rePlant, we recognize that not only as we convert these supply chains, yes, but multinational food companies also have more organic products. We're able to do this at scale. It's more affordable to more people, but as you restore soil health, you've got this incredible environmental play. So, it's been really, really exciting and fun to work on.

Early Resistance From The Food Industry

food industry leader Robyn O'Brien quote

Mimi:
That's, I mean, there's so many, I don't even know where to start to like start asking you questions. But just curious, just from my own personal, like what I've read, how much, because GMOs are such like Monsanto is such a major giant, so how have they played a part in like I can't imagine unpacking that and undoing what they've kind of been creating and changing our soil over the past, I don't know how long it's been 20, 30 years, how do you reverse course with that? I mean, are you finding new soil that they haven't touched or are you going someplace else or are you just kind of unwinding what they've done?

Robyn:
So, what's amazing is it like you know how we talk about microbiomes in our gut and everybody's like, "Oh, probiotics, there's microbiomes and all that." Soil is the same. And so, because it's this living vibrant thing, you can actually restore soil health as you reduce the chemical input and begin to put different practices on the farm. Something as simple as planting cover crops so that you actually are getting those nutrients back into the soil. And it's an amazing process. And I think what we're seeing is farmers need to unlearn this chemical input model and then in some cases learn how to steward the soil and learn how to put these regenerative practices on the farm.

Robyn:
In some cases, for example, in the cases of Native-American farmers and Black farmers, they've always practiced this way because they didn't have access to capital. The capital was very discriminatory and mostly only available to white male farmers. And so, farmers of color really had always to figure out how to steward the soil in a responsible way. But I think what's amazing is it's a three to five-year process. And so, what happens is if you've got capital coming in from these big banks on the quarterly earnings model, you can't convert soil on a quarterly earnings model. It's a three to five-year process. And that was the opportunity we saw. rePlant was, "Let's raise some capital that we can put to work over three to five years to convert these supply chains, give the timeline that's required to restore and build soil health, clean the chemical inputs out, put these better practices on-farm."

Robyn:
And it's amazing. And when we talk to the growers themselves, there's a guy in Indiana that we've worked with. He farmed 7,000 acres and he used to grow genetically engineered corn and genetically engineered soy, and he'd use all the chemicals that are required to treat those crops. And he said in the first year of his transition, he saved half a million bucks because he wasn't having to buy the chemical input. And I said, "When did you know you were clear on the other side?" And he said it was around year seven or year eight. And so, what we have is a broken food system because of this broken financial system. And there's this weird timeline tension. So, to be able to come in with capital and say, let's give you the capital you need on the timeline that you need to allow this practice to take place is really the opportunity.

Robyn:
And I think that's why we get so excited because just so fixable. Once you stop polluting the soil and once stop treating it with all of these chemical inputs, its ability to regenerate is so powerful and the farmers see it themselves. And I think once those farmers sort of becoming these disciples of the practice, game-changing because then they're influencing their communities and other farmers are saying, "Hey, what are you doing? It looks totally different on your farm than it does to mine." And they begin to teach each other. So, as a team, we're just there as a supportive resource, really.

Mimi:
That's great. And then have most of your capital come from the bigger retailers or where has your capital come from?

Robyn:
No, it's interesting. We didn't want to take capital from the food companies themselves because we didn't want that to appear as a conflict of interest.

Robyn:
So, we're raising philanthropic capital from high net worth individuals and family foundations, and it's primarily coming from women. So, my two co-founders Don Shaffer and Dave Haynes, Dave was in private equity prior and Don Shaffer was CEO of a group called RSF Social Finance out of California. And his client base, there were 1,600 people, and about 80% of them were high-net-worth women. And it's been fascinating because I think as the primary shoppers and those that have leaned into this education around food and this food awakening first, women are coming into this quickly. And so, our early investors for female, a lot of our cap table female. And so, it really has been a pretty fascinating process. And I think that's only going to continue to accelerate. One of my goals is to get this in front of McKenzie Scott so that she recognizes, I mean, she alone could be absolutely monumental in changing the food industry and really having this incredible role towards this climate solution through agriculture.

Mimi:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). And do you think most of these food companies started working with you when you started your consulting firm and started making changes because they had to, because of their bottom line and there were requests, or do you think they truly want it to?

Robyn:
I think it's both. I think early on there was a lot of resistance. There was a lot of lobbying by the industry by these giant companies against these changes because the status quo is pretty comfortable until it's not. And what we saw was just all of a sudden, as it became clear that they were on the wrong side of the issue, a lot of the CEOs steps out step down. And so, what as the new leadership stepped into these roles, 15 years ago, if you're talking about autism and food allergies, it was a small audience. Today unfortunately it is a huge audience.

Robyn:
And so, in most of these companies, there are senior executives who are completely personally touched by some of these conditions. One in three kids now has allergies, autism, ADHD, or asthma. And those are shocking numbers. Cancer's the leading cause of death by disease in kids under the age of 15, horrible statistics. And unfortunately, it's touching all of us. So, that turnover at the top has been enormously beneficial because it's allowed the change to begin to flow through. It is also in their best interest for the bottom line. And so, part of the tension that the food companies have right now is most of the executives inside the company themselves are like you and I, they understand there's this awakening is happening. They know what they're feeding their own families, the board maybe isn't quite as up to speed. And then the investors are just looking at margins and profitability.

Robyn:
And I think the companies that have used the cheapest, most artificial ingredients and cranked out the most processed food are the ones that are really getting hurt. You look at craft just continues to implode. I'm an all how many times it's imploded. And it's just because they're cost-cutting and cost-cutting and cost cutting to the point where it's like hardly resembles food. So, that change is coming through the capital markets. But again, I think this is where I really push for equity and diversity and inclusion in governance because the capital market is being governed primarily by white male. Again, they don't know what they don't know here. And the more that you have women and people of color and representation in a governing body, the greater your understanding is of the whole and I think that's really the opportunity here. And we're starting to see it, Goldman Sachs said they won't take a company public, unless there's a woman or a person of color on board and that's a pretty low bar, but at least they have actually put a bar in place.

Mimi:
Right. No, it's true. Because I think going back to there's the whole issue. I don't think most people, I'm taking it also back to like the whole beauty counter that I've been involved is people don't realize, most people don't realize that it's really not regulated at all, right? So, the food is somewhat regulated, but really it's very loose. People can get around a lot of the organic. What does organic mean and where is that come from?

Robyn:
Exactly. And it's like, if it's coming in from another country what's the third party verification there? And I think there's been some exposure and I think that's also part of what the food industry saw was this sort of organic fraud that started to happen. So, why not secure it here? Food security is national security. So, why not secure the organic supply chain here?

Mimi:
I agree with that. And so, what would you say from your experience in building your not-for-profit and the book and now rePlant capital, what has been your hardest struggle? I mean, there's been so many. I don't think people kind of appreciate. When you launched your book or when you wrote your book, no one really knew what GMOs were. That's how long ago, right? It was like the 12 years or 13 years ago, most people, like I remember saying to my friends GMO, and they'd be like, "What are you talking about?"

Robyn:
I know. I say all the time. I mean, when I was first speaking out on these issues to kind of let you get three heads, no one knew what they were. And so, you're saying there's something in the food, but nobody's even heard of. And that's just almost like an impossible thing to believe that our government would do that. I think it challenges our views of our government. It challenges a lot. And that early on was really hard. And I think articulating it with data was really critical consistency. And then, it was just coming from this place of such deep love that it was unstoppable and it will always come from that place. It comes from a profound place. But I think the early years were enormously isolating. And in those early years, there was a grit and resiliency that was built because of it. Something I've learned is that when things were tough, those are the greatest lessons. So, it's something I've taught my kids, show me what the lesson is here in this hardship, because clearly it's sharpening me for something else.

Robyn:
But yes, the attacks were really aggressive and very personal, but also the mission was so much bigger than me. So, I think it was having that higher North star, that's always been part of the work. So, I would say the isolation was what was so hard in the beginning, which is also what makes the team more now in the collaboration so much fun.

Surround Yourself with Smarter People

food industry giant Robyn O Brien
Robyn O’Brien

Mimi:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). That's great. Now, any other tips that you would give, any entrepreneurial mom, woman or someone who's actually in corporate America to try and make it to the top? What other advice would you give them to be successful?

Robyn:
Ask for help, seek out mentors. Great piece of advice I got was surround yourself with people that are smarter than you in areas where you're weak, great advice. I think trying to be all things, all people you're just destined for failure. So, it's really recognizing what your strengths are and what your weaknesses are and building out around that. I think we do that as a team remarkably well at rePlant. We all play to our strengths and we can recognize our weaknesses and turn to each other for support when we need to. The other thing I would say is don't be afraid to start small. The first engagement I ever spoke out had six people and one was a pediatrician and one was a nutritionist who was a friend and I introduced them and they got married.

Robyn:
So, I figured I was kind of like a nice little blessing on top of that one, but don't be afraid to start small. I think what you have to be afraid of is not starting. And the other thing I've learned is that fear is really just like a seatbelt that keeps you in your comfort zone. So, if you can name and identify fear, it really does help you move through it instead of being paralyzed for it. I sort of, I recognize it's just a companion on this road to change. And once you embrace that and stop being intimidated by that, it really is game changing.

Mimi:
These are amazing quotes advice. I love it. And you amaze me with everything you've done. I mean, honestly, when I first read your book in Healthy Truth, I was in awe of you and everything that you're doing because it was so cutting edge at the time. And just-

Robyn:
It really was. And it's interesting when people read it now or they watch the TED Talk now, and it's a timeless message and there's so much opportunity to engage in change. I think one of the things I love the most is now, if I go to these food industry events, there'll be somebody that saw that talk 10 years ago and then two years later started a company that's now eight years old. And I'm like, that's so cool. But I think it's one of those opportunities where there's room for everybody to collaborate. And I think in the 21st century, the way that we can leverage technology as it relates to learning about agriculture and as it relates to learning about food is fascinating.

Robyn:
And then I think on the equity and justice piece, I mean, there's been so much discrimination in our food system and so much discrimination in agriculture. So, that's an area that's just got an enormous opportunity for engagement and involvement. I teach a class at [inaudible 00:24:00] called the new food economy and it's been enjoyable because there are just so many angles that you can come in. We had Seth Goldman speak and he's the founder of Honest Tea.

Robyn:
And he was executive chairman of the board for Beyond Meat. And talk about a serial entrepreneur. I mean, he is absolutely serial entrepreneur. He's somebody I admire so much. But it really, again, I think it's just, we get to co-create this and that's what's so exciting.

Mimi:
Yes, it's so true. But thank you so much. I really appreciate your time. This has been amazing. And I just keep watching to see what you were doing and changing the food industry and all the impact that you're doing. So, thank you.

Robyn:
Well, thank you. And thank you so much for reaching out. It's so great to reconnect and thank you also for being there in the very, very beginning, because that was a small group and those people are very close to my heart. So, thank you so much.

Mimi:
Oh, your welcome. Thank you. Thank you for joining us on the Badass CEO. To get your copy of the top 10 tips every entrepreneurs should know, go to thebadassceo.com/tips. Also please leave a review as it helps others find us. If you have any ideas or suggestions, I would love to hear them. So, email me at mimi@thebadassceo.com. See you next week and thank you for listening.

Links

RePlant Capital

Robyn’s Website

Robyn’s Instagram

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