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Start-Ups, Diversity, and Shaking up the Food Industry

Start-Ups, Diversity, and Shaking up the Food Industry—Interview with Rabobank’s Innovation Head Anne Greven for Women in Food and Ag

The food industry is being powerfully reshaped by its consumers, as demographically diverse younger generations have grown into an influential consumer bloc, seeking exotic flavors, responding to woke brands, and demanding new things now.

But the food industry is also being reshaped from the inside, as non-traditional participants lead it in new directions. Big names in food and beverage are increasingly turning to start-ups to stay in tune with the fast-changing consumer environment, whether buying them outright or monitoring their development through the launch of incubators or similar arrangements. Start-ups founded by self-employed moms or by socially conscious Millennials have a greater voice than ever before in the industry.

Few people are better poised to evaluate the influence that start-ups and their culture of diversity are having on the food industry than Anne Greven, Rabobank’s Global Head of Food and Agribusiness Innovations. After a career which has included stints at Citibank, TD Securities and Morgan Stanley, as well as 15 years building key client-facing businesses for the bank in New York, today Anne is responsible for mentoring start-ups through the agribusiness lender’s FoodBytes! Initiative, a pitch competition which brings start-ups before investors and corporations.

As part of the Agribriefing Women in Food and Agriculture project, Anne sat down to share her insight on these topics with FLEXNEWS. “I really believe there is a shift taking place- in a big transformational way- within the food and agriculture industry”, Anne told FLEXNEWS. “The sector is poised for innovation because the needs of consumers and clients are changing rapidly. On top of that, [there are a lot of] very old and antiquated processes that are ripe for greater efficiency and innovation.”

In her own patch of the world, she is convinced that start-ups and diversity are mutually reinforcing each other to drive change in the industry. “If you look at the start-ups across our platform (FoodBytes!), they are very diverse in their backgrounds. Applicants have come from 62 countries across multiple disciplines, so they naturally tend to have more diversity in concepts and products because they are coming from a wide array of global cultures and intellectual pursuits.”

In spite of this progress, the sad but undeniable truth is that the fight for diversity is not yet won. For all that global food companies are seeking to profit from diversity by monetizing new flavours and fresh concepts, they are not especially good at compensating diversity. Research from Columbia Business School documents how women-led operations in our industry—as in quite a few other industries—have a harder time getting funded, even though they outperform peers with an all-male management team. “It is well known and documented that it is harder for women to raise money. Not just for start-ups but across the board,” asserts Anne. In 2017 USD 84 billion of VC investment went to start-ups, according to Fortune companies with women founders received less than 3% of total VC dollars.

This is a vital problem if it means that the industry is passing on transformative innovations.  From upcycling old products to applying new technology, start-ups are tackling some of the most urgent problems troubling both consumers and industry actors. Some are already making a splash; “anything around food waste, which is a focus now, is brilliant,” she confides. Meanwhile, there are other concerns looming. “Changes in climate and production yield are also shifting food cost, which are going to go up in many places. In some countries food is 40-50% of the cost of living. So if you’re asking if the average consumer is going to pay more, I think it is going to become increasing challenging.” In light of such disruption, the industry cannot afford to discriminate.

Therefore, it is essential to recognize that discrimination is present and that the industry will be struggling with it for the foreseeable future. She recommends dealing with it head-on and consciously creating space at the table for women to have equal access. “The sad reality is that it may not always be an equal playing field, but if we can get a little closer to a level playing field each time, I feel like we are making progress”.

Unfortunately, progress on gender equality is not only in one direction, something which becomes evident when scanning the top ranks of the industry, where less than 10% of companies have female CEOs. While for a time, it appeared that the food industry was shifting in a positive direction on this front, recent moves at PepsiCo, Mondelez and Campbell are illustrations of the fact that women can lose ground as well as gain it. Anne’s own feelings are that there are still not enough women running companies, and she is optimistic—and impatient—for a change. “What message are we giving to women, now that 50% of the workforce is female but women are nowhere close to representing 50% of CEO or senior management positions in any organisation?”

Of course, she acknowledges that business decisions including who to promote and fund must not be based primarily on a need to foster diversity; obviously, what matters most is the ability to get the job done. “We have many guiding principles; diversity of products, ideas and people is one of them. But another is the belief that the candidates should offer something really unique. We want to influence change; we are most mindful of the potential and power of the idea.” And it is simply a reality that for programs such as FoodBytes! and TERRA (Rabobank’s food and agriculture accelerator programme for growth-stage start-ups), the candidate pool is largely masculine. “Traditionally with FoodBytes! and TERRA we try to have a diverse group, in terms of not only geography and nationality but also gender,” she explains. “Historically, I would say that the majority of applications come from men. But now, around 30-40%, depending on the event, are coming [from] women. I feel there is change occurring, and hopefully we can be a major catalyst for that change.”

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