10 Minutes with Kirsten Tobey
This column is about the people of sustainability. What makes them tick? What’s their unique way to create impact? What have they learned that works? This time, it’s Kirsten Tobey, founder and chief impact officer of Revolution Foods, a company that works with schools nationwide to give students access to fresh and nutritious meals.
Bob Langert: What did you learn as a McDonald’s Beef Fellow while at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Management (2005) that stuck with you?
Kirsten Tobey: At that same time, the idea of innovating school meals through Revolution Foods was just starting to become ideas put on paper. I just remember thinking, "My gosh. We're starting at this very small scale."
But it was what we were able to see within McDonald's that made me think from the beginning about how are we going to scale our business beyond this small, local idea into something that actually could reach a national scale population.
Langert: Did any professors influence your entrepreneurial path?
Tobey: Oh, yes. Kelly McElhaney was a real inspiration. We asked her, "Should we go pursue more traditional jobs or try to kind of go out on a limb and start this company?" And she was one of the people — I mean, interestingly, because she's so involved in the corporate world — she said, "You know what? We need more people like you guys to go out and start new businesses based on new ideas and prove that you can build a business with a social mission at its core from the ground up."
Will Rosenzweig, too. He's been a social entrepreneurship professor at Haas for many years and was the founder of Republic of Tea — one of the original premium tea companies. He has continued to be a very active investor and adviser to the company, and we feel very fortunate to have brought him into our entrepreneurial lives. As an entrepreneur himself, he's always been able to help us navigate all the different forces that are at work for us and against us in the process.
Langert: You mentioned there are things going against you. What were they?
Tobey: I feel it's somewhat changed over the years. In the early days, it was very much people saying, "Kids don't want to eat healthy food. If you bring this into the school, it's going to be rejected, because kids want what they're used to." Especially kids in low-income communities, which is where we were really focused.
We still are very focused on making our meals accessible through the National School Lunch Program. And we took that on as a challenge. Kids may not like healthy food if it doesn't taste good, but if we can make healthy, fresh, high-quality food that's delicious and designed to be culturally relevant and are mindful of kids' feedback in the process, we can start to introduce healthier eating habits to kids and schools.
Hiring is always a challenge. You never want to build the team too far ahead of the growth, but then that means that as you grow, you sometimes are kind of pinched with not quite enough time, talent or resources around the table. So we have a team that works incredibly hard every step of the way as we build and scale the organization.
Langert: What was the exact genesis of your business concept?
Tobey: We spent a lot of time in schools and did a lot of in-depth interviews with school leaders, teachers and with students. The triggering event was when we heard a teacher saying, "I feel like I'm trying to teach kids in my class about healthy eating and about balanced diets and all these things, and then, they come back from the lunch room and they say, 'Well, you're teaching us one thing and we're being served another thing.'" And the teacher and the school leaders were saying they felt like hypocrites, even though in many cases, they weren't the ones making the decision about what was being served in the cafeteria, but the kids were making that connection.
So sometimes kids hold us accountable as adults for doing the right thing. That was a powerful moment for us, when we heard kids say, "Hey, we actually deserve something better here."
Langert: Do you compete with unhealthy foods?
Tobey: We're not hardliners on, "There are certain forms of food that you should never eat" and that sort of thing. We do think it's important to offer a balance of different things and make sure there's always fresh fruit and vegetables available for kids to try, and we believe the more you expose kids to those kinds of foods, the more they will try them and change their eating habits over time.
The other part of it is that we believe a lot in making sure that the quality of ingredients is really high going into foods, but we do serve a whole wheat pizza that's made with real cheese and no high fructose corn syrup and no fillers and that sort of thing. We understand that there are certain forms of foods that kids love and are used to and we serve those and we just make sure that the ingredient integrity is consistent with our ingredient and quality philosophy.
Langert: Do you serve ice cream from time to time or not? Where do you draw the line?
Tobey: Of course, we all love an ice cream treat from time to time. But on our menu, we don't. We work within the confines of the National School Lunch Program, which limits the number of calories that you can serve in a meal. For an elementary school, it's a range between 600 to 700 calories in a lunch. Our philosophy is if you have that a limited number of calories to work with, we want all of those calories to be working for good for the kids. We recognize that outside of that, kids are going to be eating all kinds of things.
Bob Langert: Changing behavior is such a big challenge, especially in sustainability. What have you done to change student behavior?
Tobey: There's always fresh fruit and vegetables on the line, and we encourage schools to put those as the first things being offered.
Langert: So do you get upset when you go to a convenience store, gas station, hardware store, and at the cash registers they all have the candy bars and other sugary treats. Does that get you riled up?
Tobey: I think the options are definitely limited, and that goes beyond convenience stores and cash registers. The nature of our food system in the U.S. offers up the least healthy option as the default, whereas eating more healthfully is the more difficult, less accessible option. I think if we want to positively influence eating habits on a large scale, that’s one important change that needs to happen.
Langert: In terms of your food, do you work on any other aspect of sustainability besides nutrition?
Tobey: Taste and nutrition are Nos. 1 and 2. Then it’s high quality, clean ingredients.
Bob Langert: If you were to give advice to someone considering something entrepreneurial in the social environmental space, given your first 12 years of hard knocks, what would you pass on?
Tobey: I would say, No. 1 is starting a pilot program and starting small. Do something in a real-world environment to really understand — at least in a small scale — the dynamics of the business rather than spending too much time with just the paper exercise of writing the business plan.
The other thing I would say is really understanding your market size. I think a lot of people come up with really fun, new, great ideas, but when you really look at it, the market size for what they're doing is not really very big. And so we've always looked at kind of scale and scalability as a very important element to having a social impact.
Bob Langert: Does becoming "big" scare you?
Tobey: Yes. We think a lot about the risks of scale, but we've been focused on maintaining our standards and the integrity that we set out to have and to really impact more kids in the same way.
Langert: What has most surprised you?
Tobey: It has been pleasantly surprising that we've seen more and more school leaders, school boards and superintendents who are starting to say, "We see healthy food in our schools as inextricably linked to the academic success of our students. And we actually have seen some real data come out on this in the last few years where quality of food has been linked directly to academic performance of kids in underserved school." It's been really exciting to see that.