Two Steps Forward

How the Food Business School is transforming the menu of possibilities

Courtesy ofFood Business School

As concerns grow globally over the health, social and environmental impacts of food, the moment is ripe to turn these challenges into business opportunities.

Consider: Agriculture ranked No. 1 among 19 supersectors in terms of natural capital impacts, according to data provided by Trucost for the 2015 State of Green Business report.

Food safety is a growing concern, thanks to food-borne illnesses related to food handling, preparation and storage. There is increased awareness paid to food loss and waste, including the significant carbon footprint of the more than 1 billion tons of food that’s produced but never consumed, nearly a trillion dollars of lost value.

There’s more. Obesity and a range of nutrition-related diseases, from cancer to cardiovascular ills, are of increasing concern in a world with growing middle-class diets. Access to affordable and healthy food is being seen increasingly as an equity issue around the world as low-income communities suffer malnutrition and food deserts. Labeling and transparency of ingredients, including of genetically modified foods, are becoming hot-button issues. Climate change stands to roil markets as growing seasons and arable zones shift, and supplies of some commodities become disrupted.

So, where is business and executive education in this meaty global discourse? They're just aren’t on the menu.

That stands to change, thanks to the debut of the Food Business School, an offshoot of the venerable Culinary Institute of America, which aims to improve and possibly disrupt modern food systems.

The San Francisco-based school, launched late last month, is focused on current food-business executives, start-up entrepreneurs and those seeking to enter the food sector, from aspiring millennials to mid-career explorers, as William Rosenzweig, the school's dean and executive director, explained to me recently.

The school is launching with three offerings: online courses that help deepen knowledge of the global food system; “innovation intensives” designed to give teams of food business professionals the time and space to focus on strategic initiatives; and a venture innovation program, “the first-ever graduate-level certificate in food entrepreneurship and innovation mastery,” according to the FBS website.

“I’m amazed at how many companies that are involved with food are kind of separate from it,” Rosenzweig told GreenBiz. “I’ve worked with some major multinational food companies, and the presence and culture of food in those companies is often hard to find.”

Working lunch

Rosenzweig found inspiration in Silicon Valley’s tech community, where, he says, "Food has become the cultural facet to a company’s well-being, productivity and even identity.”

He points to Google as an example where serving food started as a way of keeping hungry engineers fed while they worked long hours, but has evolved into a cultural pillar of the company.

“It’s moved beyond just feeding people — to productivity, to loyalty, to health and well-being, and ultimately to culture,” Rosenzweig said.

Google operates around 60 cafes globally, and the design of those cafes is being informed by the science of choice architecture, he added.

“How do you get people to choose the healthier options?" Rosenzweig said. "How do you inform people to eat the things that are good for them, and the right amount of those things? How do you design cafés to stimulate the kinds of interactions which lead to serendipitous innovations?”

Such are the questions being asked these days about food and eating, in the workplace and beyond.

“Getting people back to the essence of food, the experience of food, the sensory contact with food, we think can provide a spark of imagination, whether you’re in logistics or technology," he said. "Just to be immersed in it will provide a source of inspiration not available in the day-to-day workplace or in a hotel ballroom.”

From tea to TED

Rosenzweig brings to his new venture a long career in food and entrepreneurship, beginning in his 20s, when he performed as a mime on the streets of San Francisco as part of the marketing efforts of a local candy company.

In 1990, after learning about tea culture during multiple trips to Japan in another marketing role, he co-founded Republic of Tea, credited not just with helping introduce Americans to gourmet tea but also among the earliest companies viewing business as an engine for environmental and social good — “conscious capitalism,” as it was dubbed at the time. Rosenzweig and his co-founder, Mel Ziegler, wrote a bestselling book about the company, further burnishing the startup’s hip brand and image.

Along the way, Rosenzweig became a student of storytelling. He attended the first TED conference, in 1984. After TED’s co-founders, Richard Saul Wurman and Harry Marks, decided not to produce a second event, Rosenzweig offered to resurrect it. He served as executive director of TED’s second conference, in 1990, arguably turning what could have been a one-off conclave into a cultural institution.

“It was the design of that conference, the serendipity of the people who came and a prevailing element of curiosity and humility that filled the place, that stayed with me,” he recalled.

Rosenzweig went on to produce three Ecotech conferences, TED-inspired events during the 1990s that brought together a rich stew of environmental leaders and thinkers. (I spoke at two of the three Ecotech events.)

He found his way into academe, teaching entrepreneurship at Berkeley and London Business School, and investing in and advising startups, eventually launching a sustainability- and food-focused venture fund.

Rosenzweig’s experience at Odwalla, where he served as senior VP during the mid 1990s, was particularly seminal to his career. It included the period in 1996 when the company suffered an E. coli outbreak in its unpasteurized apple juice that resulted in the death of a 16-month-old girl.

“It brought home the seriousness of food safety in a way that has been indelible to me,” he recalled. “I think about that as one of the things that’s led me to the Food Business School,” citing issues of safety, nutrition, sustainability and health.

Tech, high and low

Rosenzweig is fascinated by the many ways technology will play an increasingly critical role in food systems:

“The sequencing of the microbiome is going to have absolute profound impact on the food industry in a few years," he said. "The integration of Big Data and mobile access, being able to create seamless point-to-point traceability, transparency and logistical management, and the power of social media to empower consumers to communicate with one another — these are all incredibly disruptive moments.”

But Rosenzweig is quick to point out that the human element of food is still at its core.

“There’s something deep in our essence as human beings that responds to food," he said. "It’s our source of energy, inspiration and ultimately cultural well-being. I think that food as a vehicle, food as a substance, food as a business proposition is just so exciting because it creates bonds and relationships. The breaking of bread, the sharing of wine, the toasting at the table are rituals that have been very important and are somewhat lost.”

Whither sustainability?

In talking with Rosenzweig, I was struck by his scant mentions or references to sustainability. I’ve known Rosenzweig for nearly two decades, and know how deeply he is committed to such issues. But in describing his new business school, the usual litany of sustainability topics related to food and ag, from fisheries depletion to farm worker rights, never surfaced.

I asked him why.

“It’s completely implicit,” he responded. “Sustainability is now a baseline business strategy. I think if we start calling it out, we marginalize it in a way. I don’t know any executive in any large or small food company that doesn’t understand the implications of sustainability principles as core to scaling a business. To me, it’s just part of the fabric now.”

Hacking the system

The processes of bringing food from the farm or factory to fork in today’s complex global system, combined with the market dynamics created by climate change, health concerns and other issues, denote a fast-changing industry. Such issues stand to upend the dominant model, in which we’ve relied increasingly on large multinational companies with big, trustworthy brands to bring us food in an affordable and convenient manner.

For Rosenzweig, that status quo is up for grabs.

The results of a weekend-long hackathon, held a few weeks ago to help launch the Food Business School, underscores the possibilities. The dozen teams that assembled, consisting of between three and 12 people each, produced some inspiring results.

One team, for example, led by a Harvard-trained computational biologist who works at the genetic testing company 23andMe, designed a tool to produce customized foods containing bacteria appropriate for an individual’s microbiome.

Another team created a kind of Esperanto for food — visual symbols to help cooks and diners communicate food terms across languages and cultures. Still another created an app to help people transform their yards into vegetable gardens.

The winning team was called Take This, Eat That. It developed an interactive platform for the millions of people who take medications, showing what foods they should and shouldn’t eat relative to the meds they’re ingesting.

Clearly, such innovations go well beyond the find-the-nearest-food-truck apps that are the common fruits of food-related hackathons.

For Rosenzweig, the hackathon represented the proof in the pudding that there’s unlimited potential to disrupt today’s food industry.

“The entrepreneurial opportunities are massive,” he said. “The big companies simply can’t keep up.”