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UC Berkeley hatches a new talent pool for the food industry

Samantha Derrick's Plant Futures symposium helps students get experience in the plant-based food sector and connecting startups in the space to young talent.

Women in suit holding plant

Samantha Derrick is creating a much needed career path for the next generation of sustainability leaders. Image courtesy of Shutterstock via Butsaya.

This article originally appeared as part of our Food Weekly newsletter. Subscribe to get sustainability food news in your inbox every Thursday.

The Food Weekly year started off with a list of 12 women who will be cultivating better food systems in 2022. I’ll stay on the badass women bandwagon for a little longer to tell you about Samantha Derrick, co-founder and program director at Plant Futures. 

In 2021, she went from studying public health at UC Berkeley to leading Plant Futures, a rapidly expanding new initiative connecting the dots between plant-based food, public health and entrepreneurship. Along the way, it creates a global talent pipeline for the plant-based food industry.

With that, the initiative is tapping into one of the most dynamic markets within the food industry. In a 2021 report, Bloomberg Intelligence estimated that the plant-based food market will grow from $29.4 billion in 2020 to over $162 billion in 2030. Beyond Meat, one of the larger companies in the sector, lists 125 vacancies on its team. 

Why do so many young people have their eyes on the plant-based food industry? And what’s the role of universities in helping these climate-friendly businesses thrive?

Four people gathered together

From left to right: Cynthia Bazán, Nina Gheihman, Samantha Derrick and Will Rosenzweig. Image courtesy of Samantha Derrick. 

Public health, powered by plants

"I wanted to focus on plant-based food and nutrition in my master’s program but quickly realized that there weren’t really any classes, resources or even conversations at the school about the plant-based food sector," Derrick told me. This doesn’t make much sense for a public health school, as animal agriculture is a big contributor to diet-related diseases. Besides, pollution from factory farms severely affects the health of local, often BIPOC, communities. 

"This absence of resources at Berkeley also really surprised me because the plant-based industry is an important sector in the Bay Area," Derrick added. She decided this needed to change at a school famous for its food systems and sustainability teaching. 

She found a mentor in Will Rosenzweig, one of her professors and faculty co-chair at the Berkeley Haas Center for Responsible Business. He encouraged Derrick to create a syllabus for a new course on the topic — which she did. But Derrick didn’t create just a traditional course. In addition to addressing a new topic, Derrick wanted to bring more applied, experiential and inter-disciplinary learning to the university. Something that would be meaningful for students’ careers. 

The new course consisted of two parts. The first was a weekend-long symposium, in which students, faculty and industry veterans such as Beyond Meat’s founder Ethan Brown discussed public health, environmental, political and innovation challenges pertaining to plant-based food systems. 

In the second part of the course, students participated in a 14-week challenge lab where they connected with mentors from plant-based companies and assisted them in innovation projects. 

Creating a talent funnel for the plant-based industry

David Katz, a physician and CEO of the nutrition startup Diet ID, was one such mentor. He worked with three students from different disciplines on tactics, market outreach and segmentation questions. 

"The students gave us eight or nine specific recommendations and we acted on at least seven of them. It was valuable for us and also meaningful for the students. They were at the brink of their careers and could see their ideas influence the direction a company takes in the marketplace," Katz said. 

This absence of [plant-based career] resources at Berkeley also really surprised me because the plant-based industry is an important sector in the Bay Area.

He appreciated getting insights from leading faculty at Berkeley and the course community at large through the students. "It’s also a good way for startups with restricted hiring possibilities to get projects done, for the students to gain work experience and for companies to get to know potential future employees," Katz added. 

Jamie Raiss, who oversees a food studies graduate certificate program at UCLA, also views the workplace connection Plant Futures provides as critical. "Every year we do an exit survey with our students. They always express their wish for more hands-on, real-life experience through the program. When I learned from one of my students who participated in the symposium that the challenge lab has industry partners, I thought it would be a really exciting opportunity." 

This year, Raiss will enroll her first pilot group in the challenge lab which will feature industry partners such as Amy’s, Meati Foods, Cal Dining and the Plant Based Foods Association. 

The birth of a growing social venture

Taking place online due to COVID-19, the first Plant Futures Symposium was attended by 500 people from around the world, not just curious Berkeley students. "We understood just how big the vacuum for these kinds of conversations was when students from all kinds of schools started to ask how they could join our group or start something similar at their campuses,"  Derrick said. 

After graduating a few months later, Derrick decided to pursue Plant Futures full-time as a social venture. She raised funds from foundations and industry partners to further build out the program and bring it to more schools. In less than a year, she helped students and faculty establish 15 local chapters in other elite schools such as Harvard and Yale, community colleges such as De Anza College and Pasadena City College and even universities in Singapore and Sao Paulo.

While Derrick didn’t track whether any students got hired by their challenge lab companies, she knows that many continued a trusting relationship with their mentors beyond the program. This year, they will actively encourage industry partners to consider more formal internship and employment opportunities for their mentees. 

For now, Derrick is excited about another success story. "I recently found out that one of our symposium student participants from last year, Kashish Juneja, founded a plant-based milk tea company, Aura Tea, and they are launching a storefront in San Francisco soon." The Plant Futures Symposium helped move her idea forward and connected Juneja with the founder of Oatly, with whom she now has a partnership. 

As the initiative continues to expand from Berkeley to the world, many more success stories are bound to emerge. I hope it will also inspire universities to channel young people’s ideas and passion toward other markets in need of talent. Farming could be a top contender, as the average U.S. farmer is 57 years old and farmers younger than 35 only make up 8 percent of the country’s producers.

If you’d like to get a taste of Plant Futures, the second symposium will take place Jan. 28-29. 

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