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1. What is your business?

Revolution Foods is a mission-driven meal provider to U.S. schools and community programs.   Registered as a B Corp, Revolution Foods offers healthy, no artificial anything, kid-approved breakfast, lunch, snacks, and supper more affordably than any other company.  Meals generally cost less than $3 and include lean protein, whole grains (brown rice usually), fruit, veggie, and rBST-free milk, all the while surpassing all USDA ingredient standards.  As of this summer, Revolution Foods has served over 300 million meals to American kids.

2. What made you decide to start your business and/or switch careers?

As a twenty-five year old, I moved to Nairobi, Kenya after working for three years on Wall Street. In Kenya, I helped start a school and in the afternoons I taught classes.  By being a part of the operations as well as the faculty, I saw first-hand how nutrition and learning were linked.  When we started cooking Kenyan food for the students, I was moved at how well-fed kids were engaged–far more than they had been without the home-cooked meals.  Seeing a dramatic transformation come from such a simple solution made me curious about whether the same dynamic existed in the U.S. school system.  After I finished my role in Kenya, I started looking into the data.

3. Was there one moment that gave you the confidence that this was a good idea?

As I was looking into whether U.S. schools could benefit from a nutrition overhaul, both the education and venture communities were very encouraging to me.   Two big heroes of mine in the education space, Jenna Stauffer (Lighthouse Community Charter School Founder) and Don Shalvey (Aspire Public Schools Founder), helped us design our pilot program and said that if we could start the company, they would sign up their schools for year 1.   Because there was such a need, the founding of the company came together quickly.  I am still so grateful and amazed at how it all came together.

4. Were there any partnerships or advice that were particularly helpful?

Kirsten Tobey and I started Revolution Foods in 2006.  She and I met in business school in a new product development class where we were presenting similar ideas around improved nutrition in schools.  Our partnership is somewhat like a marriage: we have the same values, so if we ever have a question such as nutrition standards, how to treat an employee, or how to treat school partner, we are almost always aligned and very much value transparent and open communication.

Outside of that, we have complementary skill sets and have co-led the vision and team building of the company.  As our CEO, I have focused on strategy, business development, board management, recruiting and fundraising.  Kir serves as our Chief Impact Officer and in addition to designing our nutrition standards and brand approach, she has recently led the development of our retail line and is currently working on family meal innovation.  It is really a blessing to have had our partnership be so healthy for so long.  I think that good communication is key, along with both having a strong work ethic and putting family first.

5. Were your family and friends helpful or obstacles in launching your business? How so?

We think becoming moms has made us better leaders and better product people.  We sometimes say that we are Moms on a Mission.  We have true empathy for families, and our authenticity towards our mission is high.  When we started Rev Foods, we knew we were signing up for a major uphill battle and commitment—we were aiming to overhaul a large portion of the food industry.  As a result, we had to pace ourselves and we knew that we couldn’t delay other parts of our lives.  Between the two of us, we had 5 kids in 10 years, and despite hard work and focus on the job, we take every day of vacation and try to “unplug completely” during this time.

6. Was outside funding/cost a challenge to getting your business off the ground?

We decided to make Revolution Foods a for-profit business because we knew that scale was the only way we could make the U.S. subsided meal costs for at-risk communities work with healthy and fresh ingredients.  Some advisors told us to become a non-profit to start, but by communicating our values, massive market opportunity and business model clearly in fundraising (and later becoming one of the first B Corps), we were able to attract for-profit investors who also supported the mission. In 2006, we saw that our company structure had a binary impact on people’s interest in us: some people loved it and other people are said, “That’s not for me.”  I loved that being clear about our objectives cut to the chase.  Our investors are diverse, but all care about the mission and building financial value through shifting demand to a healthier product and executing on strong company building.

I always tell people that if they want to start a company in this space, now is the time.  There are so many investors looking to deploy capital into a social enterprise.  Of course, in order to raise capital from these sources, companies have to have a solid financial model and execute well.

7. What are some successes you have had with your business that make you proud?

In order to meet nutrition standards while pleasing kids’ palettes, we’ve had to carefully hand-design the food and we had to build the clean label supply chain from the ground up.  It was a huge challenge.  For 10 years, we were working on this.  We now have a good foundation to build from and a solid network of partners.  For instance, we have developed partnerships so that we can offer handmade tamales, 5 ingredient hot dogs, sautéed collard greens and chili verde.  We also serve kid classics like spaghetti and meatballs.  Remember: we must sell each meal for under $3 while making them delicious and healthy. A lot of people told us this was impossible.

8. What are some of the biggest positive or negative surprises in your business?

Incredible talent, community goodwill and investor goodwill are always so encouraging to me.  I often feel like Revolution Foods has a life of its own and the community and team have “willed” it to succeed based on the system changing impact possible.  We have been able to recruit talent that is 5 times higher than a company at our stage should be able to.   I think it has to do with the level of our commitment and the company’s impact.  To give you a sense of the kind of feedback we get, here is a story about when we launched in New Orleans.  After 2 days of serving meals, we had emails piling into our inboxes from teachers, principals, and school operations directors.  The adults were saying, “Oh my gosh, we now realize that our kids were hungry and this is what it looks like when their bellies are full and they can focus in class.”  Just 3 days in and the schools were seeing results in school.  I still cry thinking about it.

I was also really pleased and proud this spring when the University of California Berkeley Nutrition Policy Institute released a study correlating our approach to healthy school meals and positive academic outcomes.  I always knew this was true, but it is gratifying and incredibly helpful for our mission to have science back us up.  We are driving both health and academic outcomes and setting kids up for success.  One of the things I love about our mission is that healthy meals (sometimes for as little as $2.80 per kid) is one of the lowest cost, highest ROI investments in education.

9. What would be your biggest piece of advice you would give to yourself ten years ago?

Recruit amazing talent early.  If I had known then what I know now, I would have hired people sooner.  I took on a lot myself, and that was me trying to be frugal.  Neither Kirsten nor I came from fresh food manufacturing backgrounds, and there were so many learning curves relating to operations, compliance and marketing.  I think that delaying adding great professionals with experience in these areas hindered our growth.  Now we clearly understand that a great company lives and dies by its team.

10. What was the best and worst pieces of advice you have received as you were starting your business?

“Listen carefully to your customers and approach designing for them with the highest level of respect” (this was from my students) is the best piece of advice I got.  So many people told us that we were crazy, kids only eat junk food, that the model would never be breakeven or profitable, etc.  We listened to the communities we serve—parents, teachers, students—and we found a way to thrive and drive a new system changing approach.

Date of conversation: June 30, 2017

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