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Functional Food & Female Entrepreneurs

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We sat down with our Harvest Council Member and speaker Sheryl O’Loughlin, to talk functional food, innovation and the groundwork she believes still lays ahead for female entrepreneurs.

The functional food world has grown by leaps and bounds in the past several decades. Some of the most successful brands like Clif Bar pioneered better taste and sustainable sourcing. The woman leading this shift as CEO at Clif & Company, along with owner Gary Erickson, was Sheryl O’Loughlin. Not only did she transform a category, she learned profound entrepreneurial lessons while pioneering a company culture rooted in social and environmental impact. Before it was cool, she created a purpose-driven place to work with a deep commitment to sustainability.

After Clif, Sheryl co-founded with Neil Grimmer, Plum, Inc., a healthy food company nourishing kids from the high chair to the lunch box. As CEO, Sheryl led Plum to become an industry leader and game-changing company with national distribution. After growing to about $100MM in revenue in only four years, Plum was successfully sold to the Campbell Soup Company.

Following Plum, Sheryl was the Executive Director of the Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at Stanford University, supporting future entrepreneurs to design and scale new ventures that have a positive impact on the world.

Today she is the CEO of REBBL, a San Francisco-based startup that makes indulgent, organic coconut milk-based drinks with adaptogenic herbs, a fast-growing trend that REBBL is helping lead.

As former CEO of Clif & Company, can you point to one major innovation that helped put the brand on the nutrition bar map?

We had an unbelievably great tasting product that was better than anything else out there. We knew it was critical to focus on the art of making real food and approached it with the mindset of a baker, not a scientist. That was a breakthrough for a category that was suffering from unappetizing bricks that were often sticky or tough.

Luna Bar has managed to appeal to women without feeling insincere, was that intentional and, if so, what can other female-driven products learn from Luna bar?’

It was absolutely intentional. The team of talented women working at Clif wanted a bar that talked to us, as women. All of the other bars at the time were speaking to men with a focus on aggressive power. We decided that we wanted a brand that was about honoring the women in our lives. What other female-driven products could learn from this example is to embrace that focus on women instead of trying to make it appeal to everyone.

Many men used Luna too because it simply tasted so good that they came along for the ride. But, by really speaking to women, women felt deeply passionate and connected to the brand.  We also made certain to speak to women in a way that’s supportive and empowering. The emphasis was on being real and authentic rather than a push for perfection. It was about that unique bond that women have as a community.

I’ll always remember a powerful moment in a focus group when we first launched the bar in 1999. A woman lifted up the Luna Bar in her hand, held it high in the air and said, “This is our brand. It’s about our strength as women!” That’s the feeling of deep connection that builds a franchise.

Are we doing enough to encourage the next generation of female entrepreneurs, if not what are some simple ways to change the dialogue?

There are simply not enough women starting businesses. There are many challenges along the way that are unique to female entrepreneurs. Women often don’t have the same access to funding as men when the largely male investor community looks to invest in people “like them” because, they believe, it reduces their risk. This happens in spite of evidence that companies run by women tend to perform better financially. For example, according to a Forbes article by Alex Konrad, First Round Capital analyzed their portfolio of 300 companies, including Blue Apron and Square, and concluded that “companies with a female founder performed 63% better than their investments with all male founding teams.”

According to a 2015 Tech Crunch article, “In 2009, 9.5 percent of startups had at least one woman founder, but by 2014 that rate had almost doubled to 18 percent.” The good news is we are making progress. Still, given the evidence of how well women-run startups do, why is it only 18 percent of startups have at least one female founder, while women make up 50 percent of Americans? We have a long way to go.

It’s crucial that we push for investors to seek out female founders. We need a network of women entrepreneurs that will help train others to be ready to make pitches and help them get an audience with venture firms. We need to continue to show these firms the evidence that it’s good for their investments. And, we need more women in venture firms to be able to bring their female networks in front of their firms.

Importantly, we must also keep nurturing the mindset of the new generation. When I asked my 12 and 15 year old sons if women should be leaders, they looked as me as if I were an alien and said, “Of course. We don’t understand why this is a question.”

What was your greatest ah-ha moment as the Executive Director of The Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at Stanford?

The amount of brilliant women there was stunning. Yet, when men would come to my office hours, they’d proudly and boldly talk about their vision for their startups. When many women would, they couldn’t even look me in the eye as they shared their ideas.

As women, we can benefit greatly from believing in ourselves and presenting our vision from a position of strength. This takes practice and it’s not always comfortable. Aspiring women entrepreneurs need to seek out feedback on how to continuously improve their presentation, from both women and men.  Women entrepreneurs need to videotape themselves pitching so they can see what needs to be improved, verbally and nonverbally.  I did that while I was in grad school and realized I wouldn’t even be comfortable hiring myself if I continued to present in the way I saw on the video.  Practice means the difference between getting funding and not. This also holds true for engaging potential employees, suppliers and other stakeholders as you grow. When all you have is a dream to show them for evidence, you need a strong pitch to convince them they should come along for the ride.

REBBL donates 2.5% of revenue to Not For Sale  (support regions of the world that are vulnerable to exploitation and human trafficking) is the adage “Doing Well by Doing Good” even more relevant today?

Absolutely.  Being purpose driven as a business is, to me, the only way to really create a legacy you and the rest of the people associated with your company will be deeply proud of. Nowadays, aided by how transparent the world is through the internet at our fingertips, consumers will actively seek out brands they believe are worth their dollars. They see the brands they support as reflective of their own principles and values.

For REBBL, it’s not just the donation of 2.5% of revenue that’s important. It’s having a lens for how to use the power of business to have a positive impact on the planet and people. The impact we have through our ethical sourcing is critical to us as a business and important to us personally. We want to uplift the lives of our growers including giving them a fair wage for their work and paying a premium for organic agriculture that supports healthy, regenerative soil.

Being purpose driven also helps to ensure we have a workplace that’s meaningful and inspiring for our people so they come to work with grit, passion and a deep desire to do their best work.
Are you working on any innovative projects now you can share with us?

Many!  One we’re very excited about is that REBBL is working with Cal Berkeley and using tools from the United Nations to create a model to help us better determine the most important ways to improve the livelihood of our growers. We will work closely with growers so that their input on what they believe to be important is central to our work. Then, we will measure that impact over time.  Has our supporting organic actually helped carbon sequestration in the soil? Are the growers truly able to feed their families more easily? Has our paying a fair wage had a long lasting positive impact on their lives? This is a model we hope to be so effective that other companies and communities will benefit from using it.

Sheryl will be a featured speaker at Harvest Summit on November 4, 2016. Look for her new book Killing It.  An Entrepreneur’s Guide to Keeping Your Head Without Losing Your Heart out later this year.   Learn more about our agenda, see our speaker roster and request an invitation.

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