Many people assume that in order to create healthier food, all you have to do is find the right ingredients. But is that really all it takes?
Robyn O’Brien understands that to provide nutritious foods, you have to go back to the roots — actually, the dirt around the roots. Food is only as healthy as the soil it grows in. For decades, farmers have dumped chemicals into the soil of our produce and planted genetically modified seeds. Only 1% of currently-owned farmlands are organic. In order to change the status quo, farmers will have to overcome old traditions and financial roadblocks. What’s being done to help farmers transition to a more planet-friendly approach?
In this episode of the Gooder Podcast, Diana Fryc is joined by Robyn O’Brien, Co-founder and Managing Director of rePlant Capital, to discuss how her team is investing in a more organic future. Robyn talks about how rePlant is empowering farmers to produce organic foods, why soil health is essential to restoring nutrition, and the inequality embedded in the US agricultural system.
In this episode we learn:
- Robyn O’Brien explains the roots of rePlant Capital
- The life-changing science of soil health
- The downward spiral of chemical-injected farming
- Why society is slowly turning towards whole foods
- Robyn discusses the racism embedded in the US agricultural system
- Backlash Robyn received from her 2011 TEDx Talk that laid out the truth behind organic vs. chemical farming
- How did Robyn’s previous finance experience lead to where she is today?
- Robyn’s proudest moments in her career
- What’s next for rePlant?
- Removing the seat belt of fear to encourage change for farmers
- Redefining success and failure
About Robyn O’Brien:
Robyn O’Brien is the Co-founder and Managing Director of rePlant Capital, a financial services firm dedicated to assisting US farmers’ transition to regenerative and organic agriculture. rePlant Capital aims to accomplish this by deploying a series of proprietary funds, with the ultimate goal of reversing climate change.
Robyn is a globally recognized voice in the food industry and has been called “food’s Erin Brockovich” by The New York Times. Her TEDx talk (based on her book, The Unhealthy Truth) exposes the shortcomings of our food system and has been viewed millions of times — it’s even influenced policy, legislation, and product formulation. Additionally, Robyn has advised CEOs and executives at multinational CPG companies, startups, and farm organizations for the last 15 years.
Guests Social Media Links:
LinkedIn Robyn O’Brien : https://www.linkedin.com/in/robyn-o-brien-a395b42/
- Robyn O’Brien on LinkedIn | Facebook | Twitter | Instagram
- rePlant Capital
- Karen Frame on the Gooder Podcast
- Jane Pinto on the Gooder Podcast
- Ciara Dilley on the Gooder Podcast
- Denise Woodard on LinkedIn
- Danielle Gould on LinkedIn
- Catherine McCord on LinkedIn
- Jubilee Justice
- Diana Fryc on LinkedIn
- Retail Voodoo
Sponsor for this episode…
This episode is brought to you by Retail Voodoo.
Retail Voodoo has been building beloved and dominant brands in the food, wellness, beverage, and fitness CPG industries for over 30 years. They’ve served multinational companies like PepsiCo. and Starbucks, startups like High Key, and everything in between.
Their proven process guides hundreds of mission-driven consumer brands to attract a broad and passionate fan base, crush their categories through growth and innovation, and magnify their social and environmental impact.
So, if you are ready to find a partner that will help your business create a high-impact strategy that gives your brand an advantage, Retail Voodoo is here to help.
Welcome to the Gooder Podcast where we talk with powerhouse women in CPG about their journeys to success. This episode is sponsored by Retail Voodoo, a brand development firm guiding mission driven consumer brands to attract new and passionate consumer base crush their categories through growth and innovation and magnify their social and environmental impact. If your brand is in need of brand positioning, package design or marketing activation, we are here to help. You can find more information at www.retail-voodoo.com.
Diana Fryc 0:43
Well hello, I’m Diana Fryc, your host of the Gooder Podcast where I get to talk to the powerhouse women in the food, beverage and wellness categories about their journeys to success and their insights on the industry. Thanks for joining us today. Really quick This episode is brought to you by Retail Voodoo Retail Voodoo is a brand development firm. Our clients include Starbucks kind Rei, PepsiCo, high key and many other market leaders. We provide strategic brand and design services for leading brands in the food wellness, beverage and fitness industries. If your goal is to increase market, share and drive growth or disrupt the marketplace with new innovative ideas, give us a call and let’s talk find more find me or more information on retail-voodoo.com or email at firstname.lastname@example.org for more. So today we get to meet Miss Robyn O’Brien of rePlant Capital. Robyn is a globally recognized voice in the food industry and has been called the well called foods Erin Brockovich by the New York Times her TEDx talk based on her book, The Unhealthy Truth exposes the shortcomings of our food system and has been viewed millions of times. It has influenced policy legislation and product formulation love that. And for the last 15 years, Robyn has advised CEOs and executives at multinational CPG companies, startups and farm organizations. Robyn is the Co Founder and Managing Director at rePlant Capital a financial services firm ambitiously determined to reverse climate change through the deployment of a series of proprietary funds focused on us farmers and their transition to regenerative and organic agriculture. And before we get to meet her officially I really want to shout out to miss Karen Frame of Makeena for introducing the two of us. And for those that might have missed Karen’s episode, she and I talked about her new consumer facing reward platform for better for you brands Makeena and her incredible entrepreneurial journey through the naturals industry. You can find her Gooder episode on Apple, Spotify and other popular podcast platforms, and more about Makeena at makeena.com MAKEENA.com. Well, Miss Robyn, how are you?
Robyn O’Brien 3:09
It was great to be with you. And thank you for that introduction. Also a huge shout out to carne for introducing the two of us. It’s so much fun to learn about your work.
Diana Fryc 3:16
Oh, thank you, uh, where are you calling us from today? What city or town are
Robyn O’Brien 3:21
beautiful is absolutely beautiful in Boulder, Colorado, which as you know, is sort of the epicentre of the organic industry several years ago. Yes, the cradle of it. And yes, what the organic industry has become since then is so much fun, especially for so many of the kind of the core founders. Yes, I’m fathers of our industry, you might want to call them
Diana Fryc 3:41
veteran mothers. And now I heard recently, we have a few employees that are in Denver, they’re not in Boulder, they’re in Denver. I’m hearing that it’s still warm, but that changes in the air that can smell it. It’s coming.
Robyn O’Brien 3:58
It’s absolutely coming. But you know, I think collectively, we’re also aware of how close we actually are. We’ve had a summer another summer of just a blanket of smoke over the toe. And anytime anything’s hitting in Washington or Oregon or California like yeah, I mean, we feel it and it impacts us tremendously. And I think, you know, it speaks to so much of what my work is about, which is just this radical collaboration that’s needed to drive change. And every day in Colorado in the summertime, when you wake up to that blanket of smoke, you realize just how closely connected we all are.
Diana Fryc 4:33
Right? And then we up here in Washington state are definitely affected by Vancouver and north where there’s so many trees at less and population explosion up there as well. I think you guys are going through a bit of that too.
Robyn O’Brien 4:51
Oh, for sure. I mean, demars just gone crazy. You know, it’s interesting. I mean, we legalize pot here in the state of Colorado and all of a sudden, the tech companies realized that could be reclaimed. You know All of a sudden we’ve got Google out here and Twitter’s got a huge office. That’s hilarious. But it’s really true. I mean, we’ve attracted extraordinary talent and young people and rePlant Capitals to save I mean, the talent that’s coming to us is extraordinary. But it is it’s a beautiful place to live and I think whether you’re a summer person like I am and you can hike the trails all summer long and be outside or winter person you like to ski there’s really there’s a lot to offer in Colorado, but I feel free in Washington state i family up there. And you know, I think it has the attention of the earthquakes in the in the everything that’s getting along the fault line, too. Yes. I mean, for everybody,
Diana Fryc 5:37
oh, I think it no matter where you are on the planet is kind of choose your own danger adventure, either hurricanes or volcanoes or, like there’s, I don’t think that there’s any place that Mother Earth is doesn’t keep us on or
Robyn O’Brien 5:50
no. And I think it you know, it really speaks to the urgency of the work. I mean, I am from Houston originally. Family down there just continually get slammed by the storms and friends in New Orleans. You know, the storm that just ripped through New Orleans landed on the same day that Hurricane Katrina hit your kiddo. You know, it’s like Mother Nature’s out there going I’m here you know, you’re a Virginia you paying attention yet you paying attention yet? And I think to honour her to honor that and say, how do we work with her? Yeah, to help transition to a more sustainable model? How do we work with her? And I think, you know, evidently, it’s been the mindset of control, or, you know, harness or, or somehow contain and unhide. This forces Mother Nature is remarkable. And so how do we
Diana Fryc 6:35
were? Well, so that we use are really good segue into what is always my first question, I always like to ask people, then tell us a little bit more about your brand, or your company, your firm and why it exists, that your positioning is really, really tight. There’s no question there and what you’re up to so maybe give us a little bit of a history. How did rePlant get to this point? Why are you so fierce and who was involved in that? Yeah, I
Robyn O’Brien 6:59
mean, rePlant Capital, I could not be more excited or, or more proud to be working with the extraordinary team that we have today. The three co founders, Don Schaefer, he was CEO of RSF, social finance group, in my opinion, that not enough people have heard about, they were the first organization to really make loans to the organic industry, back in the beginning of the industry, when the conventional banks kind of looked at the organic companies like what what are you doing, you know, and RSF stepped in and said, we’ll give you the capital, we’re going to give you the loan. And so under Don’s leadership for 10 years as CEO, you know, it’s all the companies that we know and love. It’s Uncle Matt organics, it’s happy family, you know, nutiva so many of the brands that are just icons in the organic industry today, are there because Don and RSF social finance were in the early years willing to make the loans. And so his his frustration was we never really got to agriculture when we RSF. Got it. And so when I met up with him, you know, I have spent 15 years in the food industry, like you covered in the bio. You know, never in a million years did I expect to find myself in the position that I was in, but all of a sudden, I was blowing the whistle on the double standard in the industry, how polluted our food system had become, yes, how our own American food companies were formulating products to a higher integrity and a higher degree in other countries, and then feeding us the stuff that was pumped full of artificial crap. And so you know, it was it was that frustration was, you know, this does not need to happen. You’re already doing it overseas. But we’re not asking anybody to reintegrate. And so it began a lot of high level consulting. And it was fascinating because initially, the outreach, came through very personal requests, and so was the CEO of Nestle’s frozen food division that was the first multinational CEO to reach out and he said, Look, you can say things I can’t say, Yeah, he was worried about his own three sons. He was worried about laying off employees, because you knew he was formulating products that weren’t going to work for the 21st century family. I was coming through that experience. And initially, when people first started talking about soil health, I thought, like, that’s a Berkeley thing, you know, like, we’re just talking about the food right now. Right, right. And then you know, to really deeply understand that our food is only as healthy as the soil that we grow it in. And these are some steps that I think are really, really important for anyone to understand in any part of the food industry. 85% of consumers are choosing something organic 75% of all grocery store categories now carry something organic, but only 1% of our supply chain is organic. So where I landed when I was working with General Mills, or any of these companies was the math doesn’t work for you guys, even if you are deeply believing that this transition needs to happen. If the supply chain isn’t there, you you literally cannot do it. So how do we blow open the bottleneck? That’s the supply chain. So then the third partner, the third co founder is Dave Haines. And he was a managing director at Green Mont capital. Egremont capital, again, was funding organizations like uncle max organic. Yeah, he was getting frustrated because, you know, as the climate crisis continued to escalate, you know, he was Like, am I really spending my hours in the day doing what I need to be doing is taking the next organic kombucha, you know, up to the next level, really gonna be the seismic shift. So all of us were in this very frustrated place individually. Yep. And as we began to meet and come together, Dave and Dan have known each other since they were kids, Dave and I are here in Boulder together, we would meet up, you know, for coffee and getting getting together, we’d be on panels together. And it was so clear that we shared this frustration. And it’s also very clear that none of us are those kinds of people that just sit in the frustration, you know, we’re very solutions oriented. Yes. And we thought, what can we do together, leveraging the three, you know, collective expertise here? What can we build together, that’s actually going to drive systemic change. And as we were really focusing on soil health, initially, we thought, like, we’ll create a fund. Yeah, and it’s going to be investing from soil to shelf. So it would allow Dave and I to continue, you know, doing what we had done in the CPG, you know, consumer facing, or, as well as start to deploy loans to farmers so that we could start to grow that only 1% of farmland is organic into something. Yeah. But what happened was, when we really got into what was happening on farm, all of us felt a very, very strong moral obligation towards soil health and towards the farmer. Yeah, and not only do you want to transition that farmland so that we can grow organic products, and the soil is healthier, and we’re not polluting it with all the chemical inputs, and roundup and all these things that are all over the headlines. What we were learning was that soil when it is healthy, has this incredible capacity to store carbon? Yeah. I mean, you know, as I’ve met with different soil scientists, I’m like, when did this really hit mainstream and about 10 or 15 years ago, when they realise that if you are chemically contaminating the soil, you kind of turn it into almost like a rock, and it can absorb anything, water, nutrients, carbon, if you restore soil health, which is the concept of regeneration, it’s restoring soil health, if you restore soil health, all of a sudden, it can hold water, it can hold its nutrients, and most importantly, it can hold carbon. So the food industry, which is you know, is slow to change. And it can sometimes feel like turning the Titanic when you’re trying to get a multinational company to, to make a shift. But when you come in, and you say this is an absolute Win, win win across the board, because all of a sudden, you’ve got products, organic products that you’re pulling out of this healthy soil, that’s meeting the demand of a 21st century consumer. And up until that point, I mean, we were importing this stuff from all over the world, it was insane, rather than just throw it here. Yeah. So all of a sudden, you know, General Mills, Nestle just goes, all these companies can say, we can grow it here, this is actually beneficial to the US farm economy to make this transition away from genetically engineered corn and soy, I mean, who is going to the grocery store asking for genetically engineered corn? Okay, why are those our predominant cross and so the food industry is thrilled because they’re saying, you know, you actually are coming in as a finance partner, to help us make this transition where we plant capital is so unique is that leaning heavily on Don’s expertise from RSF, and the enormous creativity and innovation that he had in deploying capital deploying loans, we are able to offer terms and cost of capital that the conventional lending institutions can’t, can’t make. And then importantly, for us, and importantly, for for the planet, is that the terms of that capital are also tied to soil health. Yeah. And so we’re able to deploy these extraordinary low cost loans to the farmers, provided that we can capture metrics and well around water, of course, around pollinators, you know, around these things that are really the metrics that are telling us, you know, what our likelihood of survival is on the long end. So we have an amazing team. The talent that has come to us just actually gave me the chills, is extraordinary. It is an extraordinary team. And I think, you know, as we build out and build out and build in all of this expertise, collaboratively as a team, it is a powerhouse team. And for us, this evergreen debt fund that we’re launching to help transition farmland is only 2 billion in capital. But what we know is that $700 billion is needed to transition American farmland so we just want to model it. Yep. We want to invite others to come in and participate with us.
Diana Fryc 14:26
So there’s, there’s so much to unpack there. I was I’m thinking back to my conversation with Jane Pinto. Do you know her? Yes. We had such a great conversation when I interviewed her about her efforts and the hemp and regenerative issues in regenerative just kind of coming back to what you were talking about Denver being this hub of new growth and regenerative agriculture and that it’s actually so much easier. It’s so much easier and I almost want to say I could be naive in this, but it’s almost less expensive. Just taking care of the earth the way it needs to be, rather than dumping and supplementing and transporting and all of these things.
Robyn O’Brien 15:13
I mean, it’s really it makes sense if you think about it, as all of these models were built on top of this chemical input model, right, provided all of these transaction costs. And you know, if, if farmers for hundreds of 1000s of years, hundreds and hundreds of years had saved seeds, that’s in the financial interest of the farmer to save their seed. Yeah, every year, all of us had an income to chemical company that’s like, Hey, we are going to genetically engineer that seed so it can withstand more chemicals. And as a result, we’re going to slap a patent on that seed, which means guess what farmer you can’t save it right now have this patented technology, their product will company own, and you farmer have got to pay us a fee, year after year after year after year, use this patented genetically engineered seed that got foisted on our farmers. And today the farmers carry $426 billion of debt a debt. And so you look at farmer debt in the US has gone like this year, the adoption of genetically engineered seeds and it’s gone like this. So the parallel we got a loan to buy the seeds every year. And he or she has to take out a loan to them purchase this portfolio of chemicals that are required to grow the seeds. And so those chemical companies built their models built their revenues on the backs of us farmers and farmers and other countries. And when I really understood that I thought this is criminal. Now the crisis is, you know, young people, these farms that have been in families for four or five generations and young people are looking at like, I don’t want to do that dad. Yeah, I don’t want to farm with all these chemicals. I don’t want my little kids running around with all of that. And so there’s a legacy crisis that’s happening on the farm. And I think that’s actually the opportunity to say, How can we get in there and say, you know, what we thought maybe we are being generous with we thought this may have been a good model. Initially, when it was introduced. It’s not it is absolutely trashed. The financial situation of our farmers is trashing the soil or learning that it’s trashing the health of the environment. Yeah, don’t worry, those trashing the health of the consumer. So once you know better, you do better. And I think, you know, the opportunity now is to say, instead of a chemical input model, let’s steward the soil, and there are different costs. So yeah, you know, spending the money on chemicals, and certainly engineered seeds, you got to hire an on farm technical assistant that can start the transition. But then you know, those are those are, those are not recurring costs. That’s something that you can come in, and you can learn the stewardship of the soil into this transition. And then you’re back at it on the other side. So it’s fundamentally changes the financial situation of the grower, which is you can imagine the chemical industry does not
Diana Fryc 17:54
want Yeah, well, you think they kind of like the tobacco industry a little bit where you kind of want to go, you know, I want to say you got to read the room yet to read the planet, and just kind of go come up with a different model. We don’t want you to not make money, but figure something else out that is valuable to the long run. I mean, that’s what innovation is all about. Anyway, totally.
Robyn O’Brien 18:16
I totally agree. And that’s what the food industry is doing. And are they doing it fast enough? Not yet. But you know, I mean, you talk to any of these executives inside of any of these multinational companies, don’t they know exactly what you said, but that’s where the growth is, yeah, consumers want free from food, and it’s not good. We all of a sudden woke up and said, Hey, I want to free from food. It’s because you got a kid with food allergies, or you’ve got a mom with cancer, or you’ve got a dad with diabetes. And all of a sudden, you know, you’re we’re all flipping those labels over and we’re saying what the hell is in his house, it’s impacting Yeah. And then again, you know, it begins this transition. But for me personally, throughout absolutely every stage of my work, and every part of my career, my personal mission is how do you make clean and safe food affordable and accessible? Yes, everyone who wants it better, you know, it’s getting better. I mean, it used to be Whole Foods whole paycheck, but it is actually getting better. But really, it’s how do you democratize that so that everyone has access to it and the why, why you want to do that. We spend more on health care in the United States than any other country on the planet. It is insane. And it’s almost 20 cents of every dollar that we’re spending on health care costs and disease management. And if you ask any of us, do we want to be spending our money on that? Absolutely. No. And so how do we actually rethink this in a systemic way and it gets back to really what you’re all about is, you know, you can’t have a homogenous profile of leadership. Right? We talk so much about how important bio diversity is for sale. Well, that diversity is so important for the health of leadership. Yes is sorely lacking in the financial industry is touched on you know, and venture capital only 2% of venture capital money goes to women and even a smaller percentage goes to school of color. So we don’t have representation and get the permanence level kind of on the corporate side, we don’t have federal level and we don’t have it at the state and local level to me. Like if we’re just going to be talking about foods and ingredients without actually talking about this bigger piece of government, we’re not going to succeed. So how do we actually ensure that at the governance level, we’re talking about diversity the same way we’re talking about it?
Diana Fryc 20:22
Yeah. Well, I like to talk part of the reason why I started this podcast was, as I was noticing, the investment capital coming out of tech, kind of not really connected to the naturals industry, the way the naturals industry had been all the time. A lot of this is all about that financials industry, the products, and the ingredients, and everything are high margin, high cost really developed and innovated for a high net worth or high income family, which is predominantly Caucasian. Right? When you go back to that medical component, that you’re talking about how much we’re spending on medical Guess who’s paying those medical, it’s not the high high wage earners, because we’re being educated through our better for you brands. We are typically have more educated education across the board and market opportunity, I think, for the naturals industry to reach down into the different marketplaces, which it’s starting to do now with AI, you know, praises to the Kroger’s of the world and the Walmarts of the world that are making those incremental changes in providing a path to health instead of going, No, you’re eating a Cheeto or you’re eating a kale chip. And there’s nothing in between. We’re seeing multinationals making that. And along the journey, it’s like you go from pride to baked and baked organic and then from organic to etc. And slowly move up the food chain.
Robyn O’Brien 21:53
Yeah, I mean, I think I think you got to flatten it. I don’t think we need to think about it as reaching down as much. Ross Yeah, fair
Diana Fryc 22:00
Robyn O’Brien 22:01
You know, we’re all on this ship together and sinking. And, you know, we’re all in it together. And until we recognize that, that it’s flat, it’s actually flat. And, and I think, you know, it’s it’s fascinating to see the innovation in the food industry. It’s fascinating to see remarkable founders of color, the underperform out of, you know, organizations like General Mills and others. And there’s a sense of frustration. And I think there’s a real education that white executives need. They just need to sit down and listen. Yeah, and not we’re not talking to each other. You need to sit down and listen to experts in the room. And it’s not us. Yeah. So you know that that’s a that’s a huge piece. And I think, you know, when we talk about regenerative farming again, you know, when you look at this agro chemical model, as it was deployed over the last 20 years, 96% of our farmers are white, and the white farmers were the ones that had access to the capital, because there’s discriminatory lending this video. Yeah, so the farmers of color did not have access to the capital to purchase the chemicals. So guess what, they always farmed, stewarding the soil because that was the only thing they had. So when you talk to farmers of color, and you they hear the word regeneration, they get pretty ticked off, because you know what they’re like, regenerate. This is all we’ve ever done. We don’t have to re generate anything, because this is all we’ve ever done. So again, for for white farmers to step back and let farmers of color lead and say this is how Yes, fine, you know, because they never had access to that capital. And I guess, you know, again, like the racism that is so embedded in our food system run so deep. And the racism that is so embedded in our agricultural system runs so deep, and I think you know, for to look at it and say 96% of farmers are white, and 98% of the people finances are white. It’s a very homogenous system. Yeah, that has absolutely failed us. Yeah. So how do you look at it and say, you know, how do we build a very strong fabric here because the fabric of all of us together is so much stronger than anyone dread and right now what we’ve got is one thread and we are barely hanging on.
Diana Fryc 24:07
Yeah. Well, and you’re right on the homogenized, you know if we can incorporate the you know, I think of here in the northwest during World War Two, the number of Japanese farmers that were whose lands were stolen, like there’s a big giant, very expensive mall, and complex of malls. That used to be farms of Japanese farmers that were stolen and now there’s big mall there. And you think of all of that, the ingredients and the diversity and product and just the agricultural education that disappeared because of these things that have happened historically in the US, it’d be great if there was a way that we could just reintroduce those that legacy into the leadership and and yes, they could drive it or or they could just be the leaders and if we could just step back and get out of our britches about how smart we are and what we know. I think we’ll just see it speed along a little bit faster. And as I was talking, I interviewed Ciara Dilley from Frito Lay, oh, is about a year ago now. And she said, You know, I she’s I said, Why are you with the Titanic? You know, why are you with instead of a small brand, and she said, If I can turn the Titanic, the amount of impact I have, at the end of the day is so much of an act. Totally,
Robyn O’Brien 25:30
I totally agree. Because, you know, when I went out to talk first one online in 2011, I was absolutely load them to test it by several multinational food companies. And they were very aggressive in their attacks. Very, very aggressive in trying to isolate me, so that if anybody stepped forward and in a way to support that person, and that that company was bullied into their advertising agencies and executives who they tried to bully into, and it was fascinating to realize how threatened they were by this by this truth it was coming through and it was, you know, I wasn’t making anything up. It’s just, here’s the data of the number of american cancer, one in two men and one in three women are expected to get it. And it’s the leading cause of death by disease and kids under the age of 15. Like, that’s our data. And because of that, you know, we are waking up to how do we actually choose better food for our family. And the food industry was trying to fight like the actual data and actual truth. And it was fascinating in the early years. But then, you know, as when Nestle was the first to reach out, and then General Mills, and these other ones reached out, you know, at first people were like, those are the bad guys, you know, those are the bad guys. I’m like, how in the world are you going to change the conversation, unless you’re willing to sit at the table with them, and snow, you know, to sit down at the table with them and just see each other Parent to Parent and say, Look, this is a mess. And in some way, we’ve all been part of it. I mean, I was an absolute Diet Coke addict, too. But I gave it up every year for Lent. Oh, my goodness, Sunday, I would dive right back in you know, and I’d have like, screaming headaches for two weeks getting off of Diet Coke, and whatever’s in that key I’m you know, and then I would just feel great. And then Easter Sunday, I would just like dive back in. And, you know, so like, I don’t come from this perfect place. I didn’t grow up eating, you know, all of this organic stuff, or gryphons, you say, just like a regular kid. And yeah, you had all the junk around me and a mom that did a great job. But you know, like, we were just it was it was very what she did, it was real. And so I didn’t come from this kind of perfect organic place, you know. And I think that that awareness, and that connection, kind of human to human is really what this is all about. And I think, you know, for any of us, like when we find ourselves in a situation where we’re sort of locked in a problem, you really mean the people that are going to help? Yeah, and so for us to replan it’s like, we want to be that that’s who we are. That’s who we are as bridging that divide. Yeah, it’s who we are, as people it’s a core value of our team is, you know, how do we actually work together to find a solution. And, you know, I think up until this point, and it’s understandable that these big Titanic’s and multinationals have been on guard because it’s been required. I mean, there definitely have been some very, very loud, very, very critical voices. And that’s important. What is more important, in my opinion, is getting to the solution. And so you know, I think it you can be noisemaking and get really constructive on providing a solution. So at rePlant, that’s what we do. And you it’s, it’s to meet the growers, where they are. So we partner with these multinational food companies, because then we can say, who are the top 10 farmers and growers in your network that are already sort of listening to the market and leaning this way? Or maybe their own kids are like, Hey, Dad, yeah, taking over the farm, if you keep using all these chemicals, and those multinational procurement leaves, you know, inside of these companies, I mean, denotes procurement lead has been there for 24 years, there is no one on the planet that knows this stuff more than he does. And for him to be able to say, these are the top 10. Guys, yeah, we need to be talking to you is so valuable for us, because then we’re not spinning our wheels, trying to convince a farmer that’s not ready to be convinced and right, what you want to do is, is fun, the success of the guy and women that are leading the transition, so that the farmers in their community are like, Hey, what are you guys doing? You know, like, all of a sudden, like, there’s profitability, and he’s buying a new f 150 or whatever truck, you know, and that speaks for itself. And so for us, you know, it really was to look at the math. Yeah. And say, how do we make this an economic solution? Yeah, financially viable for the farmer because 426 billion in debt on us farms is not financially viable for you.
Diana Fryc 29:38
And then tell me a little bit about how rePlant is or is planning to kind of address the diversity disparity are there like specific initiatives that you guys have in place are moving forward with
Robyn O’Brien 29:52
now we have a partnership with Jubilee, justice and condemnation, who is an extraordinary friend of all three co founders. It’s also something That, you know, I realized in my work, so much of what I have been doing is educating and bringing in awareness of what is actually happening in this transition. So it’s also part of our responsibility with the multinationals to sit down with them and say, Okay, what part of your supply chain is male, female, what part of your supply chain is Caucasian farmers of color? And in a lot of cases, they haven’t asked those questions. And so recognize that, you know, we have, I’ve worked with them by their sides for 15 years, where we’re helping them identify different trends and things that are coming at them. This is absolutely coming at them. And it’s not because it’s the politically correct thing to do. Like we’ve touched on earlier, it’s because that’s where the wisdom and the expertise is held, is young farmers of color. And you want that in your supply chain. Continue to confront these different environmental and climate crises. Love
Diana Fryc 30:48
it. I’m curious, Have you always been? You know, right out of school? Have you always been this powerhouse of doing good? Is that just in your DNA? Or did you come to it? You know, Aye. Aye. Aye,
Robyn O’Brien 31:09
cruelty is intolerable to me. And I’ve been that way since I was a kid. And I was reminded by a friend who recently shared with me how she had told her son that I stood up for her against the bullies in the locker room when we are in middle school. And it really sort of like hit me because I thought, you know, I’ve always had a reaction to bullies. It’s just intolerable. So that part of who I am has always been there. And, you know, I’ve told my kids 1000 times, like, I ever heard someone, it’s never intentional. It’s it’s, I don’t have that in me to be intentionally cool. So I think you know, that, that wanting to see people rise, wanting to see people elevate, you know, to me that that is just the most incredible thing to experience. And I’ve been really lucky to have friends in this journey along the way that when I have sunk from that, or shrunk from that, myself, have held and held a mirror to me and said, No, no, we’re not gonna let you do this. This is who you are. And I think the gift of that from a friend is extraordinary. And when I really experienced it around 2010, by this one particular friend, who he just was remarkable, and how he helped me, helped me to that I realized like, that is something I will forever do to pay forward. You know, what, what he gave me?
Diana Fryc 32:24
Wow. In this so you know, as I’m thinking back, I always like to know, I always like to know, what inspires people to, to get to where they are now. Was there some particular job? Or was there some particular, like, finance is very specific at the time that you are getting into it, incredibly male dominated, incredibly competitive. And yet, this is where you went like, and then out of it, blossom, this huge impact to the planet? Like, tell us a little bit about
Robyn O’Brien 33:03
finance. Yeah, I was in business school at Rice University, and rice just hit the top 20. In universities, I mean, could not be more proud to be an alumni from that school, and also an adjunct professor there. But you know, I had I was coming out of rice, and the oil and gas industry is huge in Houston. And they were recruiting me, you know, Exxon, and Enron, and all these multinationals. And I knew that I get bored easily, you know, I love having a million different things going on. And so as I was being recruited by ame, which was acquired by Invesco, I thought this is perfect, because it’s got a million moving parts. And every day, we’d meet with different management teams, you know, across these different industries and sectors, you were never bored. And it was a perfect job for me. And I was exposed to, you know, the tech industry as it was exploding in the early 2000s. And then, you know, the guys had me come in the food industry. So as I was exposed to all of that, as well. And I think about like, that exposure early on, was so dynamic and so fascinating to me. And I’m so grateful for that early exposure to all of these leading management teams. I really met Martha Stewart when she was taking her company public, we met hank paulson when he was taking public and so that diversity of exposure to leading management teams across all these different sectors was remarkable. It was also remarkable to see different leadership styles and something that forever stayed with me was that EA when they were taking that company, public fear the founder of the company was this, you know, he was very quiet, very cerebral, and he came into the meeting. And Meg Whitman was the CEO at the time, and she came in and I thought, how extraordinary for him to recognize where his strengths are, and where he now needs her to come in and lead beyond where his strengths are. And that example, was one of the most powerful examples to the point that the little deal toy that they left was an eBay money clip. It was one of the few that I saved because of the lesson that I learned from that collaboration and that management teams. So there was a lot in the early years of my work that really informed how I looked at leadership. How I looked at team building, how I looked at, you know, I played a ton of sports growing up as a kid. And I think about like, we have a whole team on the field, like we’re all good at different things. And that same mindset of like, You’re not supposed to be the master of all things. Yeah, I think that I am extraordinarily good at this one Tara on our team has built this just masterful model. She is extraordinary in what she can do. And I think together, you know, his teammates on rePlant Capital’s, team, with all these other players that are on our team. Again, like that’s that dynamic is what makes makes it so exciting. And I think for me, there were so many years in the early part of my work, where I was a solo entrepreneur, and I just had to be there just weren’t enough people on their movement yet. And that isolation is hard. And I think it’s also what makes you know, having this amazing team, you know, so joyful.
Diana Fryc 35:59
Yeah, you have i, this might be hard to isolate. But do you have some particular moment where you would be like, Okay, if I had to stop working today I am, this is the thing that I’m just most proud of? Do you have that? Or is there too many?
Robyn O’Brien 36:18
Gosh, I don’t know. I mean, I’m very grateful that there are a lot, you know, I’ve had, I’ve been approached at different conferences, and different food industry shows, by founders whose companies are now five, eight years old that saw that talk, and they’re like, I saw your TED Talk. And it totally inspired me to start this company, oh, my God, other authors reach out and say, you know, your book inspired me to totally change my career. And now, you know, I’ve just authored this book. I think, you know, the work that I’ve done with farmers over the last 15 years to have those farmers come back and say, Robyn, you, you told us this, you’re right. So I’m so humbled by the enormity of what we’re doing collectively. And I know, it was never, it’s never me, it’s just I had this particular message to carry, that was my responsibility. And to do it, in service to the work that all of these people are doing, especially our farmers, you know, I just feel that I’m part of this greater, this greater work, and I’m so grateful for that, you know, it’s been so interesting to be called, to work on policy issues, and some of this infrastructure stuff and countries, you know, around the world. And again, it’s just with a sense of service and humility that I do it, and also recognizing, you know, that what we’re doing as a team and rePlant is so extraordinary and so groundbreaking, and so possible. And I think, you know, every day we wake up and we’re like, we’re driving this incredibly powerful solution, and it’s so energizing to be in a position like that. But you know, I, my hero is Jane Goodall and I love I love her and I think you know, she’s in her 80s and she’s still she’s still doing this and she’s still educating and I would hope that I would be as lucky to be in that same position. And I also think about how in the early years of her work when she was trying to tell people about the ability for you know, these monkeys and chimps and other animals to be able to communicate in the way that they would communicate with people would have thought she was absolutely not. Yeah and when you live through that chapter, which you know, I lived through that chapter in my own story. It does just make it such a celebration as as the movement in the industry grows.
Diana Fryc 38:30
So here’s a small world moment in 1999 I was on a team of people that worked on a project directly with Jane Goodall and her I was just we I was early in my career Early ish in my career and she had said to me I was managing production I need you to find the the least environmental way to produce all of these sales and marketing pieces and the internet did not exist at that time.
Robyn O’Brien 39:01
Yeah. We all gather emails
Diana Fryc 39:05
Yeah, that was my job and which typically was a three hour job took me 80 hours to do the research and I was calling manufacturers all over the world all languages and everything and she’s the one that inspired me to make change to I became in the northwest I was the leader in recycled at it because I then moved into selling paper into the industry. And I was moving people onto recycled paper I was called the paper Queen ironically enough, and it’s what inspires me today for this podcast is really just more of her. You know, it’s this many feet away but and I was working
Robyn O’Brien 39:47
Yeah, and I mean, your tone is the same. It’s, you know, when I was really studying how to present this information, which can be really hard to hear our families are struggling with different conditions and diseases to hear that the food system is polluted to realize That these institutions that could have done a better job didn’t, you know, it’s really it can be, it can be tough to swallow. And so I thought, you know, how do you actually present this with the kindness and compassion and I studied different leaders in the way that they presented and studied Martin Luther King and how, you know, he was presenting this enormously controversial topic. And he did it with love. And I thought, you know, if you lead with love, like, that’s such an expansive energy, and then I also studied Harvey Milk and how, yes, he was leading on, you know, different gay rights issues. And he did it with gratitude, and I pull on that early in my in my work was really okay, love and gratitude. Yeah, two levers to pull here. And I continue to do that. And I continue to see this information as a gift. And you know, sometimes people aren’t ready to receive the gift. And so when they aren’t, you just kind of say, Okay, I’ll put it back here on the shelf behind me. And it’ll be here when you’re ready. And sure enough, you know, it’s happened countless times. When people come around there say, we know, what was it you were trying to teach her? And I do realize, and you know, Jane is a perfect example of this is that we are educators. And so much of what we’re doing is educating people and when you offer it in a kind and compassionate way, yes, whether it’s as a team at replant, working with farmers, or working with a procurement team are working with finance executives, you know, or if it’s, you know, forward facing for these brands to the consumer, to really to offer it in a way that allows them give them permission to participate, because that’s what we need is precipitation. And so it’s like, don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good, how can we how can we all Yes, properly find 100% participation, and I think at rePlant, what we do is we meet people where they are and so you know, there’s a spectrum of transition for these growers in these farmers and you meet him or her where he or she is, and you allow that catalyst to happen in that transition to get in and then beside them as a partner along the way, and that’s what we
Diana Fryc 41:54
do. Well, what’s next for rePlant? What’s coming up.
Robyn O’Brien 41:58
So we’re so excited because we have engaged, you know, farmers across the industry, you know, we’ve got almond growers, we’ve got potato growers, we’ve got barley growers, we’ve got rice growers, we’re in conversations with a remarkable, remarkable team of dairy farmers. And I think, you know, again, you know, we get into this tension sometimes of plant based versus animal ag. And I think, you know, it’s like trying to tell somebody what to eat. And I think about, you know, you think about some of your relatives try to tell them what to eat, they’re probably gonna push back on you pretty hard. So, you know, I think the opportunities, how can we make every category smarter and safer. And when you look at what’s happening in the dairy industry, there’s enormous opportunity to clean that up. I mean, it is messy, and we took a bunch of investors out to a dairy farm last January because it really can arguably be one of the hardest and most messiest parts of the of the industry. And then that there’s enormous opportunity almonds, the same thing you know, with a water conservation and water use on almond orchards you know, it’s the same thing. the dairy industry, they’ve got its own issues, because they’ve got those plastic clamshell, oh my goodness back around everything. So again, if we were to come in as these perfectionist and say, you know, this is what it is like, you’re not going to get anything done, you’ve got to meet people where they are. So looking at each of these industries in each of these categories. And something I’m super excited about is that we are working with one of the largest manufacturers of frozen french fry, and to think about what it would look like to create a carbon neutral french fry, where you’re actually growing potatoes in a way that is mindful of this stewardship that we’ve been talking about to soil health and climate and human health. And so each of these categories present a unique opportunity. And, you know, kind of going back to what we were talking about earlier, the concept of these chemical companies and genetically engineered crops was sort of one size fits all on your culture, and arrogance. And that is astonishing that it actually was able to go on as long as it has. And so for us, it’s really recognizing that you know, for working with potato growers who are transitioning to regenerative and organic, it’s going to be a different conversation and the rice guys down in Arkansas or the almond growers out in California and so for us it’s just continuing to listen to the marketplace continuing to listen to the farmers and continuing to listen to the consumers in these brands. What’s been really fun for us as a lot of the funding that has come in early for the Evergreen debt fund this oil fund has been coming from you know high net worth philanthropic women who absolutely understand that this change has to happen. And as you look at philanthropists you know they’re they’re sort of they can make can be in these two different buckets of true philanthropy which I think Mackenzie Scott just embodies in the most beautiful and extraordinary that I wish he is just wants to deploy the capital and get it out and put it to use versus the philanthropy capitalist who is trying to figure out what his return is going to be, you know, on the sort of philanthropic capitalist ventures and those are just two Titans two totally different types of mind yet you know, the world That I do Mackenzie Scott is who I envision all the time. You know, somebody that I talking to. She’s also a mother of four. And I just think she is extraordinary with what she has done. Hmm.
Diana Fryc 45:11
I love that. And what what kind of advice Are you giving? God? I don’t know how frequently you touch base with brands, you know, we’re talking about, like from? Well, you are you quite a bit a lot. Well, yeah. What what? What advice Are you giving them right now? Like, what is the prevailing single question that’s being asked of you right now?
Robyn O’Brien 45:36
I think still, it’s ongoing. And I think it’s, it’s part of being part of this very large organization, is there’s fear around change. Yeah. And there’s fear of the unknown. You know, if we lay down this goal, that 100% of our supply chain is going to be regenerative and organic. What happens if the farmers don’t want to be there? Yeah. What happens if you don’t do anything? Yeah. You know, and so it’s really more conversation consistently around fear and courage. And really, you know, recognizing that fear is just the seat belt that keeps you locked in your come down and encourages this incredibly expansive energy and courage is contagious. So what do those executives or what do those farmers need? In order to move courageously into this next chapter? You know, what is the technical assistance that they need? What are the lower cost of capital? For the executives in the food companies? Who else do they need to talk to? Do they need to talk to somebody outside of their own company? Do they need to talk to a technical assistance provider? Do they need to talk to a consultant new, who do they need to talk to? And I think if you think about things, that beauty that we’ve built in our lifetime, there’s usually a supportive scaffolding that goes up around it as it is constructed. And I’ve learned that we’re not really any different as people that we need that kind of supportive scaffolding around us as we grow into this next chapter into this next beautiful thing that anything is becoming and so in my mind, I think about it a lot is, you know, what does that support scaffolding? What does this person actually need to grow into this next, you know, up level higher version of themselves and the opportunity?
Diana Fryc 47:12
Well, and it sounds a little bit like as part of your education, there’s a little bit of redefining what success and failure looks like. I think a lot of that fear is, if this doesn’t work, what happens to me as a professional? Yeah, I mean, I don’t think
Robyn O’Brien 47:27
any failure would be stopping. You know, failure to me is just the learning curve towards success. Right? So whenever you’ve screwed up, you know, you just want to keep going. Yeah, you take that into, yeah, it’s data. I mean, it’s just data. That’s absolutely data that informs success. And I think, instead of being afraid of failure, you know, again, I would be afraid of not trying hard enough to where you actually lose, you’ve got to be trying that hard. Yep. to really drive the kind of change that we see. So you know, and I think that’s also a cultural thing. It’s, it’s, it’s, you know, something that I try to model to my kids, but it’s also something that we as a team really believe in, it’s like, let’s iterate on this thing. You know, it’s messy, and it’s not perfect right now, but let’s keep making it, you know, I’m planning on this keep pulling all these amazing resources that our team have around the table. So you know, again, like, failure to me is just the learning curve towards success.
Diana Fryc 48:25
Yeah. Wonderful. Well, there’s we’re just about done here. I always ask all my guests kind of the last few similar questions. So these are typically pretty quick and fun. The first thing first question I like to share you’ve already shared some of this already. But is there some I call it a happy hour? Fact? Do you have a happy hour fax something that’s digestible that somebody can take to their next? Did you you know, meeting or coffee or, or beverage of their choice break with their friends? Did you I gotta tell you what Robyn said, you know, do you have something like that? Yeah.
Robyn O’Brien 49:01
You know that only 1% of us farmland is organic. I mean, you if you were walking on downing? Yeah. And look in people’s fridge. I mean, it’s like, this is not like the organic perfection. I’m talking about. But most people yes. Oh, something it’s milk or some juice or something. Yeah, whatever. But the fact that 1% of our farmland is organic is shocking. It’s shocking.
Diana Fryc 49:21
It’s shocking. Especially when I consider what my pantry looks like. It just reinforces the fact that I live in a bubble.
Robyn O’Brien 49:31
Well, and then it’s like, so Where’s it coming from?
Diana Fryc 49:33
Where’s it going? Where I mean, where’s the non organic stuff going? It’s going somewhere, right? Feed or, you know, right? Okay, the next question I have for you is are there any women rising stars or just leaders in general that you’d like to elevate at this time? Who are you? Who do you just think is great and we are talking about Jane Goodall she gets praises from everybody but anybody else that you can think of that maybe needs It’s a little extra love.
Robyn O’Brien 50:01
Well, I am completely biased, but I would go to replantcapital.com And check out the woman on our team. Okay, right are extraordinary. Okay. And I’m very proud that our firm is majority female employees as well. So I really I cannot emphasize enough how extraordinary our PLR and then, you know, yeah, there really are, there are some remarkable rising voices. Denise Woodard is another one that Yes, fine. You know, there’s my friend, Danielle Gold, who does food tech Connect, and she’s just amazing on the education side of things. There are a lot of them, Katherine McCord has been a really good friend through a lot of years and a lot of transition. But, you know, I’ve got to lead with the women on our team.
Diana Fryc 50:41
Excellent. Well, I will spend some more time on there. And then the last question I have for you is, what brands or trends are you watching and why?
Robyn O’Brien 50:51
That’s a good one. You know, I think I’m a huge fan of innovation. And so you know, and I believe that it requires a lot of strength to be innovative. And I think we’re probably going to screw up a lot of things until we land on what’s actually right. And I think about how the computer industry was, you know, a work in progress for a while you think about like, the very first computer was this giant IBM computer that like sat in this giant room, and you now look at, like, all these things that we all have it or they’re in your pocket now. Yeah. And so I think, you know, for me, it’s, it’s, it’s trying to refrain from judgement with some of the early innovation that’s happening. And then I think the part that was just get super fired up about his renewable energy on farm. And so you know, with the dairy industry, for example, you can put these things called bio digesters on a farm, and it captures the methane and then it powers the farm, and you can power the community. And so you take something that’s just been an atrocious waste product, and you actually turn it back into an input and something that that can power community and power farm. And I think those kinds of opportunities, the more we learn, the more we realize it all just right in front of us. Yes. And I also think, you know, other countries around the world have done a much better job, yes, overall, than we have. So that, to me is a really exciting space, you know, to keep an eye on as it relates to the food industry.
Diana Fryc 52:08
I particularly am interested in vertical farming, and I bet that’s a whole show in another way. Maybe you can introduce me to somebody that’s doing it because I personally would love to learn more about it.
Robyn O’Brien 52:20
Yeah, and so it’s a fascinating space. And I think it gets back to democratizing clean and safe food. And so, you know, I think the industry tends to be very absolute on certain things. And if a community only has access to vertical farming and the clean and safe food, you know, the the produce that would be coming out of that. I mean, who is who is to get in front of that. So right? Again, you know, early iterations of that industry, what’s it gonna look like 10 years from now? Yes. How do we make sure that we do it with a smart energy footprint is great, because, you know, when I spoke to different groups in Georgia, for example, they said George power was trying to recruit the vertical farming groups to Georgia because it is such an energy suck. So, you know, again, that’s the first iteration of that model, right? We’re better Yeah, we’ll be able to do better. So you know, how do we continue to, to push push for better?
Diana Fryc 53:11
Yeah, I like it. I mean, I there’s on the one side, I don’t like the energies component. And then I’d look at the reverse side and the transportation footprint that it stops and access to food and food deserts and all the all that could possibly happen.
Robyn O’Brien 53:28
Yeah. And it’s like, you know, you can’t make the perfect the enemy of the good. I am a profoundly soil health, you know, so soil to me is foundational to so much Yes, we need to survive beyond the food industry. So, personally, I can’t abandon soil however, exactly like what you’re touching on, you know, there’s an accessibility issue. And this helps, gets back to what I said earlier, like, don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good,
Diana Fryc 53:54
and it’s all iterative. Well, we’ve been talking with Miss Robyn O’Brien, the co founder of rePlant Capital, Robyn, if they want to learn more about you and what rePlant is up to what’s the best way to do that?
Robyn O’Brien 54:07
Find us at replantcapital.com, connect with us on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. I’m really active on LinkedIn. So don’t hesitate to reach out to me there. I try my best to get back to as many as possible. But replantcapital.com is an amazing resource. And again, I’m so proud of what we’re doing as a team. So I would invite the audience to start there.
Diana Fryc 54:27
Oh, thank you, Robyn, thank you so much for your time today and for all that you and your team at rePlant are doing to just make for better sustainable agriculture for all of the foods and really all the products that we have out in the marketplace.
Robyn O’Brien 54:44
Thank you so much for having me.
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