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The Start of Something Great: CRB-incubated Startups

Join the CRB on November 27th to celebrate 15 years of lasting impact. Hear from past executive directors and alumni who are now leaders in the field discuss how far we’ve come and where they see the future of responsible business going. Save your seat today!

Written by Sona Senapati, Berkeley Haas Center for Responsible Business, Student Editorial Writer

The Center for Responsible Business continuously strives to support the inception and launch of impact-focused startups. Whether it’s in the sustainable food, finance, or supply chain space, the CRB has been instrumental in the launch of young social enterprises. Through courses, events, and programs, Berkeley Haas students are encouraged to cultivate social and environmental impact through their academic work and personal projects, often leading to inspired creativity in their ventures. Here are a few stories of impact fostered through students’ tenure at Haas and with the CRB:

Revolution Foods

The food in school cafeterias is often criticized as not providing healthy options for the growing youth in our communities. Two Berkeley Haas alumni, Kristin Richmond and Kirsten Tobey, recognized this issue and set out to disrupt previous trends by bringing healthier lunch options to schools. Richmond and Tobey met in a Haas marketing class where they began to nurture their startup as a potentially pivotal solution to unhealthy school meals. Touted by NBC Today, as “the moms who are going gourmet,” Revolution Foods transports two million fresh lunches per week to 2,000 schools in three dozen cities.

“What we know is that healthy meals drive not only health outcomes but also student outcomes in the classroom.” – Kristin Richmond

In a piece produced by Haas Media in 2017, Richmond and Tobey reflected on the early days of taking an idea and transforming it into successful business. Courses such as New Venture finance and New Product Development breathed life into the young company’s structure. After winning the 2007 Global Social Venture Competition and an initial round of funding from the Haas connected Bay Area Equity Fund, the start up was off and running. 

In the early days, CRB mentorship was pivotal in the success of the company. Kellie McElhaney, CRB executive director at the time, provided a crucial moment of inspiration as Richmond balanced starting a family and launching a social enterprise. “I remember Kellie leaning across that desk and saying,  ‘Whatever you do, do not quit. You can do this. If you go for this and follow your passion, you’re actually going to be a better parent in the long run because you’re going to be inspired and fulfilled, and you’re going to pass that on to your kids,” Richmond recalls. “It’s one of those pivotal moments you remember as an entrepreneur, and it meant the world to me.”

“We’re proud to be part of this growing movement and ensure companies of all sizes recognize the benefits to using business as a force for good.” – Kirsten Tobey

Today, Revolution Food’s unique and extensive product line includes individual meals, family style meals, and food service products. This range has led to a broad reach across demographics and institutions, where they are able to instill healthy living habits and values. Revolution Foods sees themselves as a mission-driven company aiming to link wellness and healthy eating to create large scale social impact. As a result, Revolution Food serves over 2.5 million meals per week, which includes sourcing over 95,000 pounds of vegetables and 1.2 million servings of fruit per week. Their committed partnerships with local growers and producers aid in creating a sustainable and local supply chain.

Blue Forest Conservation

“I devoted most of my time at Haas to finding ways to employ different financing mechanisms to serve social, and especially environmental, common good. I can’t imagine a career outside of this space.” – Chad Reed

 Mobilizing both financial innovation and partnerships with investors, non-profits, and the public sector, Blue Forest Conservation serves to design sustainable solutions to climate change. Their primary focus lies in their Forest Resilience Bond (FRB) initiative, where the presence of a public-private partnership model is able to foster the restoration of forests, while simultaneously protecting communities. Working in partnership with institutions like the World Resources Institute and the Rockefeller Foundation, the FRM aims to “fight fire with finance through an innovative public-private partnership to restore forests and protect communities”. By increasing awareness about the lack of investment in forest preservation and the challenge that is posed from diminishing resources, Blue Forest Conservation gives investors the appropriate tools to mobilize private capital in building a more sustainable future.

Founded by Berkeley Haas alums Nick Wobbrock, Chad Reed, Leigh Madeira, and Zack Knight, the four partners shared a strong interest in sustainable investing and impact evaluation during their academic careers. Reed, a CRB Fellow and student advisory board member, and his co-founders first launched their FRB concept at the Kellogg-Morgan Stanley Sustainable Investing Challenge, which they won in 2015. CRB executive director Robert Strand reflected on his mentorship of the innovative new model, “I had the good fortune to be someone they pitched to in preparation for the Morgan Stanley Case Competition. It was clear at that time that they were on to something very important where they’re effectively using the power of business to address an incredible sustainability challenge we face.”  

“It was clear that they were on to something very important where they’re effectively using the power of business to address an incredible sustainability challenge we face.” -Robert Strand

Rooted in Berkeley Haas values, Blue Forest Conservation looms at the vanguard of financial innovation that can create meaningful change for those most vulnerable. In times of increasingly desperate wildfire crises, Blue Forest Conservation has a pivotal role to play in to restoring overgrown forests to a healthy density, thereby helping to preserve California’s watersheds and prevent destructive wildfires. After garnering media attention early on as a potential solution to “California’s wildfire and water woes”, the burgeoning firm recently became the first first privately financed forest fire bond. Although the firm has seen the most traction with their FRB program, Wobbrock, Reed, Madeira, and Knight hope to generate solutions that will have far reaching impacts for communities most susceptible to environmental harm. 

Back to the Roots

Startups can truly grow out of anywhere – even out of the kitchen of a fraternity house. This was the case for Berkeley-Haas alumni, Nikhil Arora and Alejandro Velez, who succeeded in establishing a startup that promotes the growth of sustainable produce right at home.

“We want to inspire a new generation to ask where their food comes from & that food should come from the kitchen, not a lab. And for us, that starts not just in the kitchen, but in the classroom & cafeteria.” – Arora and Velez

 As former business students in the undergraduate program at the Haas School of Business, Arora and Velez constantly demonstrated their affinity for sustainable practices and furthered education. Their Oakland-based startup initially focused on the production of mushrooms from recycled coffee grounds, a revolutionary idea that stemmed from a guest lecturer in a business ethics class. With a shared set of values, similar mindsets, and strong specializations in certain concentrations, the two young men ventured on creating a sense of sustainability for the average person. From running tests in Velez’s fraternity house’s kitchen, to receiving their supply of wasted coffee grounds from Peet’s, to the actual distribution of their mushrooms to Whole Foods, the pair of entrepreneurs had embarked upon something that was truly beyond themselves. After turning down highly sought after job offers in investment banking and management consulting, Arora and Velez took their mushroom farming skills and established a brand true to what they believed in.

With the growing buzz from consumers about the possibility of growing their own produce, Arora and Velez knew they could give society the opportunity to replicate this sustainable process on their own. As a result, they decided to endeavor in the creation of DIY (Do It Yourself) kits that would allow for individuals to yield mushroom crops right in their backyards. Successful in profits and in creating sustainable options for individuals as well as businesses, this case study elucidates how Arora and Velez transformed what it means to “make food personal again”.

The CRB is thrilled to be a part of motivating burgeoning companies to disrupt industry trends for the better. The many startups and various organizations that have arose from the mission of sustainability and responsible business, demonstrate the inherent passion for social impact. The Center for Responsible Business looks forward to the continued creation of impact-focused startups that define what it means to engage in responsible business practices.

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