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Alexander Gillett of HowGood: “There’s no right way to do it”

Farmers and growers who really care about their impact often understand what’s happening on their own farms, but may not know how that compares to what’s happening on the next plot over, across the country, or halfway around the world. The groundbreaking research that HowGood does is collating all that data and making it accessible, […]

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Farmers and growers who really care about their impact often understand what’s happening on their own farms, but may not know how that compares to what’s happening on the next plot over, across the country, or halfway around the world. The groundbreaking research that HowGood does is collating all that data and making it accessible, so that people ranging from farmers, to food manufacturers, to retailers can make educated decisions about the food they are producing, sourcing, and selling — many for the first time ever. This leads to companies making the kinds of commitments necessary to not just do less harm, but engage in practices that sequester carbon, improve waterways, benefit the health of the soil, and countless other metrics that add up to making the world a better place to live. In short, our technology makes all this global data actionable.


As part of my series about the “The Future Is Now: Exciting Emerging Technologies”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Alexander Gillet, co-founder and CEO of HowGood, an independent research company with the world’s largest database on food and personal care product sustainability. Since 2007, Alexander has guided HowGood’s business trajectory, driving innovative partnerships with like-minded companies and organizations. Under Alexander’s leadership, HowGood has provided critical data and insights into the quickly-shifting world of sustainability for retailers, consumers, and CPGs, while maintaining its mission to increase transparency and reduce the impact of food and consumer goods on our world.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

My brother (a co-founder) and I have always debated whether the food system needed revolution or evolution. Over the years, we’ve come to the conclusion that, while there are indeed very appealing aspects to revolution, it also has the ability to cause more harm than good. Evolution provides incredible potential to improve the food system for the long-term and that is what I have dedicated my career, and in many ways, my personal life to.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

Years ago, I was at a festival. My brother and I had struck up a conversation with a few men who had a shared interest in the future of agriculture, and I discovered part of the way through that it was one their birthdays. Though he shrugged it off, it had always been an important part of my childhood to come together and celebrate, so I managed to get upwards of 200 people who were standing nearby to come together and sing him a riotous round of “Happy Birthday.” He was clearly touched, as was his friend. Not long after, that friend became one of our early investors.

Can you tell us about the Cutting edge technological breakthroughs that you are working on? How do you think that will help people?

Farmers and growers who really care about their impact often understand what’s happening on their own farms, but may not know how that compares to what’s happening on the next plot over, across the country, or halfway around the world. The groundbreaking research that HowGood does is collating all that data and making it accessible, so that people ranging from farmers, to food manufacturers, to retailers can make educated decisions about the food they are producing, sourcing, and selling — many for the first time ever. This leads to companies making the kinds of commitments necessary to not just do less harm, but engage in practices that sequester carbon, improve waterways, benefit the health of the soil, and countless other metrics that add up to making the world a better place to live. In short, our technology makes all this global data actionable.

How do you think this might change the world?

For too long, our society has focused on doing less harm. But even if 50% of companies reached a net-zero goal, we would never achieve the kind of impact that’s needed to reverse global warming. Companies need to be more ambitious and driven to go beyond those outdated goals towards more regenerative practices. The problem is, many don’t know the most strategic steps to take — the exact ingredients to start with. That’s what HowGood’s role is: We shine a light on the comprehensive impact of every individual ingredient so that the path toward more regenerative practices is clear.

You can also think about this on a personal level. On your deathbed, how would you feel if you had zero impact? Neither positive nor negative, the “do less harm” paradigm. It’s not very inspiring, is it? We all want to make the world a better place to live. If we were to hold companies to the same standards as we hold ourselves, we would be living in a very different world.

Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?

It’s important to acknowledge the imperfection of data, but the only thing worse than using imperfect data, is not using data at all. What we do at HowGood is try to represent the complexity of the food system and our ecology as much as possible by partnering with leaders throughout the scientific community. These efforts negate any potential downsides of imperfect or incomplete data by always striving toward a granular, holistic view of any issue.

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this breakthrough? Can you tell us that story?

We founded HowGood 14 years ago, and for a large part of that time we were focused on consumer-facing efforts by working with retailers. A little over a year ago, we began partnering with brands after seeing just how valuable and rare our dataset is in the CPG industry. With this shift upstream, our sustainability data is now informing decisions far earlier in the supply chain, and therefore having an exponentially larger impact. Understanding the rarity of data as granular and comprehensive as ours was the real tipping point in this shift for us.

What do you need to lead this technology to widespread adoption?

What we — and more importantly, the world — needs is ambitious champions within large-scale food and agriculture companies to see the opportunity in shifting toward a more sustainable and regenerative supply system. We’ve found partners in places like OP2B (One Planet Business for Biodiversity) and within innovative organizations like General Mills and Danone who have helped catapult our company and further the strength of our offerings. To see change on the level that’s needed, though, we need far more industry leaders to step up and make commitments to ambitious, data-driven sustainability strategies.

What have you been doing to publicize this idea? Have you been using any innovative marketing strategies?

We’ve found that developing individual connections and dedicating time to thought leadership initiatives have been the most successful marketing methods for us. One of the most important aspects of building any business relationship is trust, and really putting in the time to engage with potential customers on a personal level makes all the difference not only in sales, but in creating healthy, mutually-beneficial relationships down the line.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I had a professor in college who used to say that ‘you have the least amount of responsibility now than you will ever have, and that will be true every day for the rest of your life.’ As time goes by, you have a dog, then maybe a mortgage, a family, etc — basically, it gets harder and harder to take a leap as you get older, so the best time to start a business is right now. That was hugely impactful on me, and a big reason why I decided to take the leap sooner rather than later.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

‘Bringing goodness to the world’ is really the entire focus of our company; it is baked into everything our team does and why our company exists. Our own success as a business is tied to our success in achieving this goal both in the world at large and within the specific complexities of the agricultural system.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

“There’s no right way to do it.” We’re a “start-up” that was founded 14 years ago. Is this unusual? Yes. Is it working for our team, our customers, and the world at large? Also yes.

“It will be both harder and more rewarding than you think.” On one hand, I’ve discovered over the years that nothing can prepare you for being days — even hours — away from almost running out of money. These have been the most gut-wrenching moments of my life, and I’m not sure there would ever be a way to know what they would feel like. But on the other hand, looking out at my team gathered together at an end of year party, in a year with a lot of successes, and knowing that we all worked together to make something truly amazing happen that is benefitting not only us but hundreds of thousands of people around the world — that’s better than I could ever have imagined.

“There’s no longer a question of can we make a difference, but will we.” This is something that I’ve continually seen proven on small and large scales through our work at HowGood, and I remind myself of it almost daily.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Well regardless of whether or not I actually qualify as that, really what I want to do is support the movements that are happening right now at enormous scale. In our own field, it’s the regenerative agriculture movement, proving as you read this that farming can be used to sequester carbon and not just stall, but fully reverse, the effects of climate change on our planet. In other arenas, it’s the Black Lives Matter movement, bringing critical attention to the systemic racial injustice in this country and deserving of every ounce of our nation’s attention.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

It’s important to me as I go about a day of video calls, investor pitches, and the various minutiae of the everyday to see the divinity and complexity within every person with whom I interact. The “life lesson” would be to see God in each other. And if you can see that divinity within other people, you can see it in yourself, too, and act accordingly. I try to honor that every day.

Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Well really what I want to say to them is this: “Are you tracking the impact of your portfolio? If not, you should be.”

How can our readers follow you on social media?

www.instagram.com/howgoodratings/

witter.com/HowGoodRatings

medium.com/@howgoodratings

facebook.com/HowGoodInc

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

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