People who are happy at work, feel like their work supports a broader mission, and feel they have room to grow and develop will tend to be more focused and willing to go above and beyond to support the company’s goals.
As a part of my series about about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kirsten Saenz Tobey & Kristin Groos Richmond of Revolution Foods.
Kirsten Saenz Tobey founded Revolution Foods in 2006 with co-founder and CEO Kristin Groos Richmond while in graduate school at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. Kirsten continues to steward the mission and drive the vision for the company. Kirsten spearheaded the company’s expansion into the retail/packaged goods space and has led the company’s efforts on thought leadership, nutrition strategy and impact. Kirsten continues to lead the company’s efforts to developing innovative solutions for healthy meal preparation for busy families across the US. Revolution Foods was named by Fast Company as one of the world’s 50 most innovative companies in 2015. Kristin and Kirsten were named by the Schwab Foundation and World Economic Forum as Social Entrepreneurs of the Year for 2015. They were also listed among Fortune’s 40 under 40 for 2013, identified as Time Magazine’s Education Activists of 2011, and co-named Entrepreneur of the Year by NewSchools Venture Fund in 2010. Kirsten is an Ashoka Fellow, an Aspen Institute Environmental Fellow, and a member of the Culinary Institute of America’s Sustainable Business Council. She currently is a member of the Board of Directors for Mercaris and ARTA River Trips. She serves as an advisor for several startup companies, including Wellio, Homemade Cooking and Bixbee. Prior to founding Revolution Foods, Kirsten was a teacher, researcher and garden educator with Earthjustice, the School for Field Studies, and Phillips Academy at Andover. Her career spanned from leading experiential education programs in the US and Ecuador to evaluating the scalability of school feeding programs with the United Nations Hunger Task Force in Ghana. Kirsten holds an AB from Brown University and an MBA from UC Berkeley. She lives in the SF Bay Area with her husband and three daughters.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Since I was a young girl helping my grandparents on their Texas cattle ranch, I have always been an independent thinker, which inspired me to become an entrepreneur. By looking at systems and seeing ways I wanted to change them — whether it was helping build a school in Kenya for students who were not served by the current system or helping bring talented teachers into underserved schools in the U.S. — I’ve focused my work in this way since the beginning of my career. When I met my co-founder, Kirsten Saenz Tobey, in our MBA program at UC Berkeley, we decided to build our company from scratch, knowing it was the best and only way to bring the changes we envisioned to dramatically improve the quality of food in school and citywide systems. We were both educators before business school and saw firsthand how and what kids were eating each day and, ultimately, how their food was impacting their ability to learn. We were inspired by the idea that proper nutrition leads to academic success and spent 1.5 or 2 years working on the brand — we spoke with school leaders, teachers and families to see how we could create a brand that properly nourished kids and parents. Today, we are proud to see our meals deliver on taste, exceed nutrition guidelines and support the success of kids nationwide. — Kristin Groos Richmond, CEO of Revolution Foods
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Recently, our industry has been faced with extremely unfortunate rollbacks to nutrition guidelines in school meals. It is interesting because, contrary to what some might believe, healthy meals can be made delicious without excess sodium and refined grain. Plus, we know, and research shows, proper nutrition is a key driver to positive academic outcomes making healthy foods the ultimate tool of empowerment and essential ingredients for helping children achieve their true potential. We believe this move is a detriment to our nation’s families, severely impacting the nutritional quality of foods that our children need to fuel their academic success and growth. Despite these industry challenges, Revolution Foods remains committed to making healthy food accessible to all by designing, producing and delivering healthy, delicious & affordable meals to school and community sites throughout the country. Schools are the ideal platform for education, teaching and enforcement of healthy nutrition standards and we owe it to future generations to equip them with critical tools, like better school nutrition, which they need to succeed. — Kristin Groos Richmond, founder and CEO of Revolution Foods & Kirsten Saenz Tobey, founder and chief impact officer of Revolution Foods.
Ok, lets jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?
It’s hard to say for sure, given so many factors that influence happiness, but one thing we do know is that people like to work for a company whose mission they believe in. We know this is one thing that brings many people to Revolution Foods at all levels of the organization — whether it’s prep cooks or drivers who have seen the impacts of unhealthy food on their families or communities, or senior executives who want to put their skills to work supporting a mission they believe in, workers want to feel like the work they do day in and day out is making a positive impact on their community or the world. — Kristin Groos Richmond, founder and CEO of Revolution Foods & Kirsten Saenz Tobey, founder and chief impact officer of Revolution Foods
Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?
See prior answer. People who are happy at work, feel like their work supports a broader mission, and feel they have room to grow and develop will tend to be more focused and willing to go above and beyond to support the company’s goals. — Kristin Groos Richmond, founder and CEO of Revolution Foods & Kirsten Saenz Tobey, founder and chief impact officer of Revolution Foods
Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?
It is our duty as managers and executives to listen to the needs of our team members and utilize those learnings to ensure the work environment is just as enjoyable as it is successful. Here are the 5 ways we at Revolution Foods create and maintain a fantastic work culture:
Transparency– sharing as much information as you can with the team about successes and challenges of the business, making sure team members all clearly understand the business model/P&L regardless of their position. We hold quarterly all-hands meetings where we share the current P&L and progress against company goals. This helps everyone see the big picture as well as feel ownership of how their work connects to the broader goals of the company.
Mission focus — this is what attracts top talent to our company. People believe in our mission and want to help increase access to high quality foods for underserved kids and families. People get inspired by purpose-driven goals. We are fortunate to offer a job at all levels of the company that has a direct positive impact on the community.
High expectations, high accountability, low micromanagement — high performance is contagious. When you raise the bar on expectations, people step up to the plate, and when people know they have the ability to have their voice heard and ideas implemented, they are more likely to keep working hard and company building.
Truth telling and open communication channels — Encourage the tough conversations to move the company forward. Conduct regular sessions (we call them huddles) that include a wide variety of team members presenting (we go department by department) and allow ample time for very open Q&A. Make sure people understand there are “no bad questions”.
Allow people to be their “whole selves” at work — everyone has a home self and a work self… whether people’s personal interests are cooking, the arts, family, pets, athletics — make sure you acknowledge and recognize that this part of people’s lives is important too. Valuing both work and personal passions creates healthy, long term sustainable relationships with employees. — Kristin Groos Richmond, founder and CEO of Revolution Foods & Kirsten Saenz Tobey, founder and chief impact officer of Revolution Foods
It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture”. What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?
I think it’s very hard to generalize about the US workforce’s work culture, because there is a lot of variety between industries, functions, and even regions of the country. We have learned over the years that every person has a superpower — something they are uniquely good at and that brings that person energy the more they do it. The more you can put people in roles where they are utilizing their unique superpower, the happier and more productive people will be. — Kristin Groos Richmond, CEO of Revolution Foods
How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?
I think the 5 things above pretty closely reflect my management style — in particular, high expectations, high accountability, low micromanagement. As a leader, especially of a growing company, you have to build a strong team of people you trust to bring their best thinking and expertise to the table. Since Kir and I started the company, we have been on a mission to build a team of people who are smarter than us in each functional area, and who are true experts in their domain, whether that be finance, product development, or operations and beyond. — Kristin Groos Richmond, CEO of Revolution Foods
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?
Our investors have been an integral part of the success of the company since day one. In particular, we would not have gotten started without the initial investment and support of DBL Investors (in 2006 they were called Bay Area Equity Fund). I was 8 months pregnant when we pitched them to support us starting the company, and they wholeheartedly supported us and provided the investment that enabled us to get started in our first year. — Kristin Groos Richmond, founder and CEO of Revolution Foods & Kirsten Saenz Tobey, founder and chief impact officer of Revolution Foods
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I try to mentor and support other entrepreneurs whenever possible, including giving talks and lectures at UC Berkeley and other local business schools. I hope sharing my experience with others can help them learn from my successes and failures. — Kristin Groos Richmond, CEO of Revolution Foods
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
This is the quote I have permanently posted on my office wall, by Margaret Meade, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” To me, this says everything about social entrepreneurship and social change. Changing a system is never easy, but even just a few committed and passionate people can inspire a movement. — Kristin Groos Richmond, CEO of Revolution Foods
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. 🙂
I would encourage all entrepreneurs to see themselves as social entrepreneurs, no matter what business they are in. This simply means thinking of your business idea as something that will bring greater good to the world, not just make life easier. We are starting to see more and more large companies talk about themselves in these terms (e.g. A Sense of Purpose by Larry Fink), and I think small, startup companies should see themselves in the same way. — Kristin Groos Richmond, CEO of Revolution Foods
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you continued success!