Katie Seawell of ‘Bowery Farming’: “Being at the table”

I have also become a big believer in following your passion — it will always guide you in the right direction. There was a time in my Starbucks career where I had a really important decision to make whether I’d continue to progress very linearly in my journey there taking on bigger and bigger pieces of business. […]

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I have also become a big believer in following your passion — it will always guide you in the right direction. There was a time in my Starbucks career where I had a really important decision to make whether I’d continue to progress very linearly in my journey there taking on bigger and bigger pieces of business. At the same time I had an opportunity to take on a role that was more off the beaten path but got me closer to some of my passion points around corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs, branding, and communication. I sought counsel from a close mentor who was able to reframe the scenarios in my head and pointed out that by following my passion I will actually get to where I wanted to go much more quickly. Taking on the role in CSR not only hit my passion point but pushed me and accelerated my growth in an unexpected way. It was this same “passion compass” that also pointed me to Bowery.

As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Katie Seawell.

Katie Seawell is Chief Marketing Officer at Bowery Farming, the Modern Farming Company on a mission to reimagine farming from the ground up. In her role, Katie spearheads efforts to build Bowery’s brand and reputation in new markets and expand consumer reach in existing channels; she also works closely with the agriculture science team to drive Bowery’s product innovation strategy, leveraging consumer produce trends and insights to ensure the company is leading the next frontier of farming. Previously, Seawell spent 14 years at Starbucks, and most recently, served as Senior Vice President of Siren Retail Operations where she was responsible for launching the company’s premium retail experience through their Starbucks Reserve Global Roasteries. Committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion, Seawell served as an executive sponsor of Starbucks Black Partner Network, and at Bowery co-founded aGirlculture, a women’s development network where she serves as the group’s executive sponsor.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I grew up in a family that put a high premium on civic engagement and giving back to the community. I also grew up in a time when brands started to take stands on important societal issues, and connect with consumers in a more emotional, substantive way. I’m dating myself here, but I was in middle school when Nike launched their “Just Do It” campaign tapping into the power and fearlessness of female athletes. I felt seen and heard by a brand for the first time, and I’ve been a Nike fan ever since. The intersection between the role business can play in solving hard, societal issues and building culturally relevant, consumer brands to create positive change is something that has always inspired me.

This is what drew me to Starbucks — a brand built on human connection and Howard Schultz’s founding philosophy that you can create both healthy long-term business growth while making a positive impact in the communities you serve. It’s also what drew me to Bowery. We are attacking a hard, complex global issue: how to feed an ever growing global population with more abundantly nutritious and available food while doing less harm to the environment. We are building a company and brand that helps to solve this issue while more deeply connecting with consumers, and we’re leveraging our platforms and voice to make a positive difference. There are clearly parallels here with my Starbucks journey where we transformed a highly commoditized category into a global brand connected to consumers with meaning and purpose.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

Bowery began with the understanding that agriculture sits at the core of many global issues today. The United Nations projects that by 2050 the world’s population could reach 10 billion people, with a disproportionate number of people located near cities. We will need to produce more food in the next 30 years than we have in the last 10,000 years, yet our food system has never been more fragile. Agriculture is one of the biggest consumers of natural resources, using 70% of the world’s fresh water and contributing to the loss of 30% of arable farmland over the last 40 years alone. The industry is over-reliant on pesticides, which puts our own health and environment at risk (more than 70% of US produce has traces of pesticides, and this includes USDA Organic produce!). The system is increasingly vulnerable to disruption from climate events, public health events (as we all recently can see from COVID-19), and food safety challenges (also amplified by the current pandemic). We must think differently about how we democratize and strengthen our food system so we can ensure a safe, steady, nutritious supply of food that promotes the health of our communities and the planet.

This is what we’re helping solve for at Bowery. We’re converting industrial spaces — once non-arable land — near cities, into productive smart farms that grow local, flavor-packed Protected Produce that’s available year round, independent of weather and seasonality. We use LED lights that mimic the sun and we’ve built a proprietary operating system (called the BoweryOS) that integrates data, sensors, vision systems, robotics, and automation to orchestrate our entire farm operations, giving our crops exactly what they need when they need it; we’re also able to draw on the BoweryOS to track and trace the entire grow process from seed to shelf. This is an extremely transparent, efficient, sustainable way to farm that unlocks high quality and wildly flavorful produce, using only a fraction of the water and land.

Our commitment to growing food with a purpose adds a level of transparency to the supply chain that’s disruptive on many levels. Consumers today want to know where their food comes from, and beyond that, they want to better understand production methods and social impact. Our work as marketers is to ensure customers can trust that when they see the Bowery label they are purchasing high-quality, fresh produce, and that they see firsthand the positive social impact of smart indoor farming. The Bowery approach is local, but our ability to scale our networked farms will have global impact.

I’m incredibly inspired by our mission and I’m equally excited about the opportunity to build an enduring brand in service to our mission. Much like my time at Starbucks, our goal is take a commoditized category and turn it into something more meaningful to consumers through our Bowery value proposition and having a strong, compelling point of view on what we stand for as a brand. Food sits at such a critical intersection of health, culture, environment, and equality. We have all the ingredients to build a brand with purpose and connection to consumers in a way that can transform this category.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I think it’s fair to say that my first three to six months at Bowery were filled with humorous mistakes. I had spent so much time at Starbucks and knew the rhythm and culture of the organization inside and out. On day one at Bowery I felt like a fish out of water. I was in this young, fast-paced, informal environment where I didn’t understand the language, culture norms, or tools to get business done. I remember on day two sitting at my desk and a person sitting across from me asking whether I had read their Slack message because they had a question and I needed to answer it. To which I responded, “I’m sitting right across from you, can’t you just ask me?” This was the beginning of my crash course in all things Slack.

I have taken so many lessons from the dramatic shift I made going from a Fortune 500 company to early stage start-up, but a couple that stand out the most include the importance of a growth mindset as well as the power of diversity, and the amplifying impact this can have on an organization that is rooted in a strong vision and mission. I am pushing myself every day outside my comfort zone knowing we are building the playbook as we go and creating a business that has never been done before. I’ve had to get comfortable to learn and try new things knowing we’ll fail a good percentage of the time but that there’s power in failing fast, learning and then creating something better. Bowery is also the most multi-disciplinary, collaborative organization I’ve joined. We’re a team with rich diversity in perspectives and experiences — I’ve really challenged myself to listen and value different approaches so we can get to better solutions.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

I’ve been so fortunate to have so many great mentors. One that comes to mind is my former VP at Starbucks, Bernard Acoca, who is now CEO of El Pollo Loco. He was a huge advocate of mine in terms of growth and promotion, helping me grow from Director to SVP. He was always encouraging me to take on bigger, more complex roles even before I thought I was ready. He also helped me understand what it means to advocate and sponsor for yourself and people you believe in. I find that women in particular sometimes tend to believe if you put in the work, and do your job well, the rest will speak for itself — Bernard helped me understand that yes outstanding performance is important but not always enough. You need to be intentional about how you promote and advocate for yourself and build sponsorship along the way.

Another mentor that I’m grateful for is Sharon Rothstein, the former Starbucks Global CMO. She was an incredibly astute leader and business woman, and had this unabashed joy for creativity and brands that elevated the team and made us perform better than we thought was possible. Her relentless pursuit in elevating our creativity and always striving for better is something that has had, and continues to have, a profound impact on me. She is also an extraordinary role model in leading with heart. Sharon worked hard, steered one of the most respected brands in the world and never forgot to care for her team along the way. During my time at Starbucks I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by many talented women leaders who cared deeply about supporting each other and I hold that fiercely today. I wanted to bring this same commitment to Bowery and that was a big reason why I co-founded our women’s empowerment network, aGirlCulture, which provides women of all levels the opportunity to connect with peers and senior leaders who can provide mentorship and other opportunities for personal and professional growth.

It’s also undeniable that Howard Schultz at Starbucks also had a great impact on me — he was a pioneer in defining a different type of business model. He held the belief (and delivered on this idea) that you could achieve incredible business growth, create a brand centered on human connection, and do good in the communities in which you operate; that the choice between profit over people/community is a false choice and if you can connect the two through mission, values, and actions, you can achieve extraordinary growth. This is also what we’re setting out to do at Bowery.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

The fundamental question is, “why are you disrupting?” I find that when you’re disrupting with a purpose, that’s where the magic happens.

What I find so inspiring about Bowery is that we are disrupting the food system to solve a really hard and important problem. We are thinking wildly differently about how we can grow higher quality, more flavorful, safer produce, closer to the point of consumption. We’re doing this by challenging all assumptions about how you need to grow food by building and applying first-to-market technologies and through a multidisciplinary team of modern farmers who are marketers, ag scientists, software engineers, hardware engineers, operators and above all, dreamers. When you have such a collaborative team working together to disrupt, to tackle some of the greatest issues of our time, to be part of the solution in a truly positive way, it can be transformative.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

One of my favorite pieces of advice is showing up matters. At Starbucks I had the privilege of being an executive sponsor of the Black Partner Network. When first asked to offer my support and sponsorship I was hesitant because I didn’t know what value I would add or what I could bring to the table. I’m passionate about DE&I but I didn’t want to show up and say the wrong thing or not support in the right way. The advice I got from the Black Partner Network leader was that first and foremost what matters is showing up, showing you care, and showing that you’re willing to learn, educate, and advocate. My championing of the Black Partner Network at Starbucks was a defining experience for me both professionally and personally, and I am forever grateful.

I have also become a big believer in following your passion — it will always guide you in the right direction. There was a time in my Starbucks career where I had a really important decision to make whether I’d continue to progress very linearly in my journey there taking on bigger and bigger pieces of business. At the same time I had an opportunity to take on a role that was more off the beaten path but got me closer to some of my passion points around corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs, branding, and communication. I sought counsel from a close mentor who was able to reframe the scenarios in my head and pointed out that by following my passion I will actually get to where I wanted to go much more quickly. Taking on the role in CSR not only hit my passion point but pushed me and accelerated my growth in an unexpected way. It was this same “passion compass” that also pointed me to Bowery.

This last example isn’t so much about getting advice, but the power of role modeling and to be mindful of the wake you can leave as a leader. At Starbucks I was very fortunate to grow up professionally in a culture that encouraged you to bring your whole self to work. I had this incident when I was a newly promoted VP where my husband and I were toggling calendars with a sick child and we had no childcare for the day. I grabbed my three-year-old son from my husband and brought him up to my team meeting. I conducted my entire team meeting with my son curled up in my lap. I didn’t think anything of it at the time and was doing what I had to do balancing work and family commitments. But after the meeting I had many of my teammates who were young mothers at the time come up to me inspired by what they just saw — a very real moment of a woman leader embracing both her role of executive and mother at the same time. It left an indelible impression on me of both the importance of bringing your whole, authentic self to work, and the power we have with our leadership wake.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

It’s true, we’re just getting started at Bowery. Our goal is to build farms in every major US city and expand globally. We are heavily investing in ag science research and will broaden our product offering to include a range of fruits and vegetables. We will continue to look at innovative ways to democratize access to our produce so as many people as possible can have access. As we continue to grow and build our presence you will see us use our brand voice and platforms to amplify the issues we care about and that are core to our business including sustainability, food safety, and food insecurity.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by ‘women disruptors’ that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

I’m not sure if there are a specific set of challenges that “women disruptors” face that their male counterparts don’t that are different then what you’d see in the work environment more generally, but I do think some of those dynamics are amplified. For example, I think boldness and confidence are two characteristics that probably align really well with people who are fueled and motivated by disruption. I also think those characteristics can read differently on men vs. women. We’ve all heard it before, a man is perceived as confident and a woman is perceived as aggressive. Similarly, I think women disruptors probably find themselves with fewer mentors and peers who have shared experiences so it’s incumbent that men are actively supporting women in this space and women in this space are actively supporting one another.

Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?

I am a huge admirer of Former First Lady Michelle Obama and loved her book Becoming. It was a beautiful story told by a remarkable woman on her journey to finding her own voice and space. I was particularly struck by one of her stories when she was talking about “being at the table” at one event with the smartest people in the world, and what she realized at that table, was that she had the right to be there. It was a great reminder to believe in yourself, believe in your value and believe in your right to have a seat at the table. Once you’ve internalized that, you have an obligation to make room at the table for others.

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’m actually going to give a very simple answer to a very big, global question. I would encourage everyone in a position of influence to open up and give generous access to themselves and their networks to people who might not naturally be in their social or professional circles. I encourage people to truly commit to diversity and inclusion through opening up their networks. I think inequity is one of the great challenges we face and we need to find ways both big and small to increase access, mentorship, and connections to a broader group of people who are looking for that one door to be opened so they can have their shot.

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

One of the quotes or philosophies that Howard Schultz used to impart during my time at Starbucks was don’t be a bystander. This was a value we shared at Starbucks in terms of how we thought about the business and the company we were building. If there was a problem, you fixed it; if there was a challenge, you didn’t back away; if there was an injustice, you called it out. This sentiment rings so true for me today. We have major problems to solve and challenges to think through. We need to roll-up our sleeves and get after the work ahead. We can’t afford to be bystanders.

How can our readers follow you online?

LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/in/katie-seawell/

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