…Getting everyone to embrace and love delicious, flavorful, and nutritious plants and exposing everyone to amazing plant-based foods. Gone are the days of plant-based eating only being about salads. Since I started eating more plant-based foods, I’ve found that there are more flavors and textures that can be found in plants while still getting all if not more of the protein and nutrients than from meat. Plant-based living is not a trend, it’s a fundamental shift and in my opinion a necessary one if we want to save our planet. We see tastemakers and Michelin star chefs getting on board, and many people are embracing this shift in an effort to make a direct impact as an individual.I hope that people will take the time to understand the health and environmental issues that arise from eating meat, and also have an open mind and heart to consider trying new plant-based foods.
For my series on strong female leaders, I had the pleasure or interviewing Kimberlie Le. Kimberlie Le started Prime Roots with the goal of creating delicious, protein-rich meat alternatives that also help reduce the burden conventional meat and seafood industries have put on our planet. As the daughter of MasterChef Vietnam Star Chef Chi Le, Kim saw early on how flavorful and healthy meat alternatives could be. She began cooking, fermenting, and brewing with her mother from a very young age and was inspired by the art that goes into fermentation and cooking. During her time at UC Berkeley, Kim started to deeply understand the burden conventional meat and seafood industries have put on our planet as well as the number of dietary related diseases that can stem from high meat consumption. It was at that moment that Kim developed the idea of starting a meat alternative company that would create delicious protein-rich meat alternatives in an effort to alleviate both chronic diseases and our planetary impact. As a Flexitarian, Kim wanted to make delicious products to reduce her own meat consumption, and through the journey saw firsthand how difficult meat alternatives were to obtain due to price, availability, and taste. This idea has morphed into the company Prime Roots. The company took shape at the Alternative Meat Lab at UC Berkeley’s Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology, has since grown through IndieBio’s accelerator and garnered over 4-million dollars of funding from True Ventures and Collaborative Fund. With this foundation, Prime Roots has blossomed into a company that can truly influence America’s food culture and environmental footprint at scale. As a community-driven brand, Kimberlie wants her community of eaters to guide which products the company first launches. Prime Roots aims to break free from the monolithic burger format, and instead cater to the multitudes of tastes customers have by democratizing how its suite of products is chosen. Through Prime Roots, Kimberlie aims to influence America’s food culture and environmental footprint at scale, and aspires to reduce the strain on our planet and chronic diseases that stem from meat consumption. Prime Roots’ products will launch in early 2020, and will consist of tasty meat alternatives, ranging from meat-free chicken to seafoodless options such as salmon and lobster.
Thank you so much for joining us Kimberlie. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
As a daughter of a professional chef, I was fortunate enough to have lived and breathed the food industry for my entire life, alongside my family of food and retail entrepreneurs. I grew up around my mother’s cooking, while learning the ins and outs of the food service and retail food industries. At UC Berkeley, I did a lot of research in microbiology to find novel and natural ways of fixing our food production systems. I discovered that animal agriculture accounts for almost 20% of our greenhouse gas emissions, and I set out to find better ways of making delicious, healthy, and meat-free protein. As I was tinkering in my kitchen fermenting and experimenting with different recipes, I found that a Japanese superfood called koji had the texture and taste of meat and that was the beginning of Prime Roots. Today, we’re growing our all-natural koji superprotein as the base for all of our “meat” and “seafood” products that are all animal-free and pack the same taste and nutrition you’d expect from meat.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Over the past few years, plant-based living has gone mainstream, which is largely driven by health and environmental concerns. More recently over the past few months, the backlash against alternative meats has arisen due to concerns around how ultra-processed these products are, and that they aren’t actually better for your health. We get concerned community members messaging us about this, and when they learn more about our all-natural ingredients and how our products are extremely minimally processed (since we actually grow our own superprotein), they fall more in love with the products and our mission to make meals that truly matter.
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?
When I was beginning the process of making some of the first recipes of our “salmon” burgers, I accidently slipped up and used sugar instead of salt since the containers looked the same. When I tasted the salmon it was sweet like a candied salmon, which was not the intention! I laughed it off and definitely labelled all of the containers after that incident. A lesson from that was that sometimes being methodical and thinking through things instead of rushing can actually save you time and get you better (or more anticipated) results.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Much of the food industry’s product development model is very top-down, meaning that executives or senior people at companies make decisions for the masses. For us at Prime Roots, we pride ourselves in being a community-centric company that uses a bottom-up approach in developing our products. Currently on our website, we have a product voting poll for anyone to help us decide which product(s) to launch, and of course you get a little reward for helping us. We believe that putting our community first gives us unique insight, as well as the ability for consumers to have dialogue with us so that we are ensuring that we are making the best products that our community of eaters crave.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Treat others the way you want to be treated, and treat everyone with the utmost respect no matter what their pay is or what their title is. Put your people first and take care of them. Create an inclusive and sustainable culture that enables long-term growth of the company and people, and don’t only optimize for short term goals or gains.There have been many toxic company cultures that have been brought to light in recent months, and it’s so important to learn from those stories and be deliberate and mindful about how you build your internal processes and cultures.It all starts with treating people as equals — not by a number or ranking.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
Communication is key for managing teams of all sizes, especially larger teams. Having channels and ways for leaders to communicate with their teams, provide feedback, and hold everyone accountable is crucial. Incorporating useful tools and putting processes in place to help with communication and having point people be responsible for projects and tasks is important to make sure the burden doesn’t fall on a couple of people.
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?
My mom and dad (I know it’s two people, but they’re a unit so it’s basically one) are the most important people in my life, and I’ve been so fortunate to have been able to watch them lead and successfully exit their companies as CEOs. I’m very grateful that they have included me in their growth, both as people and as leaders. I was able to start working when I was 11 years old and experienced almost every function of a business by the time I went off to college. This enriching experience equipped me with the tools, know-how, curiosity, and desire to fix and build a world-class team and culture for Prime Roots. I often call my parents asking for help or advice and they help me make better and faster decisions, which is a large part of my job.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
At Prime Roots we make meals that matter for our planet, and for our connection to each other and food. I hope that one day we’ll be able to feed millions if not billions of people our delicious and sustainable foods. We’ll know that we are successful when every person on the planet has access to clean water and delicious and nutritious foods.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Make decisions faster: Learning from doing and testing your hypothesis is more important than dwelling on possibilities and calculating every move. Failing is part of the journey so embracing failures and learning from them is critical. Often in startups there isn’t a playbook so the best thing you can do is try things out and make your own playbook.
- Talk to customers: Make sure you’re building something people want. Including potential customers into your product development and decision-making process can also help you build a network of believers and evangelists.
- Embracing change: Sometimes you make extensive business plans and roadmaps, but being able to be nimble and change course when new information comes to light is what makes teams resilient. Being agile and able to embrace change and reframing it as a learning opportunity has helped me a lot.
- Invest in yourself: You’re an important asset to the success of your company, so make sure to take care of yourself and invest in your personal and professional development. Surrounding yourself with good mentors and coaches, and having personal time and space to recharge is something that can feel hard to do, but will have outsized returns.
- Learn to say “No:” As a leader you’re going to be bombarded with many opportunities and knowing what’s important and what you should be using your time and energy on is crucial. Many founders I know get stuck in the trap of only going to conferences and taking meetings that don’t move the needle.
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. 🙂
Getting everyone to embrace and love delicious, flavorful, and nutritious plants and exposing everyone to amazing plant-based foods. Gone are the days of plant-based eating only being about salads. Since I started eating more plant-based foods, I’ve found that there are more flavors and textures that can be found in plants while still getting all if not more of the protein and nutrients than from meat. Plant-based living is not a trend, it’s a fundamental shift and in my opinion a necessary one if we want to save our planet. We see tastemakers and Michelin star chefs getting on board, and many people are embracing this shift in an effort to make a direct impact as an individual.I hope that people will take the time to understand the health and environmental issues that arise from eating meat, and also have an open mind and heart to consider trying new plant-based foods.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Yoda — “Do or do not, there is no try.”
As much as I’m a Star Wars fan, I really do live by this quote and mindset. I think that the large issue of global warming cannot be swept under the rug any longer, and it’s time that we use technology and innovation to bring about positive changes to both our planet and economies. What I’m doing with my company is really about fixing many of the issues that I see in our food system that presently is barely nourishing us as humans, and is also destroying our planet. There really is no other option since there is no Planet B. With our community of eaters hungrier than ever for more delicious plant-based options, people are starting to vote with their forks and I believe that we’ll be able to make the change that we want to see.
We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
If I could share a meal with anyone on the planet it would be Bill Gates. I admire all that he has done in terms of being an entrepreneur and philanthropist, and how he uses his power and wealth to better humanity. I respect and admire that Bill and Melinda think about and help those who are less fortunate, and that they believe in the power of technology to fix many of the largest problems in both human and environmental health. I would love to chat with Bill about how closed-loop energy and food systems could be a solution to many issues that he is concerned about, as well as about his experience founding and scaling a company that has changed the world as we know it.