Will Holsworth of Safe + Fair: “If you work hard every day, you’re polite all the time, and are vigilant about these two things, you’ll find your way to a good place”

The final thing I think you need to do is to stay committed. Sometimes when things are particularly hard, it’s easy to move in a different direction, try to do something else, or navigate away from your original intent. I’ve told my kids this their whole lives, if you work hard every day, you’re polite […]

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The final thing I think you need to do is to stay committed. Sometimes when things are particularly hard, it’s easy to move in a different direction, try to do something else, or navigate away from your original intent. I’ve told my kids this their whole lives, if you work hard every day, you’re polite all the time, and are vigilant about these two things, you’ll find your way to a good place.

In many parts of the United States, there is a crisis caused by people having limited access to healthy & affordable food options. This in turn is creating a host of health and social problems. What exactly is a food desert? What causes a food desert? What are the secondary and tertiary problems that are created by a food desert? How can this problem be solved? Who are the leaders helping to address this crisis?

In this interview series, called “Food Deserts: How We Are Helping To Address The Problem of People Having Limited Access to Healthy & Affordable Food Options” we are talking to business leaders and non-profit leaders who can share the initiatives they are leading to address and solve the problem of food deserts.

As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Will Holsworth. Will is a Food & Beverage industry veteran and visionary. From his beginnings with PepsiCo as its youngest Director in company history, and later as the Senior Vice President of customer strategy, Will later transitioned to President and Chief Growth Officer of Muscle Milk, overseeing its acquisition by Hormel. In 2016, he became CEO of Safe + Fair, guided by the principle that money shouldn’t bar a family from bringing good foods into the kitchen.

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 the food business. My father was the CEO of several different grocery store chains, so I spent many childhood weekends making store visits with my father. Post-graduation, I landed at Pepsi, which launched my entire career in food. Food has always been a very important part of my life and an important part of my career, from when I was younger to now with my family today. My family is also part of Safe + Fair — my son Chad runs E-Commerce, my daughter Katie runs Customer Service, and my wife Courtney is a well-known food influencer and gourmet cook.

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

I have a lot of interesting stories over the course of my career, but the most interesting things that have happened to me include my family, who have influenced many of the decisions I’ve made even today. They help in the decisions about the food that we make. I can’t give you one good story, but what I can tell you is the story of my family, from when I was a kid to today, has been central to the way I work and what we do here at Safe + Fair.

Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?

When I was 28, I was promoted to being the youngest director at Pepsi. At that point, I was managing 12 people, who were all older than me, and I quickly realized that my success was going to be largely based on my management abilities. I had to figure out what that meant and how to engage our team to be motivated, deliver results, and exceed expectations.

One of the most beneficial lessons I’ve learned is that it’s very important that people feel valued and that you allow them to be the best version of themselves and do their job in their own unique way. When people are the best version of themselves, it transcends into the success of the team and ultimately the company. It is super-clear for me that if you’re not prioritizing the things outside of work that really matter to you, then you really can’t bring that best version of yourself to work. I have a higher degree of respect for what matters to people outside of the office, and we try to give them the freedom to be the best at that first, which allows them to be the best at what they do at the company.

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

My father was, and still is, the person that first set the example of what incredible work ethic and high integrity mean. This has really been the great fortune of being my dad’s son. My children also inspire me to work hard to be able to provide for them. In this latter part of my life, I have two stepsons, another young daughter, and a wife that’s incredibly supportive of our entire family and my work. I’ve been very fortunate to have my kids, Chad, Katie, and Jack and then later in my life Logan, Beckett, Ever, and my wife, Courtney. I can’t think of anything more important.

You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

The first thing is to be smart, meaning because of the place I sit, the experience I have, and with the job and business that I’m in, I should know more about things that other folks don’t, that are relevant to safe and fair food — because people are putting their trust in us.

Second, to communicate those things in a way that’s relevant to people, whether it be communicating with my team, or my team to customers. We need to guide people to understand why what you’re asking them to do is important, and also relevant to their life.

Third, is to inspire, and that simply means that when you come across people that you like, or companies that you like, or bosses that you like, you actually look forward to hearing from them again. It’s a relatively high bar to set daily, that with every employee or customer interaction, to try your best to be smart, relevant, and inspiring. You either get them to think more of the company, or more of their boss, or less than, depending on how that goes. We try to be ever mindful of those three things.

The last piece is just working hard. It’s something that is completely within your control. I’ve learned from an early age to try to work harder than everyone else around me. We expect that at Safe + Fair: to try to work harder than our competitors. If you can master these four things, it ultimately ends up leaving you in a relatively positive place.

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

It’s simple: work hard and be nice to everyone.

Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about Food Deserts. I know this is intuitive to you, but it will be helpful to expressly articulate this for our readers. Can you please tell us what exactly a food desert is? Does it mean there are places in the US where you can’t buy food?

I think that’s one definition of a food desert, although I don’t think it’s a very common situation. What I do think is more common, and the way I think about it, is more along the lines of food access and awareness. Meaning, I think there are certainly places in the United States that do not have access to clean label, healthy, non-processed foods.

As a result of limited access, it creates a myriad of health issues in folks that were just tragically laid bare over the last 18 months of the pandemic. When your only options are highly processed, high-fat, high-sugar, high-salt foods that have been marketed to eat them in enormous quantities, it leads to tragic consequences. Even without a pandemic, it raises health concerns like obesity, diabetes, and heart conditions.

When I think about a food desert, I think about a food access and awareness desert, meaning that we need to do a better job providing clean-label, nutritious foods that people enjoy, and also better alternatives to highly-processed, high-saturated fat, and high-sugar products that create terrible health consequences over time.

Can you help explain a few of the social consequences that arise from food deserts? What are the secondary and tertiary problems that are created by a food desert?

What happens in a food desert, or food access desert, is when the only availability and marketing is to eat more high-processed foods and drinks and high-sugar-content items, the consequences are tragic and have a ripple effect. As the country deals with obesity, diabetes, heart conditions, lethargy, and other things that are fundamentally just unhealthy for people, there continue to be many places in the United States where those are the messages being drummed into people. And there aren’t countering messages or even countering options for folks to just eat healthier. I think that the food desert, the lack of food access, and the lack of food awareness has created consequences that are now unfortunately deeply ingrained in our culture and in our lives.

Where did this crisis come from? Can you briefly explain to our readers what brought us to this place?

I think this crisis came from years and years of messaging telling U.S consumers that these food options are fun and should be eaten in large quantities. When you’re continually hearing the same messaging, and showing food that is fundamentally not good for your health in a fun and entertaining context, without providing other viable options, it creates and sustains the crisis. Furthermore, when other options are provided, they come at almost 50%-100% the cost of highly-processed foods. So, while these foods may be out there, they are still not accessible to much of the population.

When you look at the amount of food the U.S. population consumes relative to Western Europe, particularly the amount of fresh food we consume relative to Western Europe, it’s not surprising that there is a large skew in the numbers on fresh food consumption, which is a direct consequence of messaging to folks in the U.S.

Can you describe to our readers how your work is making an impact to address this crisis? Can you share some of the initiatives you are leading to help correct this issue?

At Safe + Fair we strive to make foods that we know are safe for 10’s of millions of people with food allergies and make it all fairly-priced. We only use clean-label ingredients because, fundamentally, we are firm believers that everyone should have access to clean-label food, at a fair price, whether you have a food allergy or not.

In particular, if you do have a food allergy, we actually decided we would flip the paradigm. Historically, allergy-friendly food has been unbelievably expensive and not very tasty. We flip that narrative with the food we create. We do use sugar and salt, but less than our competitors. This relates back to relevance. If you start shifting some of your consumption to Safe + Fair foods, you’re going to find a little less sugar, whole ingredients, and plant-based food that focuses on taste as much as health.

An example initiative is our newly-launched allergy-friendly Protein Powder. We developed the premium probiotics with the help of the University of Chicago and Stanford to make sure there is a full serving of fruits and vegetables, and each serving is only 100 calories. This protein is literally everything every kid should have, every day, to start their day. I am particularly happy and proud of what this product is, as I consume it myself, as an adult. I wish I had something like this protein when my older kids were growing up, because they were extremely picky eaters and survived on gummy bears and pasta. This product would have provided them with all the macro-nutrients they needed, and they would have loved the taste. All of us at Safe + Fair are really excited and very fortunate to be a company that gives us the time and space to create products like this Protein Powder.

Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?

I’m very proud of the food we put forward. The best way we can show care for our consumers is when they receive a bag of Safe + Fair food that is great-tasting, healthier, and beautifully packaged at a great value.

The other thing is you can’t give what you don’t have. We work really hard as a team to treat each other safely and fairly to create a great work culture. We have a talented group of employees that I enjoy working with every day, and miss seeing in person since we have gone virtual due to the pandemic. The company has grown incredibly over the last year, which is a testament to the tremendous work ethic from a lot of very young folks who have done a wonderful job launching new products. We launched 14 new products since the pandemic began. Our employees continue to help make people become more aware of Safe + Fair and our mission.

In your opinion, what should other business and civic leaders do to further address these problems? Can you please share your “5 Things That Need To Be Done To Address The Problem of People Having Limited Access to Healthy & Affordable Food Options”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.

I am reticent to opine on what other businesses should or shouldn’t do. That being said, I think the first step is recognizing that there is a problem. People often pretend that they don’t need to know of this problem.

Step two is addressing the problem. I spoke at Stanford business school a few years ago to really brilliant young folks, and our discussion included the advice that smart people deal with problems at-hand: they don’t try to navigate around the problem, they navigate through the problem to find a sustainable solution that makes sense. There are clearly some very obvious breakthroughs in technology, but I see the same opportunity with food, food access, and information. We are trying to do some of those things at Safe + Fair by using whole, plant-based ingredients that consumers wouldn’t necessarily think would make delicious granola, chips, popcorn, or protein, and we’ve been successful.

The third thing I think you need to do is to hire people that are passionate about this topic, because this is not an easy thing to do.

The fourth thing is an algorithm that enables you to do this. Safe + Fair does not make the same margin as other food companies do. Although we are a good, healthy business because we’re committed to these topics and we believe overtime that will inure to the companies benefit, and it will certainly benefit society over time.

The final thing I think you need to do is to stay committed. Sometimes when things are particularly hard, it’s easy to move in a different direction, try to do something else, or navigate away from your original intent. I’ve told my kids this their whole lives, if you work hard every day, you’re polite all the time, and are vigilant about these two things, you’ll find your way to a good place.

I think these five things are critical to business, and to the country as a whole. Helping people to be healthier is better for everybody, and it’s actually better for every business in the long run. We need to have a lot more conversation around this topic and explore how we can collectively deal with fixing this issue.

Are there other leaders or organizations who have done good work to address food deserts? Can you tell us what they have done? What specifically impresses you about their work?

One company that is addressing a macro-issue for society in an unbelievably good way is Tesla. I think what Tesla has demonstrated is two things: one is that their car is actually the best car that’s made today. It works, it’s fast, it’s beautiful, and it also allows you to drive an electric vehicle versus fossil fuel vehicle. Secondly, Model S was a good idea, Model 3 is a great idea — it gives more people access than Model S, but it’s the exact same technology.

One of the things that we’re trying to do here at Safe + Fair is to make food that is actually better than the food that you’re currently eating, only it’s not highly-processed, high in fat, high in sugar, or made with GMO ingredients.

Tesla also demonstrated, almost to everyone’s shock, that an electric car could be very easily integrated into our lives. We’re working to try to do that with Safe + Fair food. When I look at our food, I don’t look at it relative to allergen-free food, I don’t look at it relative to X, Y, or Z food, I just look to what tastes great — that’s our bar for our recipes for our food. If we can do that, then we commercialize those products. They happen to be all of those other things, allergy-friendly as well. Then, we sell them at a fair price, which is a critical component for access to food.

If you had the power to influence legislation, are there laws that you would like to see introduced that might help you in your work?

These are difficult longer-term issues to solve, but I think it would be good if there was legislation that made things very clear to people about what they were interacting with, and the impact of some of the foods that they were eating over time. I think that might be helpful to see more transparency in labeling products. It would also be good for people to understand the consequences of what a lifetime of eating processed foods does to their health. That is not to suggest that you shouldn’t enjoy these items, but I do think you should let people make whatever choice they have with very balanced information. And then consumers are free to choose whatever thing they think is best for them, or whatever thing they like the most. I do believe there is a lack of information on what the ingredients in many foods can do to your body, so perhaps more information would be helpful.

You are a person of enormous 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 am fortunate right now to be at a point in my career where I get to experience that every day at Safe + Fair. We have a company of people that I truly love to work with. They are the highest quality, highest integrity, and just really nice folks to be around.

On top of that, we try to make food that’s slightly better than what’s out there today at a fair price. Making great food at a fair price is an important topic and we try our best to make the best food possible, as well as safe food. There are millions of people in America that are horribly affected by food allergies. There are children and parents that are constantly afraid of what is going to happen to themselves or their children if they or their child touches the wrong micro protein that could cause anaphylactic shock.

These parents aren’t just worried about what their own children are eating, but what foods other people have interacted with throughout the day. One of the things we are trying to do at Safe + Fair is to make food that tastes so good and is so affordable, that any family or school can afford to buy Safe + Fair food, so everyone has access to it as well. In the context of better food, I think we’re moving the ball forward, certainly in regard to food allergens. The FDA now considers sesame to be a Top 9 allergen and we have been making food without sesame for about 3 years. So, we are well ahead of that curve and a topic that we take very seriously.

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, especially if we tag them. 🙂

This is a very easy answer for me. If I could have breakfast with anybody tomorrow, it would be my son, Chad, my daughter, Katie, my son, Jack, my stepsons, Logan & Beckett, my daughter, Ever, and my wife, Courtney. I hope you tag one of them or all seven of them because that would be a very cool morning for me.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can go to safeandfair.com or you can go to our Instagram @safeandfair. All of our content is created in-house by Safe + Fair employees. All of our stories are influencers that we partner with at Safe + Fair. I hope you choose to follow us, so you’ll get to see some really cool and interesting content. We launch products pretty quickly and our social media is the best place to see our enormous innovation, with more to come!

This was very meaningful, thank you so much, and we wish you only continued success.

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share the story of Safe + Fair with you and your readers.

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