Episode #174
Will Rozensweig: Crafting A Positive Impact Food System

Welcome! You can subscribe and download episodes of our show through your favorite podcast app.

You can also subscribe to receive the video version of each episode on our YouTube channel.

Our Will Rosenzweig interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Or stream the audio-only version here:

Dave Chapman interviews Will Rosenzweig, January 2024:

Dave Chapman 0:00
Welcome to The Real Organic podcast. My guest today is Will Rosenzweig. Took me a long time to figure out how to pronounce your last name, Will.

Will Rosenzweig 0:11
I appreciate all the effort.

Dave Chapman 0:13
I thought, Okay, I’m confused, but I got it.

Will Rosenzweig 0:17
It means rose branch.

Dave Chapman 0:20
Rose branch?

Will Rosenzweig 0:20

Dave Chapman 0:21
All right. How do you say it?

Will Rosenzweig 0:24
Rosenzweig. If you were, you know, German, you’d say Rosenzweig, rose branch.

Dave Chapman 0:31
So I’m looking forward to this conversation. We could talk for hours about the things that you have learned over many years, and I want to get to your Farmpreneurs. But, I would like to start, if you could give a brief introduction, rather than me tell people what you have done, could you tell people what you’ve done?

Will Rosenzweig 1:01
Sure. I’ve been an entrepreneur, most of my adult life. An entrepreneur is someone who sort of spots an opportunity, sees an idea and works to manifest it into reality. And in my late 20s, I had the good fortune of being invited to a conference, which was called the Social Venture network, where I met a lot of people who you and I now know in common, but this was a group of people who were investors, and philanthropists, and they were looking to bring a sense of purpose to business, they, many of them were maybe 10, 15, 17 years older than me, I was kind of a youngster in that crowd. People like Ben and Jerry were there and Gary Hirshberg, and Paul Hawken. And it was a group of people who were gathered that kind of came out of the 60s and had an activist bent. And my life kind of changed that weekend, the way I saw the world, these people were really like, we are going to change the world through business.

Will Rosenzweig 2:12
We are going to bring sort of a sense of enlightened values about the way everything connects. So we’re going to care about our, kind of, social impact on the communities we work with, the people who work with us, the environment in which we work in. And it was a very holistic, and integrated vision for how to do business. And I left that conference really inspired and really thinking that I wanted to participate in that wave of innovation. And that was kind of the beginning of the natural foods industry, it was very early, a lot of people in that world were drawn to food because it was through food that we could really look at, you know, effectively a triple bottom line. We could look at growing healthy, nutrient-dense food, and we could care for the planet in the way we did it, we could think about how we packaged our products, the messages that we brought to people through our products. And what I learned was that a business could effectively be a metaphor, or a vehicle.

Will Rosenzweig 3:27
And so I, from that experience, co-founded The Republic of Tea, which was back in 1990. And, I had always been a tea lover, and had the good fortune of traveling to Japan early in my career a number of times, I worked for a Japanese audio company, and I discovered the rituals and aesthetic beauty that was tea in Japan. It was much more than just a beverage. It was a tradition. And I’ve always been interested in plants and herbs and gardens, and so I kind of took what I had learned about Japan, and I integrated it with what I learned about tea, which was mostly in London and Europe and co-created this tea company, which is still thriving, I’m very happy to say. But probably my most enduring contribution was I wrote the the manifesto or the constitution of The Republic of Tea which set it out to serve the citizens, rather than thinking of people as customers or consumers, like most food companies think of the people who buy their products, we thought of them as citizens. So we created a metaphor to help people experience life sip by sip rather than gulp by gulp. And that experience of The Republic of Tea and I co-wrote a book with my co-founder of the company.

Will Rosenzweig 5:14
And at the time, the book came out in 1992, the book sort of set forth, for the first time how an entrepreneur thinks about starting a business with values as being integral to its purpose and operations. And that book is called The Republic of Tea: How an Idea Becomes a Business. And it became a cult classic at the time, it was a bit ahead of its time. And during the 90s, it started getting assigned at business schools. Because there was, you know, a growing interest in socially responsible business, and environmentalism was starting to come into programs in college. And so in the late 90s, I was asked to teach a course, some students at Berkeley had read my book, and asked me, and they went to the Dean and said, Can we ask Will to teach a course on social entrepreneurship? So in 1998, I taught the first class in the graduate school at UC Berkeley, on social entrepreneurship. It was very entrepreneurial, I just sort of made it up. You know, that’s what entrepreneurs do.

Dave Chapman 6:30
Drastic that the students asked for it.

Will Rosenzweig 6:33

Dave Chapman 6:33
That’s very significant.

Will Rosenzweig 6:34
It’s very significant. And that’s been those have been the signals I’ve been listening to for 30 years, as I’ve been teaching. And I’ve been at Berkeley now 25 years, and I’m always listening to what the students are interested in. And they’re really interested in food systems now. There’s a real wave. And there’s a real desire to, among some students, you know, a lot of people go to business school to become investment bankers and venture capitalists and management consultants and corporate executives, but at Berkeley in particular, and throughout the country, there’s quite, I feel it, a wave of interest in students that really want to kind of reinvent the systems that are leading to our polycrisis, our, you know, immediate urgent catastrophe that we’re experiencing. So anyway, that’s a little bit.

Will Rosenzweig 7:33
So I’ve had the sort of strains in my career, sort of three strains as an entrepreneur. The entrepreneur experiences led me from tea to juice, I was the senior VP at Odwalla during its heyday. And then, I became the CEO of a group of vineyards and wineries up here in Healdsburg where we are now. And then, through that experience, working with the owner of all of those properties, the wine and vineyards, he became my venture capital mentor, Bill Hambrecht. And I started a small venture capital fund with him as the lead investor to invest in challenger brands. Brands that were challenging the status quo in sort of food and health and wellness, and in climate. I mean, we didn’t even call it climate, it was sort of, we called it sustainable living back then. But we were, you know, he sort of said, Could we do what you did with Republic of Tea of taking a category, and re-inventing it? Could we do that with other product categories and other sorts of opportunities in the consumer market? So I worked over about 20 years with three different venture capital vehicles to do that. And recently retired from that to become a gardener.

Dave Chapman 9:15

Will Rosenzweig 9:16
And a nonprofit host of a number of endeavors that my students have been very passionate about.

Dave Chapman 9:26
Yeah. Okay, so there’s a lot right there, and that I want to touch on, so your pathway to approaching change and building a better world has actually a lot of it’s been through business. And you know, some people do it through academia and deep study and they become entomologists or ecologists, or, you know, some people will become journalists. You’ve taken what I think is perhaps the toughest path. And we talked about Ben and Jerry’s and Stonyfield and Odwalla, all owned by multinationals now. So, and I think that the dream of the founders was, to some degree lost, I think maybe Gary Hirshberg would say Stonyfield is doing fine. But they were bought by Danone, and then they were sold by Danone.

Will Rosenzweig 10:28
I totally agree with you, Dave, I think our theory of change back there in the late 80s, and early 90s, was that we could build a challenger brand, we’d get it to a scale where it was meaningful to the mainstream. And then we thought that these big companies would buy us and learn from us. And that we would somehow transform them from within, that our values of caring about, you know, ecological systems and caring about the health of our customers, and we had hoped that that would become the status quo. But what we found was that these big companies, and Gary had the experience where when Danone did by Stonyfield, they put him on the board.

Dave Chapman 11:29

Will Rosenzweig 11:29
And, you know, for all of us, our venture fund was an investor in Stonyfield, you know, we thought, Wow, now this is happening. You know, and when Ben and Jerry’s sold to Unilever, there was sort of this moment where, you know, Unilever carved out a separate board for them and kept their charter, some of their core values. And so we kept thinking, Hmm, but then if now I look back 30 years, and I think like, that didn’t work.

Dave Chapman 11:59

Will Rosenzweig 11:59
That just didn’t work. Because I mean, Coca Cola just sold Odwalla, they sold Honest Tea. And, you know, General Mills, I did a case study on at Berkeley a couple years ago to kind of study, how did General Mills make a million acre commitment to regenerative farming? And as I talked to the people who ran the different businesses, they basically said, we just do what’s of interest to our consumer. And they use that word consumer. So it’s very transactional. So, and we can talk about this more, but I feel like that model of like, Let’s build a challenger brand, let’s try to, you know, grow it to mainstream dimensions and importance. And then let’s either go public, or sell it to a big company, I don’t think that works. I mean, Republic of Tea is still private, it’s still a privately owned company.

Dave Chapman 13:01
I congratulate them on that, because there’s a hope then.

Will Rosenzweig 13:05
Well, and you know, as we’ve watched, Patagonia kind of set the, you know, the trend, the public markets do not afford the kind of investment and time horizons that are necessary to transform the food system. This is what, you know, has become very clear to me, and that pressure to deliver short term profits. I was buoyed when Unilever, a number of years ago, maybe eight or 10 years ago, maybe 12 years ago now, said, We’re going to stop reporting quarterly results, because we’re making a bigger commitment to sustainability. And they became probably the most sustainable multinational company. And they were actually the lead investor in my final venture fund, Physic Ventures. So I worked very closely with Unilever for about 15 years.

Dave Chapman 14:06

Will Rosenzweig 14:07
And even that, you know, even watching the transition from one CEO to the next, and the incentives that the CEOs have for their own compensation tied to stock price, and which is driven by quarterly results, it just undermines the kind of transformative change we need to make. I also feel that the political polarization in this country makes it really hard to hold a big we, for what we value and what we care about. And I’ve decided now to commit my energy and attention more toward local and hyperlocal and bioregional efforts. I don’t think that the definitions of borders and boundaries by states and political parties is going to be something that we can work through effectively from like an entrepreneurial process. You know, we’re gonna get more fragmented and more segmented, before we get more holistic.

Dave Chapman 15:28
Yeah, right, right. We are connected, but we don’t feel those connections a lot of the time.

Will Rosenzweig 15:34
We don’t live them.

Dave Chapman 15:35
We don’t live them. Yeah. So okay, this is very interesting. You’re saying that, that dream of almost spreading a good virus into big business by basically making implants of something good, and hoping that that would actually transform the big business, mostly, it’s gone the other way, and that the big business transforms whatever it consumes?

Will Rosenzweig 16:05
And the big businesses have concentrated the power that they have. And that power, the economic power, as we’ve seen, both in big businesses and in billionaires, translates into political power and influence. So the chances of kind of changing the system against the power, even when big companies say we’re doing good things, and which is now called greenwashing, all kinds of washing. Even when they say they’re doing good things, they’re also funding the lobbyists and the industry associations that are inhibiting the kind of change that, you know, can be very helpful.

Dave Chapman 16:52

Will Rosenzweig 16:53
You know, anytime we try to have meaningful labeling reform, on our packaging, to tell like what’s really in it, you know, to call for more transparency, to report things in a way, that’s clear, big business, they inhibit it, they stop it, they slow it down. But it’s not done by them directly, it’s done through the intermediaries that they fund. And that’s a whole business in itself. That intermediary political influence business is huge. I mean, we’re seeing that play out daily. So, you know, you think about, so as an entrepreneur, you’re always thinking about, where can I have an outsized influence for my effort, which in systems thinking you’d call a leverage point.

Will Rosenzweig 17:50
So the leverage point for the Republic of Tea was, gee, I’d experienced all this beautiful full-leaf tea, in Japan, and in other parts of the world, but in the US, we’re just selling tea bags all the time, which is this kind of cut up, ground up leaves where the, you know, bioactives in the plants have been compromised or released. And so the experience of a full-leaf tea, which I thought, that’s the leverage point, that’s the the opening, but how can I translate this to make it accessible, and fun and inspiring and beautiful? And so that was the kind of entrepreneurial approach, you know, and the company eventually created tea bags, because a lot of people drink tea from tea bags, and they’re very convenient. And for certain products, they work really well.

Will Rosenzweig 18:52
But the leverage point was full leaf tea. And the other part of the leverage point was telling a story of a republic, an imaginary republic with citizens, where we embraced a certain view of the world. And we found, it was so interesting, people would defect from coffee, to join the Republic of Tea. So making it playful, and making it inviting, was, you know, another part. And those have all been facets of businesses that I’ve been involved in, that’s sort of part of I think, the recipe.

Dave Chapman 19:30
So you haven’t given up on business, those transactions as a means of change. You’ve reimagined the situation in which those transactions can lead to the change you want.

Will Rosenzweig 19:51
Right, and that’s why I’m so excited and interested to work with farmers.

Dave Chapman 19:55

Will Rosenzweig 19:57
So through this career of teaching social entrepreneurship, I co-founded something called the Global Social Venture Competition, that worked with Columbia and London Business School. And then ultimately, we had 45 campuses, it lasted for 20 years. And I attended umpteen numbers of Social Venture Competitions. And about, I don’t know, 5-6 years ago, I was talking to a woman who was president of the Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture, Jill Eisenberger, and Jill and I were having a conversation and I said, Jill, I think farmers that embrace sort of climate smart practices and care about the nutrient quality, density of the foods they grow, are the ultimate social entrepreneurs. But I’ve never seen a farmer represented at a social entrepreneurship conference. And, you know, we just sort of stopped to think that’s, that’s interesting, you know, and maybe we could do something about that.

Will Rosenzweig 21:07
You know, and I’ve been teaching entrepreneurship at Berkeley, and I teach a course called Food Innovation Studio, and which again, the students wanted, you know? 10 years ago, a graduate student came to me and said, Could you teach a social entrepreneurship course, just about food? Oh that, that sounds interesting, I said. But you, you know, the university doesn’t like to propagate niche electives, so you’ll have to get the minimum number of students signed up. Can you do that, Caroline? And lo and behold, 60 MBA students signed up for this class.

Will Rosenzweig 21:43
What I learned quickly was that MBAs didn’t have all the answers, they knew how to build business models, and maybe look at operations and supply chains, but they didn’t have necessarily the domain experience. So, I worked hard to make all of my classes about food systems at Berkeley, multidisciplinary. And business school doesn’t necessarily make it easy to do that. But now, all the classes I teach, they have students from public policy and public health and from engineering and computer science, and from the College of Natural Resources, the people in agroecology, so now we have the kind of conversation going on, that really is transformative.

Dave Chapman 22:30
Those must be very exciting courses for the students.

Will Rosenzweig 22:32
They’re so fun. And I learn so much. And I watched the students grasp systems, most of my classes kind of embody, the pedagogy embodies systems thinking, ethical leadership, and entrepreneurial agency. So, how do you bring together, and you know, entrepreneurial agency may be a language that business school students are familiar with, certainly in the Bay Area, but you know, somebody coming from public policy or from public health, they don’t think about entrepreneurial agency as a mode of change making.

Dave Chapman 23:11
So what was the second of those three things?

Will Rosenzweig 23:14
Ethical leadership.

Dave Chapman 23:15
Ethical leadership? So, can we talk about those things, I knew that we were gonna have a lot to talk about. So systems thinking, which is so important, and have at it.

Will Rosenzweig 23:31
Well, systems thinking was something that was kind of articulated and pioneered at MIT by a man named Jay Forrester, there was a field that was emergent called cybernetics. And it was basically looking how everything was connected. And a woman named Donella Meadows, Dana Meadows. Yeah. And she really became the godmother of systems thinking. And she wrote some of the really important books and papers and kind of translated it, so it would be available. And this was also in the early days of computers.

Will Rosenzweig 24:09
So the people at MIT, they thought that if they could model out all of these disparate, but interconnected relationships, that they could predict the future and their models, basically back in 1972, predicted what we’re experiencing now, the rise in temperatures, a lot of the issues that we are experiencing, people identified 50 years ago, but what they did not anticipate, what they assumed was that if we had the right information, people would make the right decisions. And that has proved to be the big gap and in many ways. So the systems thinking is to understand how everything is interconnected, how different forces and energies and materials interact and provide feedback and flow and looking for this magic leverage point where you can make a small change in a system and get an outsized result.

Dave Chapman 25:25

Will Rosenzweig 25:26
So we learn about systems in our classes, we learn about food systems, supply chains, and how they’re currently constructed, and what kinds of inputs and activities and outputs take place. And then we learn how to kind of map those in a way that is useful, sort of at the level of resolution that’s useful.

Dave Chapman 25:59
So for the students who are studying food systems, which is something that we talk about a lot, as they gain a deeper understanding, do they have more effective ideas about how to influence this system?

Will Rosenzweig 26:15
Well, we try to make it very personal. Like one of the classes I teach is called Edible Education, which Michael Pollan started years ago, and I’ve kind of brought this curriculum into Edible Ed. Alice Waters was really the genius behind this class, she wanted to create an Edible Schoolyard-type project for college students.

Dave Chapman 26:38

Will Rosenzweig 26:38
And so, you know, what we do is we start the class, what’s your favorite meal? What’s your favorite meal? What makes it your favorite meal? Where did you learn about this meal? Is it something your mother cooked for you? Or is it a recipe that’s handed down from your grandmother? Or is it, you know, is it culturally relevant to your interest? So we sort of look at food from a cultural perspective, then we’re like, Well, where did the food come from? What are the ingredients in this dish that’s your favorite meal? And where did those come from?

Will Rosenzweig 27:12
So they do a whole exercise of tracing back, the best that they can, where did each of these ingredients come from? And that’s where they start to run into the opacity in the food system, because, you know, you might trace it back, well, gee, this rice is in a box and this box says Far East on it, and that is owned by PepsiCo, that’s as far as I know, I don’t know what country that rice came from. But if you go to you buy from a company like Lotus Foods, it will tell you a lot more about where that rice came from and who grew it and under what conditions. So they start to learn about the supply chains, then we do an exercise about okay, well, what might the carbon footprint of that meal be? And there’s a number of, as you know, calculators that you can use, about the environmental footprint of certain foods, and how they’re grown. And then we talk about, well what’s the nutritional value of your favorite meal?

Will Rosenzweig 28:22
So we look at this meal in this very holistic way. And that sort of gets them thinking, like, they’re thinking, Wow I’m drinking a lot of milk right now. And I’m realizing that the environmental dimensions of drinking milk are conventionally, you know, farm dairy is pretty extreme. So then you get into the ethical leadership, we talk about, you know, well what are our values? What do we care about? And we do a whole exercise on what do we care about? And then you look at how the way you eat and what your values are, are either aligned or misaligned. So this is kind of takes place during a semester. And then meanwhile, they’re meeting amazing, kind of entrepreneurial changemakers who are doing in, across the spectrum, from farmers, to journalists, to chefs, to activists, to entrepreneurs, they’re meeting people who have set out on a path to try to transform the food system.

Dave Chapman 29:37

Will Rosenzweig 29:39
So this, you know, ethical leadership is effectively the alignment of one’s values with one’s actions. And then to make it leadership it’s then the actions and operations of the enterprise.

Dave Chapman 29:53
Yes, I was talking with a woman last week who was saying that organic needs to move away from being just values based it needs to embrace being science based. And I said, Well, what do you mean, science completely supports organic agriculture. And she lived in a world of large corporations. And there’s a lot of pressure attacking organic, because they say it’s not scientific, it’s just a bunch of values. You know, people believe it. It’s a religion. It’s a cult. And these are the talking points that get developed. And I thought, well, the science they’re talking about, is very carefully carved out to be the science that supports them. But that’s not science. That’s values also. And it’s values driven entirely by making money. That’s the value. So as you talk about ethical leadership, I think that’s a critical part of we have to be, we have to be trying to live our values. What’s the third one entrepreneurial agency?

Will Rosenzweig 31:08
Yeah, entrepreneurial agency is this…. so maybe 30 or 40 years ago, the theory of entrepreneurship was that it was kind of a god given gift, you know, that just people were born entrepreneurs. And there’s a man named Jeff Timmons, who had been at Harvard and then went to Babson. And he was the first academic to really study entrepreneurship as a discipline. And he basically characterized some of the activities and actions that people take that make them entrepreneurial. And I like to distinguish between entrepreneurship and being a founder, the qualities of being a founder, are kind of a subset of entrepreneurship. But being entrepreneurial means a couple of things. One, it means being resourceful, it means working with what you have, or with what you can get under your direction.

Will Rosenzweig 32:33
And so entrepreneurs tend to be people who are good at communicating an idea or a vision, and then enrolling other people in that vision, as a shared vision. Similarly, with values, you know, like I care about this, and I’d like you to care about it, and this is why it’s important to me to care about, and this is why it might be important to you, or your children or your community. So being resourceful, working with what you have or what you’re able to kind of enroll people in helping you do. Taking action and initiative, I like to call it acting our way into meaning. And that means a sort of comfort with failure, or, you know, not getting it right the first time, not being afraid of being wrong, you know, it’s just incessant curiosity, and a desire to pursue this, you know, either the truth or the vision. Timmons was able to kind of categorize and identify these qualities that would make someone entrepreneurial.

Dave Chapman 31:10
Is there a thing in there, Will, about, I don’t know, reimagining reality? When I think of an entrepreneur, I think of somebody, you know, who looks at the way things are and says they could be different.

Will Rosenzweig 34:09
Yeah. And I would say that is a quality of kind of a visionary, you know, of identifying an opportunity. I would say that’s a little more of a rarefied quality. It’s certainly part of entrepreneurship. But like, as I teach entrepreneurial agency, I don’t like to burden the students with the idea that you have to have the big idea and the big vision. No, but you can be entrepreneurial just in terms of the way you live your life or the way you manifest, you know, action in the world.

Dave Chapman 34:49
I see some people and I think, well, they’re not an entrepreneur, you know they would be good on a team, perhaps. And, and I’m trying to think what that quality is, and maybe it’s what you say, that willingness to fail.

Will Rosenzweig 35:04
I think there’s a willingness, there’s also, I think, you know, a lot of people think entrepreneurs take a lot of risks, but what entrepreneurs actually do is reduce risks. So, you know, you make small bets, you test things, you create a hypothesis, and you test it. And then you come back and you learn, and you refine, and you know, this has become very fast in the world of software and technology, this kind of approach. I guess, where I became sort of disillusioned with venture capital was the pursuit of profit, the visionary entrepreneurs that people know of, the Steve Jobs, the Hewlett and Packard, the people that wanted to change the world, they had a vision of a better world, through some technological means. And back when I got involved and interested in venture capital, it felt much more like an artisanal craft and business.

Will Rosenzweig 36:19
And a lot of people who went into it had been entrepreneurs who wanted to help other entrepreneurs, and were able to get some capital that they could direct. But then in the last 15 years, venture capital has become its own industry, and just the amount of money in it, and the pressure to generate returns, and the approach to generate returns. And that’s because a lot of the money came from pension funds, which have an obligation to pay for the pensions of their employees. So that whole business, I don’t want to go into too much detail about that, but that whole business changed. And I felt like the expectations for rapid return on investment and outsized return on investment was leaving out so much of what is critical to our well being as human people, so that’s why again, I feel like working local, working hyperlocal, working bioregional, and it’s the farmers that are at the potential point of the arrow of being able to make, you know, transformative change in society.

Will Rosenzweig 37:44
And those are the folks that I started to work with at Stone Barns, we ran our Farmpreneurship Program for two years, and we had about 18 farmers. In business, there’s a broad spectrum of people who participate in business, they’re mom and pop kind of family owned businesses, there’s small local businesses, there’s, you know, larger regional businesses, then there’s national and multinational businesses, and then there are entrepreneurial businesses that are going out with a vision to kind of change the world.

Dave Chapman 38:21

Will Rosenzweig 38:21
And I was sort of looking for the farmers that wanted to change their world, their community, their ecosystem. That they wanted to create models of impact and success, that would have a meaningful, you know, influence, too, on the ecosystems that they were working in.

Dave Chapman 38:49
Sure. Did you feel that people who went through this, that they were working together? Was it transformative for them?

Will Rosenzweig 39:01
For many of them.

Dave Chapman 39:02

Will Rosenzweig 39:02
Yes, absolutely. And for a couple of reasons. One I found, which is just very basic is that farmers by nature are entrepreneurial, they’re resourceful people. However, many of them especially small farmers, they’re undercapitalized. They learn how to do everything themselves. And it is such a demanding business, that they rarely have time to think about the longer term strategy that they want to pursue or developing that vision, because they’re just constantly in execution mode. So they don’t have the benefit of what many entrepreneurs have access to through an incubator or an accelerator or a strategic program. So what I try to do is export the best of what we learned at Berkeley, about how to support entrepreneurs to transform their idea into a business, or pursue a strategic initiative, and put that into a week long strategic sprint, which would happen in the offseason of their lives.

Dave Chapman 40:14
And so they would come together for this?

Will Rosenzweig 40:16
Yeah, so we invited, you know, about 18 farmers to Stone Barns, and there, you know, a couple things happen. One, they were incredibly well supported from just feeling, what you do is important. You realizing your vision and doing it in a, you know, sustainable, profitable, healthy way. I like to use the word flourishing, you know, what does it mean to flourish? So, and then, eating Dan Barber’s food for a week, hanging out with Jack Algiere and walking through the farm there to see what they’re learning. And so we talked about how do farmers create value? And how can farmers create and keep more value? And this was very exciting.

Dave Chapman 41:07
Is this ongoing?

Will Rosenzweig 41:08
Well, okay, so that’s where we’re at right now. So we did it two years, we’re about to do it a third year, the pandemic really slowed us down. Stone Barns has gone through a number of challenges, but people ask me that question, Dave. They’re like, is this ongoing? And the answer now is yes. We have a executive director named Dawnelise Rosen, who has taken up the charge of reactivating this program. And working to develop it on a regional basis, we want to figure out how to provide the curriculum, the learning experience, and the ecosystem and networks of resources. What I aspired to do, just like I did with other social entrepreneurs, is help them refine their strategy. And then help them see what they need to do to become investable from the third parties, the capital providers, whether they be philanthropists, whether they be government grant making agencies, whether they be community foundations. Whoever is interested in investing in local agriculture, I wanted these farmers to understand what it meant to be investable.

Will Rosenzweig 42:31
And that means that they’ve effectively addressed risks, that they’ve thought about their business model and how they’re going to, you know, make a profit, return that capital, how they’re going to build capacity to grow their businesses, growing them through strategic partnerships and alliances. So we’re reactivating this program. As I mentioned, we’re having what I call a design congress, up here in Sonoma County, in just a couple of weeks. And we have a number of host farms in different regions, we’ve got a group in the Pacific Northwest, we’ve got someone in Tennessee, we’ve got someone in Northern California, and central California. So we’re looking at different markets and regions. And about eight people who have graduated from this program are coming from different places to kind of inform the design. And I’m very interested in not just what we’re going to do, but how we’re going to do it. And as I’ve learned as a gardener, I’ve learned that, you know, nature doesn’t scale, our culture and our business world has become so obsessed with scale. I mean, the business school students, all they talk about is scale, scale scale, and natural systems don’t scale they replicate.

Dave Chapman 44:03

Will Rosenzweig 44:04
And so we need a different model of making an impact. You know, this idea of scale, has a shadow side to it, you know, and the world of tech has taken scale to this kind of winner take all, you know, mammoth global enterprises that we’re enrolled in that, and they’re all taking their tax and their toll on us at every stage, whether it be emotionally or mentally or financially. They’re taking something from us, you know, where we become the customer and the world’s become so transactional, and transactions are not systems oriented. You know, relationships are systems oriented. So I’m very interested in not just helping farmers to flourish. But I’m interested in working with the farmers who can create businesses that can actually influence a whole community, or county, to revalue their contribution to society.

Will Rosenzweig 45:19
And I think where we’re at, and I think this is one of the challenges with standards and certifications right now, is they’re still not fully holistic. So organic is talking about a growing practice. But organic doesn’t talk about the quality of the nutritional output, you know, I’m wondering, and maybe it becomes too complex, but I think we need to teach people, just like we do at Edible Education. And this is why it’s so fun to work with, you know, undergrads, when people go away to college.

Will Rosenzweig 45:59
There are two big moments when people’s food lives come up for grabs. One is when they go away from home. And the other is, when they get pregnant or going to become a parent, they rethink what goes on to the plate, out of necessity. So it’s just really exciting working with students. And one of the other initiatives that I’m very proud of that came out of UC Berkeley is called Plant Futures. And I think you’ve probably read about that. But one of my students a few years ago, Samantha Derrick, she was in the graduate section of Edible Ed and she was getting her Master’s of Public Health. And she said, she’d been a vegan since she was a teenager. And she was very interested in plantcentric food systems from a nutritional and environmental and ethical, social, animal rights, all of these things were important to her, those were her values. And she said, I came to Berkeley to focus on this, and there’s no class in that, Will. There’s no class in why plantcentric food systems are best for nutrition best for the soil, best for the planet.

Will Rosenzweig 47:17
And I said, Sam, why don’t you design that class as your project? That’s the entrepreneurial agency, right? Instead of me saying, Sam, why don’t you go research it? I said, Why don’t you design the class? So she gets to work on designing a class, comes up with an awesome curriculum, we test it out on some people at Berkeley. You know Berkeley is such a rich place for just intellectual achievement. So I champion the class to the powers that be at the university, we get it co-listed with the School of Public Health and the Business School. And we put the course up on the course catalog, we get several 100 people signing up for it from Berkeley. But then it turns out, it’s the pandemic and everything’s gone online. So this is before we really knew how to use the technology. So we put it out there that we were going to hold this weekend class, the way the class was constructed was it had a weekend symposium followed by a 12 week challenge lab where the students actually get to work with a real-life company or nonprofit organization that’s working in plant centric food systems.

Will Rosenzweig 48:40
And so we had, like 300 Berkeley students and 400 students from around the world sign up for the symposium. And I said to Sam, and the other thing that entrepreneurs do is that they recognize opportunities, they recognize signals. I said, Sam, this is bigger. This is bigger than your class at UC Berkeley. This is the moment, you know, recognizing the timing in that. And so at the time, I had enlisted my friend Greg Steltenpohl, who had been a co-founder of Odwalla, and he had been the founder of Califia Farms. And he and I had stayed in touch and we had always had this kind of amazing conversation, I met him at that social venture network too. He and I had had this conversation about entrepreneurial agency and systems and so I invited him to be one of the first advisors to Plant Futures and he pledged his company would be a partner so Califia Farms is a partner, and Greg, very generously made…… So Greg said to me one day, he said like we have to help the students. We have to accelerate this transformation.

Will Rosenzweig 50:03
And Greg and I had both been involved in an organization called Net Impact, which started back in the kind of mid 90s, and was an organization that spoke to business school students that were interested in corporate social responsibility when there was nothing else on campus for them. So we kind of modeled Plant Futures after Net Impact, meaning that we would set up chapters at different schools. And Sam just started to kind of go talk to students at other schools about this. And now, two and a half years later, she has 40 chapters set up. And the class that we created has been embraced and endorsed by the University of California Office of the President. And the class is now going to be offered at all 10 UC campuses.

Will Rosenzweig 51:07
So this is how innovation happens. Samantha, would not have told you she was an entrepreneur. But I saw that she was because she recognized an opportunity, she had a need, right? She said, I have a need, I want to learn about this. This is important. This is timely, this is how I want to apply myself in the world. So she created this class, she found the others, as my friend Seth Godin likes to say, she, she found her tribe, right, those 700 people that enrolled in this class, and then she enrolled them. And she recruited other students, we now have a person who’s in charge of chapter relationships, who’s enrolling students, so they’re replicating, right? So this isn’t scale, this is impact through replication. And then each of these campus chapters becomes a self-organizing system. So they can they can tailor and adapt and design it to be relevant for their community.

Dave Chapman 52:23

Will Rosenzweig 52:24
So that’s similar to what we want to do with the farmpreneur program, is we want to figure out where these clusters of the farmers that are going to really change the game, and that have an opportunity to really influence the system, the community. So anyway, that’s the next. That’s the next. So what I did a few years ago with Greg’s help, Greg Steltenpohl said we got to help them. So we set up a nonprofit called Idea Garden Institute, which is effectively a greenhouse for social enterprises that are working in the food system and education. So Plant Futures and the Farmpreneurship Program are both projects of Idea Garden Institute. And this is now my encore career. So I can be the chief pollinator and cultivator at Idea Garden Institute and help this next generation of entrepreneurial changemakers kind of find their way.

Dave Chapman 53:36
So I’m very inspired by the things you’re saying. Let me throw out a challenge. I talked with Michael Pollan once and and I asked him, Michael, in the 15 years, this was a little while ago, in the 15 years since Omnivore’s Dilemma, has the food system gotten better or worse? And he gave what I thought was a completely accurate answer, because I was truly confused. I’m like, Well, I don’t know, there’s this and this, and he said, the nature of the public dialogue, the conversation has gotten much better. And he talked about a wonderful student of his at Harvard, who actually came to work on my farm after this. And you know, he said, she wouldn’t have existed 15 years ago, that this was now an exciting thing for students to be talking about, the things that you’re talking about. He said, But the actual food system has gotten much worse. I don’t know if he said much, let’s say worse. That things are more centralized, everything is more concentrated. And so I think there’s our dilemma.

Will Rosenzweig 54:46
Right, and this is why I think we have to try to disaggregate, because the knowledge that Donella Meadows had, the knowledge that Michael conveyed in his amazing books and haikus, it hasn’t worked. Knowledge has not worked. Why? Because there is an extraordinarily strong system of profit making that is driven by our capitalistic system, which has become more extreme in its concentration of the distribution of the resources. So let me say one thing, I would have answered the question yes, and no. In some ways, it’s gotten better. So awareness has gotten better, but the incumbent systems have gotten worse. And so we go back to the beginning of our conversation where we thought, could we change the systems from within? Like, could we, you know, educate the people who are working now at Danone?

Will Rosenzweig 56:01
I have students at Danone, General Mills, Unilever, Nestle, but the system’s too big for them to bring their values. And you know, in some ways, when your values and your actions are out of alignment, you get a lot of dissonance. And sometimes you get like, spit out of that system. I remember at Odwalla once, when we hired an executive from PepsiCo, they’re operating, they lasted about six or eight weeks, they were like aborted like a bad, you know, organ transplant. But because the way they thought and the way they operated was for a different motive, it was for kind of a pure profit and efficiency motive. This triple bottom line stuff is much harder. It’s much harder. And with food now I see like the real challenge is access and inclusion and figuring out how do we get the cost of good food, healthy food, be affordable and accessible to everyone. And in order to do that, we’re going to have to change the way subsidies and agricultural subsidies are allocated, we’re going to have to have the way healthcare subsidies are allocated.

Will Rosenzweig 57:29
I mean, right now, we’re generating trillions of dollars in diet related diseases through our diets. I mean, talk about waste. I mean, one of the exciting areas, I think where things have changed is in food waste, the awareness in food waste, there’s an organization called ReFED, that’s been extraordinary in kind of changing people’s, everything from behavior to actual systems, and, you know, inventing the whole field of upcycling. So going back to your question, you know, is it better or worse? I think the answer is yes. And no. And I guess that what I’ve learned in teaching about food systems now for over a decade, is that it’s dangerous to generalize. I think we have to learn how to talk about more specific things. And you know, when I counsel young graduates now about, they’re looking for their career path.

Will Rosenzweig 58:36
We’ve developed kind of a transience in our culture in our country, that you can go anywhere, and I sort of find myself giving this advice, you know, grow where you’re planted, and plant yourself somewhere and get to know the community. Get to know what are the problems where you live, like, you and I, with what we care about, we’re never going to be able to fix all the problems everywhere. And the world is so daunting, I think this is why sometimes people are drawn to farming and young people are drawn to farming. Because there is a boundaried system to work with. I mean, you need to have a finite amount of land. I think, you know, a garden, exists with a boundary. It’s the boundary that creates the garden.

Will Rosenzweig 59:33
And so I keep thinking about like, how do we garden our lives? What do we boundary? How much can we take on and care about? When I look into the New York Times in the morning, it’s just overwhelming. This morning there’s a volcano erupting in Iceland and, you know, and it’s destroying a town and then there’s Gaza and Israel and then there’s people shooting missiles here and there, and you know the world is so big that I think we’re going to have to get focused on what it is we really want to work on. And I think when you’re working in a local system, something that you’re proximate to where you can feel the feedback, the feedback loops in that system. You get, it’s regenerative. You get fed by, oh, I’m making a little bit of progress.

Dave Chapman 1:00:37

Will Rosenzweig 1:00:38
And then you don’t get hopeless. So even if it’s like, how many people in my community? I think here like I’m blessed with all these fruit trees and some I planted and some I’ve just cared for for decades. But now I think a lot about like, I don’t want to waste the fruit. You know, can I take the fruit to the food bank? Can I bring the fruit to a restaurant? Can I bring the fruit to my students at school? You know, I’m much more conscious of like, okay, I’m going to work in a boundaried system. And I’m not going to try to do everything everywhere, at once.

Dave Chapman 1:01:18
Yeah. Okay. That makes sense. We won’t go forever, but let me ask you. Are you familiar with Zephyr Teachout’s work? Break ‘Em Up?

Will Rosenzweig 1:01:35
A little bit.

Dave Chapman 1:01:36
Yeah, she’s marvelous. She came and spoke at Churchtown. And I really like her, she grew up about 10 miles from me, five miles from me, and we worked at the same farm. Not at the same time, she’s a generation younger. And her field, she teaches in law school, and her field is antitrust. And basically saying that large, centralized forces are not good for us. And, and they ping off each other, so large retailers make large distributors get larger, and then that makes the retailers get larger, and it keeps spiraling down. And that’s the spiral we seem to be in right now. And she’s suggesting we actually have laws already that if we ever enforced them, would actually stop this and start to reverse it. Now, this is looking from a really different perspective.

Will Rosenzweig 1:01:36
But a critical one.

Dave Chapman 1:01:39
But a critical one, so do you think that while we also are creating the boundaries of our garden so that we don’t lose ourselves in overwhelming misery? Do you think also that it makes sense to look at these large forces that are arrayed and see how can we get together to change that?

Will Rosenzweig 1:02:59
Absolutely. And that’s where I think about systems entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship meaning, you can’t just create, I mean, you just can’t create a new brand to change the world, you have to change the laws or the enactment of the laws. You have to change the cultural norms, you know, you have to help shift the values that inform the laws. So, you know, absolutely, and that’s why I love having the public policy students in the class too, because they’re thinking about different leverage points. But what we have to do, that we haven’t done effectively, is coordinate the leverage points. So like, the tech world, with all the money that’s flowed into it, they just felt like, we’ll just remake the laws to suit us. You know, I mean, when you look at the, you know, Uber and Lyft.

Will Rosenzweig 1:04:03
The vision was, we’ll take cars off the road, we’ll create economies and efficiencies, we’ll create more sharing, you know? My friend, Lisa Gansky, had this vision for the sharing economy. She was like, we have all of this excess. We have all these assets that are underutilized. Whether it be a car, or my tractor, you know, and now we have technology where we could all share. And so she had this beautiful vision of kind of a communal way of liberating assets that were sort of dormant or underused. And what happened? It all got co-opted into Winner Take All businesses, that what Cory Doctorow calls in shrift, you know, effectively, we have to pay for everything and that money gets concentrated in one or two really big companies, whether it be Facebook or Uber. So the democratization of the internet that many people really envisioned, just didn’t happen. So back to this concentration of wealth, we’ve got to figure out how to restore the value of smaller enterprise.

Will Rosenzweig 1:04:59
That’s why I’m back to like, local, how do we help local businesses thrive? You know, I was thinking, I went to college in Ithaca, and Ithaca had a very famous social currency called Ithaca dollars, where people could, you know, exchange and barter services, and material goods, food, you know, in a kind of an organized way. And I was thinking, what happened to that, you know, and how could that be replicated? Why didn’t that replicate? I was even thinking about that here. Because in this community, now, we have this onslaught of tourism, and, you know, fancy hotels, but we’ve got a really important agricultural community and people that make the farms and vineyards here, flourish. It’s like, how do we hold that all together? And how do we, you know, we’re lucky here in this small town, we still have a lot of small and local businesses. So, again, it’s not going to work everywhere. Not every community is going to be ready or interested in this or value this, they may be very happy with Walmart being their hub.

Dave Chapman 1:07:09

Will Rosenzweig 1:07:12
But I think we need diversity. I mean, that’s a word we haven’t said yet today. But we need diversity. And we need diversity of businesses and those big incumbent businesses, they’re the antithesis of that.

Dave Chapman 1:07:26

Will Rosenzweig 1:07:28
So how can I think about this today? Like, how can I, and the people I know who know how to teach entrepreneurship, help the farmers who want to grow? One of my students, who I’m very fond of, is named Emma Jagoz, and she has Moon Valley Farm. And she’s an entrepreneur, I mean, she decided, I’m gonna go into farming. She’s a, you know, young mother of two. And she’s in the Chesapeake Valley, outside of Baltimore, and in Frederick, Maryland. And she called me up recently, and wanted to talk to me about some farm that she wanted to acquire. When I met her, she was farming seven separate plots that she had just pieced together, you know, her business grew. She has a knack for creating a value proposition and communicating it to people and creating a community of customers and just really good at planning and hard work.

Will Rosenzweig 1:08:39
And she’s grown tremendously as a manager and learned how to hire people. And, you know, now she’s got just an amazing business. And she said to me, recently, I’ve identified an old dairy farm that I want to acquire. And it was so interesting, because she wasn’t bringing the let’s just, maybe this is the wrong word, but she wasn’t bringing the gravity or the weight or the baggage of like, well, this is a family farm. And this is where my family is, you know, it didn’t have that sort of ancestral, it’s just like, No, this is my asset. This is like my manufacturing plant. And when it’s time to move it to a better location that’s more proximate to my market and actually has the right water and zoning or, you know, whatever it is, but she wasn’t constrained by having multi generation relationship to the land, which I thought was interesting.

Dave Chapman 1:09:44

Will Rosenzweig 1:09:45
Which can be obviously a benefit, but can also be an obstacle. So anyway, but she’s demand driven. You know, she’s seeing like, wow, I’ve got you know, these restaurants who want to buy more from me, these schools, this women’s prison wants to buy from me. And now she’s got this vision of like, how could I connect my whole community to kind of own this together? So we’re starting to think about alternative forms of ownership and capital formation. So rather than again, it’s something that she, you know, concentrates in her power and ownership. She’s like, how could we collectively own this system? And how might you know, somebody in a cooperative structure get a dividend. And then they could either take that dividend as a credit against their next CSA subscription, or they could give that dividend to a family less capable of buying this, or they could convey that dividend to the school. You know, so people can start to understand and feel the interconnections.

Will Rosenzweig 1:11:27
And that’s why if you had that boundary, you know, she has a market. And her experience has been as like these other farmers in her area, who are conventional farmers, she’s been all organic. And they’re like, What are you doing over there? How are you making that amount of money? How are you getting that premium? What are you….what’s going on? And then she says, Well, why don’t you grow this and I’ll sell it, I’ll put this in our CSA. So she’s aggregating cooperatively, this regional farming system, and production, you know, it’s beautiful. She’s a farmpreneur. She’s one of these people who can, with her vision, her tenacity, her resourcefulness, her ethical leadership, her entrepreneurial agency, and her understanding of the system and her willingness to experiment. And, you know, I think, when I think of Emma, and I think of social entrepreneurs that are most successful, they have answered a big question for themselves, which is, how much is enough? How much do I need? How much return on investment is required? So one of the things that I see so many of the business school students and the people who have outsized wealth, they don’t know how to answer that question, how much is enough?

Dave Chapman 1:12:31

Will Rosenzweig 1:12:31
And usually, the answer in the back of their head is just a little bit more.

Dave Chapman 1:12:31
Just little a bit more.

Will Rosenzweig 1:12:36
Or now that I’ve got all this wealth, and I have now invested it, my overhead is so high the cost of operating my overhead, I mean, what’s the cost of operating a 400 foot yacht, or a fleet of airplanes that I use once in a while, or, you know, the 18 cars, you know, we’re living through this weird Gilded Age, and a second or third Gilded Age. And we’ve got to start asking ourselves culturally, how much is enough? How much do I need? How much can I generate and share? And how can we create regenerative systems in community? And so I feel like farmers, the leverage point that I understand as a gardener, that I want to work with, are farmers. So I want to bring my practice powers as an entrepreneur, and an investor, to working with a lot of other people. I mean, that’s the beauty. You know, let’s start with a community to relaunch this. And so that’s what we’re working towards.

Dave Chapman 1:13:51
Okay. Will Rosenzweig, thank you so much. I’m so glad that I was able to come here and visit your beautiful place and have this conversation.

Will Rosenzweig 1:14:05
Well thanks for coming all this way, Dave. You’re a real trooper.