How did you first get interested in food waste?
Claire: I co-founded Boston’s first organic juice company, Mother Juice, with the aim to connect local farmers and city-dwellers through nutritious and delicious foods. This experience, however, exposed me to a huge new challenge: food waste. Every day, we were throwing away mountains of nutritious fruit and vegetable pulp, which hurt from an environmental and an economic perspective. Soon after, I had a fortuitous meeting with the owner of the third largest tofu company in the country and explained that he was having an analogous pulp waste problem in his operation, just at massive scale. That’s when the lightbulb went off: what if there were a way to prevent food waste and keep all this valuable nutrition in the human supply chain? Renewal Mill was born as a solution at the intersection of food, sustainability, and accessible nutirions.
How did you two meet? How do you work together?
Caroline: Claire and I literally met in a canoe. I was working for the Techstars Farm to Fork accelerator on their inaugural food program, and Claire and I were seat-mates in a twelve person canoe on a Minneapolis lake. It’s cliche, but after a few hours of chatting, we immediately hit it off and knew that we were paddling towards the same goal. Renewal Mill is the result of our shared vision to drastically improve the efficiency of today’s food system, ensuring that 100% of the food we produce is put to its best & highest use – feeding people. We’re a lean, all-female executive team, with Claire as CEO and me as COO. We’re joined by operations staff and the incredible 5x James Beard Award winning cookbook author Alice Medrich who leads our product development.
What's the inspiration behind Renewal Mill?
Claire: My lifelong interest in food and nature began to intertwine when I was diagnosed with cancer in my early 20s. This experience made me passionate about understanding the links between food and health, both for our environment and our own bodies. As I mentioned, I started in this space by opening Boston’s first organic juice company, which is where I first came face-to-face with food waste. Around the same time, I decided to go to grad school at Yale for environmental management and realized that the food system was an untapped lever when thinking about how to drastically improve environmental outcomes and build a more sustainable economy.
Minh Tsai, the CEO of Hodo Foods, our first partner, that Renewal Mill started to take shape. After learning about okara, the soybean pulp leftover when soy milk is made, I immediately got my hands on some from a local tofu maker in New Haven and started playing around. I quickly realized okara was a delicious, versatile ingredient, and that the reason it was being labeled as waste was purely due to lack of creativity and financial imperative. And from there, it snowballed. There were thousands of places in the food system where food was being lost, and millions of pounds of byproducts that could be brought back to people’s plates. So, I got out of the juice business and the feminist clothing company I’d started, and set all of my sights on the singular goal: fighting food waste through upcycling.It was really when I met
What do you believe is the biggest contributor to climate change when it comes to our food systems? Do you have any insight into how to address it?
Caroline: Food waste. And, I’m not saying that because it’s a leading question, but because it’s the truth. According to Project Drawdown, the world’s top resource for climate solutions, reducing food waste is the number one thing we can do to limit global warming to two degrees, closely followed by eating a plant-based diet. Food is wasted in every part of our food system: on the field, at the grocery store, in restaurants, and on your plate. There are companies all over the world working to address food waste at each part of the supply chain, but Renewal Mill is really focused at the manufacturing level. We’re fighting climate change by diverting millions of pounds of nutritious byproducts from ending up in landfills where they release harmful greenhouse gases as they decompose. And, by encouraging food producers to use upcycled ingredients, we’re preventing the growing of virgin crops, and thus saving the land, water, and resources that would have gone into producing them. All of Renewal Mill’s products are also 100% plant-based, because we know the burden that animal agriculture puts on the environment.
Caroline – How did your time with the White House and the UN World Food Program lead you to Renewal?
Caroline: Food has been the thread through my entire career, and I’ve tried to explore it from every angle. I grew up in the food industry, as my parents own an ice cream store named after me, and when I got to college, I really started looking at food through a nutrition science lens. I worked on obesity prevention in Washington DC’s food deserts, and soon learned that diet-related health consequences are driven more by lack of access and systemic inequity than by personal food choices. I continued working on child obesity for First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! Initiative at the White House, focusing on food policy changes, like FDA nutrition labeling and school vending machine regulation, under Sam Kass. I also worked a lot on consumer education around healthy food and cooking and on how to encourage people to drink more water.
UN World Food Programme in Cambodia on marketing fortified rice to rural families who were opting for nutritionally poor packaged foods over vitamin fortified staples. It was a fascinating project because, even if you spend millions of dollars fortifying rice, people won’t eat it if you don’t provide adequate consumer education around the benefits and sufficiently introduce this foreign concept.
These two experiences reinforced for me that behavior change is not the crux of the problem. The food system was set up to fail us, prioritizing quick wins and cheap gains over the health of people and the planet. They also led me to Renewal Mill by teaching me how to make novel concepts, like upcycled food, approachable and easy to understand. Framing is everything.
How have your previous work experiences shaped your approach as a founder?
Claire: Having been a founder before, I had already experienced the need to juggle competing demands on my time and to prioritize activities in order to grow the business. There are so many exciting opportunities that come your way with a start-up and having a framework for deciding which ones to pursue is really important. That being said, we also embrace experimentation – learning quickly what works and what doesn’t can lead to a lot of surprising successes! My previous work as a consultant also helped prepare me for navigating various projects at the same time as well as how to become a quick “expert” on new topics each day. That role also taught me how important it is for me to pursue work with a mission. At Renewal Mill, we are passionate about connecting our work to the broader goal of fighting climate change.
Caroline: My previous work experiences taught me how to operate within contexts with a high degree of ambiguity. Both of the roles I held at HubSpot were new roles, and I was the first employee blazing those paths. Similarly, I helped launch the inaugural Techstars Farm to Fork accelerator. Understanding how to operate with extreme ambiguity has made me a very solutions driven founder. Claire and I are not afraid to use the “spaghetti at the wall” technique, and both subscribe to the “there is no try, only do” mentality. The “joke” of adult life is that “we’re all just making it up” (thanks Seth Godin and the altMBA!). As a founder, I similarly believe that my best guess is as good as someone else’s. So why not give it a go and see what happens!
Women, working moms in particular, have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 in terms of managing a career and their household. Would either of you like to speak to this new fear of regression when it comes to women in the workplace?
Claire: This is a very troubling impact of COVID-19 and it illustrates a deeper problem with how our workplaces are not designed to be inclusive. Without changes in how we think about work culture and work/life balance, we are at an extreme risk of losing the immense amount of progress that has been made in terms of women in the workforce. Almost a million women have already left their jobs, and an estimated one million more will leave before the pandemic is over. This hurts not just the women who lose these employment opportunities but also the US’s overall economic recovery. Women bring unique skills to the labor market and drive innovation; as many studies show, when companies have gender diversity, they do better.
As a mother with a start-up, I had already been aware of the challenges of working within a system designed to support careers of working white males. COVID-19 really exposed just how much these systems fail women. It’s also important to note that COVID-19 disproportionately impacts the careers of BIPOC women, who have been most directly affected by the pandemic. Ideally, I would love to see this moment be used as a chance to build something better, systems that support everyone.
What’s been the #1 (or two) top challenges you’ve faced while launching your company?
Caroline: I think the biggest challenge we’ve faced while growing Renewal Mill has been the lack of consumer understanding of upcycled food. People know that food waste is a problem, but trying to educate people about food waste while also marketing delicious products presents its own set of challenges. When we started four years ago, we were very wary of putting the word “waste” anywhere in our messaging, but now, as environmental health and sustainability are more top of mind than ever, we’ve really been able to lean into the upcycled messaging and educate consumers about food waste reduction at scale.
Have you learned anything new or surprising about yourself through this process?
Claire: I learned to trust myself with decision-making. That’s not to say my decisions are always the right ones! Most of the time they’re not. I learn a lot from mistakes I’ve made and will continue to make. But I faced a lot of decision paralysis before starting a company and had a hard time believing in myself enough to commit to A versus B. Running a company means making decisions all the time and while it was extremely uncomfortable at first, this repeated exposure allowed me to build up a trust in myself that I had never experienced before.
You are also a founding member of the Upcycled Food Association – why did you help start this?
Caroline: As we mentioned, a key challenge in running an upcycled food company is the consumer education around what “upcycled” means. In 2019, we realized that if we wanted to make “upcycled” as recognized and valued as “organic,” we would need to band together with all the other upcycled food companies to build a movement: rising tides lift all boats. We want food manufacturers, big and small, to reach for upcycled ingredients as their first choice, and in doing so drive a massive reduction in global food waste. That’s why we’re playing a key role in a new trade organization – the Upcycled Food Association – which is developing an up-cycled product certification. We believe that certification will help consumers have the transparency and trust they need to choose upcycled products for every meal of the day.
What’s your team culture like?
Claire: We are a collaborative and supportive group that values work/life balance. We recognize and celebrate that “one size does not fit all” when it comes to productivity and working styles. We encourage each other through the lows and delight in each other’s wins. Playfulness and self-care are both valued; we love laughing at the perfect meme and relaxing in the fragrance of a new office candle.
What is your superpower?
Caroline: Remembering people’s names and faces. I’m particularly good at recognizing people, and remembering how we met, where we met, and what we talked about. Given that the food world is pretty small and built largely on the power of relationships and partnerships, it comes in pretty handy. Plus, as an extrovert, I just love people so always looking to meet new folks, hear their unique stories and add them to my mental Rolodex.
Claire: I’m resilient and resourceful. I’m also really good at building spreadsheet models.
What’s your kryptonite?
Caroline: Peanut butter. Gets me every time. But seriously, sometimes I get caught up in the details when it’s more important to see the forest for the trees. Things like getting to “inbox zero” can detract from other things where time might be better spent, so it requires a constant inner dialogue. As an entrepreneur, complete autonomy is both the greatest blessing and the biggest curse.
Claire: Brainstorming. I absolutely love it because it fuels inspiration and motivation for me. But it can also be a source of distraction, especially when focus and prioritization are required!
Do you have any unusual routines or habits?
Caroline: My days are pretty go, go, go, but I usually spend the last 30 minutes before I go to bed foam rolling / stretching and catching up on the day’s news by listening to The New York Times’ The Daily. I’m not sure how unusual it is, but I’m an auditory learner and prefer to consume updates that way. And, Michael Barbaro is like a weird adult bedtime storyteller haha.
Claire: My routines these days are pretty much centered around those of my one year old. We have a well-established post-dinner routine that involves yoga, books, bath, petting cats, and bed. It used to involve a few bedtime songs as well but now I get a little hand in my face with a stern “no” when I try to sing.
Do you have any other hobbies/things you like to do in your spare time?
Claire: Most of my hobbies turned into caring for my son (new parents know what I mean) but when I can, I love all kinds of crafting – painting, knitting, and sewing. I really enjoy sharing my love of the outdoors with my son – from daily walks to picking wild blackberries to swimming in our favorite lake. And in a distant life, I was in a band.
Caroline: When I’m not working, I spend as much time outside as I possibly can. I’m a big hiker, and since moving to California, have really leaned into rock climbing, biking, and weight lifting. Pre-COVID-19, I also loved hosting big group events for friends, everything from “field day” to pizza nights. Counting the days till we can all be in community again.
What have your experiences been like as a female founders? Any advice for women looking to start their own company?
Claire: Being a female founder is not easy and that’s even recognizing the advantages we do face being white women in this space. I remember walking out of one of my first meetings with a VC completely dumbfounded by the experience I had just had. It made me immediately recognize the need to seek out and surround myself with feminist supporters, mentors, and advisors. Having a female co-founder has been incredibly helpful in navigating the start-up landscape. Caroline and I are able to process together, serve as each others’ sounding boards, and cheer each other through challenges. My advice is to find your network, your community who can buoy you through the hurdles of starting a business. I found tremendous support from other female founders. And similar to Caroline’s advice, just do it! The thing about start-ups is that they almost always are solving a problem that the founder was facing. When most of those founders are white men, today’s start-ups are only addressing a fraction of the world’s problems. This means that there’s tremendous opportunity for new companies!
Caroline: I’m not going to sugarcoat things: being a female founder is hard. We routinely interact with men in positions of power that don’t listen to us, mansplain our business to us, and question our decisions and authority because we are women. Being a female founder means you often have to work twice or three times as hard for the same recognition and funding as your male counterparts. We face more rejection, and have to be much more resilient. But, one of the things I love most about being a female founder is the camaraderie with other female founders. There’s a secret code between female founders who’ve run through the gauntlet of the male-dominated VC world and come out the other side, and we know we can count on these women, as partners and evangelists. My advice for women looking to start their own company: just do it. The only way the tides will turn is when we have a groundswell of innovation being led entirely by female-run teams. Go sis, and call me to cheerlead for you when you need a hand!