“5 things I wish someone told me before I became a CEO” with Kristin Groos Richmond and Kirsten Saenz Tobey of Revolution Foods
An Interview With Phil La Duke
Communication is everything. Whether that’s internal management across your team, or when working with outside partners, it’s critical to be able to clearly communicate your goals and set everyone’s expectations so everyone knows their purpose. Be confident and don’t be afraid of speaking up or speaking your mind. There are a lot of stigmas surrounding women in leadership, but you shouldn’t let that change how you lead. Take your seat at the table and assert yourself into the places you want to be, especially if it’s not within your comfort zone to be there.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Kristin Groos Richmond and Kirsten Saenz Tobey of Revolution Foods. A true champion of healthy family nutrition and citywide wellness, Kristin Groos Richmond currently serves as Chief Executive Officer and Chairman of Revolution Foods, the company she co-founded in 2006 with a mission to transform the way students in the U.S. are fed by serving healthy, delicious and affordable meals in many of our nation’s most at risk communities. Her efforts to tackle the growing obesity trend and expand access to healthy food beyond the lunch line have helped uplift families and whole communities nationwide; her company has now designed, produced and delivered over 360 million kid-inspired, chef-crafted meals to school and community sites, including childhood education centers, districts, charter schools, and community and after-school youth programs, across over 400 cities and towns.
With a mission to improve family nutrition and citywide wellness, Kirsten Saenz Tobey co-founded Revolution Foods in 2006 with Kristin Richmond and has since aimed to transform the way students in the U.S. are fed by serving healthy, delicious and affordable meals in many of our nation’s most at risk communities. Today, Kirsten serves as the chief impact officer and continues to steward Revolution Foods’ mission and nutrition strategy and drive the vision for the company. Revolution Foods has now designed, produced and delivered over 360 million kid-inspired, chef-crafted meals to school and community sites, including childhood education centers, districts, charter schools, and community and after-school youth programs, across over 400 cities and towns.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Kristin and Kirsten! Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
We co-founded Revolution Foods in 2006 after meeting and taking many classes together at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. Through our experiences in business school, combined with our previous involvement in the education space, we saw firsthand that the education system needed an upgrade on its school meal programs, particularly those in under-served communities, and decided to take this on as our mission together.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
In the early stages of Revolution Foods, we had a few interesting taste-tests that we still chuckle about to this day. Before it was trendy to eat wraps, we presented children with a Cold Turkey Wrap as a fun alternative to serving school sandwiches. To say the kids were not excited about eating a “cold tortilla” is an understatement, but this incident is exactly why we work directly with the schools and the children to determine what foods they will be excited about and how we can develop culturally responsive meals so that we can live our “kid-inspired, chef-crafted” goal.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When we bought our first delivery truck, it had an extremely heavy loading ramp needed to load the large, insulated food containers into the truck. We did not realize that most food delivery companies use a “lift gate” that works like an elevator to lift heavy food items, like cases of fresh fruit, insulated fresh food containers, etc. into the delivery vehicle. You should have seen us trying to push hundreds of pounds of food up a very steep ramp into a truck! The wheels got stuck in the gaps, and although a friendly stranger (who happened to be a metal welder) helped us weld a plate onto the ramp for smoother access, we took the truck in to get a lift gate installed after one week of deliveries.
What is it about the position of CEO or executive that most attracted you to it?
We had a very specific vision of creating a company that would do something no one has done before. It was less about the specific leadership role, and more about having the opportunity to lead a mission-driven company to grow and scale and impact kids and families across the country that attracted us. Being CEOs/executives has been the way we’ve been able to accomplish this mission.
Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
As executives, we have the ultimate responsibility, along with our Board, for determining the strategic direction of the company and ensuring that the company is financially stable. We do this by bringing a talented team together to help provide the data, expertise and insights that we need to make key decisions; those key functional leaders play an incredibly important role in supporting the decisions that we ultimately have to make.
What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?
By far the biggest perks for me have been the steep learning curve, the daily impact we are making in schools and community wellness, and the systems change conversation Revolution Foods has catalyzed when it comes to access to quality food for ALL kids. I honestly never could have imagined how rewarding and challenging the last decade plus of building Revolution Foods would be but I am grateful for each day of my leadership experience.
I most enjoy the creative process of building a company that has never existed before. Whether it was in the early days of setting up some of our most basic systems or the current challenges of ensuring that we keep our mission and core values central to everything that we do even as we grow, I enjoy being in a role that enables me to continue setting out that vision.
What are the downsides of being an executive?
You can never really leave your work behind. There is always more work to do, more to think about, more people who would like you to spend your time with them.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
Any guidance that dissuades a leader from authentic communication.
I think some people think executives have it easy; they think that all executives are traveling in first class with everything handed to them. In a mission-driven, growth company like ours, executives are probably working as hard, if not harder, than anyone, staying in the most affordable hotels, and really rolling their sleeves up every day to set the company up for success.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
I think one of the most obvious ones — though this is even starting to change — is managing pregnancy/breastfeeding while working as an executive.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
Hand in hand with being an entrepreneur is becoming comfortable with the state of consistent growth mindset and searching for continuous improvement. Each stage of growth and scale requires an adjustment to approach. It’s exhilarating and rewarding but requires a great deal of resiliency and humility in the process!
Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive?
Resilience and persistence are two of the most important traits. Resilience because you are constantly hitting barriers and figuring out how to overcome them, and persistence because you are constantly problem-solving and coming up with creative solutions to questions that no one has been able to answer.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
- Take the time to invest and build the right team. It’s a hard lesson, especially when you find your business expanding rapidly, which is a great problem to have. However, to be successful at running your own business means trusting and leaning on your team, so finding the right people at the right time is essential. My advice now: hire people smarter than you! This lesson is also two-fold. I wish I had known that in the event you discover you don’t have the right person on your team, don’t be afraid to part ways quickly. The longer you have someone within your organization creating friction, the more time it will take to refocus the team afterward.
- Communication is everything. Whether that’s internal management across your team, or when working with outside partners, it’s critical to be able to clearly communicate your goals and set everyone’s expectations so everyone knows their purpose. Be confident and don’t be afraid of speaking up or speaking your mind. There are a lot of stigmas surrounding women in leadership, but you shouldn’t let that change how you lead. Take your seat at the table and assert yourself into the places you want to be, especially if it’s not within your comfort zone to be there.
- Focus on what will propel you and your goals and learn to cut through the clutter. When you tell people you’ve decided to start your own businesses, it seems everyone has “friendly advice” or an opinion on what you need to do to be successful. And while this is helpful and I welcome advice from those who’ve already blazed the trail ahead of me, at the end of the day, their goals may not align with yours and it’s important to bring the focus back to yourself and your mission.
- Integrate your personal and professional life priorities. Maintaining a healthy work-life balance is critical, but it is difficult to feel “balanced” all the time, so it’s easy to get down about feeling out of balance. It helps me to think of it as work-life integration or work-life composition. For example, schedule your workouts or family time on your work calendar, and consider them as important as a critical meeting.
- Make taking care of yourself a priority. It sounds like it would be instinctual, but when you have a new business, and young children, sometimes your personal needs fall to the bottom of the to-do list or get delayed. Reframing the situation to consider that you are a better professional and a more productive person when you are adequately caring for your own needs is helpful. You can’t be your best self at work, or contribute fully to your family, if you aren’t taking care of yourself.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
When we were raising our first round of investment, I was eight months pregnant. Our first investors invested in us despite this, and a (female) investment partner even noted that between starting a company and having a baby, I wouldn’t be sleeping much anyway, so I might as well do both at once. That encouragement helped motivate me through some of those challenging early days. My husband Steve has also always been a steady supporter through every stage of company (and family) building.
When we were in business school, we had a professor in our Social Entrepreneurship class who encouraged us to not just write a business plan, but to actually go out into the real world and run a pilot program. Running a pilot program was one of the best things we did, as it enabled us to connect with school leaders, students, and investors in a much deeper way from the start. I also couldn’t have done any of this without the support of my amazing husband and partner, Ben.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Revolution Foods is centered around our mission to build community wellness by making healthy and affordable food accessible to children and families across the nation. We believe everyone deserves access to real, high-quality food made with carefully considered ingredients, and we are committed to transforming citywide wellness by making healthy food accessible to all. Revolution Foods is the only company on a national level to offer a clean-label supply chain for schools and community programs, which enables us to provide a great balance of real, freshly prepared foods and a composition of nutritious, high-quality meals. We serve 2.5 million freshly prepared, healthy school meals every week, with the intention of reducing the effects of food insecurity on family wellness and ultimately promoting the success of our youth as they grow. To assess the impact of our foods, students in schools across Louisiana, Massachusetts and New York served Revolution Foods were analyzed by KKS Advisors on behalf of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to understand if they performed differently compared to students in comparable schools not served Revolution Foods. The research found schools that serve Revolution Foods saw an improvement of 13.1% in English Language Arts (ELA) test results (This means the pass rate of the ELA exam was 13.1% higher in treatment schools served by Revolution Foods compared to control schools). To-date, we have designed, produced and delivered over 360 million kid-inspired, chef-crafted meals to sites across 15 states and will continue this momentum to drive systems change. From policy and food systems evolution to driving positive student academic and health outcomes, we are setting the standard for how businesses can build a brighter future for our nation’s youth and families.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Building a great company is a marathon, not a sprint. We could not have known when we first started that we would still be running and growing this company 14 years later. While it has been exhausting at times, we have learned that we need to maintain a sustainable pace to keep at it day after day.
- Making time for self-care is good for the business too. We make sure that vacations and exercise are built into our calendars so we can be our best selves each day at work.
- It takes a village to raise children while building a company — make sure your village is strong
- Make sure you are deeply passionate about the mission of your company. We would not be able to keep at it day after day if we didn’t feel the importance of our mission deep in our hearts and souls.
- Seek advice and consider it carefully. We are very fortunate to have a group of investors and advisers who have offered us all kinds of advice over the years. Getting advice and knowledge and experience from external experts has been key in helping us make some of the most important decisions for the company.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Mobilize students to be agents of change in their food environment — ensure that every child has the voice to demand access to high quality healthy meals at their school and access to a healthy food environment (stores, corner stores, fast food).
The first few years of a child’s life are so important in setting that child’s tastes and preferences for food in the longer term. I’d start a movement that empowers new parents to develop their kids’ eating habits from the time they start eating solid food.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
This is the quote I have permanently posted on my office wall, by Margaret Meade, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” To me, this says everything about social entrepreneurship and social change. Changing a system is never easy, but even just a few committed and passionate people can inspire a movement.
“Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.” — Michael Pollan. I share this in particular regarding our mission, which is to bring high quality food (back) into our communities.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, for her ability to lead with intelligence, skills and persistence. Michelle Obama, hands down.
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.
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About the author:
Phil La Duke is a popular speaker & writer with more than 400 works in print. He has contributed to Entrepreneur, Monster, Thrust Global and is published on all inhabited continents. His most recent book is Lone Gunman: Rewriting the Handbook On Workplace Violence Prevention listed as #16 on Pretty Progressive magazine’s list of 49 books that powerful women study in detail. Follow Phil on Twitter @philladuke or read his weekly blog www.philladuke.wordpress.com