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Social Impact Heroes: How Kristi Knowles of Mother Raw, is helping to encourage people everywhere to eat more plants

Our mission is to encourage people everywhere to eat more plants and help them ‘Put Good on Good’. We believe that eating more plants is good for overall health, animals, and the planet. Regardless of individual diet preferences or restrictions, we want to support consumers by creating versatile, organic, plant-based products that make eating plants even more delicious, exciting, and convenient.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kristi Knowles, CEO of Mother Raw.

Kristi Knowles is the Chief Executive Officer of Reunion Foods Inc.: producer of Mother Raw, a brand of delicious, organic, plant-based products. Mother Raw dressings, condiments, quesos and dips are made in small batches in Canada and savored by wholefood fans across North America.

Kristi joined the company in early 2018 and is proud to lead the growing and talented team responsible for the success of Mother Raw; a team that shares the belief that helping people eat more plants makes both good sense and good business!

With more than 20 years of experience as a senior executive with S&P 500 companies including Unilever, Campbell’s and Molson Coors, Kristi is known for building brands by defining and executing insightful business strategies that drive business success. As CEO, defining strategic direction, building the Mother Raw team and culture, and designing the overall brand experience fulfills her desire to unite her years of business experience with her dedication to personal wellness and wellness-related initiatives.

Kristi’s lifelong passion for health and wellness, combined with a commitment to help promote healthier relationships with food, attracted the seasoned business executive and busy wife and mom to join Reunion Foods. She is also proud to volunteer her time and expertise as an Advisory Board member with The Heart and Stroke Foundation and many community-based activities.

Thank you for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

After spending more than 20 years as a senior executive at Fortune 500 giants in the consumer packaged goods and alcohol beverage spaces, I saw myself going through yet another company restructure, in fact, the fourth one in since I’d been working there. I knew without a doubt it was time to move on to a smaller, high-growth, entrepreneurial business where I would have the shortest distance to directly impacting consumers, my team, and the overall future. I wanted to find an opportunity that would fulfill me as a leader and as a human being, and I found that with Mother Raw. My current role marries my lifelong passion for health and wellness while allowing me to lead with heart to help forge the future for the better.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

When I first started with Mother Raw (then RawFoodz), I was working as a part-time consultant. Soon thereafter, I was excited to be offered a full-time position to build the brand and its mission and help contribute to the foundation of the business in a big way. I believed strongly in the proposition and was in the process of reviewing the job offer when in February 2018, Mother Raw Founder Michelle Kopman passed away. She was only 45 years old and had started the brand in her kitchen. When she passed, time stopped. As I ruminated on the path ahead, I saw an opportunity to honor Michelle’s legacy by bringing her vision to life on a scale she would have dreamed of. She would be so proud of where Mother Raw is today.

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?

Everyone at Mother Raw is required to work the production line. This offers insight as to the many valuable roles and people that make up our company and while I was a bit anxious, I looked forward to the opportunity. When the day arrived, I was responsible for the task of capping and ensuring that the bottles moved down the line at the right speed. The team was one day away from achieving record production levels and I did not want to stand in their way. At one point, the line suddenly shut down and I looked around to see what had happened. Apparently, I had sent too many bottles down the line and ruined any chance at achieving the record. Since the ‘boss’ had been the one to mess up, we went ahead and brought in lunch for everyone anyway and all had a good laugh about it.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

At Mother Raw, our social impact can be seen in two areas — through our products and people.

Our mission at Mother Raw is to encourage people everywhere to eat more plants and help them Put Good on Good™. We believe that eating more plants is good for overall health, animals, and the planet. Regardless of individual diet preferences or restrictions, we want to support consumers by creating versatile, organic, plant-based products that make eating plants even more delicious, exciting, and convenient. Our products are made with minimally processed ingredients, never heated, and packaged in fully recyclable glass bottles. We don’t mess with what’s good, we just bottle it.

Holding the firm belief that people come first, we see our team and community as family. For our team, we provide a safe, clean space to work via our company-owned facility where we manufacture 100% of our products. To help protect the health of our team members and their loved ones amidst COVID-19, we have implemented extremely stringent health and safety measures in our facility and are offering ‘thank-you pay’ to our production staff for their extraordinary commitment. We have also coordinated grocery deliveries to our facility so team members can avoid taking trips themselves and have arranged alternate transportation for those who normally take public transit. Outside of our company, we regularly contribute to the local food bank and community farms and have heightened our commitment during COVID-19. Starting in May, we will be donating to Fresh Start for every online order we receive.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

Mother Raw is proud to be working with a local organic community farm in Toronto called the Black Creek Community Farm. Their director, Leticia Deawuo, has been so gracious and our team is humbled to play a part in supporting such a diverse natural and social ecosystem. Through our partnership, we support programs and food sharing projects which provide one of the most densely populated and diverse neighborhoods with access to fresh and nourishing vegetables. Our team spends time volunteering with various farm chores, participating in fundraising events, and supporting their produce subscription program. We cherish our time with them so much that even our families are getting involved — my son Tyler recently spent a full week volunteering at the farm.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

We want real whole foods for all. To do this, we must advocate for and implement policies that tackle cost, access, and education to ensure that every citizen has the opportunity to make better dietary choices that vastly impact their health. It’s a problem when getting access to soda, chips, and candy is easier than real whole foods. Nutrition and nourishment are basic needs and the economic and societal costs of not providing access are enormous.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leadership is about galvanizing a group of people from various backgrounds and interests towards a common vision. It is both an art and a science. My definition includes #leadingwithheart. This means putting people first and building a strong foundation based on shared values, trust, and clear expectations. A good leader rallies people based on clearly articulated values, character and skills, and sets the optimal conditions to move forward towards goals in a coordinated fashion. In business, leadership serves the company and the team. They guide from the side, motivate from behind and lead from the front depending on what is required. Leading with heart means having compassion, even in the face of adversity. An example of this is how the leadership team and I pivoted as a result of COVID-19 and the stay at home orders. In addition to providing “thank-you” pay increases and alternative transportation for our essential workers (which we are so grateful to have), we have set up all of our office colleagues at home and are pitching in wherever we can to help each other out regardless of the job to be done.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Your perceived value will no longer be tied to how many meetings you are invited to, the number of committees you chair, and how many people require your input and approval — In the corporate world, your days are defined by weekly/monthly/quarterly meetings and deliverables that require your signature or at least endorsement. It’s easy to be busied by all of this. At a start-up, it is up to you to deem what is most important and the relative lack of structure can be unsettling at first.
  2. Networking will be one of the most rewarding aspects of your job — I never considered myself a strong networker. My network became large because of the roles I had and the number of people I worked with to get my job done. Today, networking is about 25% of what I spend my time on. From saying “yes” to speaking with various potential suppliers who reach out to me with services, to proactively reaching out to connect with other business leaders who I come across at various events. We are always looking to partner with like-minded brands and have a long list we have worked with on our social media platforms and in retail- these relationships are all started through networking.
  3. You are more resourceful than you will ever give yourself credit for — Many people warned me that a stark difference that I would find between working at a Fortune 500 company and a start-up would be the lack of resources at my fingertips. I have been pleasantly surprised to find how resourceful a person I can be when faced with a challenge. Within the first 9 months, with what little resources we do have, we conducted brand research, rebranded from RawFoodz to Mother Raw, built the company mission, vision and values, reformulated the existing product line (using a 75-person panel we created), developed new products, redesigned over 40 SKUs, shaped a digital roadmap, built a Canadian and U.S. shopify site while figuring out the logistics of fulfillment, and launched across North America with a new broker and distributor network. Making all this happen was the biggest test of resourcefulness (and tenacity) that I and the rest of the team have ever faced.
  4. Taking ‘smart’ risks will set you apart from the crowd — It goes without saying that if you follow the crowd, you’ll never stand out. As a start-up, having less official data to work with is often freeing and allows for more creativity. For example, we executed a campaign involving our social media followers asking them to choose between two new salad dressing & marinade varieties as our next offering. Risking that consumers wouldn’t want either, or that we wouldn’t get any participation, we went for it. The result was an engaged community, a proof of concept for the new variety, and a strong story to tell.
  5. Dress for success — For years, I power dressed for work. Fashion has always been a creative outlet for me and wearing high heels and dressing up made me feel like I was work-ready. Don’t get me wrong, I still love the look of heels and relish in dressing well, however it would be pretty ridiculous to wear heels and jewelry to the office when those things aren’t even allowed in our production facility. My collection of fashionable closed-toe flat shoes has grown a lot!

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. :-)

A movement that embraces food as medicine and recognizes that nutrient-rich foods grown from Mother Earth, eaten in a reasonable proportion, can help prevent and heal diseases and bring families and communities together. Everyone should have access to a variety of quality foods, mostly plant-based (if not all), to serve not only the people, but the health care system, the economy, animals, and the future of the planet. The healthcare, economic, and human costs associated with not seeing good whole food as a necessity are immense.

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

“In the confrontation between the stream and the rock, the stream always wins. Not through strength, but through persistence.” This quote is titled Perseverance and is framed in my home office. It was a gift from one of my first teams from over 25 years ago! Even back then, I was recognized for being someone who was solutions-oriented, focused on the goal and persistent.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)

Michele Obama. “When others go low, we go high.” She is formidable and vulnerable, super-human and humane, scrappy and eloquent, strong and sensitive, and a trail-blazer extraordinaire. Her ‘Let’s Move’ platform is transformational. I would love to serve her a Mother Raw inspired plant-based lunch from my home using vegetables from a local organic community farm.



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