Recently I was living in New York City, where I supported the national product launch of a mission-driven business called Kopali Organics. When I realized it was time to get out of the city and head to a place where I felt like I could have a better quality of life, Boulder was at the top of my list. I wasn’t quite sure if I wanted to work for a natural foods company again, but being at the epicenter of the LOHAS market and around entrepreneurs and neighbors with similar values was enticing. I heard it was quite sunny most days of the year. I had a friend with a dog named Redford. I was sold. Having moved to Boulder just about two months ago, I was excited of the timing of Naturally Boulder Days and learning more about just what makes Boulder such a great climate for innovation.
I went to Wednesday evening’s gathering and was happy to meet two other young women in this space. Laura Ruby works for Garden to Table and teaches children about food through school-based community gardening projects. I also met Annie Waterman, who through her company, Annie O., is connecting contemporary design with traditional techniques of artisan communities to bring unique and beautiful hand-made accessories to the U.S. market, including a floral belt that Annie was modeling that was lovely! Later in the evening I also met Ryan Wanger, who shares some interesting advice on “why you shouldn’t entrust your eating habits to the media, government or food science” on his blog by taking us through a look at the past eight decades of food marketing.
As the panel started, I was able to hear from Barney Feinblum of Organic Vintners and Greenmont Capital Partners and Justin Gold of Justin’s Nut Butter. Justin said something that made me laugh. He recalled in the early days, just trying to get a good label on his product, then trying to get the product into Whole Foods, then trying to get it off the shelf at Whole Foods. The latter being something I certainly remember as being quite challenging! The work that Justin has done and quality of his product has enabled him however to get his nut butters also into Toys R Us (hooray for healthy kids snacks at a conventional store!) and at Starbucks. Justin also attributed part of his success to having a good mentor. Not only did this help him to navigate his Starbucks deal, in his earlier days someone proposed to him the question: are you a small business owner or an entrepreneur? The distinction in being with the timeline of the business. Is this something to own entirely and eventually pass down, or grow and then sell to start another new business? Both are right, but it’s important to see where you lie. I felt comforted however that Justin said while he understands this distinction, where he’s currently at with his business he feels differently about his role day by day. Justin also advised being proactive in seeking out a mentor, find someone who has something you want and pursue that person for advice and strategy. And a good one would be Barney Feinblum. An experienced entrepreneur who has worked with Celestial Seasonings and Horizon Organic Dairy and is a current and past member of several Boards, he spoke of his business Organic Vintners and how it started out of a simple need in the U.S. for good-tasting organic wine. I appreciated his comments on finding balance, something I have written about having difficulty with in the past. He said that “you don’t make money, trying to make money” which is clearly a reflection upon the mission-driven nature of this industry. But Barney also said that perspective, taking time to smell the roses, helps you to identify business opportunities. And he also advised to just go for it, there’s never going to be a good, perfectly convenient time to start a new venture.
Thursday morning I had the pleasure of seeing Chef Ann Cooper’s presentation on how she is changing students’ school lunches in Berkeley, an initiative that has since been extended to other cities. I was so taken with how big of a social justice issue this is, I’m going to have to write an entire separate article on Ann. But let me quickly share some startling facts that she presented. Phillip Morris takes 10 cents of every dollar on food spent in the U.S., and farmers, receive 9 cents. We have more prisoners (2.1 million) than farmers in the U.S. (1.9 million). And, 20 billion is spent per year here on junk food marketing, whereas the 5-a-day program spends 5 million.
Following Ann’s presentation, the founders of Alfalfa’s Market took us through the story of the store at its 25 year anniversary, guided by Steve Hoffman of the Organic Center. One of the best anecdotes was that the name “Alfalfa’s” was chosen as it would come up first among natural products stores in the phone book! Having loved my food coop in Brooklyn, I was pleased to hear that one of the main goals of opening the store was to build a sense of community in Boulder. Hass Hassan eloquently explained how the store was also started based upon an inner drive to express a contribution to that community. Alfalfa’s was an expression of who the stores founders were as people. His advice was to just get out there and create based upon that expression!
Next I said hello to Jen Marshall of the Fresh Ideas Group, who put on the event and warmly greeted me. Then I had about three cups of Third Street Chai and wandered the tables set up with samples. I met Marcie Goldman of WishGarden Herbs. Kristina Rose of Graf X Group. Julie Dye from the Boulder Innovation Center. Molly Dempsey and Heather English of English Retreads. Karyn from Bali Malas (which were used throughout the event to hold attendees’ name tags, adding a nice vibe of blessing and gratitude).
For the morning’s panel, I chose to attend one about what we know about the market today in the natural products industry. Two University of Colorado Leeds School of Business MBA candidates, Lindsay Brust and Aleana Stutton, presented their findings on the first ever Naturally Boulder Business Audit. My interpretation was that this first go was rather statistical, they broke down why many companies are started in Boulder (residence of founders and the presence of a target market). Now that the scope of the industry is well-framed, I’m hoping that with the work of these two students, in future years, deeper trends may be able to be identified. Beatta Pabian of SPINS, which provides information based solutions to the natural products industry, presented data on the state of the industry. Yes, organic prices are currently going up faster than non-organic prices, but organic is still generally growing. Interestingly, price sensitivity for organic items is two times greater in conventional supermarkets than in natural outlets. This is a reflection of the customer base and the loyalty and commitment to buy organic of natural outlet shoppers. Mark Hardy of New Jersey- based Earthsense, an applied marketing company gave some eco insights. What “green” means to consumers is often product life cycle based. Questions such as how is the product made, what from and how it’s disposed of are aspects we know make something green, but these factors change by product category.
As a person who is new in town, I was intrigued by the afternoon’s panel entitled, “The Boulder Vibe” with four of Boulder’s newest entrepreneurs sharing their experiences. Arron Mansika of Boulder’s Best Organics which creates gift boxes of locally-produced products (I know what I am getting my parents for Christmas this year) also noted that besides being a gift-provider, goals of his include helping to launch other start-up companies and provide a platform to create a cooperative business advantage to do things like pool resources for needs like advertising. Arron was a good person to start off the panel due to the fact that his business was directly supported by the Naturally Boulder community and in turn will support the local community. I also appreciated his insight on the personal part of being a business-owner. He mentioned how becoming an entrepreneur really was a shift in his identity, something helpful to be aware of. Also that it’s always good to remember what’s important, but not serious! I really liked that. Rounding out the panel was Brook Eddy of Bhakti Chai, who also shared her business sense while expressing personal insights, like having a community of support and taking care of the body and its health. Seth Mendelsohn of Simply Boulder, which creates culinary sauces, noted his support of the Boulder Innovation Center. And finally Nicole Gervace of Infinitea Kombucha (which I became hooked on over the course of the day, for tasting like the kombucha I’ve tried to brew at home, but much better!) shared a funny story of the boss at her day job letting her go to give her that push to work on her own company full-time.
The closing keynote was given by Todd Woloson and Richard Foy, moderated by Bill Capsalis of The Fresh Ideas Group. Richard, a long-time elephant journal supporter, who helped design both the Pearl Street Mall and start the Farmers Market here in town and who is currently a part of Communication Arts, was a perfect accompaniment to Todd Woloson, of Izze fame and a managing director at Greenmont Capital. Again as a newbie in town, Richard said something about the atmosphere of Boulder that made me appreciate its history. Boulder, Colorado could be the embodiment of the mind/body/spirit trilogy with the University of Colorado (mind), Mount Sanitas (body) and Chautauqua (spirit) all founded here. This cultural milieu of people feeding off of each other (quite literally with all of the natural food companies and figuratively as well) builds a climate ripe for entrepreneurship. Todd echoed something that Justin Gold mentioned the previous evening, that there is always someone to have a breakfast with here to ask questions. The thought leadership in the industry is very accessible. Todd also reminded us that the food industry is the largest in the world, and the fact that the little hamlet of Boulder is influencing this industry is quite remarkable. Here we are, influencing the Kraft’s and General Mill’s of the world! Richard supported this by saying that here in Boulder, “you can see the horizon, the dawn, the dusk, the possibilities” and that it is a town of heroes, and “heroes walk quietly in service to others.” A branded product from Boulder doesn’t have to explain certain attributes, when Boulder is built into the brand, the concept is that it has gone through some screen of scrutiny so is already at a high level of quality and social responsibility. Besides the natural foods business, there are people in Boulder working on several of our critical issues, including climate and energy and that different creative minds address varying pieces of this puzzle of sustainability. This was an encouraging way for me to see the day drawing to a close, as on a personal note I am still trying to sort out how my own talents are best used in working towards sustainability. My pen actually couldn’t write Richard’s words fast enough. He also reminded me that “transformation is an outgrowth of experience.” I’m so there. In looking forward, Richard also mentioned that as he sees sustainability getting bigger, international activity becoming more a part of this, as the U.S. no longer has all the answers. Todd mentioned that packaging is an area in which we can improve as well as greening of the home. We start with ingestibles like food and move on to other parts of the home as organic principles are starting to translate. Sustainability will become an option in every category.
I closed out my day by watching every entrepreneur brave enough to step up at the Pitch Slam (as lively as I was hoping for!) The winner was Sticky Fingers Cooking, recently noted by the Daily Camera and based in Denver, the company’s goal is to inspire kids’ interest in cooking and healthy eating, and provide families with practical ideas for sharing time together in the kitchen. With a philosophy of respect for children, families and the environment, I was rooting for them to win to inspire our next generation of foodies.
A few days after the close of the event, I’m left with a better understanding of why Boulder was such a personal draw for me. First, it’s fun supporting local businesses! For instance, I now know Brook’s story the next time I take a sip of Bhakti Chai at the Trident Café. And as there are still fewer women entrepreneurs, it makes me consider dipping my toe in the waters and feeling like if I took that leap, I’d surely be supported in Boulder.
By Lindsey Wolf. Lindsey can be reached at: [email protected]
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