300: Anne Greven—How Can We Support Innovative Entrepreneurs In Agriculture?

Hear about amazing innovations in our food supply!

You are going to love learning from Anne Greven. Anne is the Global Head of Food and Agribusiness Innovation and the FoodBytes! Platform at Rabobank. Our shared interests are all around change, specifically, how to create a new way to produce food at a time when agriculture is facing escalating crises in soil, water and the environment. In today’s podcast, you will listen to this amazing woman talk about her own personal journey and what she has learned as she moved up in the banking world. You just might leave feeling a little better about our planet, too.

Watch and listen to our conversation here

Anne G video

Some of the key topics Anne and I discuss include:

  1. How does a woman manage her career path in an industry that is both European and male-dominated? As a woman who spent 14 years as an executive at three banks, I particularly enjoyed listening to Anne’s story and experienced many of the same challenges she has been able to overcome.
  1. Anne has a deep interest in the innovations taking place in our food chain, as does Rabobank. Together Anne and I dig into these emerging breakthroughs and the talented entrepreneurs who are pushing them forward.
  1. We talk about changing the culture of organizations. This is a major challenge for all companies today. The way we always did things might not work in this ever-changing world coming out of the pandemic period. But what will work and how do we help create it?

Listen in and share your thoughts.

Ann GrevenGet to know Anne Greven

A Rabobank veteran, Anne has spent more than 15 years in its New York office, leading landmark client-facing businesses. In her previous roles as Head of Acquisition Finance and Managing Director, Co-Head of Capital Markets, she oversaw a large portfolio of private equity clients focused on food, beverage and agriculture investments.

Having this unique financial and “food and ag” experience enables her to provide invaluable insight and advice to team members, clients and startup entrepreneurs, coaching them on refining their business models with an eye toward investment and marketplace success. You can reach Anne on LinkedIn.

For a deeper dive into innovation and our food supply, we recommend these

Additional resources for you

Read the transcript of our podcast here

Andi Simon: Welcome to On the Brink, a fresh lens to take you and your business to new heights. Hi, I’m Andi Simon, I’m your host and your guide. And I’m celebrating now because we’re almost four years into doing podcasts and we have passed our 300th podcast. And these are really exciting times. There’s something that is fascinating about sharing great people’s stories with other great people. And I do think that this is an important day as we’re looking forward to 2022. All the kinds of things that women are trying to do to help women not just become the best they can be, but really change our society so that women can thrive. Remember, women are more than 57% of college graduates, more than half the doctors, half the dentists. We seem to simply have a hard time making that stick as something that people are embracing.

I brought Anne Greven here today. And she has a wonderful Corgi behind her that you’re going to enjoy. Okay, it’s better than him scratching at the door. And we both love dogs, and welcome to this wonderful world of remote work, hybrid work and what the heck. Annie is the Global Head of food and agribusiness innovation and food platform at Rabobank. And I am an ex-banker, so we share lots of familiar stories about both banking, women in banking, and those kinds of words…innovation and banking.

Rabobank food and agricultural innovation platform drives collaboration between startups, corporate leaders and investors to develop solutions to food system challenges. Now, if you aren’t familiar with the challenges of food today, it’s water, and the deterioration of it, it’s soil and the question of how to fertilize and what to fertilize with, and all kinds of things with the distribution of it. I love Arrow Farms that has indoor growing centers that are growing two billion things of food. Stop and Shop just announced they’re now providing indoor grown stuff for the Netherlands, where all their food is grown on rooftops. There’s so much innovation coming in the agribusiness world that it’s important for us to know about it, but also to help contribute to it. And what’s the role of women in this whole process? So Annie, thank you for joining me today.

Anne Greven: Thanks for having me. It’s good to be here. 

Andi Simon: It’s fun. Annie, share your own story, it’s a terrific one. And it also serves as a role model for women who are looking at both financial services but also how to bring your innovation into the mix, so that you can really begin to see things through a fresh lens.

Anne Greven: When I talk about who I am, I often say I’m a banker. I’m an almost 30 year veteran banker. But I was very fortunate to marry my passion for food and ag when I joined Rabobank about 17 years ago, because all they focus on is supporting the food and agricultural system. While I am a person who grew up in New York on Long Island, no less, I was fortunate to spend a lot of time out West where I fell in love with the Western landscapes and the Western way of life, but also in the livelihood of cattle ranches. So that’s where my first passion really became with food and ag on a beef operation. But it’s expanded with my love of food, and love of cooking and all things food and agricultural related.

The important part of the nexus for me is that my biggest passion, even from a very young age, was making sure that we did more to preserve the environment. And we are now at this really fascinating time where the world is coming together to recognize the challenges of global warming and its impact. And most explicitly, you see food and ag as the center of those discussions. So I’m at this point in my sort of next part of my career, I’ve really been able to embody looking at innovation and what are the sustainable solutions for building a food and agricultural system for the future. Working with large companies, small companies to sort of help realize those ambitions, we’re going to have to feed 50 million people and then 10 billion people by 2050. So we better get going. We have a lot of work to do. While we also need to preserve the planet.

Andi Simon: If you look at Africa, the women are the agriculturalists and without sufficient water, they don’t have any source of income or food. And it’s very complicated because it isn’t simply about irrigating better. There’s no way to do that. And when you look at the whole continent, you say, wow, now I begin to understand, this is not simple or easy. This is a complex global problem, and we can’t solve it solo. So what are you doing with Rabobank and the kinds of innovations you see developing, and we’ll talk about being a catalyst for women as we go through it, but I do think you’re seeing some terrific ideas emerging. And we both know that innovations take time to see it and grow. But unless we fertilize it and grow them up, then the idea turns into nothing. The ideation person, what are you seeing?

Anne Greven: We are seeing so many amazing things we tend to focus on. And that seems like a very broad statement, but it’s true, we get to work with young talent, who are really looking at the agricultural landscape differently than I may have. And even generations prior to me, they’re actually looking at it with a lens for tomorrow. So whether some of these ideas you talked about, growing foods: maybe you’ll go into a grocery store that you know today, but maybe in the future, we’ll be walking into a greenhouse-like experience, or we’ll think about how we are able to capture water from the air that helps filters arid landscapes.

The technology exists, but these are the kind of things that will come forth to really become viable in the future. I think when we think about what it is going to take, there’s so many facets to the Food and Ag system that we look at everything across the supply chain, and we call it farm to table or farm to fork. And it really is so many different facets of what needs to happen at the farm, at the distribution, at the warehouses, in the restaurants, getting to the grocery stores, to the consumer, and then how the consumer behaves after that. So that’s how we look at innovation. And we look at solutions that help optimize more sustainable opportunities to solve problems that aren’t as efficient today, or aren’t being solved.

Andi Simon: You know, as you think about that farm to table, one of my podcasts was on blockchain and how it was being used on grass-fed beef in Wyoming, so you could track and trace it. And there was blockchain being assigned to beef coming out of Australia, so you could track and trace it. Even eggs, so you could track and trace them. People would not think that even WalMart is putting blockchain chips on its food so we can track and trace it. That’s one of those quiet innovations that has tremendous implications. If you really want to know where your food comes from, and how do you make sure that if you’re buying a premium piece of steak, it really is? Or maybe you don’t want to buy steak at all? And that’s a whole other conversation. But are there other ideas that you think that really strike you as important for people to become aware of and begin to think about?

Anne Greven: I look at a couple of our alumni and Kaprow Acts is a company that I think about and how they’re taking yogurt. People love yogurt, there might be too much yogurt in the yogurt aisle, but there is a lot of yogurt. And with a lot of yogurt, there’s a lot of waste. And we call that whey waste. And whey waste is incredibly toxic to the groundwater. So Kaprow Acts actually takes that whey and makes it into oils that can replace the use of palm oils, or other types of oils in our food system. And that’s in essence creating this closed loop technology. So that’s one where you don’t really think about the yogurt you might be eating, or how we got to that stage. But basically, we suck out a certain amount of water. And with that a certain amount of whey and that actually is a waste product. So finding ways such as Kaprow Acts is amazing in the use of that waste.

Another one is a company that I’m going to encourage you all to be a part of is Imperfect Foods. Imperfect Foods was one of those companies that was really designed around making sure that the waste that was coming off of farms wasn’t a perfect carrot or a perfect apple. It was either too small or too big or too ugly, or too this. They were able to say okay, you know what? These are all really good foods that the consumer, who doesn’t care about the imperfect apple, is probably going to buy. And they’ve built that company in the last five years, especially during the pandemic, into a food delivery system, upcycling the waste, so that us as the consumer can consume it and thinking about the delivery model in a way that really made it work. The pandemic actually was very good for them, and still is. But imagine, you’re going to eat a carrot that otherwise would have most likely got ground up and given to feed.

You know there’s another company but I’m drawing a blank. So I apologize. But I will come back to  it. Hopefully the name comes to me. It is a company that’s actually looking at taking the waste of carbon and making it into food. Right now it’s being used to feed animals, mostly in the seafood space. But imagine if we can create, capture carbon waste in the air and synthesize it into a food product. It is an amazing full circle as well.

Andi Simon: Yeah, pretty cool. I was fascinated by Amazon buying Whole Foods. And thinking about if Amazon is this clever and innovative company, as it seems to be, it’s been ranked among the top, if not the top, could we now watch Whole Foods growing its own food on its rooftops, or its basements or putting the distribution in such a way that it eliminates transportation needs. You may be seeing that already developing. But transportation adds a lot of airways of climate impact, and there aren’t any drivers for the truck. So what if I didn’t need a driver for the truck? Seeing anything like that developing?

Anne Greven: Well, I think that, you know, this is definitely something that was a big issue. And it’s not just now, but prior to covid. People weren’t willing to work on farms, work in plants, the labor shortage was a massive issue. And during the crisis, it’s become an even bigger issue for many reasons. And we could have a whole podcast about that. So anything that’s helping create more efficient technologies such as robotics, massive surge in robotic technology, whether it’s making sure that more of the production within plants is robot, you know, roboticized.

In the past, you used to have people at the end of the packing lines, putting things in boxes. Now you’re seeing more automation around boxing and distributing. And so now the cost of investing in that is actually at a point where it makes sense for more automation to go in all across our supply chain. So that’s real. I think the other thing that really happened is not just about labor, but it’s about, as you mentioned, carbon footprint, but making sure that those are shorter. Those shipping and those transportation, so looking more locally, and building out more local accessible systems is very, very real. So whether it’s building on your own organic farms and supply chains for those within more cities is definitely one of those things that we’re seeing greater demand for and innovation around.

Andi Simon: Yep. I guess there’s a part of me that’s very curious about this. We had a wonderful client who had a few JAG programs and I learned a lot about lasers that could milk cows. And then the State Department went to them, the state’s Department of Agriculture wanted them to start to retrain the technical logical stuff because they still needed people who could understand how cows could be milked by machines. But they didn’t need people to stay there. So the human quality became more sophisticated.

And then, there was a gentleman in a group I was working with who grew tomatoes out in the Sacramento area. And he and his father had a big battle going on because the father said, I’ll tell you when those tomatoes are ready to be picked, shake the plant and I know, and he had a drone going across to tell you when the tomatoes were ready to be picked. And the two of them were arguing about two different worldviews. And the perceptions became a great conversation for how difficult it’s going to be to change but it takes some time for those who have always done it by shaking the plant to realize that drones can give you a pretty good indication of how much water is there when the plant is ready. And I can see it from my desktop, including the tractors now that are autonomous vehicles and call for their own oil changes. I’m not sure what consumers are paying attention to.

Anne Greven: We’ve seen that consumers’ demands are changing significantly. Mostly because the consumers recognize that food really is the primary sustenance and the first step that they can take control of their health. And that really once again, during covid that really accelerated. And so looking at food as medicine, looking at technologies, also advancements around how your body is synthesizing food. What does that mean? What do you need more of? And I think that the health and wellness component of the food system is one area where we just see massive amount of innovation over the next year. Whether it’s wearable technology that allows you to tell you how much fat you’re synthesizing and how you’re metabolizing something you have eaten or how well your body is absorbing it, or how well it isn’t. Those are the kinds of things that were really at the forefront.

And even recognition on how your body is responding just by looking maybe into a camera like this. Yes, your doctor can say that you’re experiencing an allergy to strawberries, he/she can see it based on these patterns. So I think there’s so much coming that will connect the consumer and all of us to our food, and being able to assure us where is that supply chain of foods, a blockchain like you mentioned, but also all of these sensor technologies that can tell you every component of what the DNA of that food is, and how that might impact you. So all of these things exist, it’s about how they’re going to get supported and how they become relevant in our food system that makes it more sustainable, but also allows us to be smarter about how we use all our resources.

Andi Simon: You say the word that’s very important there because I can’t tell you how many people say, I’m all for sustainability. And then you ask the powerful question about whether it’s in your company or in your own life. I’m not sure people really understand that long supply chain that you described. And where along the way there are opportunities for becoming more sustainable, whatever that might mean. And this becomes an interesting question, particularly as we’re seeing more vegetable produce becoming food. And whether it’s tofu or it’s beef lookalikes or steak lookalikes. Will we slowly be moving to tofu as our primary “tastes like steak but isn’t”? And what really means sustainability? Your thoughts on the word and what consumers should pay attention to?

Anne Greven: Yeah, I think there’s sustainability in a very, very complex supply chain. I want to be very clear that I don’t expect even if I am learning all the time about what the real costs are of something I might consume. And I use coffee as a great example, to really think about, what is the cost of that cup of coffee that you have every day, because we don’t grow coffee in our country. It’s grown somewhere else. Most of our coffee comes from either Latin America or parts of Africa. That means they’re shipping involved. And that means there’s a lot on the ground activity that goes on. And most of the coffee you drink comes from a cooperative in either Africa, or Latin America. And that cooperative is probably made up of a farmer that has a hector at most of coffee.

So when you think about all the components and all the processing that happens on the ground there, and then it’s gathered, it’s shipped, and then it’s processed. Then that cup of coffee is probably anywhere from $20 to $75 if you were really actually putting in the real costs, fair labor, and so it’s quite complex. And then you add in the fact that we have global warming, and the bands that we grow coffee in are changing drastically. And so where will we be growing coffee?

So when I am asked about growing coffee, the first thing I’d say is don’t drink coffee. It’s not sustainable. But how can you make that experience more sustainable? And so what I always ask the consumer and myself to do is for yourself, think about consciously what is it that you’re consuming and how is it that you’re consuming and what is within your own control you can change to make a difference. And because I think that we can all do something. I don’t want to dwell on what we’ve done in our home because it might alienate people. But I would say that, just thinking about how you guys can be more sustainable, like, if you have used coffee grounds, maybe composting those or things of that nature, because coffee grounds are very good for your garden, things like that.

Andi Simon: You have a real problem, because you have the plastic, and where does that go? And coffee planters have their own challenges with the kinds of diseases that are attacking the coffee plants, and different altitudes. And this isn’t easy, and yet, we do love our coffee.

Anne Greven: And we look at what’s happening right now with the big energy transition, and something I can safely talk about without alienating my clients is that everyone is very keen on batteries. But the reality is the big component of batteries is lithium. And there is a finite supply of lithium. And there’s mining, you have to get lithium from somewhere. So there are many components, and while it might be cleaner, from an admission standpoint, is it really better? Yes. And so this is what adds to the complexity of these sustainable conversations, which is why we’re going to all have to make choices, and they have to be different and model differently from how we’ve made them in the past, making clear indicators of what’s of the primary importance, and what has the longest impact for health and wellness of our planet. Those are not easy questions. But I think we’re at least talking about them now. And we weren’t before. And I hope they’re beginning.

Andi Simon: To be taught in some schools, so that my grandkids can begin to have a mindset about what they are intentionally doing for their own health. We’re part of this environment. So it isn’t as if it’s an afterthought, it’s the thought. As we started our conversation, you and I were talking about the role of women in this world of innovation, as well as in banking. Maybe you want to go back to the role models, the way in which women have roles to play within the innovation platform. And I know you have some particular perspectives on it, and I thought I’d give you an opportunity to share them. 

Anne Greven: I could talk about food all day long.

Andi Simon: But I’m a corporate anthropologist who helps companies and the people inside them change. They hate me even when they know they need me. You have the same mission in front of you, where we’ve got to change the way the world thinks about everything. And along that entire supply chain, a whole lot of folks who are going to say, “Go away, go away, don’t bother me,” because nothing is simple. So what’s the role of women in all of this? Any perspective?

Anne Greven: Yeah, I thank you for the question. There’s so many places I want to go with that. But maybe I’ll start with a story because I think sometimes stories are the best indicator of why and what our focus should be. Last week, it’s the end of the year and I know this might be airing later in the year, but right now we’re in December. And it’s the time that a few of us have been able to gather with clients. And we have had the chance to meet with folks that we haven’t been able to in quite a while. And so going into those rooms again, where we have 100 plus people, everyone was tested, everyone was safe. I want to assure you and I want to share with everyone it was all very controlled.

Andi Simon: No super spreader.

Anne Greven: It was not a super spread event. No one got covid. But everyone tested beforehand and everyone was vaxxed that attended. But what I was struck by, with the two recent events that I attended, is that in both finance and Food and Ag is the lack of women in the room, and that it actually was alarmingly smaller than I had recognized in past year. So it really was the first time. We’ve been hearing about women stepping out more. It was very present in this conversation. And so I started talking about it pretty openly with the CEOs that were in the room as well as former CEOs and there really was a concern. They were genuinely concerned about this lack of representation.

Juxtapose those two same events with, I had invited some women who run our startups, that we really thought we’re doing something groundbreaking, to attend these events. And in many cases, they were really representative of the women of the future. One was a company called Mazen Health, and she is really developing a health platform for the pig industry. Swine specifically, so that we don’t have to use antibiotics.

The other was aAnimal and the other one was Agua Bonita, which are these two amazing women who started this company. While they both had just started their families, because they saw a need to have a more authentic beverage that spoke to their roots, which was Aqua Fresca. These three women represented the future. And they were not afraid of taking on big food. They were talking to some of the biggest food net companies, without asking permission, without looking for excuses. And so they were my hope.

And why is it important? Because that was your question, why is it important that these women are doing what they do? It’s important because they bring a perspective that is different from even my perspective. But it’s also different from someone who’s running a large company who might come out of a very male-dominated workforce, because they’re all about finding solutions, and seeing through boundaries, because they’re running a startup. And there’s nothing but boundaries for them.

And so I look at these women and emulate them. And I want to create the path for them because they are the female leaders of Ag that we need for tomorrow. And in finance, you know, Andi and I spoke quite a bit about this. I see having to take the same stance for attracting women to finance. And why is finance important, because a lot of money is distributed from the financial networks, and that institutes power, and we need to make sure that we have more control over how money is allocated. Not only to young, blossoming entrepreneurs like the ones I mentioned, but to other companies which may be led by minorities, but maybe those that have a purpose that is about preserving the planet. That is beyond making 25% return, maybe they make 23% return or maybe they make 24% return or 20% return because they’ve taken a different path.

Andi Simon: The bigger they are then just return. I don’t want you to end our conversation because we can talk about this. Mostly because the work that we’re both trying to do is to move that needle forward. But it’s not simply a thing that you can twist in some fashion. And the research is fascinating that people will give money to people who look like them. So who are the funders? They tend to be guys and what do they like? It looks like themselves, like a guy.

Only 2.4% of the venture capital money goes to women, these women have a purpose. They have something beyond simply the profits. It’s a different story that doesn’t necessarily resonate with the investors. The questions I asked are disconnected to the purpose of what they’re trying to do. So there’s an emerging opportunity to transform the whole conversation. And these women are asking, pressing, pushing. I am in awe of their guts. They just don’t know, they don’t really care, they’re gonna make it happen somehow.

The society that we live in is man’s because we will not survive on this planet unless we make changes sooner than later. Because there won’t be anything left to change. And when you look at evolution, it’s never been any easier. You know, it’s not ever easier. You think people gave up horses to pick up the car? No, they threw a lot of barbed wire around the Ford and threw stones at it because it was evil. They’ve been riding horses for 1000 years, who would rather do anything other than ride a horse. So it’s never been simple to bring new things into existence. But somehow we keep pushing forward.

My hope is that through the eyes of folks like these women, there are men as well not to diminish them. Somehow, we can open up new ways of transforming us and the world. And it’s got to happen. Now, we can’t wait 100 years because we’re not gonna make it. So how fast? Can we help them and support them? And, I’m gonna say this, I want to hug them. Because in some ways we’re all committed to what they’re trying to do, aren’t we? We’re about ready to wrap up the last thought or two, to give our audience something to walk away with other than hope. And I think that’s something that you’ve shared with us because it’s full of hope. And I think big ideas, and if we’re gonna make this happen, it’s going to be together collaboratively.

Anne Greven: Yeah, I would say the one thing I’d like to end on because it’s something that I’m going to ask the audience is, what is the one thing you can take on? Especially as it is December, we’ll be thinking about January, maybe you make promises for the next year? Maybe not? But believe it or not, a lot of the change is in each and every one of us in our control. So when you think about that one thing that you might be able to do differently, and how it could influence and have rippling influence, remember, if you smile, it’s infectious. Yes, it’s true. So it’s the same thing here. If you just decide that one thing, and commit to it to yourself in the future, it will make a difference.

Andi Simon: And we’ll celebrate, because if you celebrate your mind remembers it. So my urging is after you make that commitment, and you make your New Year’s resolution, and you actually start to do it, write it down in your gratitude diary every day and you’ll wake up in the morning with a smile that you’re making the world a better place to live one day at a time. And, you can be a movement for sustainability without doing much other than change your coffee.

Anne will come back sometime and tell us how she’s transformed her home. But we’re all very important. My book is called On the Brink because we are on the brink. So I want to thank the audience for coming today, whether you’re viewing it, or you’re listening, and Anne Greven’s has been our guest, and I have just enjoyed every minute of it.

As you can tell, she said that smiles are contagious, they are not going to say we’re monkeys, but we are. And when you watch her energy, and you’re listening to her thoughts, it is a time for both business and people and our society to change. Because unless we do it a day at a time, a person on time, we’ll have some real tough road to hoe here.

I’m Andi Simon, this is On the Brink with Andi Simon. As you know, I love to help you see and feel and think in new ways. In my book Rethink, there are 11 women’s stories like Anne’s and the women that she was talking about. And I wrote the book so that other women could have role models.

So I’m going to urge you to read my book which is just about out a year now. It came out on January 5th, right before the January 6th mess, but we launched and the book has done extremely well. The reviews are fabulous. And I’m anxious for more and more women to read it and see what they can be. One of the first reviewers said now I have a book I could give to my 13 year old daughter. She’s a minority, but now she can actually see how women can become the best that they can be. And if that’s really important for us sustainability. But these are women who are making a difference not for just profit, but for purpose, to make the world a better place. And I do think that’s what we’re all about.

So thank you all for coming. And remember, I love your emails, they come from around the world. A little note: my podcast is in the top 5% of global podcasts. Four years into it. I’m honored and I’m delighted but your emails help us bring new people onto the stage and to share their thoughts. Goodbye, everybody. Have a great one. Bye bye now.