This September, three Global MBA students attended Expo East 2019, one of the country’s largest trade shows solely dedicated to innovations in the organic and natural products industry.
More than 15,000 brands and 29,000 individual buyers, suppliers, distributors, vendors and browsers crowded the Baltimore Convention Center over the weekend of September 12, handing out samples of the craziest organic food inventions and sustainable products you could ever think of, or more probably would never think of (teriyaki banana jerky, anyone?)
We (Faith Whang, Kelsey Wetzel, Colleen Collins) were three of 45 MBA students selected as MBArk fellows to attend Expo East and participate in a unique program that gave us an inside look at the growing industry. The MBArk program was founded by Joe Dobrow–a former marketing executive for companies such as Whole Foods and Sprouts Farmers Market–who wanted to address what he saw as a gap between the revolutionary naturals industry and a traditional MBA education. MBArk calls it, “bringing the ‘hearts’ of natural foods together with the ‘smarts’ of business education.”
Over the duration of the weekend, we spoke one-on-one with senior executives from leading brands such as Stonyfield Organics, General Mills, Horizon Organics, and Honest Tea. We also teamed up with our MBArk colleagues from schools including Wharton, NYU Stern, Chicago Booth, MIT Sloan, Yale School of Management, and Harvard Business School to solve case studies for real companies striving to maintain a triple-bottom-line.
Here are some of our takeaways from the program, and information about how you can apply for next year:
The most interesting product you tried at the Expo?
Kelsey: Some of my MBA classmates encouraged me to try the Awesome Burger, a plant-based burger that aims to look, feel, and taste like meat. Even though I knew it was plant-based, my 18 years of vegetarian instincts weren’t convinced, and I had a hard time even biting into it. When I finally bit into the “meaty goodness”, I wasn’t thrilled. Not because it didn’t seem like a burger, but because it seemed too much like a burger. I don’t like meat, and apparently I don’t like meat replicas either. But, it’s a great option for those meat-eaters who are trying to move towards a more plant-based diet!
Colleen: This year, Expo East debuted a Hemp Pavilion! Over 40 vendors showcased their hemp topicals, skin care, medicinal, and therapeutic products. One company I particularly enjoyed was Restorative Botanicals and their full-spectrum hemp oil-infused Bolder Caramels. After being on my feet for 12 hours at the conference, I tried caramel and was amazed at the results. The pain in my feet and the tension in my shoulders dissipated. That night, I slept so soundly that I had to return to the booth to get another sample the next day!
The highlight of the weekend?
Faith: Being inspired by like-minded entrepreneurs and students who all want to make the world a better place, but have endless ideas on how to make it happen.
Kelsey: Winning a year’s supply of 100 percent organic cotton pads from a feminine hygiene company called Nannocare! I had 18 boxes of pads delivered to my house the other day.
One industry trend you noticed at the trade show?
Colleen: Collagen, it was everywhere! There were at least 15 different collagen supplement groups.
Faith: So many products were marketed towards people following trend diets. A few exhibitors with Keto/Paleo-friendly items openly admitted to us that they were not advocates of the diets, but wanted to “ride this wave out.”
Kelsey: CBD, and plant-based, plant-based, plant-based!
How has your perspective on the industry changed since participating in MBArk?
Colleen: I have become more aware of the foods I’m consuming and the packaging it comes in. I learned that the definitions for “non-GMO”, “organic”, and “natural” vary greatly, even within the industry. The current Administration has further relaxed these definitions to allow companies to label their products as “natural” when there is little to no basis for that claim.
Faith: The organics industry (which only makes up about five percent of the food market domestically), and the larger consumer packaged goods (CPG) industry (Kelloggs, General Mills, etc.), are not at odds with each other in a zero-sum food game. Rather than viewing the industry as little organic David versus “big food” Goliath, organic companies and large CPG companies are actually both better off sharing knowledge and resources. The universal goal of finding a way to feed people better food in a more sustainable way is going to be a collaborative effort.
One company that inspired you?
Kelsey: I spoke to the CEO of Sambazon, a company that sells açai fruit products, and was inspired by the work they are doing in community development and fair trade. Açai is actually wild harvested–not farmed–from the Amazon River. Sambazon sources their açai berries from local communities in the Amazon and pays producers a fair wage. They give back to those local communities through a variety of initiatives, whether it’s finding a way to provide clean water or building schools so children can still learn during the rainy season.
Who should apply to MBArk?
Any MBA student interested in learning more about the organic and natural foods space, supply chain, or sustainability is highly encouraged to apply, no prior experience in any of these fields is necessary.
For more information about the MBArk program, visit their website to stay up-to-date on when applications open for Expo West (the world’s largest organic and naturals trade show that takes place in California) and other programs.