At Expo West, the largest natural foods conference held each year in the United States, the conventional rules about food do not apply. Attendees will find bugs in their food, sample snacks that producers proudly note are “alive,” and try vegan burgers that bleed. I attended this conference with generous assistance from Erb’s Cool Projects fund, and I sought to learn more about this growing industry and network as part of my job search in this field. I attended the expo’s three days of events alongside nearly four dozen fellow MBA students, whose admission fees were waived as part of the MBArk program, a nonprofit initiative started by Joe Dobrow, a natural foods industry veteran.
These students’ professional aspirations and preferences within the natural foods space offer a useful lens for highlighting important trends in the industry overall. Here are the trends I discovered among the other MBAs attending Expo West:
- Young professionals are increasingly interested in working for companies that provide the market with food that is personally appealing: MBA students are increasingly likely to be careful about which foods they source for themselves, and more of them are interested in working for companies that bring to market food they personally would want to buy and eat.
- Many students seek careers in segments of the food industry that provide a particular nutritional or ecological benefit, such as sustainably raised shellfish on the West Coast and fermented foods. Few students expressed interest in working for companies that provide organic versions of standard, less-healthy American foods such as candies, sweets, sodas and sweetened beverages.
- Many students plan to start their own businesses: A surprising proportion of the MBAs who attended Expo West as part of MBArk have ideas for their own companies, or they have already begun ventures to promote and produce natural food. Examples of existing ventures among the students who attended Expo West are an avocado farm in Uganda, a mussel farm off the coast of Washington, a sauerkraut company based in Florida and a plantain chips venture in California.
- Most students who are not planning to start their own company are interested in working for bigger, more established food companies that have the resources to hire and support a graduate with an MBA. Many natural foods companies have been acquired in the last decade, causing high levels of consolidation within the industry. While many students expressed a preference to work for companies that have not been acquired by larger conglomerates (such as General Mills, Coca-Cola and others that have bought dozens of brands over the last few years), others are open to working both for acquired companies and for the venture capital arms that these larger multinationals own and run to fund smaller ventures within the industry.
These preferences among young professionals interested in working in the foods industry reflect a larger, more systemic shift that is already under way and likely to accelerate among consumers, who are rejecting the status quo and insisting that they deserve better. As millennials witness the generations that came before them facing the health repercussions of decades of unhealthy eating, more young professionals entering the food industry are willing to trade a high-paying job in an established, conventional food company for a less stable role in a sustainability-oriented company. More millennials are prioritizing a more fulfilling professional experience to make our food system—and those who rely on it—healthier, more productive and more resilient. While systemic transformation will require shifts in both the conventional food system and the newer ventures that challenge the status quo and catalyze more foundational change, this generation seems especially motivated to transform the food market, rather than continue to tinker incrementally within the current establishment.