RePlant Capital is a new financial services firm, providing catalytic capital to help finance the transition to regenerative practices. Robyn O'Brien, one of the founders, is deeply involved with Leeds which gives our students an opportunity to be part of the future of food.
Robyn O’Brien is one of the founders of RePlant Capital, a financial services firm determined to reverse climate change by deploying a series of proprietary funds to facilitate U.S. farmers’ transition to regenerative and organic agriculture. She is working to make our food more nutritious, our soil more resilient, and our future more sustainable through a new model of financial investment. She has been a long time supporter of Leeds and the Center for Ethics and Social Responsibility (CESR), serving as a speaker, mentor, and employer. She is also a founding member of the Natural and Organic Roundtable, a group of local business leaders who serve as advisors to the Natural and Organic Pathway for MBAs at Leeds.
In this interview, Robyn talks about how she got started in her work, how the conversation has changed over the past 12 years, what she has learned about driving change, and how her work allows her to leverage her whole self - her background as a financial analyst and her personal history as a mother, her deep analytic and economic skill set and her commitment to healthy food - in the work of finding solutions to critically important challenges.
Why did you found RePlant Capital? What problem were you trying to solve?
Replant was established by three co-founders. Don Shaffer, who was CEO for a decade at RSF Social Finance, Dave Haynes, who was a Managing Director at Greenmont Capital private equity investment company focused on B Corps, and me. We are a new kind of financial services firm that is designed to support companies which are making multi-year investments to transition their supply chains away from the agrochemical model towards more regenerative and organic methods of farming.
After getting my MBA at Rice I worked for an investment team that managed $20 billion in assets. I was the only woman on the small and mid cap team, and I was given food and consumer product industry accounts, as well as a handful of others, to cover as an analyst. It was presumed that the primary purchaser of household items was female and so I would understand the consumer goods category best. I learned how these companies were driving margins, the pressures management teams were under and the constraints they were working with. I brought all of that to my work in the years that followed, managing my own strategic consulting firm, Do Good, and then when we launched RePlant Capital.
After I learned that my fourth child had an allergy, I began looking at food differently. The combination of being a mom, and my skills in finance, economics and accounting meant that when I spoke about processed food and additives in our food chain people listened. I was showing up with data and passion. It was a 360 degree skill set from motherhood to finance to food.
As I spoke out, there were some multinational executives who began reaching out to tell me they knew as a CEO and as a parent that what I was saying was true, but they did not know how to address it. So 12 years ago I started consulting with companies to help them design smarter portfolios for the 21st century, to meet our needs as families.
It soon became clear that the supply chain was stuck. Consumers were asking for better-for-you products, free from sugar or added color - but the supply chain was designed around making the cheapest, highest processed food with the highest margin. Redesigning the supply chain is a multi-year process and companies were on the quarterly earnings model with investors. So there was a tension between what the companies knew they needed to do and what capital and banks were allowing them to do.
RePlant came out of the need for a source of capital that is aligned with this transition.
Can you talk more about RePlant’s investment model? Where do you actually invest, and how are you able to have an impact that makes a measurable difference in our food?
Our model is to partner with farmers to ensure they have access to capital, food growing strategies and connections to large food companies. We work with farmers on strategies to build soil health. In building soil health, we create a stronger resource for decarbonizing the supply chain, for drawing down carbon, for building soil organic matter and for conserving water. So for instance, we are helping growers in California create a carbon neutral almond. That’s an exciting story for us, investors, food companies and for farmers. As farmers transition their land to regenerative practices, instead of taking on debt to buy chemicals to treat their seeds, they are saving money, as they employ regenerative practices on farm. A farmer who transitions 7,000 acres in Iowa can save $500,000 in one year.
We are at an inflection point in agriculture where we know that we can do better than the systems we have inherited. We can leverage data, drone technology, and be mindful stewards of the soil. And we want to do that because soil, if it is healthy and vibrant, is a sponge. It can hold water, carbon and nutrients.
Why is it important to invest in farmers directly? Why not just work with large companies who are the purchasers to create demand and put pressure on farmers?
85% of consumers today buy organic and 75% of all grocery store categories carry something organic. At the same time, only 1% of US farmland is organic. We are not growing what Americans want to eat. This is one of the greatest opportunities for Made in America that there is.
So why aren’t specialty crops grown here? Our current system subsidizes genetically engineered crops and the chemicals required to grow them. So access to capital for specialty crops is less available, and the time required to transition farmland can create economic and financial hardship on the farmers in the process. Our farmers are literally financially locked into this broken food system. And we can’t fix a broken food system with a broken financial system.
You have a personal commitment to supporting women in finance and in food and you spoke earlier about your own experience as a woman in the field. How do you think about the work to bring greater diversity to this sector?
Just as biodiversity is our resiliency, it is critical to have every voice you can around the table, and it is better for your bottom line. But finance is male dominated, and multinational supply chains are farmed by predominantly white, male farmers. We need more pledges like the commitments in the B Corp community and commitments like the one from Goldman Sachs saying you have to have diversity on your executive team if we are going to help you take your company public.
I also fundamentally believe that there is an insight that we bring as women to a space like this in particular. I didn't have a female mentor in my career and this is one reason I am committed to mentoring women. I want them to feel safe to ask any question and to help younger women step into their power, growth and leadership. I love mentoring Leeds students and making space for them to learn. I have also hired a number of Leeds students as interns and employees as our company has grown.
How do you reach diverse candidates?
I am very aware of how systemic discrimination for candidates of color and women has operated over decades. We have to be intentional about posting job opportunities beyond our reach, with organizations, and within communities, that can connect us to diverse talent. It’s necessary to have the humility to say this is not my strength, where can I learn more, and where can we do better?
We have gone from a team of three to 10 in the last year. We conducted all hiring and onboarding remotely. As we were hiring and Covid hit we wanted to ensure people could work where they were. The more grace and flexibility we have been able to embrace in the process, the higher the yield. Now our core team is in Boulder, we have one teammate in Oakland, CA, our Sr. VP of lending is in Austin, our Director of Strategic Partnerships is in St. Louis, and we have one teammate in Philadelphia.
How would you describe the culture of RePlant Capital?
The three co-founders are radically collaborative. We work hard and operate out of a sense of generosity. We lead with confidence and humility, knowing there is so much to learn. We recognize that we are better as a strong, diversified, resilient team that enhances one anothers attributes and supports one another.
In the interview process, we listen for how often someone uses “I” or “we” and how a potential new employee would consider reaching out to members of the team and leveraging their expertise. We also listen to whether people approach their work with a sense of scarcity or a sense of abundance. Our hiring process is very intentional. We have built lots of opportunities for members of our team to listen to the candidates and for the candidates to have access to members of the team.
Listening is also a core part of how we work. I cannot emphasize enough how important that is to our partnerships with multinationals and farmers. Our work is not about projecting what we think onto others, but listening and then collaborating as a team to solve problems.
How has your reception by the food industry changed over the past 12 years?
My book, The Unhealthy Truth was published in 2009, and I gave a Ted Talk in 2011 calling out how broken the system was and the double standards that had been imposed on American families. At that time, I was marginalized and in some cases threatened by some of the largest multinationals in the food industry. However, when CEOs began to reach out, in a very personal way as parents concerned for the health of their families and as executives concerned for the wellbeing of their employees, things began to change. Inside of every company, there are internal champions who understand this transition and want to help their company navigate it. Thankfully, the number of people doing this is growing.
RePlant has a reputation, a track record of courage and integrity, and a willingness to speak truth to power, and companies now seek us out. Farmers also will tell us that they Googled us and that our track record speaks for itself. It is clear that we have been working on these issues for years.
Is there a role for policy and government in your work or do you see this as a problem that the private business sector should solve?
Policy follows the money. That's why RePlant’s initial loans are so catalytic. They don’t just transition the supply chains but also provide data and metrics around water conservation, soil organic matter and pollinators which we can take back to policy makers and have a conversation about. We are already in conversations with policy makers at the state and federal level, from congressmen to governors to leadership at the USDA.
For example, in California we are working in the Central Valley with almond growers. There is a lot in the news now about the drought. If the growers follow regenerative practices they will create soil conditions that retain more water. Water infiltration increases dramatically when regenerative practices are used on farms. Once it is clear what the farmers are accomplishing with responsible stewardship, and the metrics are captured, water conservation policy can follow. The issue of water security is critical and not yet getting enough time in the media. We aim to change that.
I would love to learn more about how you collect this data, and your plans for sharing it.
RePlant works with third party technical assistance partners to capture metrics on soil health, such as water conservation and infiltration, nutrient density, carbon sequestration and pollinator information. These requirements are written into the contracts we have with farmers, whether we are working with almond growers in California, rice growers in Arkansas in the Anheuser Busch supply chain, potato growers in Idaho or dairy farmers in Ohio.
Our goal for the data is to help farmers leverage their work beyond the products they are offering. The role farmers play in soil health, water health and climate health is enormous. More broadly beyond the work with supply chains, we do a lot of webinars - from supporting the work of organizations like the Iowa organic farm association to speaking at events hosted by the World Bank. We talk about how we are only just beginning to understand how powerful the connections are between soil and health and climate. That is an opportunity that gets everybody excited and which our data will help us understand.
Can you talk about your greatest challenge in your career?
Fear can be paralyzing and something I learned early on is that it's just a seatbelt that keeps you locked in your comfort zone. When I am stepping into something new and I feel fear I name it and recognize it, and then deliberately move through that paralysis and harness its power into the growth that is required for the next stage. I look at fear now as a welcome rocket fuel to growth. Without it, you’re stagnant!
What advice do you have for business students today who are thinking about impactful and purpose-driven careers where they can make a difference?
Robyn will be sharing her experience as a female entrepreneur, building her business, working in finance, and her advice and recommendations for student-athletes to chase after their goals as the keynote speaker for the upcoming fifth annual Women with Altitude event on 8.31.2021 from 6-7 pm in the Arrow Touchdown Club located in the Dal Ward Athletic Center at CU Boulder. Presented by CU Athletics.