Published: Nov. 10, 2021 By

Growing up in rural Colorado, Jamie Orth was always attuned to where food comes from, but it wasn’t until college that she discovered the wide variety of products available in various grocery stores and natural food chains.

“I was fascinated with the variety and the quality of the products, which sparked a deep interest and passion for natural consumer products, particularly in the food and beverage space,” said Orth.

After spending four years in another industry, Orth’s passion for nutrition led her to enroll in the new, first-of-its-kind Natural & Organic MBA Pathway at CU Boulder’s Leeds School of Business in fall 2021. 

Three Natural & Organic MBA Pathway students

Three Natural & Organic MBA Pathway students (left to right), Jamie Orth, Zac Salinger and Drake Swezey, volunteer at the Naturally Boulder Pitch Slam event on Oct. 23, 2021.

“After learning more about organics and the benefits they offer people and the planet, I knew this was the direction I wanted to take my career,” Orth said.

The growth of the natural and organic industry has been swift in claiming its share of the marketplace. Sales are projected to surpass $300 billion by 2023 and $400 billion by 2030, according to the Nutrition Business Journal.

At the epicenter of the movement is Boulder, with the largest concentration of natural and organic products companies in the country, according to the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements. Boulder is also home to one of the nation’s foremost business schools: CU Boulder’s Leeds School of Business and its well-known MBA program, which ranks 38th in the country.

At that intersection, an idea was born: What if Boulder could become the place where future industry leaders are made?

“We knew so many students were passionate about sustainability but didn’t know how to direct their interest into a career,” said Julie Waggoner, director of operations at Leed’s Center for Ethics and Social Responsibility (CESR). “And that’s where we got the idea to create an MBA pathway for the natural and organics sector.”

Feeding the pathway

To build an unparalleled program that could help launch MBA students into the natural and organics sector, Waggoner and Kristi Ryujin, associate dean for graduate programs and special assistant to the dean for Faculty Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Leeds, enlisted the help of former Kraft and Whole Foods marketing pro-turned-MBA instructor Heather Kennedy. 

For nearly a year, the trio worked together to build out what the program would look like. In fall 2019, it was time to prove the pathway could fit into the Leeds MBA program. Kennedy launched a bootcamp event to gauge interest.

A quarter of the Leeds MBA class signed up.

I love that this pathway offers classes tailored to the industry and that I am putting my tuition dollars directly toward the career path I am aiming for.” –Jamie Orth

“Today’s MBA student wants a career focused on more than increasing the bottom line,” Kennedy said. “The fact that a quarter of our students signed up for the Natural & Organic Bootcamp shows their commitment to working with mission-driven companies that care about their customers, the environment, their employees and their community.”

After the bootcamp’s success, the program started to take the shape of the pathway it is today. So far, 44 students have enrolled.

Paving the way to a new career

Leeds pathways are sets of suggested courses and programs students can take to hone specific skills and connections to a particular industry.

The new natural and organic pathway is focused on giving students traditional MBA knowledge they can apply to an industry that once looked askew at anything “standard.”

"This industry needs people who are trained in standard business skills that apply to consumer packaged goods, but with an organic mindset,” said Kennedy.

Much of that need is due to increased interest in natural and organic foods. The marketplace is becoming much more competitive.

Increased competition also calls for new, fresh talent. Doug Radi, CEO of Boulder-based Good Karma Foods, sees the addition of the Leeds pathway as a win for students and for companies that might employ them.

“As a company, we get access to top-tier and passionate up-and-coming MBA talent,” said Radi, who started working with the pathway program as it developed. “We also get to be a partner and help mentor this talent while they are in business school, creating long-lasting relationships and impact on the future leaders of our industry.”

It’s that direct access to companies like Good Karma Foods that attracted Orth to enroll in the program at Leeds.

“As a career switcher, I understood how important it is to form relationships in the industry while I am a student,” Orth said. “Boulder is teeming with activity in this industry, and CESR has done a great job establishing strong connections with the local community to act as a bridge for students.”

In her first year of the program, Orth has already been able to participate in some of the co-curricular opportunities the program has to offer and has gotten connected with Naturally Boulder, a nonprofit focused on enhancing the natural and organic products industry in the state. 

Orth is still exploring what the industry has to offer and plans to pursue brand manager positions at consumer packaged goods firms when she graduates. She hopes to manage, grow and launch brands in the natural and organic space to increase the reach and adoption of these products among consumers. 

“I love that this pathway offers classes tailored to the industry and that I am putting my tuition dollars directly toward the career path I am aiming for,” Orth said.