Alumnae Kristin Groos Richmond and Kirsten Saenz Tobey, both MBA 06, lead Revolution Foods through exponential growth—in schools and supermarkets.By Kim Girard
In a tiny kitchen in Emeryville, Calif., Revolution Foods co-founders Kristin Groos Richmond and Kirsten Saenz Tobey, both MBA 06, worked with four friends through the night prepping and packaging all-natural spaghetti and meatballs, carrots, and fresh peaches.
“Six of us did everything,” Richmond said at a recent Berkeley Haas Center for Responsible Business celebration. “We cooked the food, we packed the food, we counted fruit, we drove the truck. We got these first hundred, 200, 300 meals to schools so we could prove our concept, get our company funded, and scale from there.”
Since then, the company’s mission has remained unchanged: to provide every child a healthy meal free of artificial colors, flavors, preservatives, or high-fructose corn syrup.
That mission is gaining traction. With a compound annual growth rate of 125 percent, Revolution Foods is now a $70 million business, providing jobs to 1,000 largely inner-city employees who prepare a million meals a week (breakfast, lunch, snack, and supper) in 10 states and Washington, D.C. About 85 percent of Revolution Foods’ meals reach children who are in free or reduced-price meal programs.
"I had this really troubling feeling. There was so much coming out about the obesity epidemic, so many schools saying we want better food for our kids."
Accolades are pouring in. In September, Richmond and Tobey made Fortune’s “40 Under 40” list of “young hotshots who are rocking businesses.” CNN Money put Revolution Foods on its 2012 list of 100 fastest-growing inner-city companies, Inc. magazine named it the sixth fastest-growing food and beverage company, and Fast Company included it on a list of most-innovative food companies.
But “what we’re most proud of is that over 50 percent of our schools reported tangible academic improvements since starting with Revolution Foods,” Tobey says. In recognition of their vision and accomplishments—including successfully scaling up their business—Haas is presenting Richmond and Tobey the school’s Leading Through Innovation Award at its annual gala in San Francisco in November.
“They are phenomenal. They were top-tier students, got married, had babies, got their MBAs, and started Rev Foods—all at the same time.” says mentor Kellie McElhaney, faculty director of Haas’ Center for Responsible Business. “They’re women in positions of true leadership and amazing role models.”
Mexican spices waft from the culinary center at Revolution Food’s headquarters, tucked in an office park near the Oakland airport. On the menu today: burritos filled with organic rice grown near Chico, Calif. Revolution Foods, whose employees eat the food they make, partners with local and regional suppliers committed to their clean food mission.
In Richmond’s office, pictures of President Barack Obama and rock star Jon Bon Jovi grace the walls. Michelle Obama reached out to the company before Congress reauthorized the federal child nutrition act in 2010, which Tobey and Richmond supported. The act increased the school meal reimbursement rate and raised school food nutritional standards. Richmond and Bon Jovi were appointed to the White House’s Council for Community Solutions.
A former Citigroup investment banker who founded a special education school in Kenya, Richmond is the company’s CEO while Tobey serves as chief impact officer. Focused on the company’s hiring and growth, Richmond tries to spend about half of her time recruiting talent for the expanding business.
“We’re dedicated to creating jobs, and we’re able to employ folks who represent the communities we serve—moms, dads, aunts, and uncles who work hard to create these beautiful meals and serve them to our schools,” says Richmond, who is almost always smiling when she’s talking about the company.
Expanding Revolution Foods into new markets hasn’t always been easy. Four years ago, both Richmond and Tobey packed up their young families and temporarily moved from the Bay Area to Washington, D.C., to get the fledgling school meal program off the ground there.
“We weren’t ready to scale,” Richmond says. “When you’re a founder you do what you have to do.” They returned to the Bay Area a couple of months later, after building and training a strong local team.
The company is also moving into new markets. Its newest venture is a high-quality packaged meal competing against Kraft Food’s Lunchables in supermarket aisles. With choices like turkey and cheddar, cheese pizza, peanut butter and jelly, and ham and cheddar, they’re aimed to provide busy working parents with a quick meal without artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives for their families.
“You can recognize the ingredient list,” says Richmond. “The growth potential is huge. It should be a nice complement to our school meals.”
Richmond says she made peace with launching a hectic career as an entrepreneur when she found out she was pregnant in 2005 with her first son, Watts.
“I was scared. Here we were in the midst of putting together the vision for this company … and I had people saying: ‘Kris, just graduate, have your first baby, start the company in six months. It’s OK to take it easy,’” Richmond recalls. “But I had this really troubling feeling. There was so much coming out about the obesity epidemic, so many schools saying we want better food for our kids.”
So Richmond went to talk to McElhaney from Haas’ Center for Responsible Business about her fears. “And I remember Kellie leaning across that desk and saying, ‘Whatever you do, do not quit. You can do this. If you go for this and follow your passion, you’re actually going to be a better parent in the long run because you’re going to be inspired and fulfilled, and you’re going to pass that on to your kids,” Richmond recalls. “It’s one of those pivotal moments you remember as an entrepreneur, and it meant the world to me.”
For Revolution Foods’ co-founders, everything started at Haas, where Richmond and Tobey met. “This is going to help us sign a term sheet,” Richmond recalls Tobey telling her in Haas’ New Venture Finance class. A New Product Development class helped them define their product and align it with their values. In 2007, the pair won grand prize in the school’s Global Social Venture Competition. And their first funding from Bay Area Equity Fund also came through connections at Haas—along with a few of its leaders.
Ben Cain, MBA 06, a classmate and friend, showed up at 3 a.m. to help pack those first meals in Emeryville before heading to his day job at PayPal. He’s now the company’s vice president of financial strategy and analysis.
“So when I talk about ‘It takes a village,’ that village came from our family at Haas,” Richmond says. “I can’t say enough about that.”