Scaling a Plant-based Future : Interview with Ethan Brown
Updated: Aug 17, 2021
Ethan is the founder and CEO of Beyond Meat. Beyond Meat is one of the fastest-growing food companies in the United States, offering a portfolio of revolutionary plant-based meats, beyond meats builds meats directly from plants, an innovation that enables consumers to experience the taste and texture of popular animal-based proteins and products, while enjoying the nutritional benefits of eating a plant-based meat product.
In this conversation, you will learn
What question led Ethan to solidify his career path? What is your answer to the same question?
How can you be a non-technical entrepreneur?
Why Plant-based food can lead to such a tremendous impact on climate change, conservation of resources, human health, and animal welfare?
Who does Ethan Brown look towards for advice?
When did you first know you wanted to focus your career on making an impact on climate?
That's a really interesting question. So it was actually after I had just graduated from college, and I can remember this conversation so clearly. I was in his office, and I was quite young, about the age that you guys are now. I was feeling like I wanted to just go do something different. I wanted to go explore, and I ultimately did. But I remember saying to him, I'm not sure exactly what direction I want to take. Instead of suggesting a career to me, he asked me "What do you think the biggest problem in the world is?" And I thought about it for a while, and I came back and said, " You know, I think it's climate." The reason that I thought that at the time was because you can be a fantastic epidemiologist or cancer researcher, or fight for social justice. All these things have tremendous meaning to them. But if our climate is destabilized, and we can't perform basic functions, and many of the things we're seeing today, whether it's the storms or the extreme heat, if these things start to escalate, all of the great work that humanity is trying to do is impacted by that. So my answer was very literal, in a sense that I think the biggest issue is climate stability. So then I went and started to think about how to work on that problem. It started with an understanding of a problem. And I went into energy because, at the time, my thinking was that energy, and specifically transportation, really was the issue that I wanted to focus on.
After previously founding a nonprofit trying to build impact, and now founding both a for-profit company that promotes environmental impact, which type of organization do you think has greater capacity to facilitate change?
I think they're both enormously important. I don't think my temperament is the right one for the nonprofit sector. I just have an urgency to how I think about things. Many people in the nonprofit sector do, but they are maybe a little more patient. For me, the pace was challenging. I also admired businesses that were accomplishing social ends at the time. I had an itch that I really wanted to scratch, which was to try to create an avenue within the business world to address social change. For folks that are your age, I would hope that you don't have to go through that sort of fortuitous route to that. Maybe that's just a part of life, but you always wish that you'd come to these life-defining moments maybe a little earlier. And it took me a while to get there.
That's interesting. And as a non-scientist, how do you inspire so many of the best scientists around the world to work for you?
That's a really good question. One, I really respect what they do. I think we all have a role to play. Two, I'm agnostic about technology in terms of which one we use. If you came to me today and said, Ethan, I've got a better way of stitching together protein, lipids, trace minerals, vitamins, and water, I'd say great, and I'd crumple up all of our existing equipment, and I'd use what you have. I'm not an engineer. I didn't grow up in some school that says, this is the right way to do things. I didn't come out of an extrusion school, or a 3D printing school, so I have an ability, because of that, to be really objective about the approaches we're taking. So I think that the freedom that I can give my team is something they enjoy. I push them to look outside of their own discipline. Ultimately, so many of the people we have here came out of medicine. They came from working on cancer research. They were working on different treatments of human diseases. I can sit them down, and say, look, here's what all these institutions are saying about the disease epidemics we have, whether it's heart disease, diabetes, cancer, etc. We can't necessarily talk about causation all the time, but we talk about correlation. About once a quarter, all these schools, from Harvard, UCLA, USC, ... has a study that says there's something going on between the high levels of animal protein we're consuming and these diseases. The diseases are actually impacting, unfortunately, those that are least able to deal with it including impoverished communities. So it's a real social justice issue here that people can get excited about.
And when you started Beyond Meat, you weren't a multimillionaire and you didn't have a resume of building three startups beforehand... you were just a regular person that had an idea and was trying to pursue it. Was there any challenges you faced trying to get people to take you seriously?
Yeah, that's a great question. I had done a lot in the fuel cell sector. So I think I had credibility in that sector as a serious person that could get things done. But I didn't have the kind of wealth that someone like Elon had when he joined Tesla. For me, the road was more difficult. I borrowed money from family and took investments from friends and family. Ultimately, once I secured a license to the technology that I wanted, I reached out to the investment community and said, "this is an interesting project I’d like your support". We eventually started working with Kleiner Perkins. But it was difficult financially for a while just because you put everything you have. To go from having a really good job, a 401k, college savings for your kids, two houses, and a pretty nice corporate life, to maxing out all your credit cards... You tell yourself you're not going to hit certain accounts, you're not gonna take money out. And I certainly did say that to myself, but you know, I even exhausted my own 401k. I remember, I took out the money and said, I'm gonna have 60 days to put this back according to regulation, and I'll get that done. But of course, it didn't happen. And so I couldn't put it back. I remember I was going to see Bill Gates for the first time. This is, I don't know, maybe 2011, or 12, or something. I also had been doing some stuff with a house that I was renovating. I was just overextended in so many different ways. I put a ton of money, percentage-wise, in the business. I was checking into the hotel the night before, and my cards wouldn't work. (laughter) It was .. not fun, but the irony of it was apparent even in the moment of meeting with one of the richest guys in the world. But part of just being an entrepreneur, you stay calm, you just get it done. So I figured out a way to move some money around, make it all work. It didn't affect me the next day. And you know, you gotta kind of fake it till you make it. And I certainly do believe that. There's a saying that entrepreneurs tell the truth in advance. There's a truth to that in a sense that you so clearly see where you're going to end up. That is true to you. You know, it's like I knew this was going to work. So everyone else would have been like, you spent all your money on this, you're now in trouble with your credit cards... But I knew it was gonna work. They were amusing. They were difficult. They made for good stories, but they never deterred me from going forward on this.
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