Posts Tagged ‘Malden’

Co-Creating Tomatoes

Tuesday, August 18th, 2015

It all started on a whim about a year ago. In the day time, I was the very serious manager of a management education and consulting firm that practices co-creation, the art of getting members of complex business ecosystems to work and grow together. At night, I was having fun running a shared kitchen that houses food trucks and food product entrepreneurs in Malden. Nobody knew of my double life, which allowed me to look inordinately sophisticated for a kitchen guy or strangely practical as a consultant.
I blame it all on my friend Steve Whalley, formerly head of sensors at Intel and now Chief Strategy Officer of the MEMS Industry Group. He invited me to give a keynote at the MEMS Executive Congress in Scottsdale, Arizona and suggested I talk about the application of co-creation to the agricultural and food chain. Together, we challenged this august technology group to develop a new way of working together using the latest sensor and Internet of Things technologies. We proposed that they join us in tackling the transformation of the entire Tech-Ag-Food value chain, starting with a specific product (tomatoes) in a particular region (the Boston area).
While we both pretend we’re doing this in the interest of technology, we are mostly motivated by our hope to get access to better-tasting tomatoes. I remind him periodically that the Frenchman that I am has more legitimacy than the Brit that he is when it comes to culinary matters, and we typically settle our argument by agreeing that Italians are better than any of us when it comes to tomatoes. Sadly, this fusion of my two jobs into one has also resulted into brain confusion I still have to recover from.
We became the Three Musketeers when Rob O’Reilly, senior scientist at Analog Devices (ADI), showed up at a breakfast meeting and announced he was spear-heading the development of a technology at ADI that could act as the core platform for our tomato project. Even more importantly, he described his unconventional mode of prototype development as “making up new stuff on the fly live with customers and technology partners, start gathering some data, then try to make sense of it”, which, he agreed, lacked a bit of marketing pizazz. When exposed to the principles of co-creation, he discovered we had been traveling companions, decided we were all on the road to co-creation and Steve, Rob and I have been project buddies ever since.
We’ve been working on two major issues so far: how to help local farmers develop new practices that improve their tomato yield, and how to measure taste in the “finished” tomato, with the goal of eventually connecting the two, i.e., figure out what agricultural practices improve not only yield, but also taste. (With industrial tomatoes, the two issues of productivity and yield are never addressed together, which is why most American tomatoes taste terrible). There is something both surreal and exciting about the dialogue between the analytically-minded ADI scientists (they showed up at the Malden kitchen with equipment worthy of the Rolling Stones) and the (mostly) intuitive farmers or chefs/cooks we are working with (“you just know when your tomato is the right one”). Because some of our chefs have done better than others at the analytical validation game, a new social order appears to be emerging in our kitchen (“I told you your puree was too watery, and the ADI guys proved it with their conductivity meter”).
On Thursday, August 20th, our ADI scientists will be collecting some data at the 31st annual Boston Tomato Contest. Our measurements will not participate in the evaluation of the tomato entries, but will allow us to understand further how taste as measured by taste judges correlates with analytical measurements of specific compounds in the tomato. Welcome to the Internet of Tomatoes!

Growing up foodie

Sunday, December 14th, 2014

mom_kid_veggies-1One of the joys of running a food incubator is to pick the entrepreneurs you like and go the extra mile for them on a whim. Today, I’m meeting Elena, a young Bulgarian mother who recently launched a prepared meals business for kids called Tiny Foodies . She and her husband prepare and deliver cold and hot foods for child care centers in the Boston area. As she is just signing up to work out of our commissary in Malden, Massachusetts, we start talking about who she is and what she wants to accomplish.

In her day job, Elena is a manager who analyzes medical claims data and tries to generate insights that reduce the cost of malpractice insurance for doctors.  Her language is cold and left-brained. She describes the nutritional problems of young kids in America whose parents default to the pizza, peanut-butter-jelly sandwich and mac-and-cheese routine that will lead children to premature obesity and diabetes. I smell a Michelle Obama zealot who wants the kids pizza to be whole wheat and vegetable-laden, only to end up on the compost pile. I move to “let’s just collect the rent” mode.

There is something endearing about Elena, though. She has the modesty of her native Bulgaria and seeks advice. She has beautiful eyes that light up when she talks about kids and food. Not the calories of food, but the joy of food. Her particular passion is spices and she can wax lyrical about cumin. She rapidly moves from Morocco to India to Bulgaria, wondering why kids outside the US eat couscous and hummus, while American kids don’t. She wants to expand the palate of young American kids by getting them to try healthy, spicy foods at a young age, because this is what her mother did for her. She has a three year old boy of her own, and whether he likes it or not, he’s the food lab for the enterprise.

Elena’s problem is creating engagement with her customers and prospects. Her web site sells to individual parents (mostly mothers) using different child care centers, and she ends up delivering a small number of meals to widely scattered child care centers over the greater Boston area, which is clearly not economically viable. She also receives minimal feedback on what kids and parents think of the food. To explore new options, I encourage her to organize a live event with one of the child care centers she supplies, but she’s not sure she’s comfortable putting herself out in this fashion. I offer to be there for moral support, she rallies two of her young mother friends from Bulgaria to round up the protective squadron, and we agree to focus on one particular child care center in Cambridge. She suggests we conduct a session with kids, parents and teachers at pick-up time, while providing samples of the food.

As parents arrive to pick their kids on a cold and rainy Wednesday, we observe and ask a few questions on the fly. The child care center manager is our host and encourages parents and children to try the food. The dry nutritional agenda of American kids turns into a rich tapestry of kids, parents, teachers and child care center manager interacting to discover what foods children are prepared to eat at this particular moment.

Food itself matters, we discover. Kids are more adventurous than Elena had been led to believe from teachers report-outs (one of them in another child care center even suggested to a parent who had ordered from the Tiny Foodies menu that she send a PB& J sandwich as back-up, in case the kid did not like the food!). Many kids grab the bite-size food and convey enthusiasm without any encouragement. Lentils are a universal hit and solid foods are preferred to soups because soups are messy and require more teacher oversight. We even meet a two-year old girl who loves bok choy.

Even more important, though, is the human environment through which the food is offered. When parents eat the food, kids are much more willing to try it (we imagine that teachers could play the same role if we provided them with matching food). One Latin American mom silently stares her son down while holding the food in front of him for what appears to be five minutes. The kid finally gives up, reluctantly tries the food, asks for two more pieces, then wants to take the entire food bar home. We learn that mother’s toughness matters.

These mothers are all professional women who work in corporate offices near Kendall Square in Cambridge, and many of them were born outside the US. Two of them explain that they cook their kids’ meals on Sundays, then refrigerate or freeze them, but typically run out of food by Friday. They suggest that Elena talk to the child care center about making Friday a Tiny Foodies day for the whole center, equivalent to Pizza Day on Thursday, which would also help Elena concentrate her deliveries. As we approach 6 pm, the end of the pick-up window for parents, kids are so hungry they’ll try anything, and we run out of food. We learn that letting kids go a little hungry is an effective way to expand their palate, something that European, Asian and Latin American mothers have long known.

At some point, we’re joined by one of the teachers.  She’s everything you want a teacher to be, gentle, compassionate, curious and kid-loving. Although other teachers reserve their meal for a break away from the hubbub of the kid’s lunch time, she likes to lunch with the kids because she can role-model eating, can compare her food to the kids’ food, and create improvised little pedagogical modules about the fact that three kids brought bananas, a Japanese kid brought sushi, or a Latin American kid brought vegetable tortillas. We start dreaming of inviting these high-powered professional mothers of the world and some teachers to co-create with us the future menu of Tiny Foodies. We also learn that teachers are responsible for providing snacks twice a day, and they are so busy that they often default to cheese and crackers because these items can be stored easily and require no additional labor, vs., say, avocados which need peeling. Perhaps snacks could also be part of Tiny Foodies’ offering at some point?

At that moment, I realize I am in the right place. Although I advise several governments around the world on various matters, I am convinced the problem of kids’ food and health will never be sold by policy and nutritional standards coming out of Washington, D.C. It will come from food entrepreneurs such as Elena experimenting with individual child care centers, their kids, parents and teachers, and solving the problem at that micro-level. Eventually, some of those entrepreneurs will be able to scale their business and one or two of them will go on to transform the kiddie food chain in America. (At that stage, the government will have a useful role to play).

Elena and her business have a long way to go before she can claim to change the food world. But for one moment on that cold and rainy evening in Cambridge, I catch her proud little smile observing the kids eating her food. She starts asking more questions from parents and teachers on what she should think of next.  I can see her self-confidence grow. Watch it, world. Elena is spreading her wings.

Invest in me: the Malden experiment

Sunday, October 13th, 2013

Invest-in-me

If diversity is valuable, why aren’t we seeing millions of dollars directed toward it?

For many of us, a strong philosophical belief in the value of diversity translates into a trickle of charity contributions and perhaps some support for diversity-oriented government programs. But if we believed in diversity the way we believe in, say, new technologies, we should see massive amount of private capital finding its way into businesses that rely on diversity for their markets, their work force or their suppliers. And we’re not seeing that. Not even close.

What gives? Either people controlling financial resources do not believe in diversity as a competitive weapon, or there is some inefficiency in the resource allocation system. There’s arguably a bit of both. Many investors are skeptical that diversity matters economically and in all fairness, nobody has yet made a compelling data-driven case for the return on investment (ROI) of diversity.  And for those who believe in diversity, there are few investment vehicles that leverage diversity as a strategy.

And so diversity devolves into this oatmeal of bland corporate statements about the merits of a diverse work force as the firm’s most valuable asset, mandated corporate diversity programs attended by yawning managers eager to return to their daily operational tasks, or minimalist corporate charity programs aimed at diversity-owned businesses.  And so, at the end of the day, business people relieve their guilt by contributing some personal money to causes that may include diversity.

After many years of advocating for co-creation as an economic model from the comfortable perch of my teaching, consulting and public speaking platform, I’ve finally decided to put some of my money where my mouth is (literally, the project is about food). I have become a small-scale venture capitalist. I’ve rallied a few similarly-minded friends and together, we’ve decided to invest a bit of our money in the development of a diversity project. My tougher capitalist colleagues still marvel at being called angel investors. As the place for our proof-of-concept, we have picked Malden, MA, a suburb of Boston with a rainbow of ethnic groups comprising its population and strong business and political leadership. Because there is a budding food tradition there, we have decided to start an industrial kitchen that will house food trucks serving the greater Boston area, an event space that we hope will attract both local youth and foodies from downtown Boston, and we are starting a kitchen incubator that helps local youth become food entrepreneurs through education and financing. This is not a charity, mind you. We want to prove that we can earn an above-market rate of return while helping employment locally and fostering greater sustainability of the local food chain.

This has brought a new joy to my life. In some ways, it is a project like any other, with its cohort of cash-flow statements and competitive analysis, with a new layer of personal financial anxiety. The primary difference, though, is that the people I work with are real, from young high-school immigrant kids applying for the incubator, to heavily tattooed food truck drivers working 14 hours a day, to middle-aged cooks who view us as an opportunity to finally create their own business. I dream of convincing some of the owners of long-established Malden businesses, often with a strong Italian or Irish heritage, to invest with us in the latest generation of Haitian, Moroccan or Jamaican immigrants because they remember how they or their parents did it. I dream of giving local Republicans a platform to demonstrate they can be both good business people and have a social sensitivity, and of allowing Democrats to demonstrate that they also know a thing or two about business development. I want Malden to become the prototype of new economic development for the nation, with business as the primary driver of success, in the great American tradition that attracted me to this country in the first place.

The problems we face are equally real. We’re struggling to find both women and ethnic representatives for our angel investment group. It is not easy to find a suitable building that meets zoning and environmental requirements. Finding financing of the scale we require has its challenges. And bringing together a team of such eclectic background into a common vision for the business is a daily grind.

Perhaps the most gratifying part of the Malden project is that I feel whole again. As Stuart Kauffman describes it, I now feel at home in the universe. It does not get much better than that.

I dream of Malden

Saturday, December 8th, 2012

Lately, Malden, Massachusetts has entered my consciousness. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because a few of my Yelp friends from Boston have told me this is the “in” place for Ethiopian, Sri Lankan or Moroccan food. Maybe it’s because Business Week has made noise about Malden being a great place for kids to grow because of its diversity. Maybe it’s because a member of my family has some political responsibilities there? Or perhaps I’m just tired or organizing business communities in India, Latin America and Europe and want to come home in the evening?

I don’t yet know how to fit all the pieces in the co-creation puzzle, but I’m eager to figure it out. My typical gig involves finding a central business player eager to orchestrate the development of a mini-economy around itself: a large business, a bank, sometimes a public entity (although a profit-seeking business with a community bent provides the best anchor). Maybe Eastern Bank or one of the local savings banks could play that role? Banks – community banks in particular – can become great community co-creators since they make money by attracting local savings and lending that money back to mortgage customers and businesses. By connecting all the parties with each other around local growth and utilizing the physical branch as a local meeting place, one can drain a lot more savings and generate a lot more loans, often at below market rates, simply because people are passionate about making their community a better place. I have done that in Saint-Etienne, France and Guadalajara, Mexico, for example. Why not Malden? Eastern Bank, you look like a supersized community bank with a great community bent. I’ll bet we could significantly increase the income of your savings and your lending business in your Malden branch if we could make you the center of Malden’s renewal.

On the business front, Malden does not have a lot of manufacturing businesses, but has great ethnic food restaurants that could grow and become anchor points for local employment. Could Malden become the food capital of New England? Could it engender the development of an ethnic food supply chain with ethnic grocery stores and perhaps some local manufacturing or distribution centers from the mother countries? I dream of Malden as a mini-Ethiopia, mini-Sri Lanka, and mini-Morocco, a diversity showcase attracting hard-core Bostonians to eat and shop there. (Malden has the advantage of having the Orange line connecting it directly to the heart of Boston).

Maybe we could get the young foodies from downtown Boston who already come to Malden for food to help us orchestrate the growth of these communities? Many of them are idealistic Generation X and Millennials generating good incomes from financial services, healthcare or service firms.  Maybe we can have a “Food for Thought” program (one of them suggested that name to me), where these idealistic foodies become business activists who help Habesha scale its outstanding Ethiopian restaurant business, or supports Moroccan Hospitality Restaurant in attracting more passionate people to its tagines?

Beyond the business imperative lies a social one: Malden needs help because the poverty rate there is quite high at 12%.  It’s a  neighborhood not far from where some of Ben Affleck’s and Clint Eastwood’s tough movies take place (the Town, Gone, Baby, Gone, Mystic River). Maybe we could get local boys Ben Affleck or Matt Damon to sponsor our Malden business community program?

I dream of this program as a business proposition, however, not a bleeding heart volunteer activity. There is business to be made at the bottom of the pyramid, and it happens to have positive social outcomes. I want the core business that anchors this program to double its profits, the owners of the Malden restaurants to become affluent and the employees who work there to derive good incomes from the new jobs created. I want the politicians associated with this program to become stars and sell the program as a model for other Massachusetts, New England or US towns. Personally, I want my wife and kids to discover what I do for a living and get to sleep in my bed at night.

Malden is the modern version of the American melting pot. It is a microcosm of our future economy, with its huge problems and the opportunity created by its diversity. The future of America does not lie in setting up the right tax rates in Washington, DC. It lies in weaving vibrant business communities at the local level. With politicians, bankers, restaurants, downtown foodies and citizens, let’s go co-create Malden.