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My Journey from Saint Louis

Kevin Duco Warner is a 2017-18 Skoll Scholar on the Oxford MBA. Focused on the social impact of food, he has worked to develop market-driven solutions to climate change through the advancement of the local food movement. Kevin shares the story of how he came to pursue a business degree.

I didn’t know that I was an entrepreneur. Heck, I couldn’t even spell the word entrepreneur consistently until about 4 months ago (it’s got that special French characteristic of having more vowels than seems reasonable). Fortunately for me, it turns out you can embody the ideals of an entrepreneur without actually realizing it.

What I have always been is curious. My thirst for knowledge has only been matched by my desire to make the world a better place. This ideal of being simultaneously thoughtful and impactful has led me down a somewhat circuitous path to Oxford, but I have found that following passion leads to unparalleled opportunities.

I have worked at my family’s food hub, Fair Shares, for the last 8 years. We contract with local farmers to source seasonal food and distribute it for 48 weeks each year to consumers in Saint Louis, Missouri. Fair Shares operates as a for-profit company utilizing the buying power of our large, local customer base as a grassroots tool for social and environmental change.

Collage of images of Kevin posing with vegetables and other foods

Before Fair Shares started, area farmers faced limited opportunities in getting their products to market, and consumers encountered multiple obstacles in accessing sustainably-grown food. The Saint Louis growing region allows for production for much of the year, but in the mid-2000s farmers’ markets ran for only 5 months per year, and offered producers meager financial rewards. Fair Shares created a model that aggregates the food from over 60 farmers into shares marketed directly to consumers. Combining the bounty of many producers allows us to offer greater diversity to our customers while supporting small farmers who have committed to low-carbon growing practices.

The beauty of working for Fair Shares is that it has given me the flexibility to follow my curiosity focused through the lens of a love for food.

About 4 years ago I started an organic corn tortilla company after teaching myself how to nixtamalize local field corn at home (I won’t get into it here, but the history of nixtamalization as the Aztec’s solution to pellagra is fascinating – worth a read on wikipedia!). I was not happy with the inconsistent results of pressing each tortilla by hand, but that was the only realistic option for a home cook. I realized that I needed a commercial grade tortilla machine if I was ever going to get consistent results. I started La Tortilla Buena because it was the only way to rationalize to my wife that importing a $2000 tortilla machine from Mexico was a good idea. Despite any real business acumen, my tortillas were quickly stocked by a number of small groceries, restaurants, and even a school lunch program. I attribute this success to the passion I had for the process of making the product.

Living in a very urban area spurred an interest in edible landscaping and urban homesteading. What started with a raspberry bush and some basic herbs progressed to harvesting homegrown saffron and espaliering two pear trees on a privacy fence. This knowledge, gained through doing, brought on opportunities to consult on urban agriculture projects and to teach cooking classes with local chefs. I even got to teach an heirloom apple grafting class with a local apple farmer.

Image of Kevin's home grown pear trees against a fence

Image of homemade food on a plate

So why uproot my life to move to Oxford? Why get an MBA?

I wanted to see my career, focused on impact through food, transition from local and regional, to national and global in scale, but I couldn’t find a clear path. I knew I needed more formal education, but struggled in finding a field that felt like the right fit.

My intention was to stay in the business world, but I was focused on policy and public administration degrees because they carried an underlying focus on social good. Most business programs lacked an ethos that resonated with me; that is, until I found the Skoll Centre at Oxford Saïd.

No other institution is driving the social impact space in a setting as powerful as Oxford. It is evident that the mission of the Skoll Centre is directly influencing Oxford Saïd’s approach to business education.

The process of being awarded the Skoll Scholarship was a whirlwind. It changed the trajectory of my life. In a matter of a few months I went from toting vegetables around an uninsulated warehouse in Saint Louis to walking the hallowed streets of Oxford in formal academic dress robes. To say that being at Oxford is a humbling experience is an understatement.

Schrödinger locked his cat in a box at his home on Northmoor Road, a 5 minute walk from my house. Tolkien wrote the Lord of the Rings in the house next door to Schrödinger. Radiohead played their first concert at the pub at the end of my street. It is absurd how many titans of western thought operated within a mile of my house in Oxford.

Kevin standing by the road sign for Northmoor Road in Oxford in full Oxford attire

My intention when I began a career in good food was never very concrete. I realize now that there was a centralized theme in the work: namely, changing the way people eat. But it required a whole lot of ‘doing’ before I could fully quantify it. It was not until I applied to Oxford that I really went through the process of self-assessment required to solidify my personal mission. I am confident that my time spent studying for an MBA as a Skoll Scholar will give me the tools to further succeed in my endeavors regardless of whether or not I can spell entrepreneur.

Follow Kevin on Twitter: @nosleepforduco

Emerge 2016 – Thoughts on A Broken Food System

Film and TV Producer Leslie Lee was a delegate to this year’s Emerge conference. She shares her insight into one of Emerge 2016’s most popular workshops, ‘Changing Our Broken Food System’.

 

Like many children, I was told not to waste food and to “think of the starving children in China”. It was China because we were Chinese-Americans and so I grew up thinking about every last morsel on my plate. Would it really be enough to feed a starving Chinese child? My mother assured me that it would.

It seemed strange to me there was no correlation between the cost of growing a potato and what it cost to buy one in the shops

As an adult, those early lessons on food waste left a lasting impression on me. I  moved to London, became a television producer and started cooking with a food waste project called The People’s Kitchen in Dalston. Every Sunday, I would help its charismatic young founder/chef Steve Wilson and his hard-working volunteers collect surplus fruit and vegetables donated by local shopkeepers. As if by magic, the dancefloor of a local nightclub would become a makeshift kitchen and the surplus produce became tasty, healthy dishes we would enjoy with members of the local community. Through Steve and The People’s Kitchen, I learned a lot about food waste and the food distribution system. It seemed strange to me there was no correlation between the cost of growing a potato and what it cost to buy one in the shops.

So one of the big highlights at Emerge 2016 for me was the Changing Our Broken Food System workshop, led by Fokko Wientjes, VP Sustainability & Public Private Partnerships at DSM. He explained how he welcomed our input as part of his research for the new EAT – Lancet Commission on diet, human health and its impact on our planet. We sat around large round tables in groups, talking about what we thought were the most important aspects of the food system conversation. More importantly, we discussed what we thought was missing from it.

Fokko Wientjes. Photo by fisherstudios.co.uk

Fokko Wientjes. Photo by fisherstudios.co.uk

Rather than talking about food in the abstract, we shared personal stories at my table. I was especially struck by Robert Boer, an Emerge 2016 speaker and director of UBS and Society, who told us how he became a vegan after his mother’s death from cancer. The connection between food and health is so very important, but yet we Western consumers suffer from ‘food information overload’. These contradictory food studies make it difficult for consumers to maintain healthy diets when even coffee can be both good – and bad – for you.

Of greater concern has been the global shift towards Western eating habits – more meat, dairy and processed foods – which place an enormous burden on the environment. Participants at another table pointed out that in poorer countries, consumers cannot afford to make the same food choices as Westerners can and decide to become vegan, for example. Also, different cultures and customs around the world (Chinese, rice) pose a challenge to transforming the global food system.

Still others wondered if there was a responsibility for retailers to educate consumers. And if so, how?

Workshop: Changing a Broken Food System

Workshop: Changing Our Broken Food System. Photo by fisherstudios.co.uk

With food waste in the news, there was also a discussion about the need for a food industry in developing countries, to help preserve food and prevent waste. Despite growing awareness in the West, Fokko warned, “there’s no understanding [among consumers] of what food costs to produce.” Political incentives like farming subsidies also remain a contributing factor in creating food waste.

The conversation could have lasted for days, but the hour had flown by. Fokko invited our further participation, so we can help the Commission develop a plan towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Climate Agreement.

Change won’t come from food producers or policy makers, it must come from consumers.

Afterwards, I continued my conversation with Mr. Boer, asking him what food entrepreneurs can do to help. He thought that the subject of obesity needed to be addressed in greater depth. “Change won’t come from food producers or policy makers, it must come from consumers. But entrepreneurs need to influence customer demands.”

The best way for entrepreneurs to do this is through storytelling. “Here in Switzerland, we are asking journalists to give feedback on stories from entrepreneurs. If they like them, then you know you have a story that resonates with the media.” Supporting 34 social enterprises this year in their UBS Social Innovators programme, UBS and Society emphasizes the importance of developing an understanding of storytelling, as well as the basics of impact measurement, business models and scalability.

“I firmly believe that connection and collaboration can make a big change in the food systems. We need to bring all these companies together to collaborate and streamline their efforts for greater impact.”

“There was a potential for this [workshop] to actually move this conversation on food systems forward. There are a lot of different stories, cultures and perspectives. Everyone cares.”

About the Author

Leslie Lee

Leslie Lee

Leslie Lee is a London-based film/TV producer who works in documentaries and fact-based drama. As a former print journalist, she joined BBC1’s The One Show in 2007 and her credits include a wide variety of documentary series for Discovery, Channel Four, Syfy, A&E and Animal Planet.

Follow @lesliealee

 

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