In the words of David Eisen (MBA 2001), CEO of the rapidly growing vegan food-maker Plant Snacks, “there’s probably nothing more important for your everyday behavior—as a person, and as a steward for your household—than what you consume.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that interest in careers in food and agribusiness is growing among MBAs at Harvard Business School. In the past couple of years, for example, membership in the student Food, Agriculture, and Water (FAW) Club has nearly doubled. To help meet that interest, on October 18, the HBS Business & Environment Initiative teamed up with the Career and Professional Development office to offer an alumni career panel for MBAs. Five alumni came to campus to share their insights about opportunities in the field. Thirty-five students turned out for learning and networking. Natalie Kindred, the Senior Researcher at the HBS Agribusiness Program, moderated the event.

Panelists emphasized how quickly the food industry is changing. “The little guys and the newcomers are disrupting big organizations every day,” explained Carlos Poblete (MBA 2016), Vice President of Continental Grain Company. Four of the panelists had launched or were helping to run so-called “disruptors.” Yi Chen (MBA 2014) is VP of Product for Toast, Inc., a customizable point-of-sale and management system for restaurants. Nicole Ledoux (MBA 2008) is Co-Founder of 88 Acres, which bakes and distributes nutritious, allergen-free snacks. Kaitlin Conklin (MBA 2017) is in charge of Organic & Non-GMO Product Marketing at Indigo Agriculture And Eisen has just launched Plant Snacks.

Given all this change, building consumer trust is critical. As Conklin observed, “there is so much misinformation out there on the consumer side . . . Parsing through all the noise and figuring out what consumers want and how we can pull that through the supply chain is challenging and really exciting.” How can MBAs launch their careers in this sector, keep up with what’s new, and establish consumer confidence? Panelists offered two pieces of career advice: focus on fundamentals, and take advantage of all the school has to offer.

Ledoux reflected that courses she took in negotiation and marketing have been crucial to her success in building her business. She frequently thinks back to cases that Prof. Youngme Moon taught in Brand Marketing.

In the early years of Toast, wearing multiple hats is always required. Chen explained that when he started at Toast, “it was about getting customers, getting products to market quickly, and setting up customer success teams.” But over time, his roles shifted to “figuring out how investors think about our margins and our business.” More recently his focus has been product strategy and growth strategy.

“In the food industry, the diversity of challenges you encounter over time is really compelling” summed up Eisen. At HBS, fundamentals are hard-wired into the curriculum. And it’s also possible to gain deep, specialized knowledge in courses like Prof. Forest Reinhardt’s Food & Agribusiness elective and by staying active in the FAW Club.

Boston is a great place to explore the food industry ecosystem, Ledoux explained. “There's a very tight food industry here. It's not humongous, so there are easy ways to figure out who’s who. Eisen echoed the view that “Boston has a ton of capital and a ton of smart people. When that's in place, there are so many growing entities. And there's only going to be more tomorrow.”