Can you make a packaged food product that’s (genuinely) good for the planet, socially just, and tastes amazing? Julia Collins thinks it’s possible and she wants to prove her theory with Moonshot crackers, the “world’s first totally climate-friendly food brand,” launched at the end of 2020. The sustainable snack is organic, kosher, plant-based, non-GMO, made with no added sugars in a carbon neutral fashion and—with its on-the-box content about regenerative agriculture—highlights the potential of carbon-fixation found within Mother Nature.
Collins believes that something as simple as a box of crackers can help address some of the greatest societal challenges before us: from the climate crisis to racial injustice. She is a seasoned and successful entrepreneur who made headlines after she became the first Black female founder of a unicorn company—Zume Pizza—which in 2018 was valued at over $2 billion. Now, in 2021, Collins is more than a founder with a stellar track record: she’s a mother on a mission to save planet Earth.
The bold and forward-thinking Moonshot branding pushes customers to think not just of flavor but soil, wind, and water-based impact with each bite they take. “Join the climate-friendly food movement,” the back of the box enthusiastically encourages.
Here, I talk with Collins about the beginnings of Moonshot and parent company Planet FWD, how her company addresses racial justice issues, and why right now is the best moment to be a climate-focused business leader, especially in the African American community.
Eve Turow-Paul: Your work often centers on the intersection of technology and food. What first inspired your entry into the food space and why do you continue to integrate tech?
Julia Collins: For my entire life, I’ve been somebody who’s identity is at the intersection of food and technology. I’ve always believed that the best moments in life are the moments when people feel the most seen and the most safe and the most connected and the most joyful, are when we’re sharing food together. So I’ve always wanted to be in that world. I’ve also been, for my entire life, a self-described super nerd. I went off to Harvard to study biomedical engineering and I was winning science fairs on hydroponic gardening when I was little. So these have been my two shared passions for my entire life. Food is a medium for connection with humans. And technology is a medium for joy.
When I became a mom and had this little human to take care of, that was the point when I felt like I found my true calling in a professional sense, because I realized I could use my love of food and technology to have an impact on climate change. I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is the most important thing I can do with the rest of my life is to work on this.’ Frankly, it’s a privilege to be alive and to be at a point in my career when I have some power and weight, during this narrow window of time when it’s still possible to do something.
Turow-Paul: What was the first step in creating the “world’s first totally climate-friendly food brand,” as you put it? How did you take such a large task and turn it into actionable steps?
Collins: We have this narrow window of time to take the most sweeping actions possible to stave off the worst of what might happen. At first, to me, that felt scary and paralyzing and depressing. But then when I leaned into it and I sat with it, I realized that another way to look at this is as an extreme privilege—that you have the knowledge and the ability to be someone that takes action. What a pity it would be to be born too late. So, rather than fearing the magnitude of what we have to accomplish right now, why not relish in your ability to take action during a time when it when it really matters?
Thing that I’ve learned that gives me a lot of joy in the face of complexity is to take the next best step. [The climate crisis] is a huge problem. And if you try to think about the total solution, you will very quickly get to a point where you’re thinking about all of the places where it will break down, all of the places where it will go wrong, all the places that you will fail and, for many of us, that will cause you to not do even one thing. But if you instead think about what’s the next best thing you can do, you can get in this practice of just continuing to quickly take the next best step.
I try to break down complex problems into actionable parts. [With Moonshot], the thing that I first thought of was: ‘Why don’t I just try to create a climate-friendly snack for my son?’. I hadn’t thought about the supply chain innovation or the software tool that we’re building. So I did that and that led to the next and the next step.
Turow-Paul: Why did you decide to start with crackers?
Collins: We were just eating so many crackers at home. And I just thought, ‘What if for every box of crackers that we consume, we could actually draw down carbon?’ And I imagined how that might scale over time and multiply household by household in the country and on the planet. Snacks are a $605 billion global category and something like 94% of American consumers report snacking every single day, and snacks make up the majority of our calories. It just seemed like a good place to start.
Turow-Paul: I’m fascinated by your decision to also create a regenerative ingredient library to provide other food brands with the resources they need to create their own climate-friendly products. Why have you taken this on, what stage is Planet FWD at, and what do you hope to achieve with this initiative?
Collins: I sort of naively thought that there must be some multi-attribute database where I could look up an ingredient and see who grew it, and what practices they were using, and the outcomes of those practices. And it just didn’t exist. And I thought anybody who wants to create a more sustainable or climate friendly product needs the same information that I’m after. So maybe the next best step is to not just build this capability for myself, but to write software to make it accessible to any brand who wants to create a more sustainable product.
We’re testing with a small number of brands right now. We’re giving them what looks like a nutritional facts panel for carbon and a simulation for how to improve by shortening supply chains or swapping ingredients. We’re also doing a little bit of sourcing as a service: finding their flour, finding their sunflower, making sure that it matches their sustainability criteria. Or if they’re not sure what their sustainability criteria should be for their market, we can give them some advice. So we’re in the beta stage, and hoping to launch the tool commercially later this year.
Turow-Paul: I saw that 99% of the people who invested in
Planet FWD’s seed round were women and people of color. Why was it important to you to have your investors be women and people of color?
Collins: There’s such an opportunity to address structural racism within technology. Oftentimes, we think about doing this by investing in underrepresented fund managers or founders and those things are incredibly important, but there’s this other, often under-explored opportunity, which is that founders can create more equity on their own cap table. I’m in the business of making great products and in the business of creating climate impact. But I’m also in the business of creating returns for my investors. If I believe that intergenerational wealth transfer and wealth creation are two of the most important levers in terms of expanding equality, then why not start with my own cap table?
Turow-Paul: How does racial equity play into the Moonshot brand strategy?
Collins: There’s the category of actions that we take that are philosophical, and then there’s the category of actions that we take that are highly tactical. So on a philosophical basis, we have values as a company that puts anti-racism at the very front of what we do. We talk about this internally, we partner with organizations that talk about it, we are very conscious about the ways that we are inclusive in our social media.
Then there are tactical things like when we use emojis for hand colors, we use a range of skin tones. When we think about models, we prioritize people with deeper skin tones, because they’ve been left out of the conversation. When we created this little universe of the [Moonshot] star people, they’re their gender fluid, body positive, and culturally ambiguous. I think it is reflective of the audience that we want to serve.
Turow-Paul: Over recent years, Black celebrities have driven investments in plant-based and climate-smart food products (e.g. Beyoncé and WTRMLN WTR, Questlove and Impossible, Rihanna and Partake.) Meanwhile, African Americans are far more likely than the average American to be vegan. Why do you think vegan and climate-smart products are resonating amongst the African American community?
Collins: When your lived experience is as someone who the system, writ large, is just not designed for, you fundamentally don’t feel an allegiance to the status quo. I think this is why you see so much innovation, creativity, beauty, art coming from the Black community, because many of us feel this unapologetic desire to create new ways of doing things. Whoever wrote the rule that the majority of our calories should come from animal-based protein? That’s a silly rule, right? There’s something about the system not working for us that makes us unapologetically lean into creating new systems.
I think it’s also that you see all of these disparities in health outcomes for Black populations—rising rates of diabetes, and obesity, so many of these co-morbidities that are increasingly prevalent in our communities—and so we’re using our own power [to create change]. I’m very inspired by the role of celebrity in helping to unlock these new patterns of eating and new relationships with the food system. I think it’s a really good thing.
Turow-Paul: In your opinion, how has COVID-19 changed the conversation around food and sustainability, if at all?
Collins: People truly understand that we are all connected. That’s not an abstract concept anymore; it’s so tangible. The virus doesn’t care about a silly thing like geographical border. People realize that what happens in one area of our planet greatly affects folks everywhere. And that is the way the food system is: We can’t ignore overuse of nitrogen based inputs—one farm system will cause downstream impacts of dead zones.
We [also] have the experience of taking personal sacrifice to protect the public good. Many of us are making these huge, huge changes to our daily lives to protect the public welfare. This is exactly what we need to think about doing from the standpoint of climate change and agrobiodiversity.
And then there’s this other thing, which is that we now know what it is like to live under an existential threat. Something as abstract as the idea that a warming planet could prevent humans from living on this planet doesn’t feel so abstract anymore.
Turow-Paul: What advice do you have for people who want to start a company that can help better the world?
Collins: Do it now. This is an incredibly important time for women to be building businesses in food and ag with the aim of tackling climate change and protecting the Earth’s resources. It’s a wonderful time. There is an abundance of interest from consumers, there’s abundance of capital from investors. So my advice is do it and do it now.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
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