A former journalist and a Detroit native who grew up ensconced in the automobile industry, Rachel Konrad has spent the last decade of her career leading communications for some of the world’s most disruptive companies from Tesla to Impossible Foods. Konrad is a force of nature. She played a key role in making Impossible Foods the much-admired global brand it is today and, never one to shy away from controversy, she took on everyone from fake meat haters to the anti-GMO brigade. Her Twitter bio reads: “Board member and adviser exploiting capitalism to fix humanity’s existential triple threat: global warming, biodiversity collapse and our public health crisis.”
I had the opportunity to catch Rachel on a busy Tuesday and we discussed everything from slaughterhouses to why the hyper-regionalism trend is a limited one. Below, the veteran food tech executive talks about how COVID supercharged the plant-based movement, why she is stepping away from day-to-day operational roles, why we need to redefine the board member role and why she loves the TiNDLE brand.
GQ: It’s so nice to see you again, Rachel. It’s been so long since we sat next to each other in Hong Kong [at the 2018 Impossible Foods launch]. That felt like a different world.
RK: Yes, that was such a simple time.
GQ: I know, we thought we had problems back then, but it was also just a different moment for the alternative protein industry. The only players then were really you guys [Impossible Foods], and Beyond Meat. Green Monday hadn’t really shown its cards yet, and Asia was not yet where it is today. It all happened really fast.
RK: Yeah, it’s absolutely incredible. And obviously, you know, things were really heating up way back then, but throughout COVID, it really accelerated quite a bit. I think in many ways, COVID kind of supercharged the entire plant based movement in a really big way.
GQ: Absolutely, especially in Asia, where I think it would have taken longer for things to get going. But everyone started looking for their purpose, and everyone started realising the climate thing wasn’t going away. We just did our report on APAC, 18 months after the previous report, and it’s like two different ecosystems.
RK: I mean, let’s be really clear, right? Covid started in the wet markets of China, which is basically another way of saying slaughterhouses, but with more transparency, right? Then shortly after, it migrated to the slaughterhouses of America, which became absolute cesspools for this deadly virus. In fact, it closed down all production of cattle-based slaughterhouses in the US for months. It caused the first shortage of meat in America since WW2. And it really laid bare the fragility of animal based agriculture in general, right?
So all of the trends that we were talking about back in 2018 and 2019—in the before times—actually just accelerated and frankly, what COVID did for the plant-based movement was really to supercharge it. So instead of getting phone calls from customers who were driven by consumer demand, the CMOs of places like Burger King, Safeway and Kroger, they weren’t just responding to consumer demand and wanting to be first-movers, they were suddenly moving to plant-based because it was an issue of strategic supply chain management and business continuity. If you can’t produce meat from animals, you still have to serve people, right? So it really changed the dialogue, the sense of urgency in pretty meaningful ways. I saw it firsthand at Impossible, and we’re still seeing it now at Next Gen and others.
GQ: I love how you framed that, it’s so true, the business continuity. It wasn’t just in the US, it was Ireland, Spain and in South America.
RK: Right, like it started in Asia and the region closed down and went through shortages and everything else. Then it moved to the US slaughterhouses, which like I said, became hotspots for COVID people dying in these slaughterhouse factory towns. Then the same thing moved to Europe.
Honestly, we’ve been dealing with these issues for more than a century. Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle about the horrific abuses and absolute filth of the US slaughterhouse industry back in 1906. But every few decades, some horrific event lays bare the continued difficulty of relying on this industry, right? COVID really exposed that this is just not sustainable in any way.
As you know, three-quarters of all cases have the flu, not COVID. But the actual avian flu is called that because it’s caused by birds, right? So companies like Next Gen have a real solution that we need to really take seriously because of incidents like COVID. In fact, there are more and more people now aware of the fragility and the complete lack of robustness that comes with relying on animals in the food chain. I mean, I’m not talking to you solely today by carrier pigeon, and we are not sitting here talking based on Pony Express messages, right? Like we have eliminated animals from the communications industry, just like we have eliminated them from, mechanism. We’re very rarely in the industrial world relying on oxen anymore. It’s very similar. We’re going to phase them out for animal agriculture as well, it’s just a matter of time.
GQ: You left Impossible and for some people, that seems crazy because the company is arguably the top plant-based brand in the world. It’s the brand that has made the most noise and is the most searched for and has raised the most money. So, why?
RK: You know, I love Impossible Foods. I have a freezer full of the product, I’m still a major investor and advocate and mega fan of the company, and that’s not going to change. In the same way that I still drive a Tesla and I have Tesla-powered solar panels on my roof. I’m still an advocate. It’s just that I really love that early stage of companies and honestly, I could stay at Impossible for another 5, 10 or 25 years. But I’m never going to have that incredible foundational impact of the first 5, you know?
I got to join Impossible just as the company was launching its commercial brand. And I ended up staying through the point when it was this, you know, mega juggernaut phenomenon at Burger King and Walmart and in Singapore, and Hong Kong and Macau, and elsewhere. I can stay much longer, and that would be great, and I would lead an entirely content career, but my real goal is to have an impact. So I could stay at Impossible and help this one company, but why not help influence the next generation of climate entrepreneurs at large and help 5 or 50 or 500 more companies? That’s how we’re going to solve climate change and how we’re going to halt biodiversity collapse.
I feel like Impossible is on an amazing trajectory, it’s not going to stop whether I’m there or not. But other companies can actually get charged up. I can help them accelerate as well. And it really does take a broader ecosystem to do that.
GQ: Interestingly enough, this time, you’re taking advisory roles rather than something more full time. Or maybe you’re working on that. But is that also by design? Because you can have more impact?
RK: Yeah, that’s definitely by design. So you know, I made the decision to not take an operational management role this time, because I really do want to help many, many, many companies. My alternative was that I could leave, I could stay at Impossible if I wanted, or I could leave impossible, and go to one more company, right? Or maybe 2 or 3 in the, in the last couple of decades in my career. But why would I go to just help out a few companies, when really my goal is impact? I want to help 500 companies and inspire 5000 or 50,000 climate entrepreneurs. I mean, I think that’s what we need. So that’s why I did it.
But there’s also some other issues that I wanted to solve. Honestly, I think this is not my individual thesis. It is pretty well known that corporate governance, especially in America, is a little bit broken and we need to fix it. I have seen firsthand a lot of incidents where we’re not fully maximising the utility of board members in any meaningful way. A lot of board members, frankly, are just phoning it in a bit and they kind of fly in for the quarterly meeting. Maybe they read the deck, maybe they don’t, I don’t know. They’re not necessarily maxing out their value to these companies. I’ve pitched myself and so far I’ve gotten a lot of interesting traction. As you know, as a working board member I will help stand up your communications and marketing team. I will help you find a comms agency. I will help you get through a crisis. I will help you come up with your messaging and your core narrative. I will do media training with the CEO. So I actually perform a different role than I would say the kind of classic board member and I’m much more of an activist. I mean that in a very positive way, that as a working board member not like this activist who’s trying to get out yourself. Yeah, like it’s really an advocate and a partner.
GQ: I like that. How did the relationship with Next Gen start? How did you meet the founders? I also wanted to ask you something about their branding and hear your take on it. Because it’s very unique. Some of it is a little inspired by Impossible, it seems.
RK: I first met them in Singapore back in 2019, when Impossible was launching there. Then obviously, anyone who’s been in the space heard about their phenomenal $30 million seed round- the largest ever in the history of plant based foods. That made me take note. I was also very specifically interested in joining a food tech startup that was based in either Singapore or Israel, or maybe the Netherlands. Because I personally believe and I’ve seen that so much of the interest is there. And frankly, the investment and imperative is coming out of these places.
I think that the US venture capital industry has really embraced this notion that, plant-based is the future, that we cannot continue to rely so heavily on conventional animal agriculture. They have made a big, big bet on plant-based. At the same time, Singapore and Israel are also taking a very similar approach, because these are countries that are basically not able to rely on conventional animal agriculture. Singapore is a tiny nation, right? It can’t just go to the American West and torch it and create pasture land and cropland for cows. It can’t necessarily continue relying so heavily on imports from neighbours, where there’s major food security issues, and food safety issues, right? Singapore was this fishing village decades ago and it said it wanted to become one of the global financial leaders in the world. And people laughed at that. But guess what, they did it through their willpower, and they’re going to do the same thing when it comes to sustainable food, I guarantee you.
So I got back in touch with [Next Gen co-founders] Andre and Timo and I talked to them about not only wanting to be part of Next Gen, but also wanting to be part of this changing face of governance in America. It’s pretty interesting. I’m actually the first American to join the company in any capacity and it’s been super fun. Before I went to Impossible, I was working directly with Carlos Ghosn, the CEO and chairman of Renault Nissan. It was this crazy global job and I was based in Paris, and was usually the only person fluent in English in the room. It was so fun and I really missed that.
I think that working at Next Gen is just incredibly rewarding. This is a company that’s like founded by a Brazilian poultry distributor and this third generation German schnitzel maker who met at a Singaporean business incubator and the CFO is this guy raised in India who was in Singapore since he was 12. And the COO is this Brit who’s been living in Singapore and is raising his kids as Singaporean. And you know, I’m here. I mean, it’s a pretty fun place. So that’s kind of how we came together. It’s been a real fascinating sort of global mashup. I love it.
GQ: I love it. And in terms of the branding?
RK: I mean, I love the branding. I love the brand. I can’t speak too much about the actual development of the brand, this happened before I joined, but I know that a lot of it happened earlier this year. You know, Andre, and Timo and Jean Madden, the CMO, they did a really interesting study on what makes a great food brand. They certainly studied all of the players, from Impossible and Beyond, all the way to McDonald’s and Tyson and Nestlé and many others. They wanted to really understand what motivates people to buy plant based food and buy food that’s sustainable.
They came up with some very specific and frankly, pretty astute observations. One of the things that is really unique that a lot of food companies don’t do is make food, including in their marketing, a social experience, right? For example, in virtually all of the stock photography and visual identity you see from Next Gen, it’s a group of people coming together over food that is very distinct. It’s certainly not the same as any company I’ve ever worked for. Instead of just the type of food porn shot, they have multiple people coming together, because food is this ultimate social experience, right? So they’ve really taken a brand new look and feel to all of the core messaging and visual identity of the food.
GQ: I love that. One thing I want to ask you, as someone who’s worked on brands that have become iconic and global, a lot of the trends we see even in the US where regional cuisines like Filipino cuisine are having a moment, and there’s all these moments where we’re kind of celebrating different cultures. Do you think that it’s possible to have a brand that speaks to everyone in the world at a time when we are trying to grab sub-regional food preferences, and celebrate them? In terms of the actual brand and communicating of the brand, do you think that something is lost if it’s too international or global?
RK: No, I think quite the opposite. So you have to remember, I mean, what I’m about to say is probably very controversial. This is like me speaking not as a representative of Next Gen, but me speaking as Rachel Konrad.
Any new product, whether it’s a new electric car, or a new type of app, or a new food, a new category of plant-based chicken, you don’t really want nor do you need every single person to love you. In fact, you just want a core following of people who will do anything to get you who will repeat the purchase, who will blog about it, who will tweet about it, who will tell their friends and family about it. I would argue that that core group of early-adopters of thought leaders, particularly of people who are going to make new food purchases based on their sustainability halo. These people have more in common on a global level than they do with people in their same region, but from a different sort of ethnographic or demographic segment, right?
Just for example, I would argue that I, as someone who has deleted animal agriculture from her diet, right, who drives a Tesla, powered by solar panels, don’t buy new clothes, I probably have a lot more in common with another early adopter environmentalist in Amsterdam, or Tel Aviv or Singapore than I have in common with someone in another part of the US who really doesn’t have any interest, awareness or concern for the environment.
What we have seen over the last 10 years or so, particularly with the rise of social media that’s global and has no barriers or borders whatsoever, is a rise of a generation of people who have put their brand behind sustainability. It’s a big part of who we are, right? We have more in common with each other on a global level than with other people in our own countries, in many cases. I would argue that a lot of these trends are actually global. And if you are hyper regionally-focused, you might not actually understand this mega trend that’s coming.
We saw that, by the way, before COVID in 2019, when there were hundreds of millions of kids basically protesting environmental atrocities in Jakarta, in Stockholm, in Paris, in New York. They were all very similar with the same messaging and platform, despite their different mother tongues, their different climates and being separated by thousands of kilometres of distance. They were very united around this issue of sustainability. So I actually think if you are just focusing on hyper-regionalism, you’re going to miss some of the most significant trends that unite us all.
GQ: I totally agree. I think this is especially true for Gen Z.
RK: Yeah. And I think food is actually one of the most important global mega trends. You know, decades ago in America, we left ketchup as our top condiment and it was replaced by salsa, and it’ll probably be replaced next by sriracha. This is not some uniquely American phenomenon. I mean, food is inherently global. You mentioned the Filipino restaurant craze, right? I mean, that is sweeping the whole nation, you can go to Omaha, or Miami, or Saskatchewan, and you will see really innovative Filipino restaurants or mashups between Somali and Indonesian restaurants. I mean, food is really at the leading edge of global trends. And again, if you are really a brand that’s hyper-focused on this notion that like every region is different, you’re gonna miss out on some of the most important unifying aspects of issues we’re all facing, including the existential threat of accelerating climate change.
GQ: You know, you’ve definitely had quite a few moments at Impossible where you were talking off the haters, especially about the GM issue. I mean, would you do everything the same? Do you stand by everything you said? This is more like a personal question, but are those personal acts or do you just consider that part of your job?
RK: Yeah. By the way, I would do it all again, if maybe even more, you know, more robustly with more intention behind it right. I mean, I think that the biggest mistake that people in general can make is like, don’t say anything negative about anybody. Don’t worry if the New York TImes maligned your product with something unfactual or don’t pick a fight with anyone who buys ink by the barrel. My attitude is like, there is an existential threat that we all face. It’s called, you know, global warming and biodiversity collapse, right? Animal agriculture is dramatically fueling these. And if you don’t understand that, at this point, you’re sort of willfully ignoring reality. So it’s up to me to help inform you and your followers, and that means being very factual, but very articulate and debunking some of the bullshit mythology that these anti-science anti-vax luddites are proposing.
The reality is that we cannot continue to plaster over the world with pasture land and food that’s just for cows and chickens and pigs, we just can’t. We’ve already consumed 45% of the Earth’s arable land, with animal agriculture with livestock and their crops. That is land that we can no longer use for native ecosystems for biodiversity. Frankly, that’s the land that we can’t even use for photosynthesis, right? Because we are raising we are blazing a forest through the Amazon eliminating the most biodiverse by a rich place on Earth. We need to be very clear eyed that this is unsustainable, right? You might have a problem with some aspect of plant-based, and that’s absolutely fine. But at the same time, you need to recognise that if you are not part of the solution on this one, then you’re going to be on the wrong side of history, and you’re part of the problem.
GQ: What’s your view on cellular agriculture and precision fermentation?
RK: I think precision fermentation and in Silicon Valley, it’s pretty clear that it’s going to be key going forward. I think, if anything, the only gating factor at this point is a lack of bioreactors, and I think that there are a lot of venture capitalists who are really trying to expand capacity. I think that’ll help a lot.
Cellular is a very interesting proposition. I’m not, you know, I’m not a hater, I’m not super anti, but at the same time, that is a 1020 year bet, right? Here’s the problem: we actually don’t have 20 years for this, we’ve got maybe a decade. I’m also a huge fan of fusion energy, but that’s a 50 year bet and if we can do it, it’ll be great and part of the solution. But we’ve got 10 years to turn around some of this stuff, to dramatically reduce methane and other greenhouse gas production. You can’t do that in a 20 year time horizon. We just don’t have the time. That’s why I’m a huge fan of plant-based because we have the tools now. It’s just a matter of consumer adoption, it’s not a matter of cost reduction and economies of scale at this point at all. It’s really something we can implement very quickly. So while I’m, again, not anti on any of that, there’s this timescale issue.
Let’s take another example. I was born and raised in Detroit. I am a huge student of the auto industry. I love the auto industry. And I’m really, really grateful that the auto industry is moving toward zero emissions, it’s taking big steps toward it. At the same time, even if every single human being who buys a new car today bought a Tesla, I mean one that would crash the supply chain pretty quickly. But let’s say they did, we would still have a problem, which is the global car park, it’s about 2 billion cars, virtually all of them use diesel or petrol. So we are still beholden to fossil fuels for the lifespan of these cars. We don’t have time, we actually need to do food and make that sustainable because food, out of energy and transport, food is the only one where you and I can give huge signals of consumer demand and we can give them to farmers and the multinational food conglomerates and others to start planting foods that are sustainable to stop eliminating biodiversity for the sake of cows. We can actually give signals that work on the timescale of crop cycles, which is just a couple of years.
This is why I’m so bullish on plant-based meat. Again, I’m not anti electric vehicle, obviously. You can find me driving a Tesla powered by solar panels, but that alone isn’t going to solve the problem in a timespan that preserves my quality of life, let alone my kids. No, it’s only food. That’s why I’m so bullish on plant-based.
Lead image courtesy of Rachel Konrad.