Plant-Based Leadership with Ethan Brown: 7 Lessons from Beyond Meat’s CEO

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In a new interview, Beyond Meat founder and CEO tells all about how he steers the world-famous plant-based startup, ups and downs be darned. 

It’s no secret that Beyond Meat has had a difficult year or two. Since its IPO success back in 2019, the brand, as with much of the wider plant-based industry, has faced challenges in keeping sales and revenue up. 

In 2023, the company went through what could have been its rockiest yet, with year-on-year sales slipping yet again to force job cuts that affected 8% of its staff. That’s after it already laid off 200 employees the prior year. 

Despite disappointing figures, Ethan Brown, the man behind the vegan burger giant, is not backing down. The narrative shifted for Beyond Meat towards the end of the year with the release of its latest life-cycle assessment (LCA) results for its hero product—the third iteration of it. According to this new analysis, the Beyond Burger generates 90% fewer greenhouse gas emissions, uses 97% less land and water, and has now reduced the non-renewable energy burden to 37%. 

Going forward, Brown has reiterated the firm’s commitment to sustainability, as well as health, with its recent advert zeroing in on the heart-healthy stamp its Beyond Steak got. That’s in keeping with the latest consumer trend, which has been critical of the ultra-processed nature of some plant-based alternatives. 

All this is to say that Brown’s dedication to being at the helm of Beyond Meat has not wavered, in spite of the rollercoaster the brand has been on in the past few years. It’s a testament to his leadership style, which he shared more about in an interview on the Yahoo Finance series Lead This Way. 

Below, we take a look at some of the key points raised in Brown’s conversation, detailing his belief in the plant-based mission, his motivation, how he steers an at-times shaky ship and more about his approach to leadership. 

plant based meat sales
Courtesy: Beyond Meat

1) ‘We expected pushback’

As the founder and CEO of a startup against the big meat industry, Brown knew there would be pushback—and he made sure the team would know that and be ready for it. Obviously, being on the “receiving end of it” was difficult, but expecting it helped them stay centred”. 

“We’re trying to do something that isn’t going to happen overnight,” he said. “I’d be dishonest if I said it hasn’t been challenging…if you look at history, you should expect this.” So to ensure they’d pull through, Brown said keeping a “great core team” who understood that was crucial.

2) Understand the consumer mindset

On a related note, another thing Brown made sure the team would understand was the consumer. Consumers’ minds are hard to change, and Beyond Meat is going up against that. Understanding what consumers ultimately crave helps the brand create the right product that could stand up against conventional meat. 

“Unlike shifting from fax to digital communication, we’re not trying to change something that has been around for a couple hundred years,” he shared. “That’s why we’re not trying to change it. We’re providing consumers with a delicious alternative…providing a whole-muscle steak. Just [from] a different source of protein.” 

beyond steak
Courtesy: Beyond Meat

3) A supportive team is key

As a founder, Brown says “it comes down to who you surround yourself with, whether it’s your team or the board.” On this issue, the CEO only had positive words to say about his team, despite the clear challenges Beyond Meat has faced. “They have been incredibly supportive and are seasoned enough to have a long-term view.” 

4) Embrace a horizontal organisation

In terms of the way Beyond Meat is organised, Brown says he “embrace[s] a horizontal flow of value.” Unlike many other businesses Brown described as “vertical” with different departments in charge of various tasks, such as marketing or R&D, he is of the belief that “that’s not the way value flows”. 

“Value flows from product ideation all the way through to the consumer,” he explained. “From a leadership perspective, it’s about how you teach people to think about the team as one single team, not as one department. It’s really the lean style of management. That’s the right way to run a business.”

ethan brown
Beyond Meat CEO Ethan Brown | Courtesy: Beyond Meat

5) Fail fast, fail often 

Brown’s mindset as a leader boils down to this simple phrase: fail fast and fail often. 

“We are going to move quicker than anyone else, and we’re going to fail and recover more quickly,” he shared passionately in the interview. “One of the challenges young people have is being dealt their first failure. It takes them a moment to realise that not delivering on something is not the end of the world, as long as we get back up and get it fixed…We need to get people comfortable with [it].” 

6) Find your True North

It’s all about purpose, according to Brown. “First and foremost, you need your True North. We stay true to that True North, which in our case is to provide a plant-based meat which is indistinguishable from animal protein at the price that everyone can pay. You keep repeating and envisioning that, helping the team see that.”

With this sense of what Beyond Meat wants to accomplish, Brown said that his team “can get through anything.” 

7) Urgency is key

Finally, Brown leads with urgency. He wants the team to feel like there is no better time than now to get going, whether it’s creating a new campaign or improving the product. “The moment you walk in the building, you should feel a sense of urgency.” 

“You’re always going to be at the centre of it,” he added. “There’s always somebody working really hard…you should have a competitor mindset.” With competition always being at the forefront of the team, Brown believes it will drive speed and hard work. Why? Because it’s “tough to turn it off when your work is your mission”. 


  • Sally Ho

    Sally Ho is Green Queen's former resident writer and lead reporter. Passionate about the environment, social issues and health, she is always looking into the latest climate stories in Hong Kong and beyond. A long-time vegan, she also hopes to promote healthy and plant-based lifestyle choices in Asia. Sally has a background in Politics and International Relations from her studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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