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“Another thing I love about the food and beverage industry is the camaraderie between founders, especially female founders.” - Caroline Cotto [Interview]

Article-“Another thing I love about the food and beverage industry is the camaraderie between founders, especially female founders.” - Caroline Cotto [Interview]

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Now more than ever before, consumers are demanding products that are beneficial for both their health and for the environment and are choosing to support brands whose vision and purpose align with their personal beliefs. In this expert interview, Caroline Cotto, Founder and COO of Renewal Mill, provides an insight into her diverse career journey both within and beyond the F&B industry. Caroline shares her experiences of life as a female founder and expands on her vision of creating more sustainable food chains and products.

Caroline , you’re the COO of Renewal Mill – what is the company’s mission and how are you currently going about achieving it?

"Renewal Mill is on a mission to fight climate change by reducing food waste, primarily at the manufacturing level. What we do is take the by-products from food manufacturing and upcycle them into premium ingredients. We then sell those ingredients to other food companies who use them in their own products, while also using a subset of them in our own plant-based pantry products, such as flour baking mixes and ready to eat cookies."

As you said, Renewal Mill aims to reduce food waste by upcycling the byproducts of food manufacturing into high quality ingredients and products. Can you tell us about some of the ingredients and products you have created, and the production processes behind them?

"Currently, we take the by-products of plant-based soy milk and oat milk and boil and blend the input, so either soybeans or oats, with water. We then siphon off that liquid to produce the milk, and what's leftover is a pulp. As with juicing, we take that pulp, dehydrate it, and mill it into a flower or high protein powder product. It's a relatively standard mechanical process, so there's not a lot of processing agents that accompany it."
"We can apply this process to lots of other by-products, primarily wet by-products coming off a processing line. However, we have started with these particular by-products as they are very high in fibre and protein. For instance, the soybean pulp, or Okara, is around 60% fibre and 20% complete protein and the oat milk pulp is about 50% protein."

You have a diverse career trajectory, ranging from interning with Michelle Obama at The White House to assisting on the UN World Food Program in Cambodia. Have you always been interested in the F&B industry, and what attracted you to Renewal Mill in particular?

"I've always been passionate about food, it's one of the first things I remember loving from a very early age. My parents own an ice cream store, so I grew up in the industry, but I’ve always loved to cook and spent my university time focused on the nutrition side of food."
"Over the last decade, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand food from all its different angles, starting at the childhood obesity and malnutrition side. I’ve seen first-hand how food and behavioural change work together and have quickly learnt that it's much more of a system-level problem than it is individual behaviour that often leads to those situations."
"Originally, I was working in food then pivoted into tech for a brief time. I was looking for a way to combine what I had learned with my passion for food and ended up working on a food accelerator for a company called Tech Stars. It was there that I met my co-founder for Renewal Mill and grasped onto her first-hand experience with food waste and shared mission to transform the food system by making sustainable and healthy choices easy."
"I love working at a mission driven company in the food space and having worked at non-profits and in academia and government, I like the fast pace of startups and how much they’re able to accomplish without a lot of the bureaucracy and red tape that exist in traditional sectors."

Your current company is a female-run startup and previously, you were a program and brand manager for Women@HubSpot, a female empowerment themed employee resource group. How would you describe your experiences as a woman in the F&B sector? Have you encountered any challenges, and how have you overcome these if so?

"It’s very challenging to raise venture capital as an entirely female team and my co-founder is also a mum, so I think that adds another layer. I’ve found that as a woman, you have to be 10 times more confident in your numbers and what your mission is."
"We’ve had to really prove ourselves; we’ve been through due diligence processes that are two to five times longer than [the process] would be for a white male owned business, and we’re often pitching to rooms of entirely men over the age of 50."
"We’ve also had some amazing mentors who are men in that demographic who we’ve met through the venture capital process, but we do really try to seek out female investors whenever possible and have a bunch of female Angel investors and advisors."
"Another thing I love about the food and beverage industry is the camaraderie between founders, especially female founders, and we do a lot of partnerships in our work. For example, we’ve partnered with an entirely female owned startup called Square Baby that is doing early allergen instruction baby food."
"We really try to lean into that as much as possible as it’s foundational to our business and we think that there should be more women in this space and more funding going into female founded companies, which are as the data shows, often more successful."

What would your advice be to women who are looking to enter the F&B space, change-up or upgrade their careers?

"You can't overestimate the power of jumping in, especially for people who want to change careers. I think there's a big intimidation factor associated with not having done something before, but there are so many free resources available right now to top into."
"If you have an idea, dive in with both feet. We need more women leading the charge, building sustainable businesses, and having that food for thought and care."

Many companies and regulatory bodies operating within the F&B industry are currently driving forward sustainability agendas, in attempt to become greener and mitigate the effects of global warming and climate change. A lot of your work focusses on reducing food waste and the negative environmental impacts associated with the F&B industry. Do you have any advice for F&B manufacturers, companies, and individuals on steps they can take to become more sustainable?

"Thinking about sustainability from the beginning is super important. It can’t be an afterthought; it must be something that you're building in from the beginning and constantly re-evaluating."
"Sustainability is a spectrum and although it would be great to be a company that's producing zero emissions, no plastic, and is using all upcycled ingredients, it’s also very hard within the constraints of the current system to have a company that does all of that and is financially viable."
"Picking a few things that you want to do super well from a sustainability perspective and doubling down on those are important, and that can be everything from how you treat employees to packaging or ingredients."
"Trying not to boil the ocean and diving deep into a few areas and mastering those first is important. For us, that focus is on the concept of upcycling and as we've grown, we've been able to do more, like making our products carbon neutral and certifying them as plastic negative."
"If you're even thinking about sustainability and putting it at the forefront of your business, you're ahead of many other companies that are out there right now."

Looking to the future, where do you see the greatest opportunities for women and sustainability in the F&B industry, and what do you hope to see more of?  

"There's a lot of money being pumped into sustainable food right now and I hope that more money flows into female owned companies, and that female investors double down on investing in female run companies, so that more women can be part of the movement."
"For sustainability of the industry, given the recent UN climate report the time to act is now and it's no longer acceptable to be lazy."
"Let's get creative about how we can deal with food waste in different ways and all the way down the line to different problems too. Trucking for instance, we should be asking ourselves: do we have to transport this all the way across the world? In what ways can we tighten up our supply chains and make them more sustainable?"
"We have to all work together and get everybody on board to make an impact. I hope that in the next decade that really starts to happen, and efforts start to coalesce around driving these sustainability efforts forward."
"Women supporting women is something that needs to happen more. There is no competition, it’s a rising tides, lifts all boats kind of situation."