Expo East NCN keynote: Changing food is ‘generational work’

Jennifer Stojkovic—investor, author and food tech leader—shares guidance for brands seeking financial support at Nutrition Capital Network’s Investor Kickoff.

Kelly Teal

September 6, 2023

5 Min Read
Jennifer Stojkovic, author of "The Future of Food is Female," will speak at Natural Products Expo East in September 2023
Jennifer Stojkovic

Creating a long-lasting, healthy CPG brand takes a long time, despite any cyclical excitement over skyrocketing valuations and launches.

"The reality is that this is generational work." That message comes from Jennifer Stojkovic, founder of Vegan Women Summit, author of The Future of Food is Female and general partner at Joyful Ventures, a venture capital fund that invests in sustainable alternative protein companies. Stojkovic will deliver the keynote speech at Nutrition Capital Network's Investor Kickoff at Natural Products Expo East.

Because reshaping the U.S. food system will take years, Stojkovic encourages NCN attendees to stay steadfast in their mission of "building strong, resilient food and CPG brands that can stand the test of time."

Meanwhile, expect ongoing yet fluctuating interest from investors eyeing the food space. This year remains a tough one for CPG brands, especially startups, Stojkovic says. That's why it's more vital than ever that leaders in this space bolster not only one another but also the newcomers working to improve the sustainability and health of the U.S. food system.

"It's important that people don't read into all of the doom and gloom in the media," Stojkovic says. "It's very favorable from a click perspective to play up brands that are dying. We need to continue looking for and supporting these startups and companies in their small successes … and really focusing on the small wins that matter, and less [on] big valuations and big fundraisers."

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For CPGs seeking financial support, Stojkovic, herself an investor, predicts the next six to 12 months will keep throwing out some challenges. A number of brands, she says, won't make it. That will serve as a reflection of normal economic and investment cycles rather than of the CPG products or companies themselves.

The food industry will "look very different in a year from now," Stojkovic says. However, the firms that withstand the storms "are certainly going to be some of the best, hopefully generational, food companies that will be pushing forward with long-term change."

Investors look for experience, integrity, market traction

CPG executives seeking investors such as Stojkovic will want to consider what she looks for in a portfolio company. Primarily an early-stage investor, Stojkovic focuses on people. "We're looking for experienced leadership and founders," she says.

From there, she wants to ensure that the businesses in which she invests show how they are evolving the food system while maintaining transparency with consumers. Finding CPG companies that actually walk their talk remains difficult for an investor such as Stojkovic, who promotes plant-based, environmentally friendly approaches to food.

Related:Jay Shetty explores innovating with purpose in Expo East keynote

"You're seeing a lot of regenerative claims and net-zero claims [made by] companies, particularly large conglomerates, that, quite frankly, are made up," she explains, citing recent action against meat processor JBS USA as one example. "It's been very discouraging to see the amount of regenerative washing and climate washing when there are real companies that are doing the work to create better food products for us. And I think that we need to really work on better standards for the consumer."

Otherwise, Stojkovic adds, people will continue to be misled, thinking that the food they're eating has been grown with attention to stewardship and health, "when they're quite simply the same old products just repackaged with a green label." If that standard stays in place, "we're in deep, deep trouble."

That said, Stojkovic hopes to expand consumer awareness around the dangers of processed foods, "particularly from large conglomerates," so that the world starts to eat better "by this time next year."

In addition, as an investor, Stojkovic seeks CPG companies that already have a solid customer base and are generating revenue.

"There are a lot of companies that fall a little bit astray in the sense that they work on all kinds of different certifications and all of these really expensive and time-consuming pieces to building their brand before they've actually sold anything," she says. "The best way to learn about your brand is to go out into the market … and actually sell and talk to people."

There are a surprising number of brands that don't do that first, Stojkovic adds, so they build their brand for a consumer who might not even be there. Market testing is "really important to us," as are "scrappy brands—brands that can do more with less," she says. "We want to see the types of companies that really can get it over the finish line."

Truly ready for VC?

Stojkovic further advises food brands to consider whether they really need outside capital and, if so, whether it should come from a venture capital firm.  

"I have a lot of founders that pitch me … but, quite frankly, [they] are not venture-bankable," she says.

Indeed, most of these companies don't qualify for VC money, she adds, because in the U.S., the majority are not startups.

"So, if you are a founder of a food company, you should think long and hard about whether you should be diluting your ownership for outside capital from a VC that's going to be expecting a return within the horizon of their fund, versus slowly building a strong brand," Stojkovic says.

As alternatives, she advises considering grants, debt financing or small checks from angel investors. "More than 50% of food companies that pitch me, the first thing I tell them is that they are not venture-bankable and that there are much better pathways for them to grow their business sustainably and slowly," Stojkovic says.

'Not an overnight change'

CPG leaders must expect to move at a slow and steady pace to transform the food system. "That's how food goes," Stojkovic says. "It is not an overnight change."

And yet, the world is undergoing an "unprecedented growth cycle" that will lead to more people having access to modern food options, she notes. As such, she exhorts NCN Investor Kickoff attendees to create a healthier food system in the West, while helping emerging markets start out "on the right path" so they "do not move toward some of the very big challenges and problems that we are now seeing in the Western food system."

Don't miss Jennifer Stojkovic's keynote address at the NCN Investor Expo Kickoff beginning at 1 p.m. ET, Sept. 21, on the Innovation Experience Stage, Level 200, Hall A. Other Kickoff speakers will address "Balancing Innovation and Disruption," updates in M&A, Trends and Innovation, and a financial market update. The event is included with an Exhibit Hall Badge. Visit ExpoEast.com for more information. 

About the Author(s)

Kelly Teal

Kelly Teal has more than 20 years' experience as a journalist, editor and analyst in industries including technology and health care. She serves as principal of Kreativ Energy LLC. Follow her on LinkedIn at /kellyteal/

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