Julia Collins has a passion for food that goes far beyond just enjoying a well-cooked meal. “Ever since I was a kid, I have always been really deeply interested in food and food systems,” she says. “I was the kind of person who would go to the grocery store just to watch people shop.” After graduating from Stanford GSB, she helped build multiple restaurant concepts in New York City before venturing in 2015 to Silicon Valley, where she co-founded Zume Pizza, a startup that used robotic and human labor to make pizza.
In her current role as CEO of Planet FWD, a software startup that provides food companies with a platform to manage their carbon emissions, Collins has segued from food entrepreneur to “climate entrepreneur.” With the recent sale of Moonshot Snacks, her climate-friendly cracker company, to Patagonia Provisions, she is free to focus even more intensely on her goal of helping to create “net zero” food systems. “Food is the through-line for everything that I do,” she says.
You started your career in the security services field with a company called Guardsmark and then decided to go to Stanford for an MBA. Why did you make that change?
I had had some success in my career at Guardsmark, I was making what I thought at the time was a lot of money. But at the same time, I wasn’t doing what my heart was calling me to do. And so I wondered if I could build on some of what I had learned about leadership and managing people and merge it with a much broader perspective on business and entrepreneurship and then apply that to the food space. And so that was why I applied to Stanford.
If you look back at my “What matters to you most in life” essay, I wrote about food, and I wrote in particular about cheese. I told that story through the lens of cheese, this incredible product that captures so much of a place and of people and could be shared really broadly. I talked about how food systems, when managed by stewards, could be a way to protect the planet and people. And by and large, I think what I wrote in that essay still feels very true for me.”
So you were thinking about sustainability and the environment even back then?
Yes, absolutely. Always through the lens of food. It wasn’t just the hedonistic properties of a really good meal or just the beauty, aesthetically, of a well-plated dinner. It was the way that food and food systems connect people to natural systems.
What is something you learned at Stanford GSB that you still apply?
One of the things that I’m working on with my team at Planet FWD now is to move beyond just the strengths that we all have around feedback. You’d be hard-pressed to find any leader who doesn’t understand the importance of feedback. But there was something that I learned in the interpersonal dynamics course that I think is equally important but often overlooked. And that is the art of repair and learning how to make a repair. This might be when someone has unintentionally offended someone else, or a relationship that was once strong becomes weaker. When people don’t understand how to make a repair, you allow that rupture to continue, and people retreat into themselves.
What was your first experience in the food industry?
Between my first and my second year [at Stanford], I had the good fortune of receiving funding from the Entrepreneurial Summer Program, which provides a bit of funding for students who are interested in going into early-stage companies. And so, I went to Union Square Hospitality Group to work on their Shake Shack business.
Working in the food industry was something that not only I had never done before, but no one in my family had ever done before. When I told my grandfather that I wanted to be in food, he nearly cried. He had truly pulled himself up from his own bootstraps, against all odds, moving during the great migration to San Francisco to start a dental practice as a Black man, working so hard so that his children could become doctors and lawyers. And so for his granddaughter to say, “Hey, Grandpa, I want to get into food,” it felt to him like a failure. With respect to what I decided to do in my career, my grandpa’s expectations loomed large. But when I got to Shake Shack and saw these incredible people building real careers in the space of food and creating real value, I thought, “Okay, I’ve got this.”
Entrepreneurship involves taking a certain amount of risk, and the food business is notoriously risky. How do you deal with risk?
I suppose the thing that really helps me is to keep asking the question, ‘What are you afraid of?’ Well, I’m afraid that my concept won’t resonate with anyone. And then, what are you afraid of if that doesn’t happen? If it doesn’t resonate with anyone, I won’t be able to sell anything. Okay, then what? Just keep asking what you are afraid of until you get to the core. And when you find that core question, there’s just a huge opportunity for you to really understand yourself.
Also, I have these parents who taught me a very simple thing, which is, “Do it scared. Learn to do it scared.” If I waited until I felt unafraid to do most things, I wouldn’t have done anything in my career. I grew up with parents who really taught me to learn to do it scared. That has been, I think, the biggest gift in terms of my entrepreneurial career.
What inspired you to found Planet FWD and Moonshot Snacks?
I had become a parent for the first time, and the reality of being responsible for another human being within the context of a rapidly warming planet just really hit me. I realized that, at some point, this little baby in my arms was going to grow up and ask me something like, “Mom, where were you when all of this was going down? Where were you when it became clear that climate change was urgent, and what did you do about it?” And I wanted to have an answer to that question. And so I developed an absolutely unshakable desire to be a part of the solution to climate change.
What has been the most challenging aspect of making that happen?
So, four years ago, when I really began pitching Planet FWD to investors, I had to spend two or three slides in every investor deck just talking about why we needed to address climate change. So, if you had asked me this question back then, I would have said the hardest thing is that people are unaware or do not care. The problem now is that the speed with which we need to execute is almost impossible to achieve under current market conditions. It will take nearly $9.2 trillion of capital expenditures globally, equivalent to 7.5% of global GDP, to decarbonize all of our systems in time to meet our Paris Climate Agreement goals. Not to sound dark, but we have fewer than 70 months to reduce global emissions by 45%. I wake up every day with the assumption that we are running out of time, which is what fuels a lot of my ambition.
But you’re just one entrepreneur with one company. Do you ever feel frustrated about how much you can actually do yourself?
Food has a huge impact. Depending on who’s doing the measuring and how food accounts for somewhere between a quarter and a third of global greenhouse gas emissions. And so if I can credibly believe that I’m participating in creating a solution, creating a rapid decarbonization of food-related carbon emissions, that does feel like enough for me to lay my head on the pillow at night and get a good night’s sleep.
What advice would you give to students now in the Stanford MBA program who might be considering going into a similar field?
There’s no better time to enter the climate ecosystem than now. We’re living in a very narrow window of time when it’s still possible to stave off the worst effects of a warming planet. And we can’t waste this time. I think it’s scary to think about 70 months, but you can also think about it as a gift. What a gift to be alive and in a position to make an impact when it matters the most.
Photos courtesy of Planet FWD