Finding my inspiration: Advancing food equity and sustainability
No problem is out of reach for Kellogg entrepreneurs. Supported by a generous gift from Larry Levy ’66 BBA, ’67 MBA and Carol Levy, the Levy Inspiration Grant Program gives students who want to build a startup the opportunity to travel anywhere in the world to witness their target market firsthand and learn about the challenges they can help solve.
At the helm of their own experiences, participating students chart their own course prior to embarking on the journey. Their schedules can include a wide array of on-the-ground observations as well as hands-on experiences, such as meeting with founders, clients and government officials. They return home with new knowledge and in-person learnings to help inform their entrepreneurial path.
In the first of our three-part series spotlighting recipients of the Levy Inspiration Grant, we sat down with Priscilla Hu ’23 MBA, who traveled to France and Kenya to learn about how food-tech startups can improve food equity and sustainability. She tells us what she learned about the attitudes and approaches to food in these places, but more importantly, what she discovered about her own entrepreneurial path.
Stepping out of the classroom: An opportunity ripe for the picking
Hu credits her upbringing for planting a passion for food and agriculture. “Growing up, my family would make everything from scratch like pasta and buns. I remember we would also grow different vegetables on our apartment’s balcony, and my grandpa would teach me all there was to learn about them,” shares Hu. However, she did not see her passion as a viable career — until she arrived at Kellogg.
Once she kicked off her MBA journey as a Two-Year MBA student, she joined the Kellogg Food and Agribusiness Club and jumped into serving as one of its vice presidents. This community at Kellogg provided her with unparalleled industry exposure and fueled an entrepreneurial spirit. The club gave her the confidence to explore her passion further and better understand the intersectionality in food systems and various food practices.
"Food is a basic human need that is crucial for our survival and well-being. However, not everyone around the world has equal access to nutritious and affordable food,” says Hu. “I have been exploring how entrepreneurship can be utilized to address the challenges of food equity and sustainability across the value chain of the food industry.”
During her summer internship at McKinsey & Company, she was assigned to a food project, working for one of the biggest agriculture co-ops in the Pacific Northwest. “I saw this as an opportunity to test my ideas and abilities leveraging the platform of a big company,” explains Hu. After getting a taste of combining her passion and her profession, she wanted to continue down the path to see what other doors she could open.
Getting on the ground: Kenya and France
Ahead of submitting her Levy Inspiration Grant application, Hu considered where she wanted to travel and two countries came readily to mind: France, because of its innovation within the food technology start-up space, and Kenya because of its potential as an emerging market to benefit from new solutions.
“Food is never only about food,” she explains. “Food is the reflection of the entire socioeconomic system or society of the place you're looking at.” That was a key learning she took from meeting the founders behind Sun Culture, one of the food startups she engaged with in Kenya. Sun Culture provides local farmers with water and irrigation systems, and its founders soon learned that financial hurdles made it hard for farmers to acquire and implement that technology. So, the startup pivoted and introduced financing options, adjusting its business model to better serve its audience.
Another startup she visited in Kenya was Farm Works, where Hu learned that farmers only planted certain crops like onions, potatoes and carrots not because they lacked the means to plant higher-value produce but rather because they lacked guidance for how to grow those crops. She saw how the startup engaged with the farmers to build trust. “I didn't hear any buzzwords in my entire trip: tech, AI, SEO, individualization — none of those. It was very down-to-earth,” says Hu. By placing its focus on the people, Farm Works is making impactful contributions to food equity in the local communities it serves.
Traveling next to France, Hu visited local, independent food stores and markets where she connected with vendors and consumers to learn more about their perspective on food sustainability. She also decided to take a language class to brush up on her French and help her better communicate with the locals.
One of the most surprising interactions came in the least expected setting: her French class. Food sustainability was the focus of one of the week’s topics, and she was amazed at how her French teacher had a lot of thoughts and opinions on the matter. "I was so surprised by that because you’d think a language class would teach people how to order in a restaurant, but they treated the topic as a natural thing,” shares Hu.
Even though she visited two distinct geographic and socioeconomic areas, Hu approached both equally. “I didn't phrase my questions differently,” she says. “I came in saying, tell me about your startup and your journey, and what are some of the difficulties?’”
Applying newfound knowledge
The trips allowed Hu to not only put business theory into practice, but also gain invaluable insights that she could only find through firsthand experience. Cultural immersion increased her awareness, understanding and empathy — all of which can ultimately help in designing better solutions, she said.
“The takeaway from this experience is to always look into the problem with a deeper lens,” says Hu. “There are so many other problems that you need to solve when you are trying to push your entrepreneurial idea or product. Through this experience, I learned a lot about the differences from the market and investment perspectives to the nature of the business market.”
Hu also gained an appreciation for how innovation requires striking the right balance between partnerships. “Societal development needs people to push the boundaries of humanity, but it also needs another group of people who try to bring all the others to the frontier,” says Hu. The people she met along the way inspired her to see the world through a wider lens and gave her a confidence boost to continue exploring her passion.
A precious memento
When they return from their trips, all of the Levy Inspiration Grant participants select an artifact to share with other students that symbolizes their time spent abroad. Hu chose two, one for each of the countries she visited.
The first was a traditional French olive dish gifted to her by a local farmer who sells different kinds of marinated olives — all from his home farm. “He came from a long line of farmers, and you could tell they were really just proud of their produce, which you can find all over the south of France,” she says. The second artifact was a Kenyan statue of a young girl. A close friend from McKinsey who now lived in Kenya gave it to Hu as a reminder of the power that lies within her and to always trust in her own abilities — just as much as those around her do.
“Entrepreneurship, like life, is a constant process where you look out for inspiration, connection and conversation, and then you go back to the drawing board," explains Hu. Both mementos capture the spirit of affirmation and open-mindedness to her. “For anyone wishing to pursue the path of entrepreneurship, it’s important to realize that things might be very different from what you were thinking. You might find some things surprising, terrifying or just not what you were expecting,” she explains. “However, the moment you throw yourself into it, your body — and heart — will tell you whether it's right for you or not.”
Hu returned to the United States feeling invigorated and energized. “I shouldn't be nervous or terrified about what the future holds because I know there are so many like-minded people who are fighting for a future to bring better impact within the food tech space and who are there to support me,” she says.
This article is adapted from Hu’s appearance on the Levy Inspiration Grant Program podcast. Listen to the full episode below and explore the entire series to hear more stories from aspiring entrepreneurs.