In these rocky economic times, affordable, sustainable food seems elusive. Can you do food business in a way that does good? How are women and equity-seeking people leading the way?
Lots of women and equity-seeking people get into entrepreneurship. It makes sense. Those who face barriers to stable, safe employment have to get creative.
They often get entrepreneurial. They have dreams of not only running their own businesses, but doing good in the world while they do it.
But these same entrepreneurs also face barriers to growing and financing their business ambitions. That’s why our Investment Readiness Program is so special. It helps business enterprises that do good in the world – run by and for women and gender-diverse people – get investment-ready. Some of these social purpose businesses are still in the concept stage. Some are in a launch or growth stage.
This brings us to Brianne Miller, founder of Nada in Vancouver, British Columbia, a certified B-Corporation and carbon negative package-free grocery store and delivery service on a mission to connect people to a more equitable, just, and regenerative food system. Nada is one of our Investment Readiness Program Investees that’s up and running and doing its thing.
Brianne is a marine biologist turned social entrepreneur with a passion for driving positive change through inspiring collective climate action. She is committed to revolutionizing the food system across the supply chain so that future generations can continue to enjoy and benefit from the world’s oceans. She is a United Nations #notwasting food ambassador, a Coralus Venture, UBC Land & Food Systems mentor, and a former member of Vancouver Food Policy Council. Her food systems work has been featured widely in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Fast Company and Nada was most recently recognized as 1% for the Planet’s Business Changemaker of the Year.
Special offer: first time customers can get $20 off orders over $100 with code ‘ALRIGHT’, using this link: https://www.nadagrocery.com/discount/ALRIGHT
In these rocky economic times, affordable, sustainable food feels elusive.
Can you do food business in a way that does good? And how are women and equity seeking people leading the way? I’m Andrea Gunraj at the Canadian Women’s Foundation.
Welcome to Alright, Now What?, a podcast from the Canadian Women’s Foundation. We put an intersectional feminist lens on stories that make you wonder “Why is this still happening?” We explore systemic roots and strategies for change that will move us closer to the goal of gender justice.
The work of the Canadian Women’s Foundation and our partners takes place on traditional First Nations, Métis, and Inuit territories. We are grateful for the opportunity to meet and work on this land. However, we recognize that land acknowledgements are not enough. We need to pursue truth, reconciliation, decolonization, and allyship in an ongoing effort to make right with all our relations.
Let’s back up a bit. We talked about this last episode. Lots of women and equity seeking people get into entrepreneurship. The number’s only growing. It makes sense. Those who face barriers to stable employment like no access to childcare or elder care, and those who deal with a lot of discrimination and harassment at work have to get creative. They often get entrepreneurial. They have dreams of not only running their own businesses, but doing good in the world while they do it. The trouble is that these same entrepreneurs also face barriers to growing and financing their businesses.
That’s why our Investment Readiness Program is so special. It helps business enterprises that do good in the world run by and for women and gender diverse people get investment ready. But what does it mean to get investment ready? Well, it’s all in the scale. Some of these social purpose enterprises are still in the concept stage. They’re product testing, planning, piloting. Some businesses are in a large or growth stage. They want to scale up and expand. They want to start taking on investments.
This brings us to Brianne Miller, one of the women behind NADA in Vancouver, British Columbia. NADA is one of our investment readiness program investees that’s up and running, and doing its thing. With mounting food insecurity and environmental degradation in food industries, NADA is a fantastic grocery business to learn about, it operates on a package free food supply chain, devoid of excess in waste. It’s a way to grocery shop with a commitment to healthy people and a healthy planet.
A little bit about me, my background is actually as a marine biologist. I worked for almost a decade studying everything from coral reefs to tropical fish and marine mammals. And was really lucky to live and work and travel in a lot of incredibly remote places around the world. We got to work in some really cool field sites, meet a lot of really phenomenal people, but ultimately it really did open my eyes to the impact that our industrial food system was having on the health of our oceans. So, I was able to work in a lot of field sites that were really hard to access. You know, several hours by boat or many hours down a logging road. It was just incredible to see the amount of plastic pollution that was in a lot of these otherwise pristine and incredibly remote places.
What was most eye opening for me in the very beginning was that I was seeing a lot of items and brands that I was using in my everyday life. So, things like toothpaste tubes and shampoo and conditioner bottles and flip flops and, you know, a lot of normal everyday things, and that was just kind of the wakeup call that I needed to change.
That really started me down this journey of trying to reduce my material consumption of things and to reduce my own personal carbon footprint and a big part of that was reducing both food and packaging waste. It was really tricky to do with food. Replacing things like furniture second hand, shopping in consignment or thrift stores was a bit easier to do for clothing, but when I kind of got to the food category, it was really tricky to do. There weren’t a lot of options. A lot of entrepreneurs wanted to set out and try and solve a problem that I was facing myself. Yeah, so that was kind of the start of NADA.
It’s been really fascinating over the last couple of years to really learn just how much more of an impact than what I had initially thought the food system is having on the oceans. Everything from fishing and bycatch to ocean noise and industrial agriculture that creates dead zones, like there really is a lot of overlap between our food choices and the downstream impacts. I’m a very adventurous person like I love to be outside. I think that’s where a lot of my work in conservation stem from, is the idea of being in these magical places and falling in love with the environment. And I think when you’re in a space and can really appreciate it, you know, be it the ocean or forest or on the top of a mountain.
I moved out to BC for a summer when I was 18 during my first year of university to live with one of my friends who moved out here just for a couple of months to live with her aunt and uncle. I had a job in Ontario at the time and my parents wanted me to have a job when I moved out to BC and so in the span of a week I quit a job in Ontario, got a plane ticket, moved to BC and I got hired at the grocery store in a little town called Pemberton to work in the grocery store. The funny story is that I absolutely hated it. I worked there for three days and I was in a produce cooler. I just froze my butt off. It was so cold and miserable and I quit after three days. So, it’s kind of ironic to fast forward a couple of years later and I ended up starting a grocery company.
The term supply chain wasn’t very common a few years back and now I say it all the time, even though I hardly get what the term means and I know little of the human beings behind it. I’m intrigued by what you say about food supply chains and your business, so tell us more. What does Nada do? How do you do it and who’s a part of it?
You definitely make a really good point, and that is truly at the heart of what we’re trying to do, is bring some transparency to these supply chain conversations and to really connect people to their food so that they understand where it’s coming from and how it’s grown, and you know what happens if it doesn’t get eaten. There’s a lot of steps in the food supply chains that are often hidden from view. We really are on a mission to connect people to their food. We do that by building a really community based, localized and circular food system.
What we do is source very responsibly grown, made, manufactured products. We work with a lot of local companies. That’s a really big focus for us because there are a lot of advantages to localizing our supply chain, especially from a carbon footprint perspective. For us, we really love working with local companies. It makes what we do a lot easier in terms of distribution and the logistics of delivery of transporting goods over a shorter distance. That really has an impact on both the quality and taste of food, which is obviously super important and what a lot of people come to us because the food is just good and everything else is kind of like this added bonus.
What we’re doing is allowing people to buy groceries package free. It’s this whole idea of like how can we redesign our food system to be circular in nature. We got started with a retail store, so in the early days we set up shop in Patagonia. I did not know anyone there at the time. I just cold called them. Had this crazy idea and said “Hey can I set up this little like package free market in your store?” They were totally on board and we had more than 100 people come to the first pop-up shop.
We had a lot of interest and just started to learn right from the very beginning about where people were coming from and what products they wanted to see and what containers they were bringing and how they were getting to us. There was a lot of information that fed into the design of the store. By the time that we opened, we actually had thousands of customers who were ready to shop with us. So, it was a really good strategy, we learned a lot along the way.
And then things changed really quickly with the pandemic, we pivoted online. We did have to close at the beginning for a little while because we were impacted by some health regulations that prevented the sale of bulk foods. I’m sure you remember most other grocery stores you would walk in and the bulk bins were either taped or saran wrapped up, but for us that was our entire business model. So, we had to pivot pretty quickly and figure out how to fulfill orders ourselves and turned our retail store into a warehouse and built a website and got online in a matter of weeks. Lots of ups and downs in the last two years for sure. A lot of hard work and we’ve basically built an entirely new business model, but it’s been really great to start to do what we do in a little bit of a larger scale. We have a new warehouse and that’s allowing us to deliver to 10 cities outside of Vancouver as well, and we’re looking forward to continuing to grow.
As a social enterprise doing good and doing food, Nada’s pretty inspiring. Why is this social purpose approach so important to you?
The idea of social impact has really been baked into what we do from the very beginning. And so we have a really holistic approach to everything that we do and that encompasses this idea of balancing people, planet and profit together. So, we really do think that those three things go hand in hand. A big part of how we’ve actually structured our social impact falls within the B Corporation movement, so we’ve been a certified B Corporation from day one, and then we’re also 1% for the planet partner as well, which means that we donate 1% of top line revenue to grassroots environmental and conservation organizations.
It’s been really neat as an entrepreneur to see the power that business can play in supporting, especially grassroots organizations in this space. We’ve been able to donate much more through NADA than what I ever would have been able to do myself, and we’ve been able to educate and bring a lot of people on, or into that movement. Our people are really at the heart of what we do and so the idea of social impact lies really closely with everything that we do to try to take care of our team as well.
Retail and grocery is notorious for being very underpaid and very overworked and very complex. And we saw that with the pandemic a lot of frontline workers you know not being taken care of. So, that’s something that we really tried to turn on its head. We’ve been really proactive with things like developing benefits programs, and we’ve been able to pay living wages to all of our team members since the beginning of last year. Really focused on providing really good jobs to people that are looking for some stability and long-term employment.
Healthy people equal healthy planet. People are taken well care of, if we all have the time to rest, if we can all eat healthy food, people tend to take better care of the environment and have the actual capacity to think about decisions that might involve sustainability and action on that front.
I’d like to pause here. Brianne made me remember something that happened a long time ago. A news story came out about a famous person hunting endangered animals. Pictures of them posting with dead lions sparked huge debates. Everyone had something to get passionate about and I was upset too. I told my friend that I was mad that the public seems to care more about animals than they care about, say, women getting killed by abusive partners. I told her that I can only really care about people. She said something I’ll never forget, “Andrea, I get what you mean. But you can care about environmental justice and gender justice and racial justice all at once. They’re all justice. They all need each other. Try not to pull them apart. Decolonize your mind.”
Brianne reminds me that when people are well taken care of, when they are loved and valued and respected, it gives them the energy to do good for the benefit of others in the planet. The cycle of good is mutually reinforcing. This is what we need. This is all justice.
A big part of our impact really does have to do with the way that we source. We got started with this idea of being package free and circular, and that’s what really empowers people to come to us because they’re super excited to make a tangible action where they can make a swap and see that impact right away. And that has a really awesome ripple effect, but what we then do is turn around and educate them about the importance of their food and where it’s coming from and the ingredients and who grows it and how diverse of the supply chain we have and why that’s so important.
It’s kind of that hook that gets people excited, but then the impact side for us is bringing people into this movement of just a different food future. One that is sustainable, circular, regenerative, one that’s really diverse and one that supports people throughout the supply chain in a different way than what we’ve done.
What advice would you give to someone starting a social enterprise? Especially someone who’s facing barriers to getting started. And what do you wish you knew when you started?
There are two, I would say the first one is to always ask for help and the second one is to make sure to take care of yourself if you want to be doing what you’re doing for a very long time. I think a lot of entrepreneurs, when we get started, we’re often scared to share the idea in the first place, but we really found that when we committed to it and started sharing what we were doing, there were so many people that wanted to lean in and help. You know, especially impact entrepreneurs and women led companies, the ideas are inherently very impactful and there is an incredible amount of people that are willing to step in to offer their advice. I did not have a business background. I did not have a grocery background. I’ve worked a bit in the food space before, but grocery is really logistically complex and you know it’s not a business that many people want to get into. But we were incredibly well-supported through a lot of mentors that we were able to connect with. That just had a ripple effect from there with introductions that were able to come. I think when people really resonate with an idea, especially if it can have a big social or environmental impact, that help does tend to come.
So, I think just making sure to voice it, you know, it’s a learning journey. No one knows how to build a company right off the bat, especially the first time, and so asking for help when you need it, I think is a big part. And then yeah, the second bit is this idea of taking care of yourself, which, I think a lot of us know that it’s easier said than done. But very much trying to understand that if you are working 18 hour days and not taking time for yourself and your friends and your family and connecting and taking time to move and get some exercise and fresh air, that is really is going to diminish your ability to do what you’re doing. Yeah, something I wish I would have known from the beginning because I feel like that’s something that’s taken me a couple of years to figure out.
Alright, now what?
The Abundant Store in Nova Scotia, Stitch Lab TO in Ontario, Next Inc. Women Energy auditors in New Brunswick- these businesses are also Investment Readiness Program Investees of the Canadian Women’s Foundation.
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