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Startup Weekend Shows a Generational Demand For Systemic Change to Our Food System

Startup Weekend: Food Edition Shows A Generational Demand For Systemic Change

To say that there has been a generational uptick in food fascination is not exactly news. The media has certainly taken note of the phenomenon (see Eve Turow’s "Generation Yum," for example), and so has everyone else, from Netflix to the entrepreneurial community. Case in point: New York’s recent Startup Weekend: Food Edition, where strangers meet with a plethora of ideas around the given theme and, 72 hours later, hopefully come away with a business plan.

That was certainly the case for Emilie Hsieh who, along with her team of six entrepreneurs, developed the idea for Seasonally--an extremely early-stage app (and one of three Startup Weekend finalists) that helps shoppers more seamlessly find ways to use local, seasonal produce. It’s a mobile concept, she says, designed to resolve the consumer problem of not knowing what to do with, say, a butternut squash, and seeking to avoid the resulting time-suck of scrolling through endless recipe sites to figure it out. The purpose of Seasonally, as Hsieh puts it, is to provide that “quick, simple inspiration.”

Hsieh originally set out to create an app that addressed a “two-sided marketplace,” she explains, “that allows people to see what’s at the farmer’s market," with accompanying farmer profiles. It’s an issue especially prevalent at New York’s extremely crowded Saturday Union Square Greenmarket, where booths are often so busy that farmers are left with little-to-no chance to actually speak with consumers about their products. That interest reflects a growing generational curiosity and concern for where food comes from; not to mention, how to best enjoy it.

Hsieh, a millennial herself, would know; she wasn’t always a “foodtrepreneur” by trade. By day, she’s actually a management consultant who formerly advised Fortune 500 companies - often those within the consumer packaged goods sector - on strategy and operations on behalf of a firm, until one day, she asked, “Is this what I want to be doing with my time?” She left to work for a food tech startup and, today, independently advises growth-stage companies on a smaller capacity.

Personally, Hsieh loves the explosive interest in food. Raised in Chicago, a city known for its expansive foodie scene, her Taiwanese background lent itself to her own fascination with all things delicious. “My family is from Taiwan, and that’s a very strong food culture,” she says. “The way you greet each other is, ‘Hey, have you eaten yet?’” She can recall when her local cable provider finally picked up the Food Network; it was during one high school winter break that, as a result, she spent “glued to the TV.” And though she chose to study chemical engineering at Northwestern University, it didn’t stop her from partaking in a stage with famed gastronomist Hervé This during a semester abroad in Paris.

When asked what’s ultimately responsible for the millennial food obsession, Hsieh roots it in many causes: Some technical, some economic. “If you think about Generation X versus ‘Gen Y,’” she says, “Gen X was more about having things, whereas with Gen Y, it’s more about experiences. Food is one of those experiences.”

“It’s social, it’s a way to discover,” she continues. “[Millennials] talk about more authentic experiences, like going to the hole-in-the-wall, and not just necessarily Eleven Madison Park.”

Her science background hasn’t exactly been thrown to the wayside; though she is herself a consumer, Hsieh continues to do her homework and her research to ensure that she understands the many perspectives of such critical food issues as waste. That, she says, is how to truly bridge the gap between the farmer and the end consumer, and how to engender “change in the consumer-side demand.”

She cites a recent NRDC report on the many stages of food waste to illustrate that point. “There’s the farmer. Then, there’s growing and then actually harvesting, then transferring, then distributing, then the retail point-of-sale, and then the consumer. There are things you can do along every step of the way," for example, purchasing imperfect produce. If consumer demand went in that direction, she says, it would begin to resolve many food waste issues; but Hsieh isn’t quite sure how quickly that trend could take root.

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From the Organic Authority Files

“I think people are starting to get educated. I don’t know,” she says. “Maybe if people start seeing offshoots of that, like if there are juice chains that start using imperfect produce. Or if there were a Blue Apron for off-produce that was slightly bruised, or something.”

So where, ultimately, does Seasonally fit into all this? “There’s obviously education for the consumer side,” Hsieh explains. “You have to drive demand to things that are in season, right? You can’t have raspberries in January. That’s going to come from Argentina. If the consumer is able to understand, ‘This is what’s in season, and I can some cook some pretty cool stuff with this’ … that hopefully shifts demand a little.”

“I think we can build this,” she asserts. It’s the statement of someone with the confidence and initiative to take a cultural love of food and build it into her life’s work: An ambition shared by many within Hsieh's generation, as made evident from her fellow Startup Weekend cohorts, who illustrate that the motivation is about more than just a love of food; rather, it’s also about effecting real change, made evident by food waste prevention app Last Call, another weekend finalist.

It’s events and environments like Startup Weekend, where culinary and business hopefuls are encouraged to engage in an exchange of intentions, that will tangibly build a lasting cultural and environmental shift. Hsieh's advice to that population: Keep the conversation going.

“Talk to as many people as possible,” she urges. “That’s when things really start to ideate.”

We’re certainly listening.

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