Corporate Innovator: Dole Packaged Foods new Chief of Innovation Lara Ramdin

Kymberlie Mcnicholas · March 3, 2021 · Short URL:

Calling all innovators, Dole's Sunshine Fund aims to bear new fruit

Covid 19 has shed light on the incredible inequities when it comes to access to nutritious foods. Food insecurity is a big factor when it comes to nutritional deficiencies that leave our bodies vulnerable to viruses and chronic illness – whether it’s covid, diabetes, heart disease, or peripheral artery disease. You can’t stay healthy without nutrition and you can’t heal without nutrition.

Therefore, it’s a vicious cycle that needs to be broken. But Dole Asia Holdings and its subsidiaries are calling on all innovators to work together to break the cycle with its increased focus on tackling food insecurities. They’ve launched the Sunshine For All Fund, which is a $2 million annual fund that will support global strategic partnerships and innovation in the crucial areas of sustainability, food access, and waste. Below, Dr. Lara Ramdin, Chief Innovation Officer of Dole Packaged Foods discusses the business' transformation, which is deeply rooted in its purpose, and how to partner with their effort.

(Editor's note: We'll touch on social determinants of health and our mental state at our May 19 Future of Mental and Behavioral virtual event. We'll have top-level VCs and C-level executives from the leading mental and behavioral companies, such as Teladoc's BetterHelp, Amwell, Doctor on Demand, Ginger, Kaiser Permanente Ventures, GSR Ventures, Bessemer Ventures and more)

Kym: What does it mean for a company to have a purpose in today's society versus simply a mission that sounds good on paper?

Dr. Lara Ramdin: It means action. It means embracing partnerships, and in this case, in terms of the launch of the Sunshine for All Investment Fund, and also our malnutrition label activity that we did a couple of weeks ago, it's really about creating global awareness and a global dialogue. I feel like there are pockets of activity going on, and we've sat back at Dole and said if we're going to be doing something truly meaningful and we're going to actually do something tangible, then we can't do this on our own, right? We have to create systemic change, and we can only do that by actually really raising the awareness of food inequality and food deserts and throw the doors open and say, "Look, we've ring-fenced this money. We want to put it to good use. We want to create partnerships. We want to create pilot activities that become longer-term initiatives. Come and talk to us about how to manage food waste, how to get nutrition to different groups of people in different ways. And we're listening. We're ready to act."

But why now? Why is this the right time?

I think that we have been working on our process some time and we were already thinking about, you know, broadening our horizons and broadening our partnerships and broadening our footprint and becoming a health and wellness company rather than, you know, a fruit company. And then COVID hit. And actually, it just became more and more apparent that it wasn't just about business anymore. It was about healing the world. I mean, you said it in your introduction, it's about healing the world with good food. And then as a result of that, we realize that not everybody has access to good food, so it's on us. We have a responsibility to make sure that more people have access to good food. So, COVID really really widened the gap. And so, for us now, we're like, "Now or never. We have to do something about it."

What is Dole's clearly defined purpose?

There are a few things across our purpose...across our promise, as we call it. We call them our promise pillars. The biggest one that we're here to talk about today is this closing the gap between nutrition and people. So, that's affordability, that's accessibility, that's acceptability, and waste. We don't just want to do it at one end. We want to do it at both ends, right? We want to make food affordable. We want to make it accessible, and we also want to, as an organization, with other organizations, tackle this food waste mountain that we have in the United States, but we also have in other countries. The U.K. also has a significant waste problem as well. The other things in the promise are also reducing our processed sugar in our products, achieving carbon neutrality, and zero fruit loss, which I talked about, and then also reducing our dependence on plastic, so zero plastic packaging as well. So, it's people and planet that we're tackling through our promise.

Processed sugars appeal to the masses. It's why many food producers continue to add sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and others into so many items. They make food tastier and more addicting, right? How do you get people's perceptions to change as you move forward with this new initiative to reduce the processed sugars that make things taste so good, and it's a taste that they're now used to?

We are in the midst of reworking some of our core products and removing the processed sugar and replacing it with natural products, so natural fruit juice, etc. And obviously, that's a huge transformation for us and not something that we can just do overnight. And through lots of rigorous testing... We still want to deliver people a great-tasting product. There will be an education that has to be done. Education is a massive part of what we're doing here at Dole in order to deliver our promise. So, we will have to take consumers on that journey with us to educate them that actually, it does taste good and it is better for them. It's not going to be an overnight switch for people if they've grown up on something that has had processed sugar in it. But we believe very much in not only educating adults and parents but also educating children as well. I think we want to be able... You talked about empowering patients to take charge of their health. I think central to our promise about closing that gap on nutrition is educating children on how important nutrition is for their health and their longevity, and also empowering them with the right tools to do that.

What does it mean for you to be the head of innovation in this big transition? 

It means we're very busy because we've got to keep the lights on. We've got to continue to do business, but at the same time, we've got this massive transformation agenda, so we're busy reworking a lot of our products, both from a formulation and a packaging perspective, and at the same time, I'm out there looking for the new thing, the new technology, the new enabler, the new partnership that can actually help us close that gap on nutrition, or can help us get closer to achieving our reduction in plastic packaging goals, or can help us get to our carbon neutrality goals. I'm sure you can imagine, Kym, it's pretty full-on.

What is that first priority that you're going to say, as you go through your day and you have 10 things in front of you, "Wait, that gets my attention now?"

My first priority is really closing the gap on nutrition and accessibility. So, beyond the products that we make currently, what else can we do to make good nutrition available to people? What form can that take? It doesn't have to necessarily be fruit in a tin, or the fruit in a tin can be very nutritious, it can be other things. So, what are those other things? That's my first priority, closing the gap on nutrition. And then behind that, what form is that in? What packaging are we using? What does the carbon footprint look like? Is it sustainable? Those are the two things that are...those would be my two priority areas.

Walk us through the innovation process of turning that purpose into not only action but actual impact.

I think that we are embracing agile working here in Dole, and so it's a very, very different, new innovation process for us. It means we move fast and we potentially fail fast. My boss always talks about not trying is failing, right? So, even though it may not necessarily be in what Dole has done before...and I think largely, the things that I'm concerned with from an innovation perspective are things that Dole hasn't tried before, which also it makes it...that's why it's so busy, but it also makes it very interesting to try something new for the company, to try something really transformative. So, the agile framework means that you're using sprint formats, you're working on your minimum viable product, you have multi cross-functional teams in place at the very beginning of a project, you're iterating, but at the heart of what you do is empathy and consumer-driven empathy and consumer insight. Because, you know, if you don't have at the heart what we do, then it's going to be meaningless. So, we're moving very fast, you know, and we have quite an extensive...over the next two to three years, you should see quite a lot of activity from Dole.

How do you define success in your efforts? If you're going to say, "I am successful," what does that look like in two years?

First of all, we'll have launched the innovation plan that was already actually in place before I joined the company, and it's a very robust innovation plan, so that's launched. That's successful. We've managed to create meaningful partnerships from the Sunshine for All Investment Fund that, we've piloted a number of activities that have led to long-term initiatives. Through the Sunshine for All Cities Fund, we've extended our reach beyond Jackson and Baltimore, and we've extended our programs to other cities with food deserts across the United States, and also we've transformed the team. So, here we have a team that have worked solidly and robustly on doing the business the way they've done business, and really, what I want in the future for Dole is that this is a center of excellence for innovation and innovative technology. Startup partners want to work with us. So, they're coming to us and saying, "We want to work with you because we know that you'll do something great with this technology."

As you spend that money from your Sunshine Fund, do the folks in which you grant that money become part of an incubator and accelerator program? How does that work?

We actually are very open to how that works. So, the ring-fencing of this fund is really a statement of intent, and it's a sort of external signal to the public to say this fund means we're very, very serious about piloting different activities. How we work with those different entities, how we work with those startups, those entrepreneurs, those technology companies actually could be very specific for that company. And we're very open to exploring different business models and different partnerships. Innovation, for me, just isn't the product in the pack. Innovation could be the experience. It can be the business model. It can be the partnership. It can be the joint venture. It can be any one of those things. So, we're actually leaving it quite open so that we can be specific for that partner.

In a traditional business, when a new Chief of Innovation comes on board, there's an uphill battle with the so-called 'old regime.' How do you handle any resistance and meet them where they are then guide them forward?

We have a very successful core business, right? And a lot of the people that I work with have been involved in building that core business. So, I give my respect to that because Dole wouldn't be what it is without that very successful core business. I think that my job is to show them the facts and to show them the way. My job is to take them on the journey. It isn't just to pitch up and say, "Hey, I'm the head of innovation and you need to believe me because I said so." I think that part of my job in the transformation journey in supporting my boss, the CEO, is to show the people that I'm here with, particularly in this business, which is a big business for Dole to say, "Look, let's try this together, and I will show you how this can be different. I will show you how this can work. I will show you how this can deliver to the promise of closing the nutrition gap or delivering zero waste or improving our crops." So, I think part of my job is to show people the way, and certainly, that does, as I'm sure you know, takes energy and time as well, so...but I'm committed to that.

Billions are spent annually by private industry and non-profits to tackle food insecurity and yet the problem continues to get larger. How are you going to influence a more effective effort that could lead to true impact and declines in food insecurity globally?

I do think that in order to really be effective is a systemic change, right? So, we have to have a dialogue globally. It can't just be Dole doing this, although we have our own efforts and we have our vision and our business. We really do want to open up that dialogue to everybody to say, "We have to do this together." I think that's the only way that we are going to reach all the people that you said, that you talked about.

Who specifically are you looking for to join in this effort and what's the criteria for who's going to get the callback and who's not? 

I think there are a couple of things. The Sunshine for All Investment Fund is open right now on the website. It's open to anybody. The different areas that we are looking for partnership include: technology, crop management - anything that could produce sustainable crops, management of food waste, anything that will close the gap between nutrition and people and make nutrition accessible, affordable, acceptable, and anything that might have an impact, an environmental impact on packaging, we're really interested. I also wanted to mention the Sunshine for All Cities activity. We have recently worked with the city of Jackson, Mississippi to create pop-ups with fruit and vegetables because it's a food desert. But also for me, what was probably the most rewarding activity we did was we worked with the Boys and Girls Club of Central Mississippi and really worked with young children to educate them on nutrition, on good nutrition, and how to use food in a different way to make delicious meals. And we are now going to be working with Baltimore. Maryland as a second city, but if anybody else reading this thinks that their city also has a food desert, they can nominate their city and one of their cities could be the next city on the Sunshine for All Cities program. We will tackle each city specific to that city, so we won't copy and paste what we did in Jackson for Baltimore and likewise from Baltimore to other cities. So, we have a number of activities going. I really hope that our efforts truly create a feeling that Dole is the company to work with when it comes to food equality and nutrition equality, and also an innovators partner, a true innovators partner.

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