Alexis Glick, left, is the CEO of GENYOUth Foundation and Erin Fitzgerald Sexson is senior vice president of global sustainability at the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy.
Quick: What’s the first thing that pops into your mind when you think about an innovative field?
Let me guess, the first thing that popped in the old noodle had to do with electronics or maybe automotive, am I right?
What about dairy, food and sustainability, and wellness?
If you’ve got milk in the fridge, it’s probably because you headed to the nearest grocery store or made a late-night run to a 24-hour convenience store to get a gallon to satiate the young ones at home. Unlike previous generations, most of us in the United States have easy access to food. Most of us.
There are 16 million kids across the country, for instance, who rely on free lunch and breakfast programs at school for meals, says Alexis Glick, the CEO of GENYOUth Foundation, an organization that promotes exercising at least 60 minutes a day and offers wellness and nutrition programs for students.
What many of us don’t always think about is what’s being done to ensure the food-to-table process continues for generations as the population continues to grow.
At The Economist magazine’s Innovation Forum event, which was held last month, I spoke with , senior vice president of global sustainability at the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, and Glick, who is also a former vice president at Fox Business Network and “Today” show host, about innovations in the dairy industry and what innovations companies can learn from youth-oriented wellness innovations.
GenYOUth’s AdVenture Capital program, in particular, caught my attention. It’s a way for students to show their entrepreneurial spirit about improving health and wellness in their communities. Perhaps there are some lessons there for businesses as well about having their workers take ownership of their own wellness ideas and initiatives.
This is part four of a four-part series of interviews from the conference. To read part one — my interview with Synack CEO Jay Kaplan — click here. To read part two — my interview with author Martin Ford — click here. To read part three — my interview with the University of Chicago’s John Flavin, click here.
An edited transcript follows.
Whatever Works: So what innovations are coming out of the dairy industry?
Erin Fitzgerald Sexson: I think the dairy industry surprisingly is an industry that people don’t realize how much innovation is required to get food to our table, especially when you think about the Sustainable Development Goals, the ability to feed [an additional 2.3 billion people by 2050]. All of our farmers innovate every single day, mostly in health management, all the way to changing a light bulb and developing innovative technologies to address the sustainable development goals.
WW: Tell me about the GENYOuth organization. And are there lessons you’ve learned that are applicable to the workforce?
Glick: Absolutely. We run the largest health and wellness program in the United States in schools. It’s called Fuel Up to Play 60 in which we reach 38 million kids a day in 73,000 schools. …
We are seeing a combination of those who are hungry and a combination of awareness around farm to table. Where does my food come from? What does the food chain and supply chain look like? Because kids are not as close to the farm today as they were in generations in the past. But the awareness factor for the millennial generation is growing. They’re demanding more information. The second thing I’d say is we’ve really focused on innovation, and we created something called ‘AdVenture Capital.’ It’s a play on venture capital with a notion that students could create their own solutions in nutrition and physical activity, and really create a business plan, a financial plan, a communications strategy. So we’re allowing kids to incubate ideas in the school environment when they see our water fountains are not working [or they’re] not getting access to enough nutritious foods. ‘Let’s create a smoothie taste-testing station in our school building or let’s build a garden.’ They’re innovating and creating ideas, and the more they innovate, the more they’re looking to industry leaders like Erin around: What are the innovations that we can translate into the school building and ultimately back into the community?
WW: What can companies do to promote that sustainability?
Sexson: I think we learned a lot from our farmers on this concept we call ‘stewardship and sustainability.’ And stewardship’s the notion of having the values of passing the land on to the next generation. And sustainability is about making it work in the day-to-day business. So I think, one, creating a culture of values around the notion of stewardship, and figuring out the business impacts of making social, economic and environmental decisions.
WW: In your experience, what can companies do to promote an innovative culture?
Glick: I love that question because I’m so passionate about it. At the end of the day, people are afraid of change, right? And consumers want to see change. So you have to embrace change and innovate and adapt to that changing consumer. And the more you can get ahead of it, internally, not only do I think more and more employees are demanding it, but ultimately those innovations can lead to tremendous opportunity — opportunities that you wouldn’t have otherwise discovered if you weren’t willing to try new technologies. And you have to be willing to fail. You have to be willing to take risk and make some mistakes. But I would argue that the most important thing that companies should be doing right now is thinking about innovation, particularly in sustainability, and how they can use technology to get smarter.
This article was updated April 20, 2016, to correct the spelling of Erin Fitzgerald Sexson's name.