The PBFA team recently had the privilege to speak with Kesha Stickland, CEO and Co-Founder of The Mushroom Meat Co., about her experience as a Black founder in the plant-based industry, and how she shaped the unique brand vision and story of her innovative company.
In a consequential pivot from software engineering to the food space, Stickland co-founded The Mushroom Meat Co. after discovering a love of fermentation, and this passion propelled her to victory in the Best Meat Alternative category at the 2022 World Plant Based Awards—at just her first public tasting. Now, with 40+ years of product development experience under her belt, as well as a delicious and climate-forward product, Kesha Stickland is ready to take the industry by storm.
Q: One of the goals of this series is to help shine a light on the stories and individuals behind the companies. Can you tell us a bit more about your background and how you came to work in the plant-based food space?
A: I spent nearly 25 years in the software industry working in multiple roles from software engineer to project manager and eventually Vice President of Product Management and User Experience. I spent my last seven years in the space working as a consultant teaching customer-driven product development to fortune 500 tech companies.
My journey into plant-based food began six years ago when I transitioned to an alkaline vegan diet to manage several health conditions. After quitting animal-products cold turkey (pun intended) I experienced strong food cravings, but couldn’t find meat alternatives on the market that met my dietary restrictions. I later took up fermentation as a hobby and discovered that microbes were often more responsible for the flavors and textures that I missed than the animal-based ingredients and allergens (cheese, meat, wheat bread) that I’d given up. I fell in love with mushroom-growing after turning to mushrooms to replace meat in my family’s diet.
This eventually led me to the idea that changed my life. Using mushrooms and fermentation to create beef and pork alternatives from simple, superfood ingredients. The next year my partner and I decided to leave our careers in software and sold our home to follow our dream of creating a healthier, more sustainable food system.
What is your big “why” for working in the plant-based food industry? Is there a particular cause or fact that you learned that motivated your work and passion?
Our mission is to make it easy for health-conscious consumers and those with dietary restrictions to reduce or eliminate meat consumption without compromising on taste, ingredients or their impact on the planet.
A few years ago, I came across two studies by researchers at Johns Hopkins Weight Management Center that helped me understand the power of fermentation to transform not just foods, but the food system itself.
Their studies showed that mushrooms satiate (satisfy) as much or more than meat when swapped for meat by weight or protein level. Participants in the study also lost weight, experienced fewer food cravings and saw other improvements to their health. I came to believe that this built-in craveability along with their natural similarity to meat made mushrooms the perfect foundation for a clean-label meat replacement.
What do people need to know about The Mushroom Meat Co.’s mission, values, and objectives?
We call our vision for the future of foods “The Trifecta”: healthy, craveable, and sustainable, and it underlies everything we do. While climate has become a strong secondary motivator, many consumers expect to have their cake and eat it too. In other words, they want fantastic taste and texture and natural, familiar ingredients.
To us this means searching for a “win-win” from every ingredient. For instance mushrooms are high in delicious umami (savory flavor) compounds, but they’re also considered the most sustainably grown food in the produce aisles.
It’s incredibly inspiring to see you use your love of science and technology to transition from the software sector and catapult head-first into the world of plant-based foods. Can you share more about your experience stepping away from one career into another better-suited to your aspirations, any barriers or big opportunity moments you experienced along the way? How did you ultimately adapt to such an exciting pivot?
That’s nice to hear. Some people find it difficult to understand the transition. There seems to be a bias in the industry, toward startup founders with very specific backgrounds. There are people who look at what we’ve created and are confused when they don’t see a 30-year-old with a PhD in food science or biochemistry. I used to feel a bit insulted, but now I consider it a compliment. I’ve had many people during my time in software say that I didn’t “look the part.” So I’ve been down this road before.
The truth is whether you’re in information technology or food technology you’re creating new business models and solving new problems. It’s all about understanding your customer’s pain, defining your hypothesis for how to alleviate that pain and testing your solution systematically. This is something I taught my clients as a consultant and still use everyday.
It helps that my co-founder and I share 40+ years of experience developing products and taking them to market. We’re also trained in plant-based nutrition and mushroom cultivation, but we still had a lot to learn about the alternative protein industry in the beginning. Not to mention the ins and outs of funding, scaling production, etc. It’s been a learning experience.
One of the key ingredients in your product is “upcycled plant proteins”, and upcycled plants in general are a big centerpiece of your product and brand story. Can you speak to how you came upon using this methodology and why you incorporate upcycling into your final product?
A key part of the ‘Trifecta’ is a value for leveraging byproducts and upcycled ingredients over newly grown plants whenever possible. There are fantastic sources of protein, fiber and other nutrients leftover from the vegetable oil, fruit juice and other industries. Many of these ingredients still end up as compost, animal feed, or are simply underutilized.
The idea of upcycling came from our experience juicing and growing mushrooms at home. We had a bunch of citrus pulp leftover from juicing one day. I wondered if instead of composting the pulp, we could use it as part of the substrate for the mushrooms I was growing.
Mushrooms are commonly grown on byproducts so this wasn’t a surprise, but after diving into upcycling we discovered a variety of side streams that could be used to enhance the nutrition and functionality of plant-based products, all while decreasing their environmental footprint.
What has been the most rewarding moment or pivotal milestone you’ve witnessed during your time at The Mushroom Meat Co.? As both a plant-based business and a Black-owned business, are there any big moments of celebration you’d like to share?
Last year we were selected as finalists for the World Plant Based Awards in three categories; Best Plant Based Protein, Best Sustainability and Best Meat Alternative. We won the award for Best Meat Alternative for our Pulled “Pork” prototype against some pretty stiff competition.
The event gave us the opportunity to do our first public tasting with real consumers and others in the industry. Having people taste our product (prepared as BBQ pulled pork and pork vindaloo). Seeing people forget about the label and as they just enjoyed what they were eating. And seeing the surprise on their faces when they experienced the texture for the first time. A fantastic experience. We also learned that people really do enjoy the idea of superfoods taking the place of their favorite comfort foods.
But the most rewarding part of the experience was having people of color, including black women, come up to me and ask me if I was the founder. If this was a black owned business. It’s hard to describe the look on their faces or the feeling of hearing some say that they were “proud.” I saw my role as a startup founder differently after that day.
Based on your experience as a founder, and a woman of color in food, what advice would you share with other aspiring plant-based founders?
I’m going to pass along some advice that I received from a more senior founder in the alternative protein space. “You don’t have to follow the script!” You don’t have to have a degree from an ivy league school to be credible in your space and you don’t have to fund your business in the usual way or from the typical sources.
You can make a difference! But there may be times when you have to develop a tougher skin, or learn to persevere after hearing your 10th “no,” and continue believing in your mission even when others don’t seem to get it.
Remember, being underestimated isn’t always a bad thing. It can make it that much easier to surprise people.
Can you give us a sneak peek into any notable news or exciting product launches in the pipeline for 2022?
We have two new products in development in addition to our Porkless Shreds. We’re currently testing our “Beefless Tips” with chefs. We also have plans to begin testing our “Beef-Style Burger” in the next few months. Both closely mimic the look, cook and taste of beef. They’re made with mushrooms, upcycled seed flours and a hand-full of familiar ingredients.
We’re also hoping to pilot with our first food service customer later this year.
Where can we learn more about The Mushroom Meat Co.?
The best way to keep abreast of our plans and progress is by following @mushroommeatco on LinkedIn or Instagram. You can also join the mailing list on our website https://mushroommeatco.com to learn where to find our products in the coming months.