We recently celebrated Rachel Dreskin’s one-year anniversary as CEO of PBFA. Under Rachel’s leadership, PBFA launched its first three-year strategic plan, our membership has grown to 350+ members, and we’ve added a number of staff members to the team to help support the organization’s vision for driving transformation to a plant-based food system.
Listening to Rachel, it is clear that the progress of the past year is just the beginning of her bold and ambitious plans to come: Her vision for a thriving plant-based foods industry is not solely focused on championing plant-based food companies, but also on fostering a diverse community that is rooted in empowerment. In celebration of Women’s History Month, Rachel sat down with us to share her views on how women’s leadership, informed by intersectionality, influences and strengthens the plant-based foods space.
In your role as the CEO of PBFA/I, how do you approach the enormous opportunities and challenges facing transformation to a sustainable, inclusive, and accessible plant-based food system?
There is so much impactful, necessary work to be done when it comes to driving plant-based food system transformation. In my role as CEO of the Plant Based Foods Association—and our newly-relaunched sister non-profit, the Plant Based Foods Institute—it is important to me that these two complementary organizations are firmly grounded in a clear vision and built on communal values that guide all the urgently-needed work to come. The only way we can achieve long-term goals—identifying holistic, systems-based solutions to issues that stand between us and a food system that respects the dignity and health of all living beings—is to multiply the power, diversity, and influence of our collective. Every single individual, company, and stakeholder has a unique and critical role to play here.
Enabling the broadscale change we need across our food system starts with what happens within our organizations: Are we living our values? Do we have a culture that empowers and is truly inclusive of everyone’s viewpoints? Are we reflective, inquisitive, and humble enough to acknowledge we can do better? Are our teams showing up every day excited about their work? Do they feel safe and supported? Are they engaged, bringing their viewpoints to the table? And are we truly, measurably committed to constant growth in this area?
These questions are my number one focus, where my compass is always pointed. If we don’t have a team that feels completely supported in bringing their full selves to work every day, we are not living up to our potential. With a strong foundation in place, we are in a position to extend that philosophy to the ways we engage with our members and partners, and that becomes reflected in the programs we create and implement.
What is your vision for women leaders in this space? What are some tips/pieces of advice you’d share with other women looking to have a place at this table?
Women, particularly BIMPOC (Black, Indigenous, Multiracial, People of Color) women, need opportunities to contribute and lead in a way that brings the most value and allows us to show up exactly as we are. When women are able to stop expending time and energy thinking about how they will be perceived, if they will be taken seriously, and how to command the respect needed to thrive in their roles, our overall sector will grow even stronger.
To get closer to making this a reality, I would direct advice not only toward women looking for a seat at the table, but instead to allies and women who have already achieved leadership roles in our community: Support women. Meaningfully acknowledge and highlight their contributions. Appreciate diversity in leadership styles. Remind yourself that their lived experiences may look very different than yours and they have faced different hurdles. Call out behavior that doesn’t model the values we are striving to embody as a community. And, importantly, make space!
The plant-based foods industry is successful and growing—what core values do you hope to see reflected not only in the work PBFA/I does but also across the broader industry?
Our vision at PBFA/I is to create a world where values and business interests harmonize to create a plant-based food system that respects the dignity and health of all living beings and the planet. This is no small task for anyone to undertake, but when I say this is “our” vision, I truly mean it. None of this work can be done alone, which is why our number one value as an organization is to adopt a collaborative, systems-based, social justice-centered approach to food systems transformation. Everyone involved at every step in our food systems must be acknowledged and take a collaborative role in the work ahead. We also task ourselves to constantly challenge and investigate our growth edges, pulling in as many intersectional, diverse perspectives and nuanced interests as we can—interests of the people, communities, economies, and ecosystems that comprise the food landscape—to establish a thriving foundation for not only PBFA/I, but for our broader industry.
We’re in the business of food, so I like to think of our approach as building a thriving ecosystem that supports abundant and resilient outputs. The plant-based foods industry is constantly growing and evolving. Plants and crops thrive with biodiversity and this industry thrives with a diversity of perspectives, specialties, and skills. The more we set the stage for transparency, respect, and compassion to grow, the better able we are to meet the true needs of our membership and the many stakeholders that exist in the food industry as a whole.
Do you believe that a more “feminine” style of leadership has a role to play in propelling us toward a more equitable future of food? What ideas or people have influenced your leadership philosophy?
We need more diversity in leadership, and women and members of the BIMPOC community are underrepresented in leadership roles. Without more equitable representation, we are limiting the potential of our movement and industry.
I don’t subscribe to particularly “masculine” versus “feminine” leadership styles. Rather, I believe there is a cultural expectation that women act and lead differently than men in professional settings. I focus on leading with compassion—considering the perspectives and experiences of others and translating that into action—which I believe benefits teams across the board. At the end of the day, we are focused on the greater good and scalable impact, but this is rooted in individuals feeling respected and appreciated for what they uniquely contribute to the collective success. We can and should empathize to a degree, but then I see a key trait of effective leadership is then pivoting into taking action and make compassionate decisions.
I admire leaders who take bold, yet well-considered stances. Leaders who challenge people and challenge the status quo—even when those positions may not be universally popular. Mediocrity may make you a lot of friends, but limits potential.
Rose Marcario, the former CEO of Patagonia, is one such leader who has influenced my leadership philosophy. She leveraged her role to take a bold stance on fighting the climate crisis and when asked what enabled Patagonia to do this, she said: “Our leadership understands that when you’re on the right side of history, you have nothing to fear in speaking out. Who cares if you’re a lone voice in the wilderness if what you’re saying is true?”
But the plant-based foods industry is not like the average for-profit industry. The beautiful thing about our community is that there are not one or two lone voices calling for food system transformation. This industry—which is achieving incredible growth and success—is largely comprised of individuals and companies that are here for that very reason: To drive positive change. That knowledge is so powerful. It fills me with energy and optimism for the future. When values and business interests converge, and deep passion meets economic might, we will achieve unprecedented impact.
Is there anything that particularly motivates or inspires you about the women you encounter in our sector (within our membership, on the team, within the plant-based movement, etc.)?
Women are stepping into our power. We have a long way to go but have forged a powerful community of intersectional women leaders and allies committed to lifting each other up. That will continue to grow because we are intentionally focusing on new ways to support each other and further build up our collective capacity.
I love seeing women, particularly BIMPOC women, in the movement increasingly shape and contribute to our strategy and narrative. It is also equally important for us to call out instances where the community falls short, and for those in positions of power to take action. No one can lead with the full might of their brilliance if they do not first feel safe and supported. I can’t tell you how many times I have been in a meeting with a woman from our team, board, or membership, and burst into applause or let an “AMEN!” slip out upon witnessing them contribute a bold and not-previously-considered statement or idea.
My excitement stems not just from the actual contributions, but because they are indicative of an intentional shifting of environments. You can feel it when someone leans into their unique viewpoint, and it is a gift to us all when they share it. Knowing that the culture we create can induce these fundamental shifts, and experiencing the confidence and strength of visionary women leaders as a result, is a true joy, and a path we are continually blazing together.