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Leadership & Legacy. A Conversation with Ellie Rubenstein, CEO Manna Tree, and Indiana University’s Tobias Leadership Center

Sep 9, 2020 | Blog

Manna Tree CEO, Ellie Rubenstein, recently sat down for Indiana University’s Tobias Leadership Center’s Leader-to-Leader webinar. During her time at IU and Purdue for her MS/MBA she was selected as a 2017 IU Tobias Fellow. When Ellie reflected on her time at IU, it was with warm remembrance for the opportunity for introspection, leadership growth, and broad support, especially from these two women, who were the moderators of the Leader to Leader session.

Moderator Idalene F. “Idie” Kesner, Dean of the Kelley School of Business, Frank P. Popoff Chair of Strategic Management, and Professor of Management, Indiana University.

The Leader to Leader series is organized by Julie Manning Magid, Professor of Business Law, Kelley Venture Fellow, Kelley School of Business, and Executive & Academic Director Tobias Leadership Center.

The primary topic of the webinar focused on advancing the future of health. The discussion also addressed how individual decisions create interesting professional paths, work-life balance, innovation, teamwork, and collaboration, adapting to new fundraising strategies during COVID-19, and building a legacy.

Creating a Purpose, Establishing Boundaries

Ellie explained that she has a non-traditional background. She skied competitively, then took the advice of her father and decided to focus more on academics, so she attended Harvard. But, she suffered a traumatic brain injury during her senior year in college and started rethinking what she wanted to focus on. She homed in, almost obsessively, she admits, on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

After Harvard, Ellie started working for an investment firm. Despite growing up alongside the investment legend, David Rubenstein, she did not yet have any direct investing experience. She found herself learning her way around. Beginning with some naiveté about the demands of working in finance, Ellie explained how she did not understand work-life balance yet. She threw herself into her work but started to feel burned out. She decided to take some time off to assess where she was and where she wanted to be in life. She spent time volunteering and focused on philanthropy. This is where her passions and obsessions collided, and an investment thesis started to form.

“If you don’t know your next step, I suggest that people volunteer,” Ellie advised. “It can help create direction for life choices moving forward.”

Ellie also learned that it is essential to stand up for yourself, whether in work, family, or friends, and it’s important to have a healthy schedule. As she started to forge her path into what is now Manna Tree, she surrounded herself with people who were builders and innovators who shared her passion for the intersection of health, wellbeing, and philanthropy.

Find Your Path

Ellie explained how she wanted to make her path and find others whose values aligned with hers as she worked to build Manna Tree, which focuses on human health and nutrition and how healthy food is linked to health outcomes. She clarified that Manna Tree is an investment firm that embraces Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance (ESG) principles and practices.

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“We consider ourselves a health firm,” Ellie said. “The problem with being defined only as an ESG firm is that just because it addresses impact, it doesn’t necessarily cover healthy foods. What Manna Tree aims to accomplish is to bridge the gap between nutrition and ESG that currently exists.”

Connecting the two is not that far of a reach. Ellie explained that the firm aims to set standards in the investment world for healthy foods, and it starts by focusing on where food is grown and how animals are treated. The quality of the soil and how the animals are treated are essential to nutrition outcomes, and trying to change 50 years of processed food consumption to cleaner foods is a challenge Manna Tree is willing to take on.

“The average person knows how to read a label, but the labels are 25 years outdated,” Ellie said. “People have to relearn what healthy foods are.”

Manna Tree’s connection with Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, Cardiologist at Dean and Jean Mayer, Professor at Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, and Professor of Medicine at Tufts Medical School provides incredible insight to where changes need to be made to help educate the public on the real benefits of proper nutrition. Manna Tree’s network extends to a global cadre of scientists and accomplished doctors like Dr. Mozaffarian to feed their knowledge about how food, the food system, and policies need to, and are, changing.

“Only 17% of the U.S. population is metabolically healthy, and with the emergence of COVID-19, we now see how close the correlation between food and illness really is,” Ellie explained. “Where is the diet in the conversation? There needs to be more than washing hands and wearing masks to protect oneself and others.”

Of course, government dollars are needed to make a substantial contribution to attitudes about food, but it is still considered the early days for nutrition. Ellie was quick to point out that food and agriculture are where the Internet and technology were 15 years ago. As the food industry gets more efficient, they can offer better price points for people of all income ranges, and we will see costs go down. In a couple of years, healthier food options will be cost-competitive, which will redirect attention to those items that felt out of reach for many.

Another change that creates more interest in healthier foods is the new ways we shop for groceries during the pandemic. E-commerce has become a pivotal way to shop with minimal contact, and one has more options to access local, fresh food sources as the industry adapts to meet consumer needs. E-commerce for grocery shopping has seen accelerated adoption in the past four months.

Dr. Idie Kessner added that if COVID-19 had not happened, e-commerce in food would have had a slower trajectory.

“There are also interesting, innovative approaches to the food industry and how companies invest,” Ellie explained. “For example, we are not seeing traditional beef companies invest in grass-fed beef; instead, we are seeing deals like renewable energy companies finding ways to use their industry to invest in grass-fed beef. It is less about beef knowledge and more about the culture created to innovate. That is where Manna Tree sees itself in the food innovation dynamic.”

What a Team Really Looks Like 

As a team that was able to raise $141.5M for Fund I, Ellie explained how imperative it was from the beginning that they had to build a firm before they could raise a fund, and a solid firm requires the right culture, brand, values, and the ability to deliver.

For Manna Tree, it started with three co-founders and leaders: “There are so many roles needed to build a firm with a bold vision, so a partnership was a lot more feasible for us,” Ellie said. “We are so different, yet so complementary.”

What was important was that the team could find people who knew how to run companies. She was given many CIO resumes, and interviews and they were not the right fit for the culture. She did not want a New York CIO; instead, she wanted somebody who understood her, her values and wanted to build something differently. So with Co-founders, Ross Iverson, CIO, and Brent Drever, COO, the three of them were able to create a different strategy than any other food investment fund.

“We were not trying to get five investors, for example–we were trying to get global investors that made their money from food, or had food holdings, or had distribution channels, or had a personal health episode that led to them changing their diet,” Ellie said. “We don’t view fundraising as per dollar; instead, you have to view it as relationship building. We have to ask ourselves, ‘What are all the different ways investors can contribute?’”

Ellie also added that she believes the first ten hires set the culture for the entire firm. Now that Manna Tree is at ten, they see the culture taking hold and the importance of nurturing it continually; it’s an essential element to their growth. Ellie emphasized the importance of their network for hiring the team. They looked at friends and other people they had worked with before. Taking this approach has made it easier because the team is built on trust and similar core values.

“Many of us moved to Vail to live the lifestyle we promote, we have monthly collaboration meetings where everyone convenes up there, and we make efforts to get to know team members outside of work as well,” Ellie said.

They are are an all-in culture, and that begins with a connection to the wilderness mere blocks from the office. There is also a lot of emphasis on personal and professional growth. One does not stop learning once they get a degree–they should always continue learning and share that knowledge with others. There is a lot of room for that at Manna Tree.

Adapting during a Pandemic

Professor Magid brought up the struggles some companies have had with fundraising during the pandemic. Still, Ellie explained that Manna Tree’s fundraising wasn’t affected, but they were closing Fund I before the pandemic ramped up.

“We never really stop building the firm and brand, so it is important to have your virtual existence in place, like podcasts, data rooms, phone calls, and getting on LinkedIn more. We have strong analytics to keep us focused,” Ellie explained.

Manna Tree’s virtual presence is very strategic, though. It’s not just based on feeling it out as the team moves along. Ellie also explained that she even expects future funds to be raised virtually.

“Right now, though, is not the time to rush the deployment of capital,” she advised. “Instead, this is a great time to increase networks and ensure our portfolio companies are supported and performing. We are looking at other deals, still, of course. But we’re highly selective. At some point we will raise fresh capital. And doing it virtually is totally doable.” 

One of the benefits Ellie has seen of virtual communications is that fundraising is quite effective on Zoom/Google/Teams virtual meetings. Travel is hard on everybody, so this is a great way to eliminate time losses and travel fatigue. It is all about shifting where you can put your resources and become more efficient, despite the difficulty of the situation or environment.

Building a Legacy

Ellie has made it clear that she is in the firm for the long haul because real change takes time, and she and her team are willing to put in the effort.

“That is why one of our key values is collaboration, and we try to bring in investors who will be good partner and help the firm grow,” she said. “And growth is important to make a real change. What do you want your legacy to be, how are you giving back, and how are you sharing knowledge? I want my legacy to be long-term and foster real change.” 

And this is where teamwork becomes even more critical, and it starts with the five P’s: Prior Preparedness Prevents Poor Performance.

Ellie argues that preparedness is a team sport, and if team members are not all on the same page, one may have just made more work for the whole team. So it is crucial to look at everything from a “we” perspective and stay in tune with the workload required to effectively get through all the steps.

“I do not want to burn out anyone—I have seen it happen too much,” she said. “As a CEO, you really cannot grow unless you know how to delegate while enhancing someone’s highest and best contributions. Part of our approach means no silos. You just can’t have those. Everyone needs to understand what everyone else is working on and what our goals are. That starts with leadership. We also support working-from-anywhere time, and we value vacations where the team can actually disconnect.” 

Ellie closed the discussion with advice for future leaders: “You can either be motivated by money, power, or fame. And I think all of us feel like it’s never been about the money. It’s not about fame, either. Leaving a legacy is about your power to make real change.”

At Manna Tree, they ask how they can shape policies and improve the system surrounding food and nutritional education so that the next generation feels like they have a system that works because today, it doesn’t work.

“Real change–real legacy–takes time. It’s a long-term idea, and I think people underestimate how long change can take. This might take ten years before we can see widely distributed results. I am willing to work for that. That is my legacy goal.”