My guest today, Eric Holdener, was in charge of strategic alignment and continuous excellence at Nestle the global food conglomerate and currently he helps many organizations develop AI capabilities to improve sustainability. We had a fantastic...
My guest today, Eric Holdener, was in charge of strategic alignment and continuous excellence at Nestle, and helps many organizations develop AI capabilities to improve sustainability.
We had a fantastic conversation about sustainability, food, and the future of AI in organizations.
"Eric is the CEO at Kinestry.
He started his career in Consulting and spent over 12 years with Nestlé in numerous functions both in Switzerland and in the USA.
His experience includes driving business and technology transformation initiatives, launching products, conducting large-scale LEAN initiatives and partnering with executive leadership teams on strategic projects to deliver organic growth.
He introduced Human-Centered Design and developed innovative tools to help organizations visualize value and improve their performance. His passion and expertise in organizational alignment, innovation design, and disruptive technologies make him a versatile and strategic thinker who likes to operate in any environment. "
" I used to be in charge of culture in a startup that went from a small team to 200 people.
so it's an interesting question that we grapple with, right?
Do we build it like an architect. Here's a blueprint. Here's the framework, here's the drywall, here's the painting. You just do it step by that way.
Or do we build it like a garden, like an ecosystem? we help have some frameworks, but things will happen organically
and it's a challenge because if you don't have a structure, then it's very easy to lose it. whatever magic , it's hard to, reinforce it.
But if you do it too structure, then it's artificial and it's not authentic.
So there's a fine line somewhere. the way I went in by all of my audience members to really think about is from my personal lesson is less about being an architect is more about being a gardener and, cultivating a rich diverse ecosystem would use them.
Yeah, absolutely. I can totally agree with what you're saying. And the difficult tension between having a structure, but not being too prescriptive in what you're doing.
But actually there's, there's one element that we tend to, underestimates on not even see is that, you need the garden and you need the gardeners.
So in your garden, you can create a beautiful garden, okay. With a lot of potentials to be used.
But, who the leader is going to be in his organization, his garden is so important. So spending the time with coaching and leadership development in the right way it's so important because they are the one enabling this garden to flourish. and if they're not, and it's a losing battle.
And I've seen this many times. So it's understanding how to coach and train and grow those leaders, but also very quickly understanding when those leaders actually would not be the right partner from the very beginning.
And usually, people have a good sense. We understand the type of leadership and management, who we should put a lot put in his gardens. Okay.
"so you had said, CEO's making a town hall. That's a ritual, right? Any other rituals that you've experimented, that serves as a way to really reinforce this innovative ethos?
So there's the ritual of how you get this group together and run those meetings.
So typically we're doing a 15 minute stand up meeting, in this space. So people go there in the morning and they just talk about the top priorities that they have.
We could visualize some of the problems and who was assigned to where there was no problem solving. So just, just aligning and then five minutes talking abou moods of everyone. Like anything we're doing like smiley faces. so when people get in a room where like a whiteboard and people could just puts a face. And we could see globally if the face where it's like smiley or neutral or like this. So it gives a sense as a team, where's the mood? So that's another small ritual.
and we had like recognitions for every time somebody was solving a problem. So every time there's this weekly meeting, we do recognitions. And when we say, Oh, I want to cook a nice, sake CK for, hitting, solve this problem and having done that, or et cetera. So we condition was an important part of rituals.
But to your question, every team was creating their own rituals, and that's where you start getting too rigid on say, okay, as an organization, this is the rituals you need to adopt, and I've seen this. In a condition where a little bit to regions, Oh, this is the Richard you to go, so we need to go to recognition to this and that.
If the recognition is done, the heart is not here, then it feels superficial. You feel a constrained and you actually create the counter effect. So it's about defining the rituals from what the team is about and having these team to come with their own rituals is very important. Something I've learned.
Yeah. coaching the leader to be actually the enabler of those rituals. Cause that's a very difficult things. and not to be actually the giver of the rituals."
"any examples you can share with us where these group of VPs are so delighted about something they never seen before.
Yeah. the whole approach was about we sell a product. We never see the consumers because sell product to the different supermarkets.
so the way you do design brands is around a messaging that's going to go through, advertising's around your packaging.
But I took it into a Nike store. , when they went through this exercise, they realize how much the brand was actually be reflected in the visual environment. And in the way people were actually interacting with you.
So in the service, in the language, in the design of the apparels that we're wearing and what to ask them to do in say, okay, now let's imagine that this grant is actually. Like a Nike brand is a store. How would you design the store and the head to actually do design the store and decide what would that experience be?
that's one example when there was a clear realization that what are the driving values for the brand that they carry and not just working on a surface of packaging.
And the big takeaway there was like, no one is Duke of, And harness message. That's it. In French. you cannot convey an idea if people feel whether it is sincere or not,
if the message of your communication since you're an arts and if it's going to be sincere because you really thought through what the value drivers are for this brand.
one of the things that we say a lot on this podcast is people often don't remember what you say or what you do, but they will remember how you made them feel. So I love the fact that you take, you took these VPs to a new environment and you ask them to broaden that awareness.
And then observe new things happening and also internalize and communicate what they observe. So in my mind, this is a very holistic. Transformational experience that you share with them. So it was not only insightful, but also you shift it, shift the way they, how they look at it. And you also ask them to, create a new experience based on the new data that they have.
So now all of a sudden, it's not just intellectual insights, but as actually embodied practice completely.
"to me and technologies and multipliers is just a tool that we use to solve a particular problem. And AI is a very sophisticated tool. So let's do a little for looking right. What kind of problems that you can already anticipate, the likes of AI to solve that you have already anticipated, Oh yeah, you can solve this, this, this, this, this type of problems.
yeah, I can give you a few. Let me think of a few examples where a very basic thing that people, when we talk about, AI is doing a customer segmentation. Okay. So customer segmentation in marketing and sales, that's a very immediate benefit by using machine learning because, especially on unsupervised learning.
So we call unsupervised learning where there's no clear goal objective. So you have data you have not rhythm, and basically the system's gonna find patterns that you as a human wouldn't find. So you have an eCommerce platform, for example. using the data you get there and, and doing clustering and then customer segmentation is very helpful. Oh, I didn't realize that this. So that's one aspect of it.
another aspect of leveraging I can give you is, so is doing personalization. Okay. Of, of recommendation. So very straightforward. Spotify. Okay. So that's for music, but you can do these also when you're killing this platform. That's just understanding the behavior of your consumers and generating the content that he needs to see for the purpose of selling your product. That's another very immediate benefit of it.
Now you can extrapolate into other fields. we're in discussions about crops. Okay. Using image recognition and, and to optimize crops and water usage. Well, that's a wonderful way of leveraging AI. The second I use AI to understand how those, either things that burgeoning actually, where do they need water? And you can optimize your water usage for growing crops,
can you say that AI can either help you, automate some of your repetitive tasks, or help you augment some of your decisions? when you need to take decisions in a complex environment with a lot of data, AI can help.
So automation, augmentation, this is really two way to look at it.
that's the reason why when you this training is to say we try to not go into industry business case like this is all the things, all the applicability. That's not how we approach this training. We said, well, we want to teach people is to think, okay how do we innovate first and then whether or not AI can help achieve that. "
" as an entrepreneur, you start small and you have big ambition of course, but you start small and then you go, level up that way.
So when you think about how to approach, because your goal is sustainable food for everyone. and you're starting off with a meal prep service, essentially, right? Yeah. how did you like decide to chunk it that way and then how do you plan to parlay up to making that larger and larger impact that way?
it's how you divide this into different problems you want to solve. Okay if you start by looking at the entire valuation of this, there's a lot of touch points on it and the costs possible
if you look at prepared meal today the whole idea is to see how can we keep the cost of a prepared meal under $10. Okay. so that's really, at the center.
That's why it took us a while to figure out the model. We've been working on this for two years now and been testing this with different people in the sector to really pressure test whether we can actually scale.
there's one aspect which is your supply chain. and that's why when you leverage AI all the time, it really learns how to optimize products that you want to buy in terms of quantity, okay. don't buy more than what you need. by using AI, it helps you understand also seasonal and a product and an implant ahead of time when to buy the products so the cost is lower.
Second aspect, which is huge in that field. is food waste. If you look at everything being produced today, 60, 60 to 65% of any produce, is being wasted on the value chain.
so the consumers at the end, get 35 products of what's being produced around the rest get wasted. So it's looking at new ways of food preservation.
And there's a couple of technology we've been looking at. and conserving, preserving the nutritional benefits of the product.
After that the idea is that how you can create a model where on the $10 you can have, what you need as to function as a human, to be fulfilled that is healthy. And then how this model is flexible enough to actually do unknowns on it. So you have elasticity on the pricing system, so people can afford is going to buy actually these great protein in addition to these great product, et cetera. And so they going to be playing on higher margins because they can afford. And these then actually fund and finance the nine 99 our meals for the ones that cannot afford.
So as a kind of a price elasticity with a solidarity system in it."
" if you look at how do we reduce, the cost, monocultural would be the easiest way to do it. Cause economy scale. Right. But as you said earlier, that also makes the system very fragile, because if something's wrong with their supply chain, the whole thing breaks, so having more localized version of it, essentially, you're enriching diversity in the ecosystem, essentially. So you don't have model where you have diversity of the different players, smaller players, which is good for the ecosystem overall.
However, where I have challenges about is it the price of the individual local system is going to go up to you. At the same time, you also have a lower cost, a food item. So now the consumer is presented with an option, a $3 bottle of honey to a one bottle. so a $1 a bottle of honey.
Most consumers, myself included, are just, pick like, okay, so honeys makes no difference for me. Let me pay the dollar, save the two. So you would go against that. Even though I know this is the right thing to do, I still buy the dollar honey.
how do you then raise the awareness or change the purchasing behavior.
Yeah, no, absolutely. I totally agree. I'm the same situation. why should I spend $9 for these honey versus 15? Yeah, that's nine times more expensive.
and so first of all. I would say as a major disclaimer, it's a very fast and complex problem because there's so many things that are dependent. for example, if you look at the U S it is an industry that has been, highly dependent on conglomerates around corn production.
And then there's incentives and the systems in place to actually keep the price of meat down. So there's a lot of economic dependencies that are created by different forms of lobbying for reasons of how this system was supposed to work. But it is based on one key element, which is really hard when it goes back to consumer behavior , it is going with the logic of abundance.
here there's an expectation of abundance on everything. That's how you define customer satisfaction. I can have everything I want whenever I want in the largest quantity for the lowest price
and food shouldn't be treated that way right? There's a lot of product that shouldn't be treated that way in general,
but if you look at what your body needs, we are overly consuming. protein meats, which is the highest, the most costly, protein you can buy. but we expect abundance of that. We expect eating a pound of meat every day a steak, on the table.
so reversing the idea and say, okay, actually I'm going to eat red meats. maybe. Once a week, but I'm going to eat something that is pasture raised, has good quality, that's actually good for my body and good for the planet.
It takes a whole different logic because then you can eat only one piece of meat a week and you divide this by how many times you buy the same piece of meat. this is the economy.
adjust yourself. That's just one aspect. I don't saying we are going to solve everything because definitely he's an problem is how we create food that is affordable for everyone.
And that's a mix of, this in itself. Regionalizations of our agriculture. You can do this with having techniques of regenerative agriculture. there's a lot of technology today that we should invest in, that can help, grow and get better product, at the lower and lower price.
So it's the same thing as what is the acquisition cost of a new technology and then how this technology of the time actually reduced your overall cost. So that's another aspect.
When you look at a sustainability, we could go for hours, but that's why it's so complex. It takes, public institutions, governments, private institution lobbies, consumer pressure to actually change something.
But you knew back in Europe, there's so many countries that are so ahead of us here on those studies that are 10, 15 years ahead of us in terms of reducing the footprint and still being able to actually provide food for categories of population.
why did you pick sustainability? going back to that, out of the million other, problems that you could be solving,
I guess sustainability is across everything. I mean, if there was not a few years ago, today's even more important.
but sustainability is, is really how you are balancing how you're balancing the process of putting things out in the world. For the benefits of few and the benefits of a of a larger group. How you take into consideration the side effect, the cultural effect, the interdependencies of things you put out.
What you innovate in a very holistic way instead of just on the field where you are good at and working in. So that's a model that not only, is essential for us to be able to continue to live on this planet.
if companies either don't get that eventually going to be irrelevant all the time. Because we live in an ecosystem. That's what we do with the other copy I have called collective future. And where we have proteinization is to think about future, you know, and possibilities of the future. But really from a place of where we call it an ecosystem,
we live in an ecosystem. Everything is connected. and sustainability is another word to actually take into consideration this ecosystem when you think about innovation."
"can you walk us back on maybe some mental models or processes that you did as a way to help you make the best decisions possible holistically for you, for your family, for your community, everyone that depends on you.
Aye. So one of the things I'm doing a lot is talking to a lot of different people. and usually talking to people that are like 10, 15, and 20 years ahead of me, interpret experience. that's something I've been doing a lot and actually testing some of those ideas about my life with these people and see how they respond to that and what were their experience.
Tactics that I've been using a lot is really trying to learn from others that have been there. because they can tell you very straightforward, what they love, what their regrets are, what they could have done differently. And that gives you some information about who you might be like. 1520 years down the line. So in the case of me leaving the state, was that , how do I see myself in 10 years?
I left Nestle my mid forties. Yeah, we did before, and say, if you stay any longer, I will be defined by me in this company because I've been there, called me so long. So is there anything else to discover and is it worth the risk? And so that's kind of the reflection and just predicting my session in 10 years after and say, okay, now if I step back and look in the past, you know, what can I tell about myself and that new experience.
Beautiful. Thank you for that. I appreciate it. Yeah. I mean, I asked this question specifically because this is a common human challenge, right? It's part of being human is we got to constantly evolve ourselves. we get to constantly evolve ourselves, and make new decisions and take a leap of faith such that we can get you to the next level of our life, of our career, of our relationships."
"was there a singular moment where you start to say to yourself, Oh, I really care about this.
I wanted them to do more about it, around innovation, and I want to educate people about, I want to use artificial intelligence, this bigger tools to have bigger impact on this. was there a moment where a light switch got turned on? This is something I want to dedicate my effort, my life, my career in focusing.
That's a good question. I've been working for long time for a big company. nestle is the biggest food corporation in the world. and. What is interesting is that I left the copy like two years ago, and this was this moment in my life where I was about either to continue with another mission with a company.
should I just continue there? And Nestle was a fantastic, phenomenal school. is the biggest real life business school because you get to work on so many projects with such impact.
But at the same time, I was trying to align with what I do really care about food. They're also about innovation and how innovation and technology actually should serve sustainable corporates. So that's the reason why I left nestle.
Okay. I'm going to bring all the things I've learned in working with this company and to start something else. so that was the moment for me,
we have this tendency to think that you have control on your life. That you are setting plans and you stick to your plans.
But, I have to be honest with myself. It's not like that is, is, it's always been a mix of have kind of an idea of what I want to do. But, they are taking turns here, and left and rights, and then sticking me to other places, and then have to kind of rationalize. and you have to rationalize these when you have to present yourself as a person. And when you present your profile on LinkedIn, et cetera, which is a, you know, difficult work to do. But in reality, I've been more a person that's taking different transit direction, reading based on passions and where in a given moment in time in my life I can do what I have and what I see as a potential.
the whole idea is how do we create a meal? There'll be system of, personalized nutritional meals. So that, that good for your health, that is sustainably sourced, using regenerative agriculture and that can be healthy for your health. The using recyclable, reusable, packaging. So how do you create a circular economy that people can afford? And so that was the main idea.
And one of the key competence of this, one of the key number is actually leveraging artificial intelligence because , AI can help you understand. your consumer behavior in terms of food. So you imagine like the Spotify or food that's, that's the idea on one end and the more you try something the more we can really personalize about your lifestyle, about your activity and everything, so we can really tied something that is nutritional balance for you.
And then you use AI on the other end for managing supply and demand. So how do you reduce waste so that you do the most optimized, food order of real products and that cause you can start anticipating most likely how much and what kind of product people would need. So that was kind of a first step in the process."
" as someone who view food as fuel. To me, food is food, right? but I do want to learn. I am curious. I do have the desire to learn, right? so teach me, right, so someone who is really passionate, who is a aficionado around food to someone who view food as just fuel. What are some of the ways that I can do to enrich my life with food better.
Yeah, that's a good question. I mean, no means in a way a food expert. I know chef, just no Fujis part of my life. I've worked in the food industry for awhile, and see connected to it.
But when it comes to food from a personal and experience, there's cultural aspects of it. So it's easier to talk about love of food when you French. because that's part of your birth rights when you grow up in falls with amazing products. . And then you eat in in a family setting. And you may spend with friends and family two, three hours just sitting and eating and discussing. So everything is centered around, the food that is on the table, and how well it's being prepared, how good the products are.
And the start for everyone who is looking at food as a fuel is to look at so products like, like tomato as itself is just to try to get a good tomato from a farmer's market versus the one in a grocery store.
And you will see that the precision of food restart with appreciating single ingredients and product as they should be. and knots, those ingredients that are being functionally, cultivated and harvested.with not a lot of taste, not at all of flavors that you have to mix with or their enhancer to actually to actually create something that is more acceptable to your pallets.
I think for some people maybe thinking this is a strange question, what am I asking specifically around dishes and teach me about taste when we want to talk about sustainable food in a broader system with AI and so forth.
But the way I think about it is having this emotional relationship with the food that we eat is the atomic unit of anything that we want to talk about.
if I just view food is fuel , then I wouldn't care what I put into my system so much, but if I actually do have an emotional relationship with the taste of the sophistication with the people that I eat with, and then all of a sudden I care much more about, the cradle to grave, so to speak, about the whole ecosystem because I care so much about this atomic unit.
Does that make sense?
yeah, absolutely. it's so true and applicable in my experience when there's no atomic connection to what you want to do, how difficult is actually to get engaged."
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