My guest is Felix Brooks-Church, CEO of Sanku, which helps local mills across Africa produce fortified food, primarily flour, via their machines and technology.
Felix was introduced to me by David Dodson, co-founder and chairman of the board at Sanku. Sanku has a fascinating origin story, which includes a stint in Nepal, refining the technology, and is now a quickly growing enterprise that has required a ton of learning on Felix’s part to adapt his role to the growing company. Felix and I talk about how he’s adapted his role, leaning on the board for feedback and advice, sustaining growth, and building discipline.
Learn more about Alex and Think Like an Owner at https://tlaopodcast.com/
Ravix Group — Ravix Group is the leading outsourced accounting, fractional CFO, advisory & orderly wind down, and HR consulting firm in Silicon Valley. Whether you are a startup, a mid-sized business, are ready to go public, or are a nonprofit, when it comes to finance, accounting and HR, Ravix will prepare you for the journey ahead. To learn more, please visit their website at https://ravixgroup.com/
Hood & Strong, LLP — Hood & Strong is a CPA firm with a long history of working with search funds and private equity firms on diligence, assurance, tax services, and more. Hood & Strong is highly skilled in working with search funds, providing quality of earnings and due diligence services during the search, along with assurance and tax services post-acquisition. They offer a unique way to approach acquisition diligence and manage costs effectively. To learn more about how Hood & Strong can help your search, acquisition, and beyond, please email one of their partners Jerry Zhou at [email protected].
Oberle Risk Strategies– Oberle is the leading specialty insurance brokerage catering to search funds and the broader ETA community, providing complimentary due diligence assessments of the target company’s commercial insurance and employee benefits programs. Over the past decade, August Felker and his team have engaged with hundreds of searchers to provide due diligence and ultimately place the most competitive insurance program at closing. Given August’s experience as a searcher himself, he and his team understand all that goes into buying a business and pride themselves on making the insurance portion of closing seamless and hassle-free.
(00:04:03) Themes observed across decades of life
(00:08:26) Shifting from an inward focus to an outward focus
(00:09:39) Experiences that prepare you for a Leadership role
(00:11:41) Influences on the mission of Sanku
(00:14:21) The inspiration for fortifying flour as the core of the business
(00:17:29) The Sanku business model
(00:22:46) Takeaways from working in Nepal
(00:29:44) Themes & learnings as a CEO
(00:34:34) Building out an executive team & hiring best practices
(00:42:41) Risk tolerance
(00:44:05) Leaning on peers for support
(00:47:22) What strongly held belief have you changed your mind about?
(00:51:03) What’s the best business you’ve ever seen?
Alex Bridgeman: Felix, thank you so much for coming on the podcast. I’ve enjoyed chatting with you so far, and I’m looking forward to a full episode now. We were talking earlier about kind of the decades of your life and each one having a distinct theme to it, with 40s being having a family incorporated into that decade. Do you want to walk through kind of the themes you’ve observed through maybe 20s, 30s, 40s and how each one has been kind of unique and has had its own challenges, and what has each one felt like for you?
Felix Brooks Church: Great, thank you so much, Alex. It’s a pleasure to be here. And I have been thinking about that recently, probably more so in the last couple of days. Actually, today’s my birthday, so I’m hitting 46. And so, every time I’ve had a birthday recently, I’ve obviously reflected on kind of life before. And so, breaking up your life into decades, I’ve definitely had very clear themes very conveniently falling into decades. Obviously, zero to ten, I was a child, and your teenage years, you’re just trying to figure yourself out. And really my 20s was an extension of trying to find who I was and did a lot of traveling, didn’t really focus on a career at that point. I lived a very free life, no responsibility. And then in my 30s is when I really- opportunities came my way where I was able to focus on kind of latching on to something that would define me up to this point and really for the rest of my life, and that was work and the career I do. And really, that came through invitations, and I kind of fell into the job, but it was the first time that I had something so passionate that wasn’t- it wasn’t about me. It was about something else. And up to that point of my life, I guess, by living so free and independent, I lived somewhat of a selfish life. And my work now is very socially driven. It’s about everybody else. And it’s a career. And so, 30s was really defined by just really getting myself completely deep into the work we do today. And I was single at that time. In my 40s, now I’m married, I have two children, it’s something that is more important than work, obviously. But the challenge is balancing these two incredibly important and demanding and time-consuming things and being good at both and making sure I’m not sacrificing one for the other. And that’s really what’s defined my 40s. And I’m still considering myself mid 40s; I’m 46. And so, I don’t know what 50s and 60s and 70s will look like, but definitely, this is the most demanding decade I’ve ever lived. This is the most kind of things out of balance. And I love it. It’s stressful at times, obviously. But I get a lot back – I’ll put it that way. I get a lot back from my job. I get a lot back, obviously, from my children and my beautiful wife. So, I think I’m in a good place.
Alex Bridgeman: When you say that your 30s were a more selfish decade, what do you mean by that? Can you expand on that a little bit more?
Felix Brooks Church: I think definitely my 20s was a more selfish decade. I think I just looked for- I was trying to find myself, I know that’s a cliche, but definitely trying to define what I wanted in life. And so, it was all about me. What do I want? What will make me happy? What would I want to be? Where do I want to go? Where do I want to be? And so, a lot of questions were me, what does this do for me? In my 30s, I found something that I felt kind of checked all those boxes, and ironically, it was something that wasn’t about me; it was really about giving back. And that was, in a sense, a relief. It was like finally I don’t have to think about myself. I’m kind of boring. I want to think about other things. I want to think about creativity, building things, physical things, companies, elevating other people, whether it’s people I work with or beneficiaries and customers we work with. And so there was definitely a transition from the 20s to the 30s of looking out, from looking in to looking out. And I think it was all necessary. I mean, that path was definitely necessary. Everything happens for a reason and got me here. But it was interesting that it was really a switch, a pretty sharp switch from the 20s to the 30s as far as what was important in my life. And now again, from 30s to 40s, it went from 30s entirely job, 120% importance was my job, to now being not obviously nearly as important as my family and my children but still equally as important because my work is responsible for a hundred families that work for us and for close to 7 million people who we’re affecting. So, it’s all important. And for me it’s about discipline and really making sure that I can do it all and do it all well.
Alex Bridgeman: Yeah, I love that concept of your life going from inward focus to outward focus. It feels like that’s happened both in your personal life but also professional life too and the mission of your company. I’d love to hear even more about that. That in to out is an interesting transition to think about.
Felix Brooks Church: Yeah, for sure. For sure there was a learning curve throughout at all. I think you have to learn who you are and figure that out before you can kind of attach yourself to something. There’s such a big learning curve in the work that we do, I didn’t want to figure myself out in parallel to that. I’m still learning, I’m still growing 100%, 100%. But I’m really glad that I experienced those 20s and partially into the 30s where I was able to experiment, find myself, and kind of build a foundation where I had that confidence of who I was, to a certain degree, still figuring it out, but who I was to be able to then give myself completely to the work that we did and not feel like I was sacrificing or giving up or not experiencing things because I experienced a lot. And then I was ready for the second chapter of my life. And I guess now I’m technically in my third chapter with the family and all those things that come around that.
Alex Bridgeman: What do you feel like most prepared you for running Sanku today? When you think of your past experiences and things you’ve learned or habits you’ve created, what do you feel like has most prepared you best for this role today?
Felix Brooks Church: Well, on paper, when I started this work, and I started with my co-founder, David Dodson, who was a guest on your podcast, on paper, I didn’t have the traditional qualifications for this job, absolutely, to be honest with you. And I think my skills or my strengths were more around creativity. I’ve always been a creative person, whether it’s art, music, design, those skills to be able to create something from nothing or to problem solve is what I really learned, leaned on rather. I really leaned on these things early on and still do. And so that was a huge, huge, I guess, superpower of mine was just creativity. The second thing was just fearlessness to go out there into the field, to travel by myself with a backpack throughout Africa. Having grown up internationally and travelled so much as a child, it was very natural and very normal. But I also have this very adventurous streak where I don’t want to sit in the office. I want to be out in the field. I want to be literally climbing mountains to push this mission forward. And so, the combination of just being addicted to creativity, to creating things, to innovating, and really wanting that adventure to be out there because our mission isn’t being solved in the office, it’s being solved out in the field. It’s facing in the frontlines the problem that we’re trying to combat. So those are two foundational strengths of mine that I’m very proud of. And then all the other traditional professional things I kind of learned along the way, rather, I was taught along the way by all the great mentors and leaders that I’ve been able to work with. So yeah, I’m very glad for that.
Alex Bridgeman: What experiences in Africa and some of the travels you’ve had most influenced Sanku and its mission? Like where did this come from for you personally?
Felix Brooks Church: For me, personally, well, there’s two origin stories. There’s David, my co-founder’s origin story. Him and his previous wife are the original founders of an organization Sanku spun out of. But from my personal experience, it started before Sanku. Sanku is the name of the organization that we co-founded. It started all the way in childhood, growing up in North Africa and South America, and really in these communities, and around these communities that we’re helping now. And so, I’ve always wanted to go back and give back to what I experienced as a child. I knew that eventually would be my path. But the direct link to what I’m doing now really started about 16 years ago when I got an invitation to join a friend of my mother in Cambodia. He was working with a group of about a hundred street children that lived part time or full time on the street or on the beaches, collecting cans or collecting rubbish or begging or selling trinkets. And so, his idea was to get these children off of the beach and off the streets into this center where they could use art as therapy. Unfortunately, a lot of these children by living and being exposed in those environments were subject to abuse on many levels. So, it was art for art therapy, to develop them through that, and then they could go back to school or back into their society, to their families. That’s why I fell in love with this work because I saw an immediate impact. I was sitting there many times with a child painting and just to see them blossom from painting, smudging black, mixing colors on a palette to painting colors in a matter of weeks and months. And for me, I saw that there was change and change was possible. And it was beautiful, especially when you see it in a child. And through this experience, I learned, okay, I can do this. I want I do this. This is what I want to do forever. And then also that there were bigger problems to solve as well. And that’s where I was introduced to malnutrition, basically children not getting enough vitamins and minerals in their diets and what effect that has on them not only physically but mentally. And so, for me, that got me interested, that got me committed to a path to better health for children and everybody really, and it eventually serendipitously aligned with David Dotson, my co-founder, and eventually into this seat that I get to run this amazing company.
Alex Bridgeman: And how did you come to flour and like enriched flour, fortified flour as like the solution? Where did that idea and that decision come from?
Felix Brooks Church: Well, fortifying flour and staple foods has been around for decades. It’s one of the oldest nutrition interventions. So staple foods are basically the foods, those basic foods that we need to cook, the basic ingredients like flour, sugar, salt, oil. All these things every culture, every country has as their staple foods. And so, as a vehicle, if you’re going to pick a food to ensure that you can get better nutrition into somebody, you pick these foods because chances are everyone’s eating them, they’re eating them every day, and they’re eating large amounts. And so going back to kind of the early days of this work that we do, originally, the organization was called Project Healthy Children. And again, that was founded by David Dodson and his then wife Stephanie Dodson, Stephanie Cornell now. And they were looking at working with governments in developing countries or in the Global South to pass laws, mandates to basically tell large industries who create and produce these staple foods that now you have to add these nutrients. And these nutrients are basically, you know the multivitamin that you eat every morning, if you were to crush that up into powder and put that in your food, it’s essentially the same concept. And in fact, in the US and Global North, all industries fortify food by law. So General Mills is fortifying all flour and so on. So, again, it’s a great vehicle. So, bringing that proven technology, that proven science to the Global South was the idea of David Dodson and Stephanie Dodson. And again, they’re working with governments to fortify all staple foods, so again, sugar, salt, wheat flour, maize flour, and edible oil. We then realized that no matter how well large industry does to fortify these staple foods, there are small millers and there are small food producers in the communities where arguably the most malnutrition or most at-risk people live that aren’t using these technologies, that aren’t benefiting from these fortification laws that the government has passed. And the biggest staple food consumed in East Africa is maize flour. And that’s because maize or corn is grown everywhere. It’s a cash crop. And it’s easy to cook, and it fills up your stomach. But it’s void of any nutrition. But again, it’s a vehicle that everybody eats. And so, it’s a vehicle that you can use to get nutrition into people. So, flour was the choice because everybody eats it. All the mills that produce it, you can find every village has one, every town has a dozen, every city has hundreds. But collectively, all these small mills producing this flour feed the entire nation. So, for us, it was really our first aha moment. There we go. Let’s fortify that flour. If we do, we’re literally going to reach 100 million people. And we’ve been on that path ever since.
Alex Bridgeman: So, what’s the business of Sanku then? So, it sounds like there’s mills you work with that help produce the flour. But are you at Sanku selling the nutritional fortification or the flour itself? How do you work with the different mills that are in all these different regions?
Felix Brooks Church: First of all, we’re a social enterprise. We’re a nonprofit social enterprise. So we’re not a business doing business for money. We’re a business doing business for social good. And so, we identified, as I mentioned before, the vehicle, maize flour. Okay, that was the first box to check, and then we had to dig down, okay, where is that flower being produced? Okay, it’s being produced everywhere, every village, every town, every city, as I mentioned. And these are small mills, and for your listeners who can’t see, it’s about the size of a small bedroom, sometimes as small as a bathroom, tiny operations. One little mill which is called a hammer mill, which is the actual machine that grinds up the grain into flour, sits in the middle of these small rooms. And typically, one, maybe two people operate this. It could be a husband and wife. It could be a young entrepreneur. It could be a 16-year-old kid doing it on the side. But again, there’s tens of thousands of these small mills. And so, if we’re going to reach hundreds of millions of people, you have to fortify, fortifying means making flour stronger literally with nutrients, you have to fortify this flour at that level. And so, our business model was, okay, check the box, what’s being consumed is flour. Where’s it being consumed? These small mills. Then we said, okay, let’s go buy a machine that automates the addition of these nutrients in powdered form, safe nutrients like iron, folic acid, B12, zinc, all these really important nutrients, vitamins and minerals into that flour. But there wasn’t any machine or technology available off the shelf. And so, of course, we’re thinking, well, let’s go invent one. And really, this goes back before I joined. And so, David Dodson went to his alma mater where he was still a professor at the Stanford Business School, and he approached a class called Design for Extreme Affordability. So essentially, this is a class that combines business and engineers and gets them focused on a problem in the global south using technology and business models to create a solution to better humanity on all levels. And so, they were tasked with this challenge, to build a machine that would, again, automate precise amounts, safe amounts of powdered condensed forms of vitamins and minerals, a broken up crushed multivitamin, into this flour. So, they built a prototype, a proof of concept, enough for David to say this has some legs, I want to commit some funding towards this and see if this could get to a higher level. And that’s when I was recruited and brought on board to start to own that process of product design, not only of the technology, but thinking about business models, how could this be scaled. And so, at that point, I moved to Kathmandu, Nepal. David bought me a one-way ticket. I had my backpack, had some sketches from the students from Stanford University and some support from them ongoing and lived there for two years, just breaking things and trying to build this machine. I’m not an engineer. I’ll say that here. But I do have some experience with product design. And I had a team around me to help this process, a local team of Nepalis, I had a firmware software engineer in Korea, I had one of the Stanford students that we brought on board as a contractor from the US. Anyways, all of us together were able to get this prototype, this machine up to a certain level that finally worked. And from that, we moved to East Africa where we got an invitation from the Government of Tanzania through USAID to work with the small mills. And so, we started one by one slowly installing these machines, making sure they work accurately on each of these mills. And we got to a certain level that we’re reaching, I think, a couple hundred thousand people with fortified flour. And our business model is quite simple. We give them the machine to use for free as long as they’re using it correctly, so there’s no upfront costs for them. And so then, at that time, we were selling them these nutrients as the recurring input that they needed to run their business. And these nutrients aren’t expensive. But these mills are so small, they’re such small businesses, their margins are razor thin. So, we realized that it wasn’t sustainable to try to force them to pay for it. And they couldn’t pass that cost on to the consumer, literally the mothers who bought this product. And so, we basically figured out efficient ways for them to run their businesses where they could save money and those savings could be put towards offsetting those nutrients. And I can get more into that in detail. But essentially, we’ve neutralized the cost of fortification for these millers. It’s an incentivizer for them. They do the job now. The end result is fortified flour is in the market again for close to 7 million people now across East Africa.
Alex Bridgeman: That’s a fantastic story. I love the going to Nepal first and learning there for a little while. What do you feel like from that experience, what do you take away most from your time in Nepal?
Felix Brooks Church: Nepal was almost entirely around and dedicated around the technology. So, product development. It’s all about all those great R&D things you have to go through, fail early, fail often, fail forward. It was two years of failing. And what it taught me was obviously never give up. I mean, there were many, many points I got on a phone call with David and said I’m not sure if this is working, or he said I’m not sure it’s working. And in each case, we’d talk each other out of it. We’d say no, we’ve got this, we’ve got this. So, I think what I learned was you can’t do anything by yourself because you’re going to talk yourself out of it. You’ve got to find great support mechanisms and great leadership. And you just got to keep on pressing on the gas because if you really believe in the outcome, you’ll get there. And we believed so much this is doable, not only believed, we felt a responsibility that this has to happen. When you think about the statistics of malnutrition, close to 8000 children are dying every single day. And there’s moments when I just think about that stat, and boom, I pick up an extra speed and I kick into an extra gear. And so that was very important during those two years because things didn’t work for two years until they did, and things never work until they do. And it took us two years to struggle along until we got a machine that we thought was finally ready to do the job of fortification. A lot of times, we’re testing just in the lab, so to speak, which was a dirt floor metal shop in Katmandu, far from a clean lab or anything precise. But after two years, we finally get this machine to a point where, okay, this is ready to go into a proper mill and start fortifying flour and fortifying flour for people to consume. And I remember it was a couple of months ago to the day the anniversary, so this must have put us into April, April 2012. This is going back some time. So, April 2012 in Katmandu, it was wet, it was a bit cold, and we were testing outside of Kathmandu, essentially in the foothills of the Himalayas. So, this is driving through rocky roads and winding paths up into the hills. And these are where the small mills were located. They’re always on top of the hill and the hill’s covered with maize. And that’s how they grew it, and that’s how they farmed, and that’s where they milled, and that’s where the village was. And so we’d literally climb up the hill and install this machine in a tiny, tiny little mill. We’d turned it on, turn on the machine. The miller turns on his mill. Our machine attaches on top of the mill. The miller pours in grain into our machine, the way it works, it weighs it and the grain goes into the miller’s machine. We know exactly how much nutrients should be dosed. It automatically does it so there’s no human error. At that point, it didn’t blow up. It didn’t overheat. The little feed screw that pumps out the nutrients turned around perfectly. The amount, we checked, and it was rightly dosed and the right amount of nutrients and iron and things like that were in the flour. And it worked. It worked for the first time. And tears were in our eyes. There was a lot of hugging. There’s a lot of high fives. There was a lot of kind of, wow, we did it. I can’t believe it. And we ate that food. And we sat with other people from that village, and we ate that food. And then it was emotional. And we always honor that moment. And we honor that moment in everything we do. In fact, the name of our organization, Sanku, is named after that village; that village was called Sanku. Look it up. It’s a tiny little village in the middle of Nepal. And that’s where this journey started. That’s where this journey has continued from. And so, there’s been so many of those moments throughout my career working with David and Sanku as an organization that one day we’ll write a book because it’s been an amazing journey. And it’s just started to be written because we’ve got a lot more work to be done. But it’s been an amazing ride thus far.
Alex Bridgeman: Just out of curiosity, did you ever fly into Lukla up in the mountains?
Felix Brooks Church: I didn’t. I was there for two years. I went to a few places, but I never did that. I never did Everest base camp, and I never did these things. People are like, what are you doing? You lived in Nepal. And I was like, well, I wasn’t- Yeah, I was living in Nepal, but I was living in this machine. I was living in R&D. I was living in metal shops with dirt floors. I was living in mills. I wasn’t on vacation. I wasn’t a tourist. And I don’t regret that because yeah, hiking up to Everest base camp would have been an amazing hike up that hill. But I hiked up the hill to Sanku, that village, and I would take that any day.
Alex Bridgeman: I ask because the airport at Lukla is one of the most dangerous looking airports ever. The runway, it goes down the hill or down the mountain, so when you land, your plane is actually flying upwards towards the runway. And then when you take off, you’re rolling down the hill and accelerating and then taking off. It looks really cool in videos. I’ll send you one afterwards. But just curious because that was a really- as an aviation geek myself, that would be a really fun experience to have.
Felix Brooks Church: I know it well, and I love aviation. Ironically, I’m actually scared to fly, but I love aviation. And that’s partly the reason why I never visited. But I’ve seen it, I’ve seen videos, and it looks scary. It looks really, really scary. And it’s such high altitude. And there’s been a lot of crashes. And so maybe I made the excuse that I didn’t have time to visit that airport, but also, I never wanted to. It looks extremely scary.
Alex Bridgeman: You’re an aviation geek but you’re afraid of flying. How’s that?
Felix Brooks Church: Yeah. I just love the concept of flight, the fact that we’ve been able to engineer massive metal birds and they fly. I understand all the physics. Still, every time I step into to a plane, and I fly a lot, I commute between Australia, where I am right now, to East Africa, and I do it every month or two, so I fly a lot. The bigger the plane, the safer I feel. But I’m just fascinated with what we’ve created, a metal bird. And again, I understand lift and drag and all the physics, but it still amazes me every time I look at an airplane in the sky.
Alex Bridgeman: Yeah, it’s impressive how massive, heavy they are. A lot of the small Cessnas, they’re pretty light, you can move them around, but they quickly get very heavy. It’s hard to imagine anything that heavy, like my pencil can’t fly, but somehow this giant plane can. Like that just doesn’t compute for a little while. But yeah, I also get the physics, but somehow it works out. So obviously, your role as CEO has evolved dramatically from working on the machine itself to now running a larger organization. We talked earlier about your life in terms of decades and themes with each one. Do you feel like there’s a similar like section of themes within your role as CEO over time that you’ve noticed and identified?
Felix Brooks Church: For sure. There’s been phases of Sanku. And the first phase was product development, make a machine, make a machine that works, make a machine that’s commercialized and scalable and all those things. And so, it’s very hands on product development. At that point, David Dodson, it was me and him for Sanku at least. And he was the CEO at that point. And so, I very much focused all my time on does this machine work? And then the next step was, okay, it’s great to have a machine, it’s great to have a product, but how do you get customers to use it? What’s the business model? How’s this going to make money? How’s this going to be sustained in our case, as a social enterprise? What kind of team do we need? What’s that kind of foundational team that we need to start testing some of these business models? And so that was the second phase was to think from a product to now a business around that product. And I think the third phase that we’ve been in for the last couple years is building that team that can run systems. It’s great to have systems, but if you don’t have the right team to run them, you don’t have anything. And so, we, probably the hard way, learned how important systems are, learned the hard way how important great staff are. It’s hard to find great staff, and it’s hard to really have them drive these great systems. And I think that we’re still in that phase. We’re still in that phase of really polishing off and maturing as a company. We have 100, I think 103 staff now, and we are miles ahead of where we were five years ago, not only in quality of staff and leadership. It’s important to mention, we have 103 staff, and 100 of them are East African executive level all the way down. And so, finding these great local leaders, hiring from the communities that we’re trying to help, and developing all the systems that they can run and a company that we can run collectively, it’s been an amazing part of my personal journey. And again, I’m all ears to David, to our board, to all mentors that I have because I’m still in that learning process. I think you never stop learning, obviously. I think the best CEOs always ask questions. The best CEOs are always on calls saying, what do you think about this idea? I think it’s dangerous to say I got this, leave me alone. And so, I’m still in that process. And luckily, I have those outlets, within my team as well. I learn from the people reporting to me as much as maybe they’re learning from me. So, it’s a collaborative process. Really, it is.
Alex Bridgeman: Yeah, you’ve talked about that being a- like, over time you feel like you’ve learned more and more, been like more and more open to learning new things and that what you know is- there’s still so much more for you to learn over time. When do you feel like that started to switch for you where suddenly you realize how much you don’t know and need to keep up with?
Felix Brooks Church: Yeah, I think everyone, the younger you are, probably the more arrogant you are. You think you know it all because you don’t really know anything. You haven’t experienced life. So the more that I started to work and become a professional and work with professionals and be exposed to the board, which is an amazing level of professionalism, and start to figure out and work in this sector with other business partners and implementing partners, just being around all these amazing, experienced smart people. More and more, I realized, wow, I’ve got a lot to learn. I need to be humble. And I think my willingness to accept the fact that I have a long path of growth expedited my growth, if that makes sense. I didn’t- I removed barriers more and more, and I still do that today. And it’s been a humbling experience and necessary experience. And couple that with then having a family, talk about not being prepared for a job, having kids, there’s no blueprint. You can’t be- you’re never overly prepared for that. You kind of learn on the job, and very much like that, this job I’ve learned on the job. And I’ve only learned because I’ve had great leaders around me, a great experience, mentors, and my willingness to say, you know what, I am struggling, I haven’t figured this out, I need help, and then getting to a point of knowledge through that process has been a really enjoyable process. And I think there’s nothing wrong with saying I don’t know what I’m doing. I need to learn this. And I need to speak to people who have that experience so that I can figure that out. And I think that’s ongoing throughout my career and that’s never going to stop.
Alex Bridgeman: You said that your executive team is so much more built out today than five years ago. Are there a couple key roles or key things that you do as an executive team that have created a lot of leverage for you as a CEO?
Felix Brooks Church: Yeah, first of all, we had to figure out what the problem was and then hire towards that, what problem are we trying to solve. And then from that, that’s how you kind of build out that job description, and then you find people who fit that role. And so that was our process. We got a lot smarter about how we hire. And being patient, we really- and we’re still learning, but being patient during the hiring process. And we’ve hired some amazing talent over the last, really over the last two or three years. I mean, first of all, I’ve been blessed with an amazing CFO, Mary who came through David Dodson. She is arguably the most experienced person in the organization. And so, to be able to have a colleague, my CFO, who is also a mentor and have that level of trust, and she can easily put on her hat and represent a board, and she’s on many boards. And just to have that day to day ability to work with somebody like that just elevates us and elevates me as a CEO. We also recognize that we can’t do anything without a strong supply chain. We at scale are essentially a logistics company. So, we have to be really good to get product from A to B, from vendors to our customers. And so that’s not only about systems, but that’s hiring that key leadership around that. So, we did a search and recruited, I think it took us close to a year, and found a director of manufacturing and production that kind of leads all aspects of that plus procurement and supply chain. And he’s John; John’s from Kenya. He came to us from Nestle where I think he worked, I’m not sure how long he worked, I think close to a decade. Anyways, he built close to seven or eight factories for Nestle across Africa, across six or seven countries. So just an amazing talent, just knows this game inside and out, food production, supply chains, getting stuff throughout Africa is not easy, moving things, moving product. And we have just improved leaps and bounds because I go to him and I say what should we do here in your experience? How should I help? How should I make this decision? That sounding board of trust, again, me not directing him and oftentimes him coming with an idea and us working through it together. But having those partners in the room, everybody sits at the same table, same size seats, same size table, that’s the big shift that Sanku has had, my organization, compared to say maybe five years ago where it was me telling people what to do and me not always sure what we should do. And so we’ve definitely elevated and evolved from that phase.
Alex Bridgeman: Yeah, one year recruiting period to find that right person, that’s a really long time to wait for a crucial role. How did you maintain patience through that one-year period to find the right person?
Felix Brooks Church: Six months of that was really hands on recruiting and interviewing. I think six months up to that was more about figuring out what the problem is and defining what we needed and identifying the gaps. So, I kind of combined that as a one year process to really get the person that we finally needed. And I mean, patience, I’m not a very patient person. I have to be patient. But it’s frustrating to care so much about the work and then have to wait for the solution. And you have to. You cannot hire, and I’ve learned this the hard way, I’ve made a lot of bad hires because I hired fast or I felt I had this feeling about this person. And it wasn’t analytical. It wasn’t data driven. And you have to be patient, and you have to have scorecards, and it has to be a collaborative process. I cannot just hire somebody. It needs to be hired by my CFO as well, Mary, and now John. We have a panel of people that interview the same person, even though it’s not- For example, if I hire a fundraiser chief or a director of fundraising, I’m not going to be the only one hiring that person. I’ll even have John from supply chain or from manufacturing and production interview that person as well because you need multiple perspectives. And this person ultimately is going to be working with everybody at the executive level. And I often ask them, is this a person that you’re going to want to go out and have a cup of coffee or a beer with or hang out on the weekend. That’s important. It’s not all about the work. And those experiences is where you build that trust as well. I love working with the people I work with because I also love to go hang out with them as well. I think that’s an important fact for culture, for building culture in an organization. You need to have things that go on both sides of the line of work, play hard, work hard, all that.
Alex Bridgeman: Yeah, I like that interviewing style right out of Dodson’s book that just came out with having a panel of interviewers. If you think of your own like gut feeling that you had about someone, how often is that- Like, what’s the error rate today if you compare, if you had like parallel process of hiring someone or choosing someone based on gut feel versus what the rest of your team thinks?
Felix Brooks Church: It’s hard to say the fail rate, but I definitely don’t lean on the gut anymore. And so, moving forward, over the last couple of years, that hasn’t been the case. But in the beginning, it was just impatience. We had a problem, let me just hire somebody, oh, he or she feels good for the role and then throw them in it. And it was just literally putting fingers in leaky holes in the dam, but not really sitting back and saying how can we build a better dam. And so, it didn’t often work out. It didn’t work out, or those people just remained at a lower level because we hired somebody to fix a problem for today but couldn’t grow and fix problems that we might have in five years. So again, it’s not a good tactic for hiring. You want multiple eyes and ears on that person. And we have that now. We’ve definitely gotten a lot better. So, the caliber of people that we’re hiring and being more patient during the process, it just gives us a better hire in the end.
Alex Bridgeman: I like that analogy of plugging holes in the dam versus building a better dam. It sounds like patience in hiring and waiting for the right person is part of building the better dam. But what else has gone into that in terms of your hiring process to make sure you’re building the best dam you can?
Felix Brooks Church: I think a scorecard that’s aligned not only to that specific role that they’re trying to fill. So it could be, whether we’re hiring somebody for supply chain, so there’s a lot of scorecard questions that might be geared towards supply chain. But you also have to have those higher level organizational mission driven scorecard questions and culture questions as well. You could have an amazing person that could check a lot of boxes for procurement, for example, but be a cultural misfit. And it’s never going to work. They could be a genius, but it’s never going to work because other people don’t jive with them. So, it’s a challenge because often we’ve come across people that technically on paper, they’re great, but we’re thinking how are they going to mesh with our current team? Are they going to add to it, or are they going to be a detractor? And that’s a hard one because you don’t really know somebody until you start working with them. And I guess that’s why you do have six month probation periods, which we do. But then, okay, if it doesn’t work after six months, you’ve got to start the whole process again. So, you don’t want to- You want to be pretty sure when you hire somebody that the probation period is just kind of a what if but not like, well, we don’t know until the sixth month. But again, hiring that person, not really knowing until you work with them, there’s always going to be a level of risk. And so, the better you are with your systems around hiring, again, with the scorecards, more people on it, and take your time, you just limit the amount of chances that you’re going to go wrong.
Alex Bridgeman: The concept of risk is kind of interesting. Where do you feel like you’re willing to take on risk versus going to hedge my bet as much as possible and avoid this risk as much as I can?
Felix Brooks Church: I think naturally, the more senior the position, obviously, the stronger the due diligence and the less risk you’re willing to give. You want to make sure you’ve got that and made that decision right. And so definitely, if you’re hiring a director of something, it’s very different if you’re hiring a warehouse coordinator just because, for obvious reasons, there’s more responsibility at the executive level. And so, you don’t want that person to mess up. And so yeah, as we enter this next stage, we’re going to be hiring more executive level people and more senior managers. So, it is a big focus this coming year to get those right people in those positions. And we’ll take our time, not too long, but we will take our time. And using recruiters are important. Recruiters are that first kind of line of defense in due diligence. But ultimately, you’re going to have to make a decision on do you have the right person, and you want to make sure that you’re not the only one making that decision.
Alex Bridgeman: You’ve talked earlier about relying on your board and mentors and peers for advice and being willing to ask questions quickly and not holding things back as much. How do you lean on your different groups of peers, your board, friends of yours? How do you seek advice from folks you trust?
Felix Brooks Church: Increase the frequency of communication, number one, so whether it’s with my co-founder, David, who’s also the chairman of our board, putting in a recurring call once or twice, twice a month. It’s not a board meeting. It’s not even necessarily me talking to my chairman. It’s sometimes me taking off my CEO hat and him taking off his chairman hat and us being humans and talking through an issue that I’m facing. And it’s challenging sometimes because he is a board member, he’s a co-founder, and so very much ingrained in those roles. But he’s also a friend and a mentor. So, we have a good balance, we’re able to navigate some of those issues. But my openness to trusting him and likewise gets us to solving a problem a lot faster. It’s the same case with my CFO, Mary. I can take off my CEO hat, and she can take off her CFO hat, and then we can talk through a problem. I don’t want to use the term equals because, of course, we’re equal, but putting titles aside and saying what are we trying to solve? What do we need to do and who needs to do it to get there? And throwing kind of rank out the window. And then also, I’m in a world of other social entrepreneurs. There’re other people that are struggling to achieve a big mission and totally are committed and believe it’s their last job, just like I believe this is my last job, I can’t see myself doing anything else. And so even though sometimes it feels like a lonely job, there’s other people going through the same thing. And so, I do have a network of friends who are CEOs and founders of other social enterprises working in maybe similar geographic areas or in similar sectors or share similar donors or we meet at conferences. And that’s always a great learning experience. I go to them and try to figure out what, where have they been failing and how did they get out of that hole? Or share an issue with them that I’m struggling with, or I have got this issue with the board or with an employee, or am I wrong in thinking that? Did I react the wrong way? And there’s a trust there as well. And they’re like, wow, that sounds like what I did last month, oh, I’m so embarrassed I did this or that, or this guy Jeremy from HR, whatever. And it’s a safe place. And it can be spoken over a coffee or a beer. But it’s a learning space as well. And we all, not to put words in their mouth, but I think we’d all define ourselves still as students, as social entrepreneurs because there’s no blueprint. And because there’s no blueprint, none of us can say we’ve got this, none of us can be overly confident. We can be confident that we believe in the mission. But none of us have gotten there yet. I don’t know a social entrepreneur, other than one of our board members, who has achieved their mission yet. And even when you achieve your mission, well, then you add another 100 million people to your mission, and it never stops. And so, in that sense, you’re always a student, and you never figure it out, and you’re always getting better. But that’s what drives you to get to that mission.
Alex Bridgeman: I love that. What’s a strongly held belief that you’ve switched your mind on?
Felix Brooks Church: Me and as an organization, we’ve never been a big fan of dependency on behavioral change. Behavioral changes is a term quite frequently used in this sector, or demand creation or community sensitization. There’s a bunch of words for it. But we wanted to build a product in a company and a business model that its success wasn’t contingent on behavioral change or convincing hundreds of millions of mothers to buy this product or government to enforce it. And to a certain degree, we’ve been successful at that. Again, we create a product where the taste doesn’t change. It’s just better, it’s more nutritious. The cost doesn’t change because we’ve neutralized that. But more and more, we realize how easy our job would be if we had more demand and more behaviors were changed, and people wanted and were bought in as much as we are. And so, I was steadfast early in my career that we build a business model that wasn’t contingent on the success of behavioral change, whereas now I think it’s going to be something that we’re going to be looking at more and more, and I’m happy that we can pivot like that as well. And be very sure about something and then after a while, say you know what, let’s try it out. Let’s tweak it. Let’s be malleable in our path. So, I’m proud of the team for pushing me on that. And I’m glad that I’m willing to bend as well.
Alex Bridgeman: So, what changes have to happen for you to lean more into behavioral change as a mechanism for achieving your mission?
Felix Brooks Church: I think it’s a structure in the duty of our field staff. So, our field staff, we have 20 to 30 out there with vehicles, they’re driving around, they’re on the frontlines of fortification, literally working in the communities, working with millers, our customers, engaging with local government and customers or mothers. And to this point, mostly, it’s been about installing machines, fixing machines, delivering product, walking away. And that’s not good enough. We need, and I don’t want to use the word sales, but we need to incentivize and inspire these millers to feel that they are health heroes in the community, so they’re much more bought in, meaning- and the result of that, the outcome of that would be they’re going to be more of a compliant miller. They’re going to make sure that their machines, when they’re not breaking, they’re going to call us faster. They’re going to make sure that they’re going to add the nutrients and not let the machines run out of the powdered nutrients. They’re going to talk to the consumers, their customers, their mothers who are buying this product and tell them how great this product is at improving the health and livelihoods of their community. And so, by pushing that messaging, it’s going to naturally create more demand. And we can do that at the miller level, our customer, and our indirect beneficiaries, which are the mothers, through the government as well. So getting the government more bought in with, say, their district level nutritionists and their health inspectors who engage with consumers and mothers, getting them more aware around why people should be consuming fortified flour, how it makes your life better, makes you healthier, makes you fight disease and really builds and develops a whole nation. So that’s something- We’ve been scared to do it because it’s such a big task. It’s very costly. And I’m not saying we’re going to own it, but we are going to start working with more partners who have that as their special sauce. It’s something they do well, and aligning our mission and our objectives with theirs, I think it’s going to be a collaborative effort to kind of check that box in demand creation and behavioral change, ultimately.
Alex Bridgeman: That’s an exciting transition and something to watch over the next couple years. What’s the best business you’ve come across?
Felix Brooks Church: Well, I really feel like I’ve only ever worked with this one. And it’s not the best business that I have ever come across. It’s getting there. So I have to definitely give a shout out to one of our board members, Ned Tozun is the founder, co-founder rather and previous CEO of d.light. And I think it’s an amazing organization because it’s come essentially from where we came from and where we want to go. It was birthed from the same class that I mentioned earlier, from Stanford University, from the design for extreme affordability class. It’s a solar company, essentially started off with small solar lamps, but putting these lamps into communities, so communities that are off grid, so boys and girls can read at night for school and just uplifting communities through solar technology. And their goal was to reach 100 million people, and they achieved that in 2020, I think it was. And that’s our mission as well, to reach 100 million people. And so, to have somebody on your board that has built a company from scratch, from a product from students, essentially working in the same region, East Africa, that we work in, had the exact same mission of bringing a product they built and engineered to these communities, these at risk communities that add value to them, to 100 million people. It’s exactly kind of the path that we’re on and will be on until we reach 100 million people. And I think now they’re reaching 150 million people, so scaling super fast. He’s a brilliant man, social entrepreneur, and cares about it. And that culture, I visited his office, is immersed in everything they do at the day to day level at their company. And so, I aspire Sanku to follow in those footsteps and hopefully reach 100 million people by 2030. It’s an amazing company – d.light, check it out.
Alex Bridgeman: That’s a great business and a really big mission too and exciting and hopefully Sanku will get there pretty soon. But Felix, thank you so much for coming on the podcast and talking about the mission and your journey as CEO and as a person and now with a family too. It’s very exciting. So thank you for sharing your time. Really good to chat with you.
Felix Brooks Church: Alex, thank you so much. Really enjoyed it. Take care.