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Two Jenkins MBA Students “MBArk” on a Trip to Natural Food Industry’s Biggest Event

by Shannon O’Shea (Jenkins MBA ’17) and Graham Givens (Jenkins MBA ’17)

In March this year, two Jenkins MBA students spent their spring break at the Natural Products Expo West in Anaheim, California participating in a program for MBA students interested in the natural foods industry. Graham Givens and Shannon O’Shea were selected to participate in the MBArk program, where they joined 28 other MBA students from top business schools across the country to network with natural foods industry leaders and learn about the latest industry topics and trends.

The MBArk program is led by Joe Dobrow, who has worked extensively in the natural foods industry and written a book about its history, Natural Prophets: From Health Foods to Whole Foods – How the Pioneers of the Industry Changed the Way We Eat and Reshaped American Business. Dobrow, who has an MBA from Yale School of Management, sees a growing need in the natural foods industry– the fastest growing segment of the food industry– for talented MBAs to usher the industry into a new era of growth. At the same time, he noticed a growing sector of MBA students searching for purpose-driven careers. He created the MBArk program to bridge that gap and introduce these students to the industry.

For the last three years, Dobrow’s MBArk program has invited purpose-driven MBA students to Natural Products Expo West. Expo West, the leading trade show in the natural, organic and healthy products industry, attracts over 70,000 industry professionals and showcases 3,000 plus exhibits. MBArk students spend three days listening to speakers, meeting with executives, networking with one another and industry leaders and exploring the Expo West showroom floor.

Givens was amazed by the passion he encountered from everyone he met at Expo West. “Everyone seemed to be passionate about what they were doing. From sales to marketing, to logistics – everyone seemed to be in it for something other than just making a profit. Passion was the key ingredient.” There was also a great sense of community. “From the moment I got there, I felt as if everyone was all in this together. No matter who they were or what company they were with, there was a common sense of togetherness. Everyone was working towards a better product, a better industry, and overall, a better world,” Givens stated.

FoodCon 2016O’Shea felt the sense of community and passion as well. “It was so easy to talk to everyone there – not just participants in MBArk but all of the exhibitors and speakers at the convention, too. We were all connected in some way by our passion for natural foods. Everyone wanted to connect and help one another.”

O’Shea and Givens are leading the team that will be hosting FoodCon 2016, a sustainable food conference, on November 11th at NC State. The 3rd annual FoodCon is a collaboration between the Net Impact chapters at NC State, UNC Chapel Hill, and Duke University and the NC State Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS), Poole College Business Sustainability Collaborative (BSC), and Poole College Supply Chain Resource Cooperative (SCRC).

Both students felt their NC State experience served them well at MBArk, and that the connections made at Expo West will be beneficial for their career. Givens is a Supply Chain Scholar and had the opportunity to meet with leaders at the top natural and organic food distributors in the country, and talk to them about this work with the Center for Environmental Farming Systems.

As an Entrepreneurship Scholar and an Associate with the Business Sustainability Collaborative, O’Shea is always on the lookout for trends in the industry and innovative social entrepreneurship business models. “There was one level of the showroom for newer, natural foods start-ups and there were a lot of innovative products and business models there,” she said. “You could definitely feel the entrepreneurial energy and get a sense for what some of the next trends will be in the industry. I left exhausted and energized at the same time.”

“I felt honored to be a part of this impressive cohort of MBArk students and extremely thankful to Joe Dobrow for bringing us all together and introducing us to so many influential leaders in the industry,” O’Shea stated. In addition, both Givens and O’Shea credit and thank Bev Porter, Director of the Jenkins Career Management Center, and Jessica Thomas, Director of the Business Sustainability Collaborative, for their support which helped make the trip possible.