Sandeep Patel sees food as integral to his corporate sustainability focus as President and CFO of a – wait for it – consumer tech brand. What?! That seeming disconnect is exactly why Andrea knew when she met him last year that she had to talk with him for Living Change. Patel is an intensely values-driven leader with a Wall Street background who intends to make these changes not just for PopSockets, but for the whole corporate sector. The conversation gets ever more enthusiastic as they both dream of the potential Scope 3 emissions reductions in a collective corporate food policy shift.
Sandeep Patel / PopSockets
Andrea Learned (00:00):
I’m Andrea Learned, and welcome to Living Change, a podcast exploring unconventional climate leadership. I talk to people who’ve converted their personal values into business and policy decisions in a load of different sectors. I believe that the more we’re visible about these changes, the more we chart the way for other leaders wanting to create new social norms.
Sandeep Patel (01:30):
A plant-based diet, I would argue, is the most inclusive type of diet you could serve as a company. Everybody will be included, right? And so even cultural inclusion gets flipped on its head. Perversely to be a reason why, oh, we have to have meat for these reasons. But every culture around the world has a deep, rich history of plant-based foods. So, you know, I would argue it’s also increasing inclusivity. To do that,
Andrea Learned (02:02):
Hi Sandeep. How are you?
Sandeep Patel (02:25):
Hi, Andrea. Good to see you again.
Andrea Learned (02:27):
Today I’m speaking with Sandeep Patel, the President, cfo, and Chief Transformation Officer of Pop Sockets. Even if you don’t have a pop sockets product, chances are, you know, someone that does. They’re those super cool and expressive phone grips, pop sockets, social impact innovation is centered on what they call being an eternal positivity machine. I met Sandeep at the Reduc Arian Summit last year. Our short discussion about food as a driver of corporate sustainability really stuck with me, and I knew I had to talk to him for this podcast. Sandeep is so passionate about this impact driven work that it was important to him to talk with each person walking into the conference hall about pop socket’s company mission. So how did he get here?
Sandeep Patel (03:10):
You’d have to go all the way back to when I was eight years old and I made a conscious decision after hearing someone give a lecture on the wisdom of a plant-based diet. It was more of a humanitarian lens at that time. This was many, many years ago where the point was producing animals is very inefficient. It consumes a lot of food that could be going directly to humans. It wasn’t so much of the environmental thrust to it. It was more of a animal welfare lens and a humanitarian lens of just being fair to other humans and not consuming so much food in the way of the inefficiency of animal production. So I’d made a decision long back then. Mm-hmm. and I come from a family that comes from Western India, so my parents are vegetarian, have always been, uh, so it wasn’t that difficult a decision for me personally to make, to not eat meat.
We would still eat dairy in the home and and so forth. So when I was a vegetarian, decided to consciously decide to be a vegetarian very early on. And then for most of my career in on Wall Street for 20 years. It was something that you didn’t really highlight. You would hide it because growing up in, you know, elementary school, middle school, it was just another reason why you were different. Oh, you can’t eat that. Right? And it was always, I always found that interesting. Can you eat this ? Well, of course I can do what I want , but I choose not to. Right. So the concept of someone choosing not to eat meat as opposed to a religion dictating you can’t do this or whatever, was a foreign concept, right? Yes.
And so, you know, it was really 20 years into investment banking. I decided, you know, what do I wanna do with the rest of my life? I want to have a bigger impact. I found myself gravitating towards entrepreneurs who envisioned the world differently than it is, and had the conviction to go and actually do something about it. And that was infectious to me. And so I wanted to be a part of building something with companies that actually shared my worldview. And so there was this book that I read at a Stanford University, how to Design Your Life. I
Andrea Learned (05:15):
Totally read that book, . You did great. Yes, I loved
Sandeep Patel (05:19):
It. And it’s great for people in college who don’t know what they wanna do and to preempt a midlife crisis, right? Yes. So it helped me preempt a midlife crisis, and it kind of said, well, you have to think about different things. And so I thought, oh, wouldn’t it be great to fuse my sort of work life and my worldview into one? And so every day I was just excited about what I did, not only because it was intellectually interesting, but I thought, oh, this is what I care about in the world, and this is how to make the world a better place. So that’s, that’s what led me to join Califia Farms after getting to know the founder, uh, for quite some time. And then that’s also what led me to Pop Sockets.
Andrea Learned (05:55):
I’m struck that from a young age, Sandeep was living change, and even in the face of resistance on Wall Street, he was able to stick to his convictions. The lens through which he sees the world has almost exclusively been plant-based. So a role in an impact-driven company like Pop Sockets makes perfect sense.
Sandeep Patel (06:12):
I’ve been a pops sockets about two years. The is David Barnett, and he created the company kind of by accident. He was looking for a way to keep his headphone cord from tangling. He never imagined it would become as big as it did. And that was back in 2012. I was introduced to him first in 2020, right before the, the height of the pandemic. And I remember my first conversation with him, I was on the phone and I just asked him, what’s your mission in life? And he said, my mission in life is then factory farming without hesitation. Whoa,
Andrea Learned (06:46):
, whoa. I just,
Sandeep Patel (06:48):
Exactly, I was not expecting for that to come out of his mouth. in my first conversation with him more ever. And he said, I just happened to create this company, uh, by accident. Now I’m looking for how can we use the company to be forced for good? And then I went out to meet him in person. And I remember going to the cafeteria, and at the time I was the C F O of Califia farm. So I was very attuned, not only from a personal lifestyle standpoint, but from a professional standpoint of what kind of milk people were using. Were they using plant-based milk or not? He asked if I wanted a coffee. They had a very fancy coffee machine in the cafeteria. And I said, sure, but do you have plant milk? And he said, I don’t know. I don’t drink coffee. We opened the machine and sure enough there was almond milk and oat milk already loaded into the machine. And I had this kind of shock look on my face. And he looked at me like, why are you shocked? And then he said, oh yeah, we wouldn’t have animal products here. Why would we do that? , it’s bad for the environment, it’s bad for the animals. And some people may not like it, but you know, they, they go work somewhere else.
Andrea Learned (07:52):
Sandeep Patel (07:53):
So I was not expecting that either. And it was a, it was a level of conviction and following through on that conviction more so than I’m even seen at some, you know, executives at plant-based food companies themselves. So I thought that was very, very interesting. And the company had a long-standing focus on doing good for the world, but the approach was more diffuse. One, it was a great approach. We empower people to be their own activist, and the goal was to create a platform for activists to express themselves. Mm-hmm. through custom grips and things like that. Okay. And that program was called Populism and expanded to over 450 nonprofit partners. But in my conversations with David, even before I joined, I was commenting, wouldn’t it be great if we could tie the company’s focus and products more directly to what you care about personally and what is so important for the world that many companies and the governments are not focusing on as much as they should, as well as consumers. Yeah. So that kicked off a lot of conversations, which then led for me to join the company in early 2021. And since that time, we’ve really tried to bring that vision to life and connect a focus on more sustainable food choices to the products and the partnerships that we support.
Andrea Learned (09:18):
I want to emphasize this part. Sandeep is talking about tying the company’s consumer focus and products more directly to what he and the CEO care about personally. Thus the mission around food sustainability and food waste. I love this. This is why I focus on Leaders Living Change in this podcast.
Sandeep Patel (09:37):
When I joined the company, they had already been working on sustainable materials. Okay. They had looked at biodegradable materials, concluded that that could actually do more harm than good. If it’s not composted properly, it can release methane. And they landed on a plant-based solution, a variety of different suppliers, very thorough testing, cornstarch, canola oil, castor bean, for example. And we thought for a while to call it Pop Grip echo, I convinced David and others at the company to call it Pop Grip Plant.
Andrea Learned (10:09):
Sandeep Patel (10:10):
And here we had the makings of something that we can now start connecting the product to our broader vision of a plant-based future. And you know, we, we had a lot of debates, like it’s gonna be a stretch. So the same reaction that you had, why is Pop Socket supporting Vegan Women’s Summit and Reducetarian Summit and Right. And focus on these things. Mm-hmm. , what is the connection, right? Mm-hmm. . So we said, look, it might take us a while to really articulate that connection. In the meantime, let’s just start doing stuff. Let’s start doing stuff that has impact. Mm-hmm. . So one of the things that we did is we reached out to Partnership for Healthier America, an organization that Michelle Obama actually had started when she was First Lady. Mm-hmm. focused on providing more nutritious food to people in need with a real focus on nutrition and not just hunger relief.
Yes. A lot of hunger relief is focused on calories and expired food, Uhhuh, , and not necessarily nutrition and, and food equity, which leads to health equity, which leads to economic equity. So it’s an organization that I had gotten to know when I was at Califia Farms because we were thinking of doing things with them there. And we landed on a partnership where for all of the plant-based products that we sold on our website, we would donate cash to P H A and then they would then use that to fund a program called Good Food for All. And so we launched that in December of 21 with an initial goal of 150,000 servings over the course of a year. Wow. We hit that goal in two or three months, we exceeded that significantly. And earlier this year, we expanded that goal to a million Servings. And then what we also did as part of that partnership is we enlisted the support of five plant-based food brands, including Beyond Meat, wild Earth, back to the Roots.
Andrea Learned (12:06):
What do you mean by support? Supporting them in the fruits and vegetables offering? Is that what you’re saying? The
Sandeep Patel (12:12):
Whole concept of the partnership was we combine a corporate action, we’re putting more sustainable materials into this product with a nonprofit partnership where there’s a charitable component. Mm-hmm. . And then the third piece, which I’m most excited about, but it’s also the hardest to execute, is a call for the consumer to act.
Andrea Learned (12:32):
Sandeep Patel (12:32):
And contribute. Yes. So the call there was, we had coupons and incentives from these five plant-based food brands. Okay. And then with pha, we had co-branded emails, a programmatic set of emails. So, you know, thank you for buying this sustainable pop socket. Did you know that one of the most impactful ways to address climate change is actually some of the food choices you make? And here’s some incentives from five plant-based food brands that we know well and trust to try products,
Andrea Learned (13:01):
Corporate leadership and conviction in this space is lacking. And Sandeep and his team are bold voices in this movement. I asked him why it’s so hard for corporate leaders to get louder.
Sandeep Patel (13:12):
It’s interesting because there are lots of companies stepping up to do things for climate change. They tend to gravitate towards things like tree planting. Yes.
And so you have no shortage of brands saying, we’re gonna be carbon neutral because we bought land, or we’re gonna fund tree planting projects, and we’re gonna do that. And that’s great. But from our standpoint where we have an installed base of, say, 50 million consumers around the world using our products, what are we asking the consumer to do? Right. And so we’ve always believed that impact should be participatory. So we’ve tried to create a participatory impact model. And so part of our thought is how can we kind of, in the right way, gently nudge consumers to understand one of the most impactful things they can do for the benefit of the world and their fellow human beings and, and living beings is change even so slightly their food habits, integrating more plant-based foods and reducing the amount of food waste. Mm-hmm. , those two things. If you look at project drawdown, you look at all these other things, the science is very clear.
They’re the number one, number two or number three strategies, depending on whether you look at the 1.5 degree scenario or two degree Celsius scenario. They’re the, they’re in the top three things people can do. Companies and governments have not tended to focus on that, though. They focus on electric vehicles, solar panels and other things, which is all great. We need all of that. But without addressing these two big issues, we’re not gonna get there. We’re not gonna be at 1.5, forget 1.5, we won’t even be at two degree Celsius. And I view it as such an urgent issue. And our company views it as such an urgent issue that you gotta focus on the solutions that are gonna have immediate impact and the biggest immediate impact. And so, while I think it’s great that a lot of companies are focusing on tree planting, there’s not enough land in the world to plant all the trees people have committed to, unless we change how we think about food.
Andrea Learned (15:21):
I couldn’t agree more. Why are food systems so hard for people to see and address? The intergovernmental panel on climate change referred to as I P C C is United Nations Body for assessing the science related to climate change. Among the three key things they say we can address, one of them is food waste, and another is the adoption of more sustainable diets. And no one seems to be talking about it. Cop 27 last year was supposedly focused on food. And from my vantage point following it online, I didn’t find that at all to be the case. If they’re not seeing the connection to climate, how can he change that? Does he have any insight on how to get food on their radars?
Sandeep Patel (16:01):
Well, I think it’s, you know, I think one of the reasons people are hesitant to talk about it is there’s a number of reasons. One can be leader’s, personal preferences. Another can be they’re worried it’s too sensitive a topic, and people have cultural preferences and so forth. Right. The cultural preferences bite the way, go the other way as well. And actually, a plant-based diet, I would argue is the most inclusive type of diet you could serve as a company. Everybody will be included, right? Absolutely. And so even cultural inclusion gets flipped on its head. Perversely to be a reason why, oh, we have to have meat for these reasons. But every culture around the world has a deep, rich history of plant-based foods. So, you know, I would argue it’s also increasing inclusivity to do that. But really it’s, I, I think, you know, our approach is, look, it’s, it’s every company will make, should make a decision on its own.
Right? But the first place to start is where are you spending your corporate dollars? And so when Adam Newman at WeWorks came out and said, oh, we’re not gonna serve me the WeWorks anymore, corporate dollars. Like people can bring their own food in if they want, but we’re not gonna spend it, right? Mm-hmm. , that makes total sense to me. It’s like we’re not telling our employees how they have to do things in their own life. Everyone’s welcome to work here. Sure. But we as a company, we need to be very cognizant. If we’re going out of our way to put solar panels on our roof and and going to all kinds of lengths to figure out what kind of gasoline or delivery trucks are using, that’s great. But let’s not just focus on the plastic straws of the world. Right. You need to focus on the biggest issues.
Right. And I think every company should start with the food they’re offering in whatever way they think they can manage. That there’s a, a nonprofit greener by default. Oh, yes. Uh, which I’m honored to have been asked to join their board very recently. And I think they’re taking a great approach. They’re working with big companies and governments like the city of New York to just increase the number of plant-based options and simply making it a default. Right. Which then gets back to the inclusivity point, and it goes back to coming full circle. Your question of like, what has been the thread through my career? Well, instead of the people choosing a diet that’s generally better for the planet, better for health, better for animals, having to kind of say, yeah, I need a special diet. I need something else. Right? Flip it on its head. Mm-hmm. ,
Right? And so in its darkest terms, if you feel like you need to have meat or dairy and a meal that is more carbon consumptive and you know, all these other things, then raise your hand. Simply flipping the script will lead to a lot of change. So, you know, my advice to other corporate leaders would be focus on the science. What is the most important thing as a company we can do? And then there needs to be some internal consistency. If sustainability is very important, then yes, you should focus on the type of light bulbs you have in the building. But first, focus on the most important things you can do. And again, it doesn’t need to be all or none. If you simply set gradual goals, we wanna reduce the amount of meat that we buy as a company by 10%, then 20%, then 30%, it will have a massive impact.
Andrea Learned (19:23):
I’m so glad Sandy brought up, greener by default, an initiative that helps institutions make plant-based with the default. Diners have the choice to opt into meat and dairy, but this strategy allows companies to meet carbon reduction goals, save on food costs, and improve health and inclusivity. I recently moderated a panel at GreenBiz Verge where LinkedIn presented their pilot case study, and the data blew the audience away. I think we’re lacking bold, business leaders will talk about this and make shifts. I wondered if Sandeep was ever in rooms with leaders where this comes up, what has been their resistance? And if he has been able to convince any of them to start to think about it, what has that conversation been like? Well,
Sandeep Patel (19:59):
I, I tell you, first we start with our employees. And so at first, and, and this decision on kind of corporate policy was made even before I got to the company back in 2018 or 2019. And there were people who were like, oh, you’re telling me what I can eat? And so forth. And again, it was like, no, this is just the corporate dollars, like what we’re spending it on. But what I will say is, since I joined the company, we did a number of education sessions on climate change. Like what are the most important things? And we just let the signs speak for itself. And I think now a lot more people get it and understand it. And so I think just getting the word out, like, this is the science, this is why we’re making this decision, this is why we’re doing these things, number one.
Number two, making it fun and interesting and giving people tools. So one of the other things we did is we invested in a great startup out of the UK called Plants and Perks. And they’ve created what we believe is the world’s first plant-based employee wellness portal. And we have, all our employees have access to this, and they have all kinds of tips, recipes, live webcasts of cooking shows and demonstrations. So, so getting employees engaged in a way that’s fun, I think is also very important. Third, in terms of getting other corporates to, to do things. Mm-hmm. , I would say we haven’t spent a ton of time advocating on that front yet. Okay. We wanted to make sure, first, we wanted to first just start doing things and create a track record. Look, here is what, what is possible, and here’s what we are doing. And one of the reasons I’m thrilled to be on this podcast is so we can start getting the word out. Like these are the, some of the things that companies can start doing and really improving their approach to sustainability by addressing some of the most important issues.
Andrea Learned (21:46):
I’ve been dying for somebody to say that. And the fact that Sandeep has these proof points will be hugely impactful when they’re ready to present it to the world. It’s telling a new story at the leadership level. The data and framing combined can help other leaders make these tweaks to their policies and infrastructure and nudge employees to make different decisions around food and gradually mindsets will shift. Pop Sockets has such a great story to tell. Sandeep should literally be on stage talking about food system shifts at COP 28. He tells us some of the policies, practices, and initiatives that have been successful and implemented in a way that doesn’t alienate employees.
Sandeep Patel (22:25):
Look, I’d say they’re everyday things. So if we have business partners come out and we’re going to dinner, I mean, we’ll make clear, here’s our corporate policy. So you want us to pay for it? It’s gotta be vegetarian . Okay?
Andrea Learned (22:40):
And we don’t even know where Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse is. .
Sandeep Patel (22:43):
Some people are like, great. Oh, that’s so interesting that you do that. Other people look at us like we’re from Mars. But that’s fine. Uh, you gotta have the conviction to kind of stick to it and articulate this. And I think even those little things will start having impact over time. On the much bigger front, what we would love to do is put together a coalition similar to what has been done for tree planting, which is fantastic. So the Trillion Tree Initiative, for example, and one of the ideas we’ve been kicking around is a trillion meal initiative. How can we transition a trillion meals over the next X amount of years to plant-based, you know, we’ve done some equivalency calculations relative to tree planting. And again, the tour synergistic, if you do this, it frees up land for tree planting, right? Yes. So it’ll help companies with stated tree planting goals achieve their objectives, right?
So we would love to put that kind of coalition together and put it on the same footing as tree planting and electric vehicles and smart grids and, and you name it, in renewable energy, right? It needs to be at that same level as opposed to, oh, it’s too difficult to change food habits is just fade a complete, it’s gonna happen, right? Mm-hmm. , mm-hmm. will, changes in consumer behavior have shown that you can change things and people are willing, and they’re very eager to play a participatory role in addressing arguably the most important issue of our time climate change. It’s just a question of finding those ways to do it. And I think because it’s very politically charged for governments to do this, that corporates have a huge opportunity here to step in and take leadership.
Andrea Learned (24:27):
Oh, I couldn’t agree more. I, I mean, I’m so excited to hear you’re talking about this and thinking about it this way. Um, do you have tips on the joyfulness, because I know that the joyfulness was in there, tips for making this shift fun and accessible that may inspire anybody who might be listening or interested in this, like tips for the joyfulness of this transition?
Sandeep Patel (24:51):
Well, I, I’d say a couple things. One, as I, as I referenced earlier, you know, every culture around the world I think has rich history of plant-based food tradition. So you can bring kind of diversity into the equation as well by highlighting, I remember when I was at cia, we would have this tremendous Mexican food that happened to be vegan, right? But it, it wasn’t that it led with vegan, it was, it’s just great tasting Mexican food, right? And so just bringing the richness of flavors from all around the world to play, you don’t need some fancy high tech meat alternative to have great tasting plant-based food, right? So I think that can bring that joyfulness and celebratory aspect to things, particularly in global multinational companies, right? It’s like we have food from all around the world. We can celebrate that and, and celebrate different people’s heritage and so forth. Secondly, I think things like plants and perks. They’re trying to gamify plant-based trial, right? So they make it fun. They have leaderboards, they have contest pledges who’s been most successful. You win prizes, you win, things like that, right? And then third, I would say just, just being very transparent about company sustainability goals. And we need everyone’s help in order to achieve these things. And these are some of the ways that people can do that.
Andrea Learned (26:08):
Are you hopeful that we can change the minds of corporations ?
Sandeep Patel (26:13):
Uh, I am Okay. Because I think that companies realize they need to be in order to be good corporate citizens, and because employees wanna work, get excited about working in a company actually doing positive things in the world, that they need to take aggressive action on climate change. So that is a major hurdle that’s already been passed. Now it’s a question of, well, okay, what is most impactful to do? Right? And I think, again, the science is very clear. So it’s kind of making it palatable from a standpoint of actually taking action, uh, in a way that’s very aligned with the science.
Andrea Learned (26:48):
Yeah. Oh, this has been wonderful. Sandeep, thank you so much for your time. I, I love your story and thank you for sharing it. And I cannot wait to to hear from you about how you’re gonna be talking about this or really positioning yourself and that coalition sounds amazing. I’m so excited to hear about that. Thank you again for your time. This was so fun.
Sandeep Patel (27:07):
Andrea Learned (27:10):
What a great conversation. I want to emphasize how energizing it is to speak to a corporate leader who is walking the talk and putting sustainability in the forefront of his company’s impact strategy. While it may be surprising to many that a CFO would be so focused on impact and sustainability, Sandeep argues and I agree that CFOs in the sustainability reporting line makes a lot of sense. It removes what some may perceive as the tension between sustainability and financial objectives. And it allows for an opportunity to integrate sustainability into core performance and reporting metrics with equal status as financial results. Small shifts, friends, that’s all it takes to get the ball rolling. Make plant-based your organization’s default food option, and allow folks to opt in for meat and dairy, eat at plant-based restaurants. When your company’s paying, put plant-based milks in the coffee maker. These choices will often lead to larger discussions and bigger goals. But Sandeep and I are here to encourage you to take the first step for your company. Lead through example, live your change. Identifying, building and leveraging your leadership is something few may feel prepared to do, but climate influence can’t wait. If your organization is ready to make the shift, reach out to me. I’d love to help. Find email@example.com. I’m also easy to find on Twitter until it is no more. And LinkedIn
Living Change is produced by LARJ media. That’s L a R j Media. Special thanks to Tina, Joel, Jeff, and Maria. Until next time, pedal safely.