Ep 4 – Conversation with Nira Johri ( VP of Global Inclusion and Sustainability at Rich Products Corp)

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In this episode, we speak with Nira Johri, Vice president of Global Inclusion and Sustainability for Rich Products Corporation, a privately held multinational food products company.

In this episode, Nira talks about her journey from being in the public sector in the Obama administration, later working with an NGO, and eventually to her current role with Rich Products Corporation. This journey has helped her to understand how stakeholders in each of those sectors operate and what drives and motivates them.

When talking about the drivers of sustainability, Nira talks about making it a table issue at her company and also notes the importance of legislation and regulations that will help push and guide the system along. Then she also notes impediments to implementing sustainability and inclusion pointing to things like sustainable ingredients, sustainable packaging, payback time that may be 7 years instead of 3 years, etc.

Nira then talks about the importance of social, and environmental KPIs and concludes by noting that she is an eternal optimist about our future because this work cannot be done out of frustration but at the same time everyone needs to figure out how to stay positive and stay energized.

Nira begins by discussing her professional journey. She started out in the public sector in the Obama administration where she helped shape foreign policy. She then went on to work with an NGO before entering the private sector and her current role with Rich Products Corporation. This journey has helped her understand how stakeholders in each of these sectors operate including what drives them and what motivates them. Nira makes a point about how we need to move from generic sustainability to regenerative models: i.e., how do we recreate and foster growth and prosperity in ways that give back to people and the planet.

On working in a privately held company like Rich Products, which has more than 5 billion US dollars in revenue, Nira says food companies have to focus on climate. This means working on ingredients, packaging, water, and waste. She also talks about human rights, especially fair labor.

When talking about the drivers of sustainability, Nira discusses making it a table issue at her company. She also notes the importance of legislation and regulations that will help push the system along. She discusses some of the impediments to implementing sustainability and inclusion, pointing to issues like sustainable ingredients, sustainable packaging, payback time that may be 7 years instead of 3 years, etc.

Nira spends some time on the importance of social and environmental KPIs and how technology can be used to enable them. She concludes by noting that she is an eternal optimist about our future because this work cannot be done out of frustration. It is very important that everyone learns how to stay positive and stay energized.

Guest Bio

Nira Johri is currently Vice president of Global Inclusion and Sustainability for Rich Products Corporation, a privately held multinational food products company.

Nira is a sustainability executive with 18+ years of experience leading transformational global strategies across the public and private sectors. She is passionate about delivering impact for organizations where inclusion and sustainability are fundamental parts of doing business. Nira is adept at building relationships across cultural and political divides and creating mutually beneficial partnerships.

Key moments timestamps

[00:36]- Nira’s professional journey

[01:57]- What does sustainability mean to Nira?

[03:23]- What’s the link between diversity, inclusion, and sustainability?

[05:25]- How different is her current role compared to what she has done in the past?

[07:20]- On the difference between a private company vs a public company and the roles of financial performance vs long-term sustainability

[09:09]-  What are the major drivers of sustainability in business and if Nira thinks businesses can solve the sustainability issue on their own.

[11:52]- What are the major impediments to businesses being more sustainable?

[14:12]- How exactly do sustainability and social impact issues get taken into account at her company Rich products?

[17:02]- Given that Rich Products is a privately held company, how do they report and how often do they report?

[17:58]- Personal stories on sustainability and social impact

[19:47]- How are social, environmental, and technology issues connected?

[21:51]- Sectors that are helping make progress on sustainability and ones that are holding us back.

[23:42]- What does the future hold? Is Nira optimistic?

Check out the full episode transcription at: https://https://morewithlesspodcast.com/ 


A huge part of any sustainability role is influencing without authority. So, understanding what your stakeholders want is really a key and instrumental part of success. – Nira Johri


[00:00:00] Venkata Gandikota: Welcome to more with less, the podcast that looks at how businesses balance financial growth with sustainability. I am Venkata Gandikota

[00:00:09] Jaideep Prabhu: and I’m Jaideep Prabhu.

[00:00:22] Venkata Gandikota: In this episode we speak with Nira Johri, Vice president, Global Inclusion and Sustainability for Rich Products Corporation, a privately held multinational food products company.

[00:00:36] Jaideep Prabhu: Nira, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us. You’ve been working at the heart of sustainable business for a while now. Could you tell us a bit about yourself and your professional journey?

[00:00:47] Nira Johri: Yeah, thanks so much for having me. I’m honored to be here with you today. My career really has been what I call a nomadic wandering. And so that means that I’ve had a chance and an opportunity to work in the private sector. I started my career in marketing. I had a chance to work in the public sector in the Obama administration, helping to shape and determine foreign policy.

And then I came to business school and really looked for a way to blend those two, and where that led me was the intersection of brands and civic and social impact. And so that really brought me into a career in sustainability. So for the last decade I’ve been working in sustainable food systems, both at NGOs and with the private sector.

So for me, I really draw on the experiences of each of those sectors and how they come together. You need each of them and the different forces and the opportunities that each one offers to shape and determine the path and the roadway. And it’s been also really valuable to understand how stakeholders at each of those sectors or each of those types of organizations operate: what drives them? What motivates them? A huge part of any sustainability role is influencing without authority. So, understanding what your stakeholders want is really a key and instrumental part of success.

[00:01:57] Venkata Gandikota: So we are talking about sustainability and one question that we’ve been asking other guests is I want to ask you as well. What does sustainability actually mean to you? Because sustainability can mean a lot of things to a lot of people is what I understood. What does it mean to you?

[00:02:13] Nira Johri: That’s a great question. And I think we get caught up in the terminology a lot. Do we have the right definition? Are we aligned? And I think anytime you look at the different iterations of the definitions, what stands out for me is -growth and prosperity without sacrificing people or planet. Those are the fundamental threads and the pillars of the work that we do.

And I’m taking a really interesting course right now on sustainability ideas and how they come to life in an organization. And one of the things we’re learning about is how nature does it, how does nature survive? How does nature reiterate and regenerate? And one of the amazing things – s uccess in nature means sustaining your species for 10,000 generations. And I think that’s a really powerful way to think about it is we won’t be around in 10,000 generations and maybe for animals, they go through those iterations a little faster than humans, but how do we think about leaving the place and the people in which we live intact and in fact better off than we founded. And so we’re really shifting in fact from sustainable something that endures to regenerative models, how do we recreate, how do we foster that growth and prosperity in ways that give back to people and planet?

[00:03:23] Venkata Gandikota: Nira, you have a really interesting title at Rich Products: Vice President Global inclusion and sustainability. So I just wanted to ask you a bit more about that role. What’s the link between diversity, inclusion and sustainability? And why global inclusion?

[00:03:41] Nira Johri: So at Rich products, we’re a nearly $5 billion food manufacturer.

We work across a number of different categories- bakery, frozen foods, pizzas, all of these wonderful products that help you celebrate life with your family and friends. And for us we’re a global manufacturer. So we operate in over 35 different countries. We sell our products in over a hundred countries.

We have 12,000 people globally that work for us. It was never an option to only look at one market or one view. As a global corporation, you have to consider all of your people and all of the places in which you operate. And for us that linkage between diversity, equity and inclusion and sustainability it’s not a new story, right?

So if you look at the models that have been embedded in whether it was the millennial development goals, whether. Now the transference into the sustainable development goals, you see both pillars of environment and also the social issues represented equally there. And I think they are intricately linked.

You can’t have people prosper if you don’t have a planet that is supporting that prosperity. And we’ve seen that, we see. Hunger and poverty in the world directly linked to where there isn’t enough fresh water or where there isn’t enough arable land. So these are not new connections. I think what is happening now is the way that we might have looked at our supply chains in the past and said, okay, how do we treat the people that are at the farms or in the fields?

How do we bring that lens now to our workplaces? And conversely how do we take the way that we’ve managing our land as farmers and fishermen and bring that into our corporations and think about the way we operate and the way we make things. I think it’s really beautifully coming together. The intersection that has always been there is just becoming more viable.

[00:05:25] Venkata Gandikota: Just following up with that question and answer. So the natural thing for me is to understand, like how different is this current role that you have with Rich products compared to what you have done in the past say with Unilever, and then the other question would be, does being a privately held firm mean you face less short term financial pressures than listed companies?

[00:05:46] Nira Johri: So I think there’s always a continuous theme when you’re working in food sustainability, right? We look at the material issues, the issues that matter for a food business, and those are universally the same. You might have some up and down depending on who you work with, where you work and those issues may adjust based on that. But food companies, you’re having a massive impact on land and agriculture, right? So you’re definitely thinking about the ingredients that you buy. We’re now also bringing in a much deeper lens on packaging and the resources required to make that packaging, whether it’s plastics or paper.

We’re also always looking at the climate impact. We know that as a food manufacturer, it can be anywhere between 60 to 80%. And sometimes more, sometimes a little bit less. If your Scope 3 emissions will come from the ingredients that you purchase because of that impact on agriculture.

So food companies focus on climate. We focus on our ingredients. We focus on packaging, we look at water and waste those, and then we bring in your people lens. And you think about human rights. You think about fair labor. You think about all of those connected components. So there’s a lot of similarities between one food company to the next.

What is unique? Very interesting about Rich products is we’re a private family owned company. We’ve been in business for 76 years with a strong ambition and desire to be in business for the next 76. And being a private corporation does allow us a tremendous opportunity to think longer term, right, we aren’t under investor pressure.

And that changes the way that we can operate and those considerations that we put into the business.

[00:07:20] Jaideep Prabhu: If I can follow up on that question about being private versus listed. You do have suppliers, you do have partners in the supply chain who are probably listed, say Walmart, for instance, does that affect then the pressures that you’re under, perhaps to focus more on financial performance than more long term sustainability?

[00:07:45] Nira Johri: We are a business. That’s the primary purpose, right? And so I think we drive to two things first is our people, right? We know that none of our success is possible without taking care of the people in our organization. There’s a beautiful quote from Simon Sinek, which says that the role of leaders is to take care of those in your charge instead of being in charge.

And we know, and this links back to the work that we’re doing on diversity and inclusion is, people that feel psychologically safe, that feel a sense of belonging that see their growth in the organization that are recognized for their contributions directly lead to performance and innovation organization.

And what that enables us to do is to be a customer obsessed organization to deliver on those customer needs. So though we as a private organization may not have investors who are putting that pressure, our customers are absolutely feeling that pressure from investors. But in many places have been self-motivated and have been on this path for a decade or more. In the best organizations, 2, 3, 4 decades. So the expectations that cascade from our customers absolutely affect our business and what we prioritize. We also are very privileged to work with some of the most progressive suppliers out there. And so we also rely on our supplier partners to help provide us solutions and pathways to meet some of these very progressive and big ambitions.

[00:09:09] Jaideep Prabhu: So clearly it’s a systemic issue and you need to work with others. What would you say Nira are the major drivers of sustainability in business? Why are businesses moving in that direction and you think businesses can solve the problem of climate change on their own?

[00:09:26] Nira Johri: I think that the drivers are really interesting.

And what we’ve seen is for a long time, this was driven primarily by activist concerns, or you would have, NGOs or vocal organizations or vocal, small consumer groups saying you have to do differently.

And what we’ve seen we talk about now, Sustainability, particularly in our organization as a table stake, it’s not a trend. It’s not something that we have to plan for the future. It is here today. It affects so much of what we do and how we operate. And that is really in our business, in the food space, particularly changing and evolving because of customer and consumer demand. So the way people eat, people are looking to understand more and more what they eat, what goes into it and how it’s made and who it’s made by. And so they have also unprecedented access to information, whether it’s websites or social media and they have the ability to ground truth, the people that they buy from and what they’re buying. And so that puts the onus back on food companies to say, how are we providing and meeting the demand of those consumers and what they’re looking for.

We also have seen a tremendous shift in legislation and regulation that helps push the system along. So in the best cases your governments are in lockstep with you, you’re working in partnership with them as a private sector organization. And in many cases we see governments now even doing more than we have ever seen in the past, whether it’s on climate legislation, whether it’s on packaging legislation, whether it’s due diligence of supply chains and the ingredients that we purchase.

I think on your question Jaideep about whether or not corporations can solve climate change alone. The answer is absolutely no. We need every willing and able actor. And in fact, the role of legislators and regulation helps push those that have been slower to come to this because we realize the science tells us we aren’t moving fast enough.

We aren’t doing it enough. And in fact it’s even the latest reports from the IPCC tell us essentially that we have to do even more than we believed possible. So we need all of the actors that are either emitters or regulators or policy makers. Or consumers, the choices that consumers make play a huge role in driving the actions of the private sector, as well as the governments.

So we need people to really work together in order to achieve those extremely ambitious targets that we’re already way off track for.

[00:11:52] Venkata Gandikota: That’s very nicely put. So you talked about the major drivers, but what about like the major impediments to businesses being more sustainable? And then of course you talked already a bit about short term financial pressures, but maybe in your answer, if you can also discuss, that could be interesting.

[00:12:08] Nira Johri: So I think cost and the resources required to do this work are always, I wouldn’t say an impediment, but a reality, right? You have to consider the cost of goods sold and where we are in the world today, particularly in the food space is to be sustainable cost more. Sustainable ingredients, have a premium. Sustainable packaging isn’t pervasive. Even the assets that go into our manufacturing plans to get the greenest and the cleanest of those assets is more expensive. So you have to have a long term view when you’re making those choices. And to also be able to show the business case and the return on that. And those returns will sometimes be longer.

You’ll be looking at a six or seven year payback versus a two to three year payback. So I think one thing that is there is the baseline cost that you have to absorb and understand how to integrate into your business. You also have to change hearts and minds and behaviors. So if you’re in a business where you’ve traditionally accepted a three year payback, and that is the model, you have to convince business that it’s worth it to wait for the seven year payback by the social and environmental gains you’ll get from that. Often we say you know money is always an issue, cost is always an issue, but I argue that our time, our resources to be able to achieve that change, to bring people in our organization, to these new types of working, new ways of working is even the harder challenge that we face in our businesses today.

I also think another piece that I feel quite frustrated by is there’s a lot of competition when there should be collaboration. Those things that are good for economies, the innovation, the new things that can come out, we often see duplication, right? So in the sustainability space, there’s a lot of people saying I have a unique solution instead of finding complimentary or intersectional paths that help us do this work faster and better together.

So I’d love to see a strength in the way that we work together as well.

[00:14:12] Jaideep Prabhu: So my question is now more about the operational bit when the rubber hits the road. So how exactly do sustainability and social impact issues get taken into account at Rich products? What KPIs do you track for instance, and what is the role of data?

[00:14:31] Nira Johri: We measure financial, environmental and social impact.

So we, we track on a pretty traditional scorecard. We look at where and how sustainable ingredients contribute to our revenue. And then we also look at the cost saving opportunities that sustainable initiatives, equipment, projects in our organization contribute. And then we look at based on where our long term ambitions are, how we’re progressing on whether it’s conversion of a sustainable ingredient or a goal to meet recyclable packaging. We look at the progress against that.

I think one of the greatest challenges that many sustainability professionals face is how to look at your metrics and your KPIs and convert them just from an inputs and outputs perspective to an outcomes and impact perspective. And this is where I think that lens that NGOs or non-profits offer is tremendously helpful because they’re long established models of theories of change. You start with the vision, the impact that, the change that you’re hoping to achieve and you work backwards, right? What are the inputs required to get to that change? So we, as sustainability professionals have to strengthen that view of how we show outcomes and impact in our organizations. We’re not there yet. We’re working on it.

And I think the other piece a nd this is also how do we speak the language of our businesses better and truly connect our KPIs and metrics into measures that make sense for a business that speaks primarily in financial. So if you’re only speaking in an environmental language or a social change language that may not resonate with financial decision makers in your business. So how do you convert that language?

The role of data is again foundational and instrumental and extremely challenging. I think when we went through the early starts of the tech revolution, people talked about big data, right? Lots and lots of information at your fingertips. And the volume of information is no longer the problem, but converting big data to good data is really our challenge and the availability of the data. So what we find is the data might be available on a document that a supplier provided us at the beginning of a contract. Has that been well integrated into our systems? Has that information, is it available to somebody to pull a report on? Can we easily analyze it and then use it to make decisions? That is the greatest complexity that we’re facing. And many other businesses are in the same spot of how do you pull forward the right data to make decisions and to have that impact you’re looking for.

[00:17:02] Jaideep Prabhu: I just wanted to follow up on the reporting bit. Given that you’re a privately held company, how do you report and how often do you report publicly? Do you do that? And is there a commitment to these targets on a quarterly basis?

[00:17:18] Nira Johri: We track progress internally. And we share. We have established sustainability governance. And so we are accountable to internal governance organizations, as well as we provide report outs up to the Rich family (ownership) and to our executive committee about twice a year.

We’ve been exploring publicly reporting and transparency of our efforts. We’re hoping to get there in the next few years. I think the important piece for us is the open dialogue that we have with our stakeholders and our customers and our suppliers about what we’re doing. We do a lot of work to share out the work that we’re doing and to be clear on the path that we’re following with our key stakeholders.

[00:17:58] Venkata Gandikota: So changing track. We talked primarily about the company, rich products itself, but I want to ask do you have any personal stories to share on why you see sustainability and social impact as important issues for businesses to be involved in? And what links do you see between inequality, environment and technology?

[00:18:17] Nira Johri: I think those are two really big questions. My personal passion, I have to say really came out of business school. I saw this tremendous opportunity, the economic value that the private sector provides, how instrumental they are to that growth and prosperity that we talked about at the beginning.

I just felt that there was a tremendous opportunity for the private sector and corporations to do more, to have that environmental and social impact in the way that they operate. And what we’ve seen time and again organizations like Unilever are a great example, is that taking the right actions, doing your part from an environmental and social perspective, in fact fosters growth. It doesn’t impede your growth. It doesn’t get in the way of growth. We see the companies that take sustainability on very genuinely and very authentically continue to grow through those efforts. And that should be everyone’s aspiration and ambition is how do we continue and maintain the growth required through those other efforts.

And so for me I’m always heartened when I see corporations doing that and that’s part of what I’m trying to build and achieve at our organization. And I always say I’m not trying to change the whole world. It’s not possible as one individual, but if I make a small dent, if I am able to improve a process, and if I’m able to strengthen our environmental and social impact even in a short period of time, that for me will have been a meaningful and fulfilling life. So for me, it’s a personal driver of what brings me joy and what I believe I was put on the planet to do. And you have to repeat the second question for me now.

[00:19:47] Venkata Gandikota: Yeah. I was just asking what are the links between the social aspect of those things, the environmental aspect of those things and technology?

[00:19:55] Nira Johri: I think the pandemic has been unfortunately an expose on many of the connections between social, environmental technology and many other places. We’ve known for a long time and their continues to be work and have t hat, communities that live in poverty or communities that are in lower economic places are most adversely affected by climate change. And in the United States, there’s direct correlation to black and brown communities, right? So the folks that have systemically been marginalized, underrepresented are now also being adversely affected by yet another system the climate system and the environmental impact.

So you see this come to life and the work that’s being done on climate justice very evidently making those linkages and trying to change those narratives. I think the other side of technology where you saw this was as we moved to remote work systems, who was able to be really successful and to do that in a heartbeat, right?

You could go to your home, you had multiple computers, you had an office to work in, you had childcare or support systems for your children or your families or your elderly parents that you needed to be caregivers for. And those that didn’t have those things, right? The children that didn’t have an extra laptop to work with, the people who work an hourly job and do not have an alternative childcare solution, if their child is not going to a school every day.

So we’ve seen those systems exposed. They’re even more fractured than we understood before. And it’s a tremendous opportunity to look at what we’ve learned through this pandemic and to strengthen our systems and supports for all people. What we have to understand what equity means is that people need different things to be successful. And that we can’t have one size fits solution. One size fits all solutions that favor the privileged or the wealthy, because we leave a lot of people behind in those models.

[00:21:51] Jaideep Prabhu: So as you step back and look at the whole kind of business environment, are there any particular sectors that you think are really making progress here or some that are holding us back?

[00:22:02] Nira Johri: Yeah I’m super excited by the work that I see being done by investors and pension funds. I really think along with that regulation we talked about earlier, it’s a tremendous force that drives change in the business world and having investors get educated about these issues building in functions into their team, it’s really exciting to see them putting a focus and holding private sector accountable. It makes us all better. It provides rigor to the work that we’re doing. It provides that transparency and reporting that we’ve also talked about. So I’m excited to see the advancements being made there.

And I think when you’re in the service side of sectors, whether it’s banking or technology, Your opportunity to do more and advance is definitely also more possible in some ways, just because you’re not necessarily buying commodities the same way that you are in food or fashion. Food and fashion are both behind.

We aren’t nearly at the levels that we need to be of this work. But I would argue that we’ve got a higher hill to climb on this as well. I think that’s where I see a little bit of progress delayed. I also think one watch out for all of us is as we evolve our carbon markets, as we see offsets evolving, as we see how people are setting, deciding on climate ambitions, I think we really need to have a philosophical conversation about intentionality and additionality. Are we actually taking actions that lessen our climate impact or are we supporting systems that make it feel like that look good on paper and reporting but that genuinely don’t lessen that environmental degradation that we’re causing every day.

Really wanna watch that space in the coming years and see how we can strengthen our approaches there as well.

[00:23:42] Jaideep Prabhu: What do you think about the future then? What does it hold for us? Are you optimistic? Are you pessimistic? What is the timeframes do you think that we are under, can we meet some of our targets to reverse the effects on climate?

[00:23:58] Nira Johri: I am an eternal optimist. I don’t think you can do this work from whether it’s diversity, equity or inclusion or sustainability work. I don’t think you can do it from a place of frustration and despair. And I think that’s a really important takeaway for practitioners is to maintain your own resilience how you stay positive, how you stay energized, how you stay connected.

For some people that might be a glass of wine at the end of the day for others, it might be the networks and the people that support you, but whatever your mechanisms are, that resilience is tremendously important. I’m hopeful because I see the landscape of what consumers are asking for change.

I’m always super heartened by what’s happening with gen Z and gen alpha. The new generations that are coming up the way they think and operate. These are conversations they’re having every day. They don’t have to be taught to be different. They already are acting differently, both from a equity and inclusion perspective, as well as a sustainability perspective.

I’m super disappointed that we may not leave the world in a better place for them. I’m a daughter of immigrants. So for me, it was always about a dream of a better world than we inherited. But I’m gonna do everything that I can to keep towards that aspiration and to hopefully do a small part to leave it better for those that I can.

[00:25:14] Jaideep Prabhu: Thank you so much, Nina for that wonderful interview.

[00:25:16] Nira Johri: Thanks for having me.

Thanks for listening to our more, less podcast, you can follow us also on social media, our Twitter handle is morewithlesspod and our handles on Instagram, LinkedIn and YouTube are more with less podcast.

About Us

Venkata Gandikota is frugal innovation and impact investing evangelist and Prof Jaideep Prabhu is a Professor of Marketing at Cambridge University’s Judge Business School and co-author of an award-winning book on frugal innovation.

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