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First 100 days as a CEO: a journey to regenerating the food system

Richard Zaltzman reflects on his first 100 days as the CEO of EIT Food, in which he embarked on a campaign of deep listening with colleagues and food system partners. He looks to the future and the organisation's evolving role in transforming the food system.

22 May 2024
5 min reading time

Upon assuming my role as CEO of EIT Food in January 2024, I felt both excitement and trepidation in anticipating the future of an organisation at the centre of so many key challenges. The task of succeeding my predecessor and guiding a team renowned for its resilience and innovation was undeniably daunting. Yet, I knew it would be a journey rich with inspiration and fulfilment. And so it has proven to be.

During my first 100 days, I set out to engage in over 100 meaningful conversations with various stakeholders, colleagues, partners, and community members alike. These interactions provided invaluable insights that are already broadening my understanding of the trajectory of EIT Food. From dialogues with partners and startups on fostering regenerative practices throughout the entire food system, to hearing ideas from team members on enabling organisational development at all levels, it has been thought-provoking at all turns. I travelled across Europe, connecting with colleagues and partners to absorb learnings that will inform my future endeavours. Whether it was sharing a meal with farmers in Davos, witnessing the launch of the Regenerative Innovation Portfolio, or delving into the food crisis simulation of the Food Alert project, each meeting and workshop underscored the vast potential for positive change within the EIT Food community.

A snapshot of my first 100 days as CEO of EIT Food

Urgent action, deep transformation

One crucial insight gleaned from my discussions is how change can bring both excitement and challenges. It's evident that swift transformation is imperative to address the dynamic challenges confronting the food system. Conversations with partners and colleagues underscored the urgency of this task, yet also revealed a collective acknowledgment of its necessity. The scale of challenges requires us to speed up; the world needs us to speed up.

Meeting with colleagues and partners in Freising, Germany
Meeting with colleagues and partners in Freising, Germany

During my visit to Lithuania, I discussed with colleagues the pressing need to enhance and modernise our support systems for farmers and policymakers. In these turbulent times, we must bring policymakers, farmers and other stakeholders together to make bold decisions that work for everyone. It is essential that we steer the dialogue towards new agricultural models that prioritise both the short- and long-term challenges that farmers are facing.

When speaking with Simon Kraemer from the European Alliance for Regenerative Agriculture in March, he expressed that regulatory and subsidy planning must be simplified and tightened. He said this will empower farmers to their context-specific journeys to more sustainable and profitable farming practices such as regenerative agriculture, and that better communication and collaboration between stakeholders is essential for this process.

There’s no i in leader

The sentiment of collective action was mirrored in Leuven when I met with our fantastic leadership team and colleagues. The dialogue in Belgium focussed on the power of individual action to spark transformative change within our organisation and beyond. We also emphasised the importance of shared leadership - a collective responsibility that enables us to distribute challenges and opportunities equally. This concept underpins our commitment to fostering a regenerative business culture; one that not only yields sustainable outcomes structurally and operationally, but also one that creates a sense of unity and collaboration among team members. The discussions in Leuven reaffirmed our belief in placing people at the core of our three missions. Without the dedication and expertise of our team and partners, we will not achieve the impact we need.

As I explained on the Food Fight podcast , my vision of regenerative and forward-thinking leadership draws inspiration from the steadfast commitment of our planet's farmers. Just as they nurture the soil - the bedrock of their livelihoods - organisations must nurture their culture and community. By prioritising the foundations of our community, we can cultivate regenerative outcomes year after year, securing a prosperous future for all. Effective leadership must reflect the enduring care that farmers devote to their land to yield consistent performance over time. This goes beyond traditional hierarchical structures, requiring a collective effort to confront challenges and acknowledge each and every team member's role in driving positive change. Every initiative, conversation, and commitment to this propels us and the food system toward a better future.

Talking with Matt Eastland on the Food Fight podcast about regenerative leadership

One notable conversation was with Marjolein Brasz, CEO of Foodvalley NL, a partner organisation in the Regenerative Innovation Portfolio. Marjolein generously invited me to her house for lunch, providing a different setting for our conversation as we discussed people and leadership. This reminded me that effective leadership is not just about showing up, looking smart, and making decisions. It’s about people. It’s about connecting with people at a human level so that you can truly share, inspire and collaborate.

Enjoying coffee with the EIT Food team in Leuven, Belgium
Enjoying coffee with the EIT Food team in Leuven, Belgium

Global yet local

One final takeaway – and perhaps the most important – is our collective understanding that this challenge is not ours alone. We, as a community, have a golden opportunity to drive positive change within our expertise, but we must not limit ourselves. One productive discussion was at the European Parliament regarding the potential development of a new innovation community focused on water. There was strong emphasis on social and environmental issues such as water scarcity and the interface between food and water, and collaborating with partners and stakeholders from different regions was highlighted as the key to tangible solutions.

What’s more, EIT Food is inherently a European organisation with a goal to tackle Europe-based food challenges, but our missions extend beyond borders. We must collaborate to achieve global impact, and we must learn from others just as we can inspire them. The recent launch of the 2024 EIT Food Accelerator Network (FAN) startup cohort is an excellent example of this which includes eight Brazilian startups among the new recruits. Brazil plays a key and unique role in the world’s food supply, which is why such collaborations enable us to broaden our horizons and bring more innovative agrifood solutions into the EIT Food network. Although our cultures, geographies and challenges may be different, the knowledge we can learn from one another is invaluable and may even open doors that we do not even know exist yet!

The next chapter of EIT Food

Our Impact Funding Framework has also been developed to inspire global action where we are promoting ambitious, long-term collaboration that will lead to food systems change to benefit us all. The Framework has been designed to support projects that will have the most impact in critical areas such as the impact of diet on obesity and other non-communicable diseases, food-system-related environmental harms, and threats posed by food integrity and complex supply chains.

If you have an idea or concept that will change food systems for the better, we want to hear from you. We also want to hear from organisations and for them to join us as partners to work with us for a better future for everyone. EIT Food is in a unique position connecting all stakeholders across the entire food value chain and we’d love for you to join us. Find out more about becoming an EIT Food partner.

Whether it be food waste, farming, consumption, energy infrastructure, food safety, education or innovation, we are ready to take action. I am thrilled to be embarking on this next chapter with EIT Food and I can’t wait to see the impacts we create for people and planet. If you want to hear more from me, my colleagues and our partners on regenerative food systems, and the role of effective collaboration and leadership, connect with me on LinkedIn where we will be hosting various interactive events and discussions.

I look forward to improving food together!

Authored by

Richard Zaltzman headshot

Richard Zaltzman

CEO of EIT Food

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