Kristin De Simone, Senior Mission Manager (she/her) acts as the architect of mission and environmental stewardship at Thrive Market, the online, membership-based market delivering the highest quality, healthy and sustainable products at member-only prices. De Simone joined the Thrive Market team in 2015 with a hunger to help Americans reclaim access to healthy living, making it easy and affordable for everyone. At present, her areas of leadership include managing social and environmental impact, leading the team’s food equality and social impact arm. She also steers Thrive Market’s sustainability and environmental stewardship efforts, where she atlased securing the coveted “B Corp” certification, an impressive set of standards verifying social and environmental performance, public transparency and legal accountability to balance purpose and profit. In tandem with the B Corp certification, De Simone is charged with leading Thrive Market to climate positivity with industry-disrupting goals including waste reduction, plastic reduction, and carbon reduction.
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John: Welcome to another edition of the Impact podcast. We’re now in 2023, and we’re so excited to have with us today Kristin De Simone, She’s the senior manager of Mission at Thrive Market. Welcome Kristin to the 2023 and the Impact podcast.
Kristin De Simone: Happy new year. Thanks for having me, John. I’m super excited to be here.
John: Healthy and happy new year, especially with Thrive Market now available to so many people around the United States.
John: Before we get talking about the important mission that you’re on and Thrive Market is on, can we talk a little bit about your background so people can learn a little bit about where you grew up, how you even got here?
Kristin: Yeah. It’s been a pretty wild ride. I’ve had a really interesting career journey, a lot of twists and turns. Essentially, I grew up in LA in the valley specifically, born and raised here, never really went too far, not even for college. I’m a SoCal girl through and through. I was born and raised here. My background was funny enough in art. I was an art major in college, and I also played collegiate basketball. My two things were art and basketball. I never even was thinking about sustainability. I only think that was a term when I was in college. Had I known, maybe I would have changed direction earlier. After that, I ended up coaching basketball for 12 years and teaching at the collegiate level. What took me out of that, I had a feeling that I did not want to do that the rest of my life but I didn’t really know what direction to head in. It took two major back surgeries to take me out of that world. I was on disability for a year just feeling lost, really didn’t know what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to stay in the health and wellness space. This new company, Thrive Market, started and I literally saw an ad for a member services job, applied, got it and worked my way up through that role for a couple years and I was eventually offered the mission manager role which I’ve been doing for four years. I was slightly nudged into the role because I didn’t have any experience in sustainability. I was super passionate about what we were doing at Thrive and about our mission, I always wanted to go to the volunteer events. Somebody saw something in me and luckily gave me that little shove that I needed and said, “You got this.” Here I am, four years later managing Mission.
John: That’s incredible. Part of why your story is so important, we have viewers and listeners around the world that want to be the next Kristin De Simone. It’s so important to understand that life is not one straight path because people think it’s go to college, go to certain high school, go to certain college and then you go get your job and then that’s it and it’s just easy peasy lemon squeezy like that. That’s just not how life really is, there’s zigs and zags. Where’d you go to college by the way?
Kristin: UC Riverside.
John: Is that where you play?
Kristin: That’s where I played. I went and got my master’s at Azusa Pacific in Education. I did go back to school recently. I just finished my Sustainability certificate at UCLA. I saw you that you had Nurit Katz on your podcast,, she’s a freaking rock star, love her. I did go back to school eventually for a little bit and that’s like the perfect program for somebody that’s working a full-time gig and wants to get some formal education.
John: What did you coach?
Kristin: I coached all over, mostly junior colleges in Southern California and then one Division III school.
John: UC Riverside. I know UC Riverside only because I was very, very close with the late Jerry Tarkanian who started his career at UC Riverside. There’s a lot of great stories that came out of there that I heard from him over the years and he was always very grateful for that school for giving him his first chance.
Kristin: I learned a lot of great life lessons, both being an athlete and a coach and I’ve been able to apply them throughout my career so I was so grateful to have that background as well.
John: Here we are now, you’re the mission manager. But when you started at Thrive, as you said, someone saw some greatness on on you in terms of their mission in you, what role did you start and how did that evolution go at Thrive?
Kristin: I started in our member services team but I always wanted to get my hands on anything related to our social mission or our Thrive Gives program, it’s our charitable arm. Then, I just put my head down, worked really hard and just left it up to the universe to land me where I was meant to be. I worked my way up through that department and then took on the mission manager role and a year ago, I was promoted to senior manager and I’ve been doing that for about a year. I’ve been in this specific role for about four years.
John: Got it. For our listeners and viewers who are not familiar with Thrive Market themselves yet, and hopefully you do become familiar with them one day, you can find Thrive Market and you can also find Kristin and our great colleagues at www.thrivemarket.com. Talk a little bit about Thrive Market, tee it up on a macro basis. What is Thrive Market and what do you specifically do and what role do you play in services you perform?
Kristin: Thrive has been around since 2014. Basically, we’re a membership based e-commerce platform for healthy and sustainable products delivered directly to your door. Think like Costco or Sam’s Club meets Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s. For $60 a year, our members get access to highly curated assortment of over 500,000 healthy products. Within that, there’s about 700 of our own innovative Thrive Market-owned brand products and these are all at member-only prices. With every paid membership, we actually are able to offer a free membership to a low-income family or a teacher/student/veteran/first responder. Essentially, the goal is to democratize access to healthy products.
John: How democratized, how far have we come in the eight years of Thrive has existed? Obviously, there’s Whole Foods and all sorts of other great brands across America, but Thrive is a very unique service. How many communities do you serve across the whole United States?
Kristin: Anywhere in the United States, we deliver outside of Alaska and Hawaii, and we have just over 1.2 million members now that we’ve acquired.
John: That’s incredible.
Kristin: There’s lots of room for growth but really proud to see how far we’ve made made it in the years.
John: If you’re in the continental United States, you can become a Thrive member right now.
John: That’s awesome. Talk about what you just said about people in need, you facilitate the donated check out program. What does that really mean and why is that so important to Thrive’s mission and heart of caring?
Kristin: Zooming out on Mission, we see Mission as being democratizing access to healthy products and healthy food, but also environmental responsibility. On the access side, our members are able to make an impact just by purchasing an annual membership. With that, we’re able to donate one to somebody that needs it, but they can also go a step further and donate a portion of their savings from their order at checkout. We’ve created basically what we call the food equality fund and we set a goal to raise $10 million by 2025. As of the end of last year, we just hit $9.4 million. A good chunk of that is our members’ donations at checkout, they’re incredibly generous, they always have been and they’re essentially fueling the social impact work that we’re doing. We could not do it without them.
John: That’s incredible. How is Thrive’s offices now and or its corporate headquarters? Is it in Los Angeles somewhere else?
Kristin: We are in LA.
John: How did the pandemic affect two things: how you work at Thrive in terms of at-home versus in-office, and how did it affect your membership? I would assume just as a layman an outsider, that your membership accelerated during the pandemic.
Kristin: We were one of those lucky businesses that we were able to be a resource for people that literally couldn’t leave their home. I’m so proud of the way that we were able to really embody our mission and deliver access to healthy products. There was obviously a huge spike in people just being very aware of their health and their safety so I’m just really excited that we have the opportunity to be that resource for them. I also wanted to mention, you spoke of the Donate at Check out campaign. As soon as COVID hit, we decided to turn on a COVID-19 Fund campaign. Within a few months, we raised over $1.7 million to give stipends to families in need so they could access healthy groceries for free.
John: How are you managing and balancing the interests of families in need which is a whole different algorithm? What does the algorithm look like at Thrive Market?
Kristin: 100% of those donations went to members but we basically just put some messaging out on social media and had people send in their stories about how they’re impacted and that’s how we decided to disperse those funds. Some of the stories were incredibly just painful to read and some sent pictures which broke my heart. The way that our community came together and was so willing to support and do it quickly makes me so proud of the way that our community stepped up and was able to support.
John: How many employees are now part of Thrive in Los Angeles?
Kristin: In LA, I think we’re around 150 or 125.
John: There are more employees nationally?
Kristin: Yeah. We have three fulfillment centers across the US. I think we’re around 800-mark total employees. I’ve got to say in COVID-19, the real heroes here were our FC employees because they were essential to us getting these groceries to families that needed it. They are the heroes.
John: Pre COVID-19, everyone worked in an office. Post COVID-19, it’s a hybrid situation. How does it work now?
Kristin: We did try the hybrid for a little bit but we did establish that we’re now going to be a remote-first company. As of right now, it’s working for us so we downsized our office during COVID and I believe we’re going to be downsizing again. It’s definitely remote first and we’re just realizing how much more efficient folks can be with no distractions. That’s where we’re navigated.
John: When you look at the velocity of new members pre-COVID, during COVID and now, God-willing, we’re in the post-COVID moment and we stay there, talk about the velocity. Was the highest velocity during COVID but it’s still higher today than it was pre-COVID? How does that shape up for such an important and vital brand like yours?
Kristin: We saw a huge spike in membership and revenue during COVID and there’s been some drop-off, but nothing significant. It has definitely normalized our growth but we’re still seeing people stay onboard that did join during the crisis.
John: Talk about a little bit about being a mission manager. I’ve had such a lucky run over the last 15 years interviewing chief sustainability officers, chief impact officers and now, they’re called so many different things like chief diversity officers, ESG officers. Where does mission manager fall at Thrive because everyone can, on a macro-basis, define ESG sustainability somewhat differently. How does that fall out at Thrive?
Kristin: Mission is to make healthy and sustainable living, easy, accessible, affordable for everyone. I basically manage on the access side, I manage our Thrive Gifts program, making sure we’re getting those memberships out to folks that need it and then managing our Donate at Checkout campaign, which a portion of those funds go to support those Thrive Gifts members’ shopping budgets. Another portion goes to any nonprofit that is Mission online that we partner with. I manage that relationship as well. I also do all of our charitable giving, all of our community engagement, opportunities for volunteer work for our Thrivers, we call our employees Thrivers.
John: That’s great.
Kristin: Last but not least, managing our environmental sustainability roadmap. It’s a lot of work but at the same time, super rewarding.
John: Let’s talk about environmental sustainability. Obviously, you just took the certification program at UCLA. What does it mean for Thrive Market on the environmental side? Do you do an impact report every year or environmental report every year? How does that work?
Kristin: Great question. We’ve been doing a basically a mission impact report for the last three years, so this will be our 4th one coming up focused on both social and environmental impact. Both have been ingrained in our DNA since the beginning, both social and environmental. I think we really leaned into our social mission and our social impact work when we first launched and we didn’t really talk about our environmental responsibilities work. We’ve been doing it since the beginning, we’ve been offsetting a portion of our carbon emissions since 2014. We’ve had zero waste practices in place since 2015, doing all this work but not talking about it. We got our head of marketing in a few years ago. She’s like, “Why aren’t we talking about this stuff?” Now, we definitely prioritize the environmental, as well as the social impact.
John: Truth be known also, obviously as you say, it’s a DNA thing at Thrive Market to be on the right side of the environment and social issues and really be doing the right thing on a regular basis even when people aren’t looking. To your marketing person’s credit, the truth of the matter is, the world has just woken up in the last two or three years.
John: To caring about sustainability, circular economy, ESG especially in America as my experience at least. Europe was generations ahead of us because they’re smaller. You go to UK, France or any other country in Europe and they’re small so they don’t have the benefit of the American way of, “Hey, we’re the land of the white and the free and we have more trash, let’s just dig another landfill and we’ll keep living in the linear economy even if they’re living in the circular economy.” The validation institutionally from BlackRock and all the biggest financial institutions of the world saying, “We’re not going to invest in any more companies and you’re not going to be a portfolio company unless you’re on the right side of this,” was a bellwether moment 18 or 20 months ago. This is now, “Come to America.” It’s not okay that we’re acting one way and the rest of the world is trying to really move us in a different direction, so good for you.
Kristin: Absolutely and we’re the ones that’s a huge piece of this mess that were in. Thank goodness people are waking up because it’s time. We are late to the game but at least we’re waking up.
John: Yeah, but at least great companies like yours and people like you and your colleagues that were doing this on a regular basis anyway, so just messaging it is the easy and fun part compared to actually doing the hard work. You guys were doing the hard work already, so hats off to you, hats off to Thrive Market. For those who just joined us or just tuned in, we got Kristin De Simone here, she’s the mission manager at Thrive Market. You can find Thrive Market and you could join Thrive Market and their great service at www.thrivemarket.com. The environmental responsibility, zero waste carbon emissions. What I’ve learned over the years through other great leaders I’ve had a chance to interview, is that sustainability doesn’t have a finish line. It’s a journey. Explain where Thrive Market is now on the journey and what’s like in front of you that you’re excited about to go tackle in 2023 and beyond.
Kristin: I love that question and definitely agree that this is a journey and there’s still just so much more to learn and do but I’m really proud of the fact that we have formally put together what our vision looks like and a strategy to reach that. In 2020, we actually onboarded a couple industry-leading sustainability consultants to help us map out this five-year sustainability roadmap. The vision is to build the world’s first climate-positive grocery store. Climate positive doesn’t have a formal single definition but for us, we based it on three key areas that we wanted to focus on and all three you have short-term bold but achievable goals that we’ve set. Those areas are carbon, waste and plastic. For carbon, the goal is to go beyond neutral and we’re actually committing to be carbon negative by 2025. That’s a big one.
John: That’s huge.
Kristin: On waste, we wanted to make our zero is practices that we’ve been doing forever official with a zero-waste certification in 2022. We are in 2023, so I’m happy to report that as of November of last year, we got our third fulfillment center certified for zero waste so we have ticked off that goal. I’m really proud for the team for achieving that but work is never done on the waste side. We’ve reached that goal so now, it’s time to set a new one. That’s it for waste. On the plastic side, we’re actually aiming to achieve plastic neutral certification in 2023. We’ll be focused on that this year. Some other exciting things, we’re up for B Corp recertification this year, so that’s going to be a huge focus for myself and a big piece of our team and yeah, just continue to make progress on those five-year goals.
John: Let’s go back to those three issues that you raised. What’s the scorecard that you use and how do you score those? There’s lots of great consultants out there, there’s the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and there’s other certifying bodies here in the United States on terms of zero waste and zero plastic. How do you go about it? What have you found works and what have you found maybe doesn’t work?
Kristin: For zero waste, the organization that we’re working with is a true certification, it’s administered by GBCI which is Green Building Certificates. What’s cool about them is they focus on upstream efforts including redesign, reduce, reuse. It’s not limited to just downstream effort. A minimum requirement of that program is to have 12 months average of 90% or more diverted from landfill, that’s just a minimum requirement. They take a look at everything you’re doing, including all the upstream effort. Just focusing on trying to get the least amount of waste in the facility so we don’t have to deal with how we’re going to get rid of it. It really requires some innovation and thoughtful strategy around how we’re ordering products.
John: That’s fascinating. As you say, we live now when you’re doing that reporting and scorekeeping and score carding, it’s multi-dimensional. You’ve got to look upstream and downstream. How do you message that to your up streams and your down streams when some of them are not are not as situated from a DNA perspective and sustainability as well as you are? How do you bring them along into this grander vision to make the world a better place now?
Kristin: I think just being really transparent about what our goals are and how we feel that they are going to help contribute to reaching those goals and just making you feel really inclusive, but also just being very firm. We have an environmental purchasing policy and if there’s vendors that don’t agree with that policy, there are separate conversations that happen but we haven’t really seen a ton of push back on after we message what our goals are and how these vendors and other companies can help us achieve them.
John: On the plastic side, who do you use on the plastic side or what do you do to reduce your plastic and to get your vendors and to get your upstream and downstream also thinking the way you’re thinking?
Kristin: Great question. When it comes to our products, our merchandising team are the experts in that space. They have a map that they follow on how they determine which packaging we’re going to go with for certain products. It’s been easier in the non-food space to avoid plastic so we’re making a lot of progress. There still a lot of work to be done but we’re trying to minimize packaging as much as possible. We’ve done that, we’re looking at compostable material, PCR or anything we can do to avoid virgin plastic. Additionally, we’re partnered with a company called How2Recycle that literally labels each one of our private label products, giving the consumer information of how exactly they should be disposing that product and just making that really clear, providing some end-of-life options for those items that may be confusing to the consumer which I think is pretty common.
John: That’s really cool though. What month of the year do you publish your progress?
Kristin: Typically, around Earth month. We’ll likely do that at end of April. The one thing that we’re pursuing this year that we haven’t previously is the climate neutral certification. That could take through
beginning of April so we’re looking at a late April release for that report, just so we can have that certification wrapped up to include.
John: What’s that certification? I’m not familiar with that one.
Kristin: It makes it a lot easier and efficient to measure your company-wide carbon emissions. They have a tool called the BEE Tool, it’s a brand estimator tool. At a high level, they basically look at how the company is spending money and where and then you have an opportunity to use that tool to plug-in raw real data and refine those estimates. They have back-end LCAs that they use to measure but I’ve been working with them for about a year. We actually used their tool last year but didn’t certify, we’ll be doing that this year. As part of the certification which is super exciting is, anyone that pursues that certification has to set science-based reduction targets. They have to put together reduction action plans. That’s all wrapped up in that certification so it’ll be super rigorous but awesome opportunity for us in Q1 this year to put together some action plans.
John: I know you’re an ex-athlete and you’ve got tremendous stamina but you’ve taken on a lot as the mission manager. How many folks, relatively speaking, are working with or underneath you to execute all this tremendous and impressive and inspirational work?
Kristin: I see myself as a project manager. I let the experts do what they’re good at. We have our amazing leaders in our fulfillment centers leading the charge for zero waste. I let them do their thing. Our merchandising team is amazing. As far as how many people, probably in the 15-20 people. But he cool thing about Thrive is everybody is mission-aligned, everybody wants to contribute. It’s never hard for me to go to a stakeholder and tell him what I need and them to be super pumped about helping us.
John: It’s cool when the culture is democratized, the mission is democratized because there’s no convincing. You’re just really communicating that.
Kristin:100%, it’s making my life a lot easier.
John: Obviously, you’re beyond knowledgeable and you’re a tremendous expert just from our conversation here. What did you pick up at UCLA that’s going to serve you well in the years ahead of Thrive?
Kristin: That’s a great question. It was very communicated like how dire a need it is for companies to not just set these long-term 2040-2050 targets. It’s setting short-term targets, taking action, not just it being all words. Like I said, we’re late to the game. We see a lot of words, there’s not a lot of action. The importance around taking action now, just this program solidified the fact that this is an urgent crisis and everybody needs to get moving especially companies.
John: Kristin, when you look for inspiration yourself in terms of what other brands are doing in sustainability, in ESG, in circular economy behaviors, where do you look?
Kristin: The gold star is Patagonia. Yvon is a legend. I’m also a huge fan of Rose Marcario.
John: I had a chance to meet Rose couple years back. She’s wonderful.
Kristin: She’s a rock star. I would love to have dinner with that woman one day. Other brands, even our third-party brand partners, they inspire me all the time and our team. Dr. Bronner’s Good Sam is another great one in the regenerative agriculture space. So many of our brand partners are as passionate as we are about about this.
John: Talk about that a little bit because in most industries, and this is just my experience, but I love to hear your take on this obviously. Most industries are highly competitive in terms of it’s a zero-sum game but when it comes to, as you say, “We’re late to the game, this is about making the world a better place together”, how fraternity-like is the brands that you work with, the brands that you’re connected to, in terms of trading best practices, relationships, connections and help move the ball forward to Thrive and realizing that when the ball moves forward with Thrive, everybody moves forward together and the world is a better and greener place?
Kristin: When we’re onboarding a brand, that’s a big part of our process when we’re bringing a brand onboard. It’s making sure that they are aligned with our mission, they do have some sustainability practices in place. One thing that we are exploring this year is we’re putting together a plastic working group. We just started a quarterly meeting with all of our brand partners just to talk about where we’re at as a company, any mission highlights or whatever we have coming up next. But the next goal for us this year is to put together this working group and be able to have a collaborative experience with our brand partners and be able to share ideas. We see a lot more power in the group of us as opposed to trying to take this stuff on by ourselves. I’m really excited to start that next quarter. But other than that, that’s how we’ve been engaging our brand partners so far around sustainability.
John: Talk about the inherent, “The world isn’t perfect. People aren’t perfect. Brands aren’t perfect.” Now, a hot new plant-based product hits the market and Thrive wants to carry it and get it to its 1.2 million members. But as you’re onboarding them, you realize these folks are not aligned with the way you’re setup and situated. How do you balance the interest on commercial ventures versus social mission, manager mission, environmental mission in position that you sit at? How easy is that, how often does that happen and how have you walked that line before?
Kristin: I don’t have a ton of visibility into that we let our product innovators in our catalog managers manage those relationships but I know how stringent our standards are especially around quality. All of our food products are non-GMO so we ask a lot of questions to these vendors. Some of them have even said, “No one’s really ever asked us this before. No one’s asked about this ingredient before.” It gives you some insight into how many questions we do ask. We’re hyper curated so we don’t need to bring in every single brand so we have some leverage there.
John: Out of all the great work that you’re doing which is just simply incredible and it’s honestly for me at my age, it makes me feel so hopeful that your generation, the future is in your hands and we’re going to have a better future than we’ve had in the past in terms of environment, that’s incredible what you’ve been doing. If you had to pick out one thing that makes you most proud of your tenure at Thrive Market, what would be that one thing since you began at the company?
Kristin: I have to say becoming the largest online grocer to achieve that B Corp certification. It took us about a year to submit that and some back-and-forth, but it’s such a huge achievement across the entire company. Just having that validation that we are meeting those high standards for both social and environmental performance, that’s got to be my most proud moment to date.
John: That’s great. Any teasers you want to give for 2023 before we say goodbye for today?
Kristin: Any teasers, we’re just consistently bringing on brand new products, Thrive Market-owned brand products, we’re exploring upcycling, just trying to really stay on top of the trends. It’s going to be an exciting year for us.
John: Even if people don’t want to buy your great products out of the 500,000 great curated products that you have, they can just join because part of that money’s going to go to other good things, right?Joining already forwards to greater mission of making the world a better place.
Kristin: We would hope they would join and order. As many people in the community, we would love as many people as possible to join us.
John: Got it. I’m sure Thrive is going to continue to thrive in the months and years ahead especially in 2023 and beyond. Kristin, you’re just incredible. For our listeners and our viewers, please go to Thrive Market and sign up at $60 a year to get everything delivered right to your home at such a great service. People with Kristin running the show over there, you know you’re in good hands. Kristin again, thank you for your time today. You’re not only inspirational, but thank you for your service in making the world just a better and more sustainable place.
Kristin: Thanks, John. That was fun, I appreciate it.
John: This edition of the Impact podcast is brought to you by ENGAGE. ENGAGE is a digital booking platform revolutionizing the talent booking industry. With thousands of athletes, celebrities, entrepreneurs and business leaders, ENGAGE is the go-to spot for booking talents, for speeches, custom experiences, livestreams and much more. For more information on ENGAGE or to book talent today, visit letsengage.com.
John: This edition of the impact podcast is brought to you by ERI. ERI has a mission to protect people, the planet, and your privacy and is the largest fully integrated IT and electronics asset disposition provider and cybersecurity-focused hardware destruction company in the United States, and maybe even the world. For more information on how ERI can help your business properly dispose of outdated electronic hardware devices, please visit eridirect.com.