Bean There, Done That
In this edition of ‘What She Does’, I talk to Renée Elliott, Founder of the Planet Organic chain of supermarkets about the secret to her success and her new Life Skills and Business Academy – Beluga Bean.
It’s clear that Renée Elliott is something of a powerhouse, brimming over with energy, positivity and humour as I chat to her over our video conferencing call.
Originally from Mississippi, Renée moved from the US in 1986 and started organic supermarket chain Planet Organic in Westbourne Grove in 1995 when she was just 30. Ahead of its time as a ‘values’ led business, Planet Organic now has seven stores in London and delivers organic goods nationwide. Below, I chat to Renée about the secret to her success and also her newly launched company Beluga Bean – an in-person and online business and life-skills academy.
Why did you start Beluga Bean?
I started Beluga Bean to bring me joy! Since turning 50 my mantra has been to do things that really make me happy. I did a Guardian Masterclass and found that I loved public speaking and mentoring people about business skills, and that it came naturally to me. I started with Planet Organic which is all about nourishing the body and self, so combining business AND life skills in Beluga Bean seemed like a natural progression.
How can Beluga Bean help women achieve their goals?
I want to share with women all the basics of life and running a business. It’s all about living better and providing support and advice to women for them to live their life 100%. Beluga Bean is different in that we are a holistic business and life skills academy, looking at ALL aspects of life and how to improve on them. For example, we explore the physical (food, sleep and exercise), occupational, economic, psychological, social and spiritual spheres of wellbeing. There are key life skills you may not have been taught at school or learned later on in life, like how to balance work and family like, create nourishing food and understand tech. I’ve learned that it’s actually all these areas that often have to work concurrently and well (or pretty close) for a business and a person to thrive.
Coming to a Launch Breakfast is the usual entry point into the Beluga Bean Academy and from there you can join the membership and access all kinds of support. I focus on taking women – and men – from new business idea to launch and Sam Wigan my business partner focuses on the life skills and personal development side of things. I should add that Beluga Bean started as female focused, but we are all inclusive now. We create a space where there’s a meeting of minds and a solid support network.
How have you found being a woman in the male dominated food and retail industry?
It’s REALLY male dominated! Looking back now, I’m constantly remembering things that were just not ‘ok’ starting out. Situations where there was subtle sexism where I was simply not treated with respect. However I stood my ground even though it wasn’t always comfortable.
I confronted age-old sexist behaviour with grace and dignity whenever possible. For example, going to meet the bank manager with my male business partner and the bank manager automatically assuming it was my male counterpart who would go through the business figures, when I had done the financial forecasting.
How do you build resilience in a difficult situation?
I went through a really difficult situation at Planet Organic – a proposed buy out by my then business partner and litigation in the high courts. It’s a tough lesson for women but you HAVE to put yourselves first. For 14 months during this incredibly stressful time, I stopped drinking, meditated twice a day, did more exercise and leaned on friends and family for support. I read The Art of War and the Bhagavad Gita. Self-care helped get me through even though it was very stressful.
How do we overcome the gender pay gap in this country?
Keep yelling! Keep campaigning. Some issues are so entrenched and so subtle. Women disappear at senior levels and in many respects we are asking the wrong questions. Maybe women aren’t in some senior positions because they don’t want to have to do crazy hours in a rigid culture – hence the explosion of female led businesses and entrepreneurs. In my opinion, anger is not persuasive. Thoughtful and reasoned argument is. A great example of this was witnessing Peter Melchett (the late, former Policy Director at The Soil Association) operate during his campaigning against GMOs. I never saw him get angry and when he saw an opening in a difficult situation he moved from opposition to collaboration.
Are supermarkets poisoning our kids?!
When I was 19 years old, I read, “Diet for a Small Planet” about the horrors of the industrialised meat industry in America. I became a vegetarian as a result. I don’t believe that supermarkets in general are interested in our health and wellbeing. A lot of the food sold is made not in order to improve our health, but to make it easier for wholesale and the bottom line.
That questioning attitude and the search for ‘better’, led me on the path to create a different food store.
Founding Planet Organic, I wanted a better version of everything, with the aim that people shopping with us could trust that we care about their health and our planet.
Is it possible to feed 8 billion people in the world sustainably?
Yes we can feed the world sustainably. There is clear data on this available from The Soil Association. There is enough land in the world to grow enough food but much of the world’s land is used for commodity trading for example. Similarly if we ate less meat globally this would help because much of the world’s agricultural land is used for cattle rearing, Sadly food poverty is often political.
Who is your role model?
Anita Roddick, who I was fortunate to meet. Her mantra was to stand up for what you believe in.