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Food Systems + Climate Justice panel at Dreamforce

President Barack Obama or Eddie Vedder? My week at Dreamforce

November 27, 2019

President Barack Obama or Eddie Vedder? I’m sure for many of you there’s no comparison. But for some of us — and perhaps I’m showing my age here — that would be a tough choice. Well luckily for me, last week I didn’t have to choose.

That’s because I spoke at and attended Dreamforce, the largest software conference in the world organized by Salesforce, and I was not disappointed.

No doubt my “VIP” status as a speaker helped (thanks Laura Reed!), but the bevy of celebrities and inspirational speakers would have no doubt sent any attendees into a spin. I’m sure that’s the point; promote Salesforce’s unrivalled reach while also inspiring your employees and clients.

Eddie Vedder, the frontman of Pearl Jam in case you didn’t know, and President Obama weren’t the only big celebs there; David Beckham, Emilia Clarke (khaleesi to many of you), and Robin Wright (House of Cards) also spoke. The session I moderated was also star-studded with two amazing chefs, Samin Nosrat and Dominique Crenn, talking about Food Systems and Climate Justice.

Here’s a few things I heard while living it up at the St Regis and bumping into celebs at every turn.

Hustle hard, whatever you’re doing

First up was a conversation between Eddie Vedder and Salesforce co-CEO Keith Block, followed by some music (no he didn’t play Alive or Black but he did play about four different types of guitar, which was cool. Top tip: the mandolin is hard). I took my boss Rob Leclerc who was very cool about it all in the run-up and then turned out to be a super fan. Awaiting extra brownie points.

Rob looking less of a dork with Eddie
Me looking like a dork with Eddie Vedder

Eddie (yes, we’re on first-name terms now) told a great story about how when he was getting started, he used to work for free at a local club to be close to the bands that would come and play there. One night he had an opportunity to meet Joe Strummer from The Clash and from there struck up a friendship. A couple of years later, some friends from Seattle called Joe and asked him if he knew any promising singers. He sent them Eddie. Moral of the story? Hustle hard.

Rob and I were lucky enough to meet Eddie afterward for a photo op. I didn’t manage to say more than my name I was so starstruck but just after, Obama was in the opposite elevator at our hotel and we exchanged waves and hellos! Moral? If at first you don’t succeed, try again? Even if you look like a flailing weirdo trying?!

Eating and food is an act of activism / Turkey sucks

“Do you really need turkey on the table? Turkey sucks.”

This quote from Samin Nosrat, award-winning author of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, now also a Netflix docu-series, sums up our conversation well: fun, accessible, with a lot of meat (pun intended).

“Absolutely amazing panel! I appreciated the sense of humor brought to the discussion over a complex issue. A very engaging and candid panel discussion,” one very kind attendee told Dreamforce afterwards.

Both Samin and Dominique Crenn — also award-winning, on TV, and triple-Michelin star-spangled — are conscious eaters and are passionate about promoting and educating consumers on the impact of their food decisions on the climate. The food and agriculture industry accounts for 14% of global greenhouse gas emissions just after transport (18%), according to the United Nations. Within that footprint, meat is a key source of emissions and with the high profile launch of the Beyond Burger and Impossible Burger across fast-food chains in the US this year, meat was obviously a key topic on the menu.

Dominique announced just days before the conference that she no longer serves meat at all her restaurants after removing the last meat dish at Atelier Crenn. Dreamforce also removed beef from the menus of the free, and delicious, lunches served by local vendors. Individual changes like this will be key to influencing change, they argued, even if they both admitted that government policy changes will be important to see a major shift in diets.

Dominique still serves seafood, is an occasional meat-eater herself, and as a Frenchwoman of course still eats cheese. Transitioning away from meat at her restaurants took some time and both she and Samin were realistic about the process of changing eating habits.

“My responsibility is to teach you how to enjoy non-meat things. I struggle with this my own self every day,” said Samin, a self-confessed chicken lover.”And I’m not going to change 40 years of habit overnight. But what’s important to me is to try to talk about it.”

From left: Samin Nosrat, Dominique Crenn, me

Perhaps unsurprisingly, neither chef was impressed with the meat alternative options on the market today, or even the concept of replacing animal products with analogs.

“It’s not about finding a replacement for meat. It’s about finding what good food is out there,” said Dominque, promoting the exploration of vegetables as whole foods. Mushrooms could take center stage instead of meat, I suggested. (I think she agreed!)

Samin was a tad more open to alternatives arguing that if they are what’s available to people to steer them away from eating meat every day, then they might have to do. I agree; people the world over may not always get the opportunity and ability to find appropriate, non-processed foods at the right price. Plus, with the growing demand for meat from emerging economies — why shouldn’t they be able to enjoy meat-like products as we all have for centuries in the developed world? — its likely analogs will be important to stem the rise of destructive, factory farming and also popular among consumers.

In a hot or not round, the chefs both panned robotic restaurants, highlighting the importance of food as a society-builder: “food is the core of our society. If we don’t have food, you don’t have any culture, any society,” said Dominique. But both insect ice cream and CBD (and cannabis admittedly) were very well received by both of them. Not insect burgers though…

(Watch the livestream of our conversation here for more insights. Apparently we scored 4.75/5 from attendee feedback, which is above average!)

Diversity is not charity & poop rolls uphill

After my session, I was whisked away by the wonderful Rosie Garcia to my reserved seating for President Obama’s fireside chat with Salesforce founder and co-CEO Marc Benioff.

Obama offered some fantastic nuggets in a conversation that centered on the Obama Foundation and how to build effective teams.

“Companies need to look for talent outside of just the usual places,” he said, referring to the tendency for some companies or organizations to focus on certain criteria such as top schools. “Diversity is not charity,” he added; diversity of thought is essential in good decision-making.

He told a story about how he used to pick on junior white house staff members to comment on topics, even if he didn’t know their names, as they knew they had been the ones doing the hard, in-depth work behind the scenes for their more senior bosses. They often had deeper insights than their seniors helped to move conversations on, he said.

Benioff asked him a few times what qualities are important to look for when hiring young people and Obama flipped it around to say that if organisations share their values, people will gravitate towards them. “Many institutions haven’t been sending out the right signals. I want young people to go into government, but if the signal we’re sending is corruption, fighting, inefficiency, they won’t come.”

Lastly, President Obama emphasised that strong leaders trust in their team to deliver and that he found only the hardest things, those that no-one else could solve, would land on his desk. “Poop rolls uphill.”

Isn’t there an app for that?

An older lady stopped me in the street one evening to say “they should bomb this place & start again; it’s disgusting, is not working.” Without any deaths, she’s got a point. I’ve been to San Francisco many times now but I’m still shocked every time with all the homelessness and general feeling of being unsafe in multiple parts of the city, not just in the infamous Tenderloin. Why is there so much wealth and such desperation under one sky, and why is no-one doing something about it? This is not a new question but still one worth repeating over and over until something is done. Maybe Dreamforce should dedicate a session or even a hackathon of sorts, to this topic next year. Benioff and his wife donated $30 million to research on this topic earlier this year, and the conference certainly employed a ton of local people to help direct attendees and manage the event. It’s also the city’s biggest employer, which positions it well to take on this challenge.

Who would you rather meet: Obama, Eddie Vedder, Emilia Clarke or David Beckham? Send me a note to [email protected]

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