How a growth mindset is cultivating success at this food tech org

A growing societal push for more ethical meat production has led to the rapid growth of plant-based products, including on the menus at leading fast-food retailers. But if carnivores don’t feel satisfied by these substitutes, there is another innovative trend on the horizon: cultivated meat.

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This fall, food technology company UPSIDE Foods, formerly Memphis Meats, got the green light from the FDA for its sustainable cultured chicken products, lab-grown from animal stem cells—without having to raise and harm actual animals. It marked a major growth milestone in the eight-year-old company’s history and one that is redefining its people strategy.

Since January, that work has been overseen by Michelle Kwait, whose HR career has included roles focused on growth: For instance, she most recently was CHRO at insurance broker Tysers, scaling up its HR organization by 900%; she has also held HR leadership roles at companies like The Ghiradelli Chocolate Co. and oversaw L&D at Williams-Sonoma Inc.

Kwait recently spoke with HRE about why UPSIDE’s mission resonates with her and how she plans to drive the people strategy to focus on growth and help the organization reach its goals.

HRE: What are some of the most important lessons learned from your work building Tysers’ HR function from the ground up that you’re planning to bring into your new position at UPSIDE?

Michelle Kwait, UPSIDE Foods
Michelle Kwait

Kwait: I’ve been fortunate to work in a variety of industries and for some truly great companies. I’ve found that there are a few things that are universal, that transcend industry, when it comes to building an effective HR function. First is that HR needs to be closely aligned with the overall business strategy and goals. This means really getting to know the ins and outs of the company and identifying areas where HR can make a difference. Second, hiring the right people is absolutely essential.

I’ve always been a fan of Jim Collins’s Good to Great book and think his concept of getting the right people in key seats on the bus is critical. Third, doing the basics really well. This means putting processes, policies, procedures and handoffs in place to ensure everything runs smoothly. It’s tough to do strategic HR work if you can’t get the basics right.

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Fourth, staying up to date with industry trends and best practices is essential. In just the last few years, HR has evolved tremendously, and it’s important that my team and I are constantly aware of the emerging changes and best practices we’re seeing in the market.

And finally, at the end of the day, HR is all about people. Building a strong culture where people want to be and having relationships with employees, managers and leaders across the business is key to HR’s success.

Click here to read more Insights from a CHRO.

HRE: What about UPSIDE’s innovative mission most resonated with you?

Kwait: Having worked across a variety of industries, I was eager to join a company that was truly mission-driven and where what we do every day will help create a positive change in the world. I was immediately drawn to UPSIDE because of its mission to build a more humane and sustainable food system and the work the company is doing to bring meat to the table in a way that can offer transformative benefits for animals, the environment and human health.

Related: How a growth mindset propelled Microsoft’s CHRO

I’m particularly thrilled to be joining UPSIDE at such a pivotal moment in its history, with the FDA recently granting its “green light” and as the company moves toward bringing products to consumers for the first time.

HRE: What are a few of your highest-priority goals for UPSIDE’s people strategy?

Kwait: Doing the basics really well. This includes strong HR business partnering, an agile talent acquisition function, reward and recognition programs, and more. Underlying all of it is a lens toward diversity, equity and inclusion and using data to drive decision-making. Building a strong foundation is not glamorous, but it’s critical to ensuring that we can scale and will allow us to be more strategic in the long run.

HRE: As you focus on growth, what do you anticipate as your primary recruiting challenges in this space?

Kwait: The business is changing with the FDA “green light” from a primarily R&D-focused company to scaling up manufacturing and support functions, and it represents a pivotal moment in the company’s evolution. We are building this capability both in our talent acquisition team and in the business more generally.

And, as UPSIDE evolves and becomes more consumer-facing, we need to adapt existing roles and create new roles. One of the foundations of UPSIDE’s culture is its multidisciplinary team, where employees from different backgrounds and disciplines work together to solve complex problems. This approach has been critical to UPSIDE’s success, and it’s important that we maintain it as we grow and evolve.

HRE: Now that you’re back in the Bay Area full-time, what are you most looking forward to doing in your free time?

Kwait: I moved to London right before the pandemic hit and spent most of it locked down in a city where I didn’t know many people. Being back in the Bay Area has been quite special after that experience and I’ve loved reconnecting with friends, family and colleagues that I missed while I was gone. I have two Collies and we love to go running, hiking or anything active, and you can often find us on the Sonoma Coast on the weekends doing just that.

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Jen Colletta
Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at [email protected].