How did UC Berkeley prepare you for your career?
I went to Cal for my undergrad and to Stanford for my MBA, and I often get asked to compare the two. The first thing I would say is that my heart is at Cal. I experienced Berkeley as a place that provides stepping stones of opportunity for people, as a public institution. But Cal also taught me how to be scrappy!
Going to Cal is a challenge- it's a little chaotic, right? A giant university, so many classes to choose from, lots of students. No one is there to hold your hand. In order to navigate that and really make the most of the experience at Cal, you learn how to proactively strive for success and navigate unexpected hurdles. It sharpens your entrepreneurial skills because it pushes you to forge your own path. It helps prepare you to navigate other challenges in life as well.
How does that compare to your experience at Econ?
Truthfully, I didn't know what I wanted to study when I went to Cal. Then I took the Econ 1 class, and I absolutely loved it. I took some time off school to join the Barbara Boxer campaign and worked with her in her first year of Congress. When I came back I discovered development economics, which ignited something completely new in me. That was also bolstered by all the social movement activity at Cal. I was looking into ways to apply what I had learned and to make an impact, and that set me off on the path to try to discover an intersection of politics and non-profit business.
How did you decide to work in the for-profit sector?
While getting my MBA at Stanford, I worked on development banking and group lending models in Arkansas. I facilitated a conference and wrote case studies on this innovative lending model.
At UC Berkeley, you learn how to proactively strive for success and navigate unexpected hurdles. It sharpens your entrepreneurial skills because it pushes you to forge your own path.
I got advice from numerous people, who said, "Don't come to the non-profit side when you leave business school - go to the for-profit side. There are a lot of like-minded people in the non-profit side; there are fewer people that think this way on the business side. Go there, build a bridge; we'll meet you in the middle.” That's something I've been trying to do ever since.
How did you get to Torani?
When I left business school, I wanted to create a product coupled with social benefit. At first, I worked for an educational software company, but it turned out to be a bad culture fit. I felt that they cared more about the gaming aspect than the educational factor. There's nothing wrong with that, but it wasn’t my interest.
So my search continued. Finally, a friend referred me to Torani, this small manufacturing company that was based in the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood of San Francisco, one of its most economically disadvantaged areas. I thought to myself, “It's in a neighborhood that needs businesses. We could hire from the neighborhood and make a difference in this neighborhood along the way.” And I fell in love with the people there. There were eight people then - I was the ninth employee. I've now been with Torani for 27 years.
Today Torani includes over 200 employees.
That’s correct. We’ve grown Sales on average about 20% a year, which is tremendous growth. My mantra is 'grow baby grow'. It’s growth in all areas- company growth, team growth, customer growth, and individual growth. That’s what motivates me and the leaders in our organization. We are devoted to creating opportunity for people from inside the company, for our customers, for our business partners. There's a way to work that is about creating opportunity for all.
Under your leadership, Torani ushered the "café era," by creating the first flavored latte. What is your vision for Torani today, and how has it changed since you started?
I think of an “era” as the way a company grows and develops in a given period of time. It’s a simpler way to talk about a “business model”. In the early years of Torani, we were in the “North Beach” era, focused on bringing a taste of Italy to the community in San Francisco’s Italian neighborhood. We began the “café era,” our “killer app.” This set us off on a path of very significant double-digit growth. But like any growth cycle, it will start to taper off eventually- as an era comes to an end.
We’ve shifted our focus to the next era, the “Consumer era,” exploring the individual that goes to the café or brings a bottle of Torani home. We want to create great tastes and experiences for them, along with our customers and business partners. Meanwhile, our team and I work to generate conversation with a community of like-minded people who think about business as a force for good. We are looking for the nexus of human development and business development: how do we develop our businesses to create opportunities for people?
Torani just received its B Corporation certification- congratulations! What prompted the decision to make this move? who needed to get on board to make this happen?
We are so thrilled to finally receive this formal certification. This has been a while in the making and really a transformative process for many of us.
Given our focus on people and providing Opportunity For All, we thought long and hard about how to make a bigger impact in the world. We realized a great way to do that is to learn and share practices with like-minded business people. This not only includes practices on creating development and opportunity for people, but also creating really joyful, progressive business and working environments. These beliefs are aspects of sustainability, a concept that’s fundamental in the B Corp community.
Once we figured that out, it was easy to get the entire company to rally behind the effort because going for the certification does not change the way we operate, not at all. Our Modus Operandi has always been thinking about stakeholders vs. shareholders, and seeing ourselves as part of the whole circle of shared community success. Being a B-Corp is a way for us to express our commitment to that externally, in addition to joining a group of like-minded people to make a bigger impact.
Can you give me an example of a progressive practice you’ve adopted?
Throughout my career, I've looked for an alternative to performance evaluations, which I think are a colossal waste of time. The practice we use instead is called contribution management.
The fundamental difference between performance evaluation and contribution management is the mindset. Performance evaluation is based on a fixed mindset, where the supervisor’s primary role is to judge, while contribution management is based on a growth mindset, where the supervisor’s role is to a coach. In addition, team members’ behaviors also need to adopt a growth mindset vs. a fixed mindset. Let me walk through how that plays out.
During “contribution season,” each team member meets with their supervisor. And the conversation they have is very different than the usual protocol. Instead of having the supervisor lead the discussion on how well the person did against their objectives based on the dreaded 360 feedback, You, as a team member, self-evaluate how you did, and equally important, what you learned, how you developed. You lead the conversation. This process encourages you to reflect on what you have learned throughout the year in addition to your contributions to the business. The supervisor’s role, then, is to ask great questions to help you identify other learnings you may have missed, as well as future learning opportunities. It twists performance management on its head...so there’s an element of accountability and self-reflection, rather than the employee being told how they’ve been doing. We put a lot of emphasis on learning and contribution.
How do you feel it has impacted the working relationships at Torani?
It provided a different kind of working environment. One where we all can flourish a lot more, support each other, and collaborate in our mutual success. It taught us all to be better conversation partners and better listeners. You can tell I get really excited about it!
What motivated you to join CHSE and to support Econ?
I’m a life-long, passionate learner. Joining the Charter Hill Society for Economics (CHSE) was my gateway back to supporting and discovering more about what I love, which is development economics. When Christian Gordon gave me a pitch about the Opportunity Lab, I thought, "Wow, this is a fantastic fit." The people at O-lab look at how opportunities are uneven, and how you can build policies and practices to create and open up more opportunity.
This connects to the heart of my mantra, 'grow baby grow.' You never stop growing, developing and learning. Just in my first year at CHSE, I’ve learned from incredible economists like Hilary Hoynes, Alan Auerbach, Peter Orszag… the list goes on. So for me, it was O-Lab, but for each individual, there is an 'O Lab' of some kind that will draw them in. Berkeley Economics is doing really groundbreaking work.
Did these learning experiences affect your view on your work and your impact?
Absolutely. When you hear research that clearly shows the impact of better business practices on something so fundamental as a lower mortality rate, you realize the impact that you, as a leader in your community, can have on others, even if it’s in your own small circle. I like the idea of shaping the way business works towards the needs of people, rather than always presenting a business to which people must conform.
For example, really being mindful of people's childcare and making sure that there are lots of flexible opportunities for parents. And naturally, this type of welcoming culture attracts more women and more people of culturally diverse backgrounds. In fact, half of our leadership is female. And because we're a manufacturer, we have people of all different educational backgrounds, from entry-level manufacturing positions to senior leadership. So creating economic opportunity and creating learning and growth opportunity go hand in hand.
What is coming up in the near future for Torani?
We are currently in the process of relocating our headquarters from South San Francisco, which has been our home for almost 25 years. We’re scaling up to a 327,000 square foot flavor factory in San Leandro, and implementing a lot of new manufacturing technology.
We're really excited to train up our team members so that they increase their opportunity. Higher skills will increase their value to Torani,their pay, and their potential value to other companies, although we hope they stay and grow with us!
Melanie Dulbecco is a member of the Charter Hill Society for Economics (CHSE), a community of donors supporting the faculty & students of Berkeley Economics via three-year commitments to the Annual Fund. To learn more joining CHSE, please contact Assistant Dean Christian Gordon.