10 Questions: Ethan Brown, CEO, Beyond Meat

January 31, 2014: 1:27 PM ET

On plant-based protein, learning from mistakes, and ringing the office cowbell.


FORTUNE -- When Ethan Brown was young, his father bought a farm and used the property to start a dairy business. Although time at the farm was reserved for weekends -- Brown's family lived close to Washington, D.C. during the week -- his time spent with the farm animals led to a nagging interest in animal treatment that followed him to his adult life. He was haunted by a question: "Why do we eat protein the way that we do?"

After attending Columbia Business School and working at a handful of other companies, he finally decided to set out to find the answer. He started Beyond Meat, which replicates animal protein from plant products to create a vegan meat alternative, in an effort to reduce reliance on animal protein and lessen the negative impacts of its production on the environment.

Brown, 42, lives in Los Angeles with his family. A previous attendee of Fortune's Brainstorm Green conference, he spoke with us about his career path, professional goals, and home life.

1. Which alternative energy projects are you most excited about?

Creating meat from plants! How we produce protein is the most important environmental question facing our society today.

2. Which green business or person do you admire most? Why?

My dad. He's a professor at McGill [University], and his name is Peter G. Brown. Early in his career, he taught in the Great Books curriculum at St. John's [College], where students study knowledge as it was developed through human history. I think in part due to this, and more to [his] disposition, he has a gift for thinking across disciplines. I've watched him apply this broad perspective to create frameworks and institutions that serve at the intersection of economics, ethics, and ecosystems.

3. Which other companies do you admire? Why?

Tesla (TSLA). I admire the ability to take an engineering change -- which is the shift from the internal combustion [engines] to electric drive [powertrains] -- and make it something that becomes so culturally relevant. We have a notion in the company that we call hedonistic altruism -- it's that sweet spot where doing good and doing well converge. Telsa has captured that in a big way.

4. What has been your biggest failure?

How long do you have? I've failed quite a bit and will do so again. I am a big fan of failing fast and often, and it is something that I encourage our team at Beyond Meat to do. It's not an easy message to convey, particularly to people who work for you. You can think of evolution as the outcome of an unimaginable number of failures -- emerging from the wreckage of inferior models is the winner. I'm not smart enough to cut right to the final iteration, so have to work through failure to get the outcome I want.

Though certainly not my biggest failure, an early learning experience for me was being fired by the board of directors from an energy and environment organization that I founded in my 20s. I had used an umbrella group's 501(c)(3) status to start and raise money for the entity, which came with a then-friendly small board -- I'd met them through a church affiliation. Long story short, a strange turn soured the friendly dynamic.

A couple of years earlier, wanting to see more of the world, I was employed by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in immediate post-war Bosnia. For reasons I am still not clear on, despite having a truly low-level position, I had both a full-time driver and interpreter, both of whom were my contemporaries. We became fast friends over sports, beer, music, etc. One day my interpreter described being shelled while crossing the River Uno during the war, and described the experience as lying on the ground thinking like [Pearl Jam frontman] Eddie Vedder sings: "I'm alive." Thereafter, it was hard to think of the Balkans as a distant, disconnected, community.

Back in the U.S. and running this new and unrelated project, I watched with discomfort as Serbian hostilities intensified in Kosovo. I wrote an op-ed advocating U.S. airstrikes, and the piece received some coverage that unfortunately deeply embarrassed my board of directors. Though we were all affiliated with the Quaker church, we held different views on the use of force in these circumstances, mine being very unpopular. Our relationship strained immediately, and I was asked to share my grievances with them. Naively, and regrettably from a high horse, I wrote a critical memo that outlined ways my board could be more efficient and effective. Upon receipt and review of my memo they took me up on my advice, promptly faxing me my termination letter. I learned a bit about how to communicate -- and, ultimately, power -- that day.

5. What is one characteristic that every leader should possess?

Conviction. If you don't have a lot of it, someone else does and will take your spot.

6. What daily steps do you take to promote sustainability?

I try to encourage people to shift to plant protein. I think that's the No. 1 thing that people can do in their lifetime to positively impact climate change.

7. What do you do to live a balanced life?

I really encourage our employees and myself around this mantra, "We're trying to make life better. Make sure you enjoy yours in the process."

8. Describe an ideal day.

We have a cowbell here in our office that signifies orders coming in. On an ideal day the bell is ringing constantly. Our R&D team is getting closer everyday to what we call "chicken and beef 2.0," and we're making improvements to our existing product line. Our team members are motivated and happy.

9. What was the last book you read?

I recently read something called The Secrets of Happy Families. It talks about applying Steven Covey's principles to your family. I read that, and I really enjoyed it. I was struck by an initial observation in the book -- we, particularly management, tend to read so much about what makes for an optimal organization. We don't really do the same with respect to family, yet it is the foundation of so much of our life.

10. What is one unique or quirky habit that you have?

I eat our product every day. I put it in a pan with a little bit of oil. I crisp it up and eat it straight.

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