Origin Story Interview W/ Chris Langwallner, WhatIF Foods

Origin Story Interview W/ Chris Langwallner, WhatIF Foods

Brighter Future

 / 

May 11, 2022

#BrighterFuture #entrepreneurship #Sustainability #ClimateChangeSolution #originstoryseries #seekthechange #RegenerativeEating #FoodInnovation #SustainableLiving #regeneration #plantbased

Brighter Future

Today, we’re thrilled to be joined by Chris Langwallner from WhatIF Foods, a plant-based food company founded on regenerative principles.

Hi, Chris! Thank you so much for speaking to us today. We’re excited to learn more about you and WhatIF Foods. Let’s jump in with the basics. Where are you from?

Thank you! I grew up in Salzburg, at the foothills of the Austrian Alps. It was there that, as a young boy, I was found myself in the midst of an extended family business that farmed, milked cows, raised pigs, made honest meats and sausages, and had fun serving authentic foods to guests from near and far in a traditional restaurant setting just next to the church, the mayor’s residence, and the local bakery. To help people understand how such communities worked back then, I sometimes share stories about my grandfather. He was a heck of a guy. Tall, a butcher by training, and an entertainer at heart. He was the Facebook of his time. People came to our space to listen to him, and he often told a story in such a way that folks needed to come back if they wanted to hear the next part. With cattle, cows and grassland, as well as our butchery and the restaurant, we were set in a perfect supply chain. My family and I knew the lineage and even the names of the animals we served to our guests. We had an honest approach and deep appreciation for what we had—and so did our guests. Back then, I didn’t see it that way. I was too young, too crazy, too much into tennis, skiing, football and helping out wherever I was needed. I was milking cows in the early morning, cutting meat in the afternoon or serving dishes at a wedding. Sometimes, I did all of that on the same day! It was never boring. No internet, no mobile phones. It was hard work every day with no shortcuts… but it was a life full of energy within a community that was there when it mattered. Good times!

My schooling, on the other hand, was hard. Very hard. My teachers told me, “You are dyslexic, and you’ll be better off doing this or that…”  However, nothing really gave me a breakthrough. Naturally, I didn’t enjoy the confined space of a classroom, and there were many occasions where my teacher had to visit my mom and tell her, “Chris just got up and left school and didn’t come back.” Well, I had better things to do. I heard my dad driving tractors and felt I was “needed” elsewhere. Traditional schooling was a nightmare for the most part. When we progressed past the part where grammar and spelling were important, school got better for me. I started to get good marks for my actual content, and that’s when I started to fall in love with learning. It was easy for me to study agriculture, food science and technology, and finance and marketing for a triple-accredited MBA.

Wow! That’s a pretty incredible story! Schooling aside, what an amazing childhood and community you had in your younger years. It sounds like it primed you for the successful career you have today. How exactly did the idea for WhatIF Foods come about?

It’s a good twenty-five years now since I started working in the agrifood industry. After working for the family business, I was employed by SMEs and some of the world’s biggest multinationals. However, my DNA is wired for entrepreneurial adventure. I never found it too difficult to take the lead, take responsibility, or take risks. Over the years, I also fell in love with seeing the world. England, Russia, India, China, Singapore, and now the USA. These are all countries I have lived in and built businesses in. I’ve learned a ton from those experiences! There are different cultures, rituals, systems, structures, etc., but at the end of the day, it is all about people and how their hearts beat. As simple as that!

Do you remember about twenty-five years ago, when the first GMO crops were introduced? Well, I was just a teen, but I was out on the streets protesting and venting my frustrations. Today, what have we got as a result of that shift? Global monopolies and ultra-dependencies on just a few players who have an utter disregard for biodiversity and our soil and communities’ health and wellbeing. Or take the first carbon footprint discussions some twenty years ago or so. What came of it? Literally skyrocketing amounts of carbon in our atmosphere and a hotter planet that is just seven years away from the +1.5˚C point of no return. Today, despite us knowing that a healthy, traditional diet consists of hundreds of different foods, we depend on twelve crops and five animals for more than 75% of our foods. That is insane! Why? Because such a level of global concentration disregards fully the complexity of our biological systems. How can humanity ever be healthy if our soils are sick, our crops are grown on “steroids”, our food processors are driven by the single bottom line? Today, fast, processed, convenience foods are cheaper than fruits and veggies. That is the world we are living in. It is frustrating. Very frustrating indeed.

We couldn’t agree more! The world we’re living in today is so different to even just ten or twenty years ago. We still have time to act, but it’s fast running out. You mentioned your early activism, and that’s so important. Is that what drives you forward with WhatIF Foods—the idea that you can help turn the tide on the climate disaster we are facing into?    

Look, what humanity has done to natural ecosystems is a disgrace, and we are digging a deeper rabbit hole every day. Over the decades, and many podcasts, journals, and books later, I’ve found myself wrestling profoundly with a reality check, because the truth of the matter is, it’s not about saving the planet. It’s about regenerating natural ecosystems so that our children, their children, and their grandchildren find themselves in an environment that allows them to go on hikes in the mountains, ski a powder, or swim in the seas and surf a wave. That’s what it’s all about! Today, our youth dream about that future, so it’s our responsibility to save their dreams. It’s not about saving the planet. It is about us recognising our responsibility to leave a natural habitat behind so that future generations can enjoy what I used to take for granted when I was a teenager at the foothills of the Austrian Alps.

Frankly, humanity has no power to save the planet. Humanity is a pest to the ecological systems out there and their wonderful biodiversity. Therefore, the faster this pest destroys its habitat, the faster our planet will be working on a new wave of biodiversity. After all, it’s got time on its hands. In little more than five billion years, our sun will run out of hydrogen. Then it’s game over.

Yes! We have the information and technology required to stop or slow this disastrous progression, so it is our responsibility to act. When you think about the impact that WhatIF Foods could have on the planet, on ecosystems, on people, who exactly are you doing this for?

Our political, institutional, and business setups don’t lend a voice to our youth. Their votes aren’t counted. Their voices aren’t heard. Their worries are buried in endless social media feeds. Their physical wellbeing is medicated, and their mental and emotional wellbeing is neglected. What was it that I was worried about at their age? Maybe it was how I get to the next ski race or tennis tournament? Not in my wildest dreams was I worried about a changing climate, the loss of nutrients in my food, the loss of natural habits, and the endless desertification of our soils. These are all very profound issues that will determine their wellbeing when they are forty, fifty or sixty. Yet, today, they have no say, no voice, and no vote.

I’m doing what I do for my kids, their generation, and for many generations to come.

You mentioned going from working for your family business to SMEs and multinationals. What prompted you to take a risk and start your own company? Was there one particular moment that stands out?  

For me, it was a process that took time. There wasn’t one eureka moment. Yet, I feel I took responsibility and started WhatIF Foods because this is what I know best. This is how I can best contribute to changing the agrifood world from the ground up. Literally from the ground up!

Aside from the practical education you got from working on your family’s farm and in their business, were there other life experiences that informed your decision to start WhatIF Foods or that you feel have contributed to the success you’ve achieved today?  

Great question, and a very difficult one to answer! In part, I do think that my dyslexia trained me to do things differently. The ready-made schooling formula simply didn’t work for me at all, so very early in life, I realised that I needed to figure out how to do things differently to make things work. I feel the rest was just onboarding as many experiences as possible. When you’re young, you’re a sponge, absorbing everything around you. I was always a student of the world around me, constantly developing the skill of making loose ends join.

That’s such an interesting connection. Many entrepreneurs and high achievers have dyslexia and have excelled in life because they were forced to think differently. That alternative approach later allowed them to come at and solve business (and world) problems in new, innovative ways. We’d love to know how you keep yourself on track towards your goals for WhatIF Foods?

Over the decades, I’ve come to understand that setting big enough goals matters a lot. Because if your goals aren’t big enough, then they can easily be hidden behind the first or second obstacle that crosses one’s path. Out of sight, out of mind, so to speak. For me, with small goals, it’s easy to lose sight of the target, to lose direction, and to lose that sense of purpose. Hence, dream big and enjoy the journey!

Many entrepreneurs report having an “aha!” moment—a moment where something clicks into place and things suddenly make sense. Have you ever experienced anything like that in your journey?

As I said before, my journey has been an evolution. There hasn’t been a distinct “eureka!” moment. However, Peter Drucker and his work changed the way I look at business, as did my many mentors who helped me to take the correct steps at the correct times. I’m eternally grateful to all of them.

Surrounding yourself with wise, experienced people who generously offer their insight and advice is incredibly helpful when starting a business. It can make all the difference, especially in those early days. Did you have to make any personal sacrifices in the early days of WhatIF Foods to help get it off the ground?

Luckily, I didn’t have to make any serious sacrifices at all! I’m one of the most blessed people on this planet. I have wonderful children and a wife who has had the guts to travel this journey with me. In fact, she has been a massive driver behind all that we do. I have met thousands of people along the way and have seen many of them grow because of what we do. No sacrifices. Just blessings!

That’s wonderful! You seem to have a very positive perspective on life and business. As a society, however, we know we have to make some sacrifices and changes to ensure a better future for the next generation. We’re curious to hear a little about how you envision the future.

Personally, I struggle to see a bright future ahead unless we rally behind Sustainable Development Goal 15, which requires us to protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss. If we don’t succeed in this, we will struggle to eliminate poverty and hunger, and we will not achieve the greater wellbeing, equality, education, clean water, etc. we need to live on this planet.  

We need to work together to protect the very essence of regeneration for the powerful possibilities it holds. Let’s strive to bring back the agrobiodiversity we need to sink more carbon in our soils; to grow a rich basket of many different crops; to create exciting nutrient-dense products; and to reconnect to communities—consumers and farmers alike—so that they prosper within a life-affirming purpose.  

Regeneration must not become a new management tool or be misused for greenwashing. Regenerative leaders need to create an environment for others to succeed in delivering a life-affirming future where WIN-WIN equations are the norm and not the exception.

That’s a great way to look at it! When future generations look back on your life and what you have achieved, what do you hope they’ll take away from your story?

For me, this question is very easy to answer. I would like them to look at my journey and my life and say, “Bloody hell! He’s had a good go about it!”

And we’re certain that they will! We’ve spoken a lot about future generations in terms of the planet and climate change. Now, we’d like to give you a chance to speak directly to up-and-coming entrepreneurs, young or old, who are just starting out and are possibly shaping the future through their businesses. What advice do you have for them?  

Trust your gut! It does you good. Listen to your mentors because they have been there. Don’t run through walls too early. It will leave you with concussions. Over the years, we’ve made countless mistakes and endured countless failures. I’d like to pass on my biggest take away from all of them so up-and-coming entrepreneurs can learn from them. Here’s my advice: try to look deep into the soul of a person before you decide to venture with them. That’s important.

Great advice! Like all good things, this truly insightful conversation must come to an end. It was fantastic to have the opportunity to speak to you today, Chris. To finish up, we’ve got one last question for you: If there was one lasting message you could share with the world, what would it be?

Let’s not sustain something that’s broken. Let’s regenerate for good. Hope is not enough to make a lasting impact. We need doers and action now. If not us, then who? If not now, then when?

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A huge thank you to our wonderful guest Chris Langwallner from WhatIF Foods for participating in this interview and sharing his knowledge! If you would like to find out more about Chris and WhatIF Foods, you can find him at: www.whatif-foods.com.

To stay up to date with all of our latest content and interviews with amazing entrepreneurs like Chris, subscribe to the Brighter Future newsletter here.

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