Mondelez International’s US accelerator for start-ups is set to resume next month for its second year. Ten companies have been chosen to take part in the CoLab programme, with the snacks giant working with fledgling businesses offering products from mushroom jerky to a popcorn business working with autistic employees.

Brigette Wolf, leads CoLab in her role as the head of SnackFutures, the innovation and venture unit Mondelez set up in 2018.

CoLab is housed within SnackFutures and Wolf sees her part of the business helping the Oreo and Cadbury owner fulfil its ambition to be “the leader in snacking”.

“These are the companies that will hopefully be the ones that grow up to be those next-generation brands that we want to be part of,” she tells Just Food in a Zoom interview from the US.

Just Food: Is there anything new about the nature of the cohort of companies you’ve selected for CoLab this year?

Brigette Wolf: We’re still always focused on ‘good for people’, ‘kind to the planet’ and ‘deliciously fun’ but this year we added a layer of mission-driven brands. What is their purpose? Sometimes it’s wellbeing, some of them have really unique stories, even on top of the wellbeing – whether it’s Moonshot in their sustainable measure and their regenerative farming, Popcorn for the People, which is all about hiring people with autism. I think you always find passionate founders who love their product. This year, you layer on that they do it for those beyond as well, not just their consumers or their personal story and I think that’s really exciting.

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We have ten in this year’s class. I would say 50% pure female founders, 50% mixed. I joke we have everything from ethnicity, diversity, gender diversity, personal preference diversity and neurodiversity now. And different stages and sizes of business.

Just Food: Did you purposely look for that diversity?

Brigette Wolf: I would say it’s always a happy result. It’s not something where we come in and say the profile of this class must be diverse. But I think when you do look at innovators and founders – and we hear this time and time again – that a diversity of thinking and perspectives makes everyone better.

We are always going to look for it, too. I personally do a lot with the JEDI Foundation. How do you help people of colour and minorities, female founders, find access to capital? How do you give them access to networks they wouldn’t normally have?

Just Food: One of the key obstacles to female entrepreneurs making inroads into the industry is a funding gap. Are you seeing that gap in investment close?

Brigette Wolf: I would say it’s closing. There are a lot more proactive efforts to be mindful about giving an equal weight to female founders and their capability. We know when you have female members on your board of directors that leads to better performance.

For us, I wouldn’t say we would ever fund someone solely because it’s a female founder. It’s definitely finding the right fit – and not all female founders are equal. You really want to find the talent, the mission and the product that serves consumers best – but it’s also recognising that those women may not have the same access, or equal access, or the ease of access. How can we figure out ways to connect them to the VC funds and the right people to make it just that much easier for them?

Just Food: Given your position and experience in the industry, is it a personal mission for you?

Brigette Wolf: I love it. I mean, look, I have a brother, I have a husband, I have a father. It’s never about a negative to every male but there is something about supporting and giving access to those who may have different doubts or may not know their way. It’s really been phenomenal within Mondelez being able to champion women and then outside of Mondelez making those connections.

There are plenty of men that are willing to be, like, ‘Tell me who needs help.’ There are a lot of people willing to raise their hand, whether it’s in big corporates who are in positions of power who in the past have benefited from different biases but now they just need to know who to talk to.

Just Food: What changes have you seen within Mondelez?

Brigette Wolf: I think we do a tonne internally on diversity and trying to empower — the D&I [diversity and inclusion] efforts obviously the last couple of years have been very corporate but I would say seeing it materialise in Mondelez is at a very personal human level.

You see members of that community leading the charge and just sharing stories. I would say credit to Mondelez for being very human and trying to elevate conversations, having more difficult conversations and then being really deliberate. In certain cases, it’s making sure our interview slates have diversity and that we’re checking our biases and making sure we’re presenting the right skillset and mindset perspectives versus what we’ve done in the past.

Just Food: Are there certain characteristics and attributes women can bring to the table that perhaps men don’t display as often? Or can’t display?

Brigette Wolf: You know, I do. It’s a criticism of women that they can be more emotional and irrational but there is a biological predisposition from cavemen onwards of female care. You care for the community, you care for your children – whether you just feed them, birth them, care for them. I do think there is an inherent bias, a predisposition, so you see a lot more inclusion, a lot more listening, often. You will see a diversity of perspectives because often women are in the perspective that they have to serve. I do think there’s some wiring that’s different; again, to go back to cavemen, of men protecting and dominating and surviving.

Just Food: What’s holding back the correct level of female representation within the food industry?

Brigette Wolf: There’s just a bit of inertia in the machine itself that just needs to get unwound and re-thought. I don’t think it’s an overnight piece. We’ve acknowledged there are pay gaps and gender gaps in leadership or in funding. Then the next question is ‘What are the measures to get in place?’

There is an industry acknowledgement of it at all levels – in the sales organisations, in the engineering organisations, in the finance organisations. Again, deferential to my male family members and colleagues, they’re entitled to a good living and a good job and the next promotion if they’ve done the work and they’re qualified for it. I don’t think it should be a pendulum swing where we just put anyone in.

Just Food: Going back to the businesses in CoLab, are there any changes to how you’re going to work with this new cohort?

Brigette Wolf: I think we overwhelmed the first cohort – in a good way. We just put everything in. We then got feedback from the cohort as to which sessions were the most impactful, which speakers, which things were most practical for the short term and long term. Hopefully, we’ll have more in-person touchpoints due to Covid [restrictions] relaxing.

Our piece now for SnackFutures in general – CoLab and SnackFutures – is we’ve built it. How do we now scale it? How do we get this to continue every year? Can we do more? Can we go globally? We would love to expand in strategic markets, working across tech as well.

Just Food: Are there plans to take CoLab outside of the US potentially in the years ahead?

Brigette Wolf: Yes.

Just Food: Could you launch a similar scheme in Europe?

Brigette Wolf: Yes, absolutely. Long term, I would love to see a vision where this is operating in all four corners, where we’ve got major market hubs and we’re operating with the business units because we want the hands-on engagement of the subject matter experts in markets. I wouldn’t want us to start with just planting flags around places and disappoint the cohort.

Just Food: In each cohort, is Mondelez looking at potentially investing in the companies?

Brigette Wolf: It may not be all. What’s interesting, too, is part of where we’re going to go in the next decade is stepping back to look at multiple types of innovation and disruption in snacking. What are the business models? What are the routes to market? Not just the products themselves.

Just Food: Did you invest in any of the first cohort?

Brigette Wolf: Not yet. In our venture portfolio, we have not gone public on a few of the companies that we’ve recently — we’re expanding that portfolio and each one of those [companies] has different starting points of their cycle and phases. You’ve got some that are in the single-digit [of millions of dollars of sales], some that are in the tens, some are in the 20 millions. Coming out of CoLab, that pipeline of investment will also be important.

Just Food: It’s not the case, then, that Mondelez would publicly disclose every single equity investment it makes.

Brigette Wolf: No and I think that was something for us to be mindful about. To have a strategic investor, sometimes there are concerns at a start-up. ‘Why would we have it? What if the strategic doesn’t buy us?’ And then what does that do for their exit strategy? Even if it was the right decision early on to invest and even if we could help them a lot, and then, who knows for whatever good merits, we don’t buy them, we wouldn’t want to kind of stain their outcomes.

Just Food: How many live investments are there?

Brigette Wolf: There are about five.

Just Food: Has Mondelez slowed down on the venturing front?

Brigette Wolf: No, if anything, we are being quite active. We’re just not being as vocal.

Just Food: During the early months of the pandemic, in some categories, bigger brands were favoured by retailers and consumers for reasons of distribution and familiarity. What are your thoughts on the appetite for smaller brands now? Are retailers going to be as open as they were perhaps in the middle part of the last decade?

Brigette Wolf: I don’t know if I can put my money on 2022 yet, maybe 2023, but I do see a resurgence of start-up brands and activity happening for two main reasons. One is there is a desire to live and have new experiences. The pandemic forced us to bunker down so much. It might be a really erratic piece but I do think there’s going to be an openness to what else I as a consumer can try.

And the other is where small brands do best is when they can sample – and particularly in food. That has been completely cut off. As that opens up, we’ll see hopefully more interest and more conversion.

I think we’ll hopefully see a renaissance of snacking that we know – and there’s no doubt about that – the trends of more purposeful brands, more deliberate choices of mindful eating, more information of what the ingredients are. All those trends of wellbeing I think are going to come back post the pandemic.