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Welcome to our annual Consumer Catalyst Awards, where we honor the top dealmakers, leaders and influencers in the consumer industry.
There is no question that the early-stage consumer market is reshaping every aspect of the broader industry, with new brands stealing market share and exciting new entrants launching every week. Monster exits like RXBAR’s and Blue Bottle’s seem to drop every other month, while numerous smaller, yet strong exits like Native Deodorant’s, Sir Kensington’s and Yasso’s are consistently peppered in between.
What’s less obvious is who the dealmakers and leaders are behind this boom. We generally know the brands, as their sleek Instagram ads pop up in our feeds and they line shelves of Target and Sephora. However, many often don’t know who’s working behind the scenes and at the crux of the business and operational functions keeping the brand innovation at pace.
Similar to how CircleUp25 shines the light on the year’s top brands, Consumer Catalysts shines the light on the other side of market—on the investors, CEOs, merchandisers, editors, reporters and bankers helping make emerging brands pop.
To determine this list, CircleUp distributed a survey to over 1,000 entrepreneurs to gather nominations and feedback, and gathered our team’s insights based on the hundreds of investors, retailers and influencers we work with throughout the year. Because we have worked with thousands of investors and companies, we have a unique view on which investors, retailers and experts are most influential in the space.
Without further ado, here’s the list of Consumer Catalysts this year.
- Anna Ohlsson-Baskerville, Director, Unilever Ventures
Unilever Ventures has upped it pace significantly this year, making several investments in unique beauty brands where is can pair its operational and distribution expertise. Of note, we’re especially excited about her and the firm’s investments in Beauty Bakerie, Nutrafol and LXMI.
- Arif Fazal, Founder and Managing Director, Blueberry Ventures
While Arif’s firm, Blueberry Ventures, only came into play in 2015, it already has a portfolio of some of the latest and greatest companies in Food and Beverage. Arif has led investments into Rhythm Superfoods, REBBL, Ripple Foods, Barnana, Revive Kombucha, Fishpeople Seafood and several other breakout brands.
- Bill Weiland, Founder, President and CEO, Presence Marketing
Bill Weiland has grown Presence Marketing into the largest independent natural and organic products brokerage in the U.S. In working with leading national brands as well as successful startups, Bill has a keen eye for the trends driving the rapidly growing healthy lifestyles market. Bill also is a big advocate of consumer transparency and GMO labeling, using his expertise to have a positive impact.
- Brad Barnhorn, Board Member and Advisor
Brad Barnhorn sits on the boards of some of the most exciting food brands of today. Kevita (sold to Pepsi), Chameleon Cold Brew (sold to Nestlé), Health Warrior, Rhythm Superfoods, Biena and Fishpeople all turn to Brad for consultation on brand strategy and growth.
- Brett Thomas, co-founder and Managing Partner, CAVU Ventures
Few other consumer industry firms have seen so much early success as CAVU Ventures, which despite being only 4 years old, was early to invest in Bai, Kite Hill, Health-Ade Kombucha and Thrive Market. After leading CAVU’s investments in Hippeas and Vital Proteins this year, Brett is sure to have big things in store for 2018.
- Carol Ortenberg, Editor, Project Nosh
Carol is one of the undisputed leaders in natural foods media. She has deep access to entrepreneurs and investors alike, coupled with a profound understanding of how all angles of the industry work. In addition to writing compelling stories, Carol helps manage Project Nosh’s flagship event Nosh LIVE, which has quickly grow into one on the industry’s most influential conferences.
- Elaine Watson, Editor, FoodNavigator-USA
In the food world, Food Navigator is a primary destination for trends and analysis on the products, brands, and leaders shaping the industry. This is largely thanks to Elaine and the rest of her team, who demonstrate incredible depth and critical thinking in interviews and articles. Elaine is also heavily involved in Food Vision, Food Navigator’s flagship event, which is recognized as one of the food industry’s most influential.
- Janica Lane, Managing Director of Consumer Investment Banking, Piper Jaffray
Simply put, Janica Lane is one of the most important figures in the business, behind most major investment banking and M&A deals for consumer companies spanning healthy, active and sustainable living, with a focus on food and beverage. Additionally, she is widely regarded as one of the most respected and well-liked in the industry, from her conference presentations to 1-1 meetings.
- JB Osborne, co-founder and CEO, Red Antler
Brand is very hard to get right, but if accomplished effectively is extremely powerful—and arguably no one knows that better than JB. JB and his team at branding firm Red Antler have refined the craft of building incredibly sleek, empathic and modern brands, which people everywhere fall in love with. It’s no coincidence that JB and Red Antler are behind the genius branding of Brandless, Allbirds, Casper, Burrow and more.
- Jeannette Ogden, Founder, Shut The Kale Up
Jeannette knows what people love – and what people are sure to love next. Her blog Shut The Kale Up has amassed a cult following of conscious consumers looking to discover emerging, craft products that are healthy or satisfy a unique need. For the early-stage consumer brands lucky enough to be included on the blog, Shut the Kale Up is a powerful way to reach highly engaged audiences.
- Jeff Klineman, Editor-in-Chief, BevNET, Project Nosh, Brewbound
Jeff Klineman, alongside his teams at the three publications, has built a media powerhouse that leads industry conversations around beverage, natural foods and beer. Under his editorial leadership, the teams consistently produce thought-provoking analysis that keeps the pace of the fast-moving categories. Between the publications’ news coverage and events, Jeff has had an invaluable impact on the industry.
- Jeremy Smith, Founder and CEO, LaunchPad Group USA
After more than 35 years in strategic sales, design, branding and marketing, Jeremy has been a boon to early-stage consumer brands getting off the ground. He now runs LaunchPad, which is reshaping the traditional retail food broker network as a full service business strategy, branding and representation group for emerging food brands, highly specialized in Costco representation and strategy.
- Josh Goldin, co-founder and Managing Director, Alliance Consumer Growth (ACG)
While Josh initially climbed the ranks in consumer investing while sitting on the boards of Suja Juice (acquired by Coca-Cola), Babyganics (acquired by SC Johnson) and Shake Shack (NYSE: SHAK), he’s shown no sign of slowing down, and continues to lead deals in category-defining companies. At consumer-focused private equity firm ACG, a few of his most recent include fast-casual salad chain Tender Greens and popular natural skincare line Tata Harper.
- John Haugen, Vice President and General Manager, General Mills 301 INC
While corporate consumer venture may be a relatively new phenomenon, General Mills has long been leading the movement, as one of the first big CPG company to launch a venture arm. To the this day, it’s still the most active of the bunch. Under John’s leadership, General Mills 301 INC has become a powerful hybrid of capital and legacy industry insight for emerging brands to tap into.
- Josh Wand, Founder, Force Brands
Recruiting is a challenging, pivotal area for any business field. Those in CPG turn to Josh and his recruiting firm Force Brands for expertise in finding and acquiring top talent, ultimately helping get businesses off the ground with the right minds and experience on board. Currently working across food, beverage and beauty, Josh is the top resource for hiring needs across sales, marketing, finance and operations.
- Kevin Murphy, Managing Director, Encore Consumer Capital
Encore Consumer Capital is widely regarded as one of the top consumer industry firms, from the success of its portfolio to the hands-on, strategic guidance of its investors. Kevin has helped his companies become market leaders since joining Encore Consumer Capital in 2005, serving as Chairman/Director for LONDON, Fantasy Cookie, Juice Tyme (acquired) and tarte (acquired).
- Kirsten Green, Managing Director, Forerunner Ventures
Kirsten Green hardly needs any introduction after her and her firm’s investments in runaway successes like Glossier, Outdoor Voices and Away, as well as massive exits like Jet.com and Dollar Shave Club. Kirsten continues to bring to market some of the most fascinating consumer brands straddling e-commerce, beauty and wellness, fashion and technology. Of note, we’re particularly interested in watching how her latest investment, men’s care brand Hims, develops.
- Nick Giannuzzi, Managing Partner, The Giannuzzi Group LLP
Nick Giannuzzi is the most prominent early-stage consumer industry lawyer, and an indispensable strategic partner to those executing M&A deals, manufacturing contracts and fundraises. Several of the most exciting early-stage CPG brands turn to Nick’s expertise, including Malin & Goetz, Califia, Dang, REBBL and more.
- Pam Netzky and Andy Friedman, cofounders, SkinnyPop
After pioneering a new wave of innovation in the previously dormant popcorn category, Pam Netzky and Andy Friedman sold SkinnyPop to Amplify Snack Brands, which later IPO’ed, taking the popcorn brand from zero to $1.35 billion business in just five years. That success was just the beginning for Pam and Andy, who are now dedicated angel investors helping usher in the next wave of exciting early-stage food brands.
- Pat Finn, Founder and Managing Director, Finn Capital Partners
Despite his firm only being a few years old, Pat has led investments into fast-growth, dynamic brands like Barnana, Tatcha, Ripple and Marine Layer. Pat focuses on the lesser-served, very early side of the market, specifically companies doing less than $10M in revenue with healthy margins, which is an approach that has so far served him very well.
- Priya Venkatesh, Vice President of Merchandising for Skincare and Haircare, Sephora
Sephora has become more than just the most comprehensive retailer for skincare and beauty. The makeup and skincare giant’s refreshed dedication to carrying early-stage brands – everything from natural, Korean, to clean beauty – has made it a playground consumer discovery and powerful channel for incubation. Much of this is thanks to Priya, who helms Sephora’s merchandising in skincare and haircare.
- Tom Spier, Founder and Managing Director, Boulder Food Group
Tom, along with the rest of the team at his early-stage investment firm Boulder Food Group, is ushering in a new wave of better-for-you food products breaking grounds in their categories. Some of the top investments include Malk, Fourth & Heart, Caulipower and Quinn.
- Sabina Gault, CEO, Konnect Agency
Good PR is hard to come by in any field, and the CPG industry is no different. Luckily, brands and media have the benefit of getting to work with PR mastermind Sabina Gault, and the rest of the talented team at her firm. Sabina and Konnect are behind the storytelling of some of the most exciting brands, including 4505 Chicharrones, Rhythm Superfoods, Kite Hill and more.
- Vennette Ho, Managing Director, Financo
When it comes to investment banking in the beauty industry, Vennette is a key leader, working with companies at a crossroads and either looking to sell, find a partner or fundraise. Vennette is known for her expertise in maximizing value for brands, whether it’s improving valuation, contract terms, or partner fit. As indie beauty brands continue to gain speed at an alarming rate, we’re sure Vennette will become even more renowned dealmaker.
- Wayne Wu, Managing Director, VMG Partners
You’d be hard pressed to find a CPG entrepreneur who doesn’t know of Wayne Wu. Despite his seniority and utmost expertise, he dedicates time and effort to meet with many, and get to know people in a meaningful way. The approach has certainly paid dividends for him—he and VMG led some of the most exciting deals of the year, such as Drunk Elephant and Spindrift.
CircleUp has relationships with some of the organizations in this article.
Ryan Caldbeck is the founder and CEO of CircleUp, the investment platform that provides capital and resources to early-stage consumer brands.