Reinventing the way, with Renée Elliott

Renée Elliott is the founder of Planet Organic,  the UK's largest fully certified organic supermarket, and co-founder of Beluga Bean, a coaching business set up to support women setting up their own.

Speaking to Renée it became so clear that Planet Organic was been built on a strong set of values right from the beginning. Shaped by Renée’s determination to do things differently, it has become a discovery hub for early-stage food start-ups who are equally committed to having positive impact. (So naturally is has become a soft spot in Katarina's heart!)

Beluga Bean, her latest venture, supports women setting up their own businesses. Based on her own experiences, Renée places a unique and modern emphasis on realising, accepting and nurturing your own needs as well as your business’ needs. Important for men and women alike!

We spoke to Renée about an array of topics, from challenging conventions to her role model, Anita Roddick (founder of The Body Shop).

We spoke to Renée about an array of topics, from challenging conventions to her role model, Anita Roddick (founder of The Body Shop).

Her first business, Planet Organic, has become a discovery hub for early-stage food start-ups who are equally committed to having positive impact.

Her first business, Planet Organic, has become a discovery hub for early-stage food start-ups who are equally committed to having positive impact.

How receptive were people to organic food when Planet Organic launched, 22 years ago?

When we opened our first store (on November 4th 1995) organic wasn’t part of the vernacular.

We really pioneered organic so people just didn’t know what we were talking about! People didn’t know what it was, people didn’t really have any understanding of conventional farming and a framework to which to measure anything – there was just food.  

I knew very quickly that we had to get people thinking about food, to become more conscious… to kind of wake up. And we had no budget to do anything.

In February 1996, shortly after we opened, there was a big BSE (mad cow disease) scare, and that put us on the map. People became aware. They got frightened about meat and, if that fear led to learning about a better option, many converted to organic – so our sales jumped then. Later that year there was a big E.coli scare and our sales jumped again. So, it was about raising awareness.

It wasn’t really until 1999 when Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) tried to come into the U.K. – they were already quietly in some products – but they tried to come in in massive scale and The Guild of Food Writers launched a public awareness campaign to let England know what was going on. On the back of that, supermarkets pulled GMOs out of ingredients in their food; they launched the organic ranges that were doing well with us like Green & Blacks. That’s when organics hit the mainstream.

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What drove you to pioneer organic before there was a clear demand for it in the UK?

Well my Modus Operandi is I question conventions… because they don’t always make sense. I like things that make sense – in a quite simple way – and I always think there’s got to be a better way. I like to do things better.

When I was 19, I kind of woke up to the food market because I read a book about the meat industry in America and I thought “oh my god, that’s awful” – so what’s the better way? Is there a different way? That’s been such a big driver for me.

When I was looking for something to do with my life in terms of work, I thought “I want to eat the best quality of food, I want to eat food that doesn’t damage the world, the community or my body”. I figured there had to be enough people out there who wanted what I wanted.

So that’s the reason I started. It was very selfish in a way but it was also broad-minded in the fact that I was trying to change the world – to make it better.

You recently set-up the new mentoring programme ‘Beluga Bean’. What motivated you to start it?

Well I come from a dual-perspective. For part of me, it’s vital that I create meaningful work for myself that I can do for my life because I’m a very passionate person. But at the same time, from a spiritual perspective I believe in a life of service, which is about helping/supporting people; making the world a better place; making a difference in the world. So that when I get to the end of my life I don’t look back and go “Really? Oops, that was it? So instead I can look back and say “OK, yeah, a life well spent. Life is a precious gift and I have lived it well and made a difference.”

Can you tell us a little more about it? Who’s it for and why does it matter?

Beluga Bean is about all the stuff you don’t learn at school. Broadly speaking it’s life skills and business skills. You know - you can graduate, you can have your PHD and you may not know how to cook for your baby, how to communicate with your husband, how to start a business, how to give birth. This idea of an academy has been in my head for years and when Sam, my business partner, and I met, we realised that we both have this idea of an academy for women (initially) that is about these life and business skills that you don’t necessarily learn at school.

So instead of an incubator (I don’t like the word incubator or accelerator - I think “Oh my god everyone just needs to slow down not speed up!”) we’ve created a ‘greenhouse’ that takes you on a year-long journey. Half of it is the business planning and half of it is the personal development. So you’re looking at yourself, your needs, things that hold you back, patterns, paradigms and changing those things so you can really power ahead.

I can’t not talk about the personal stuff, because life is both. Going through the business process you have to be fulfilled, rested; you have to be taking care of yourself and you have to be happy, so for me it’s all a lovely tangle.

Her new venture, Beluga Bean, is about all the stuff you don't learn at school. Including how to balance family and business.

Her new venture, Beluga Bean, is about all the stuff you don't learn at school. Including how to balance family and business.

What I’ve found is women need and ask for that emotional support. I don’t think men necessarily don’t want it, but they may not realise they want it or they don’t necessarily ask for it. But women are so clear that they need emotional support through this process or they’ll say their self-esteem is shot to bits. I’m good at motivating people on that journey.

It’s amazing and it’s not always comfortable.  You know, there are some women who have never done personal development work, they don’t even know what it means. There are some who have and are unsure of whether they want to do it again but say “I want to push through my limiting thoughts and behaviours so I can be more successful”. It’s very real and about creating a space for that very real conversation where people can ask for support and move through/learn what they need to learn to power ahead. 

We have started with women because it made sense and gave us a very clear focus – most of my clients are women and all of Sam’s clients are women. But if men are knocking down the door, then we wouldn’t say no!

In terms of creating impact beyond profit, how do you maintain values in a business when sales is what keeps it alive? 

It goes back to the premise that the business is values led and commercially driven. You have to have the two running in the business.  That creates a tension – it’s not a bad tension because it keeps you smart it keeps you on your toes.

What’s interesting is when I started Planet [Organic] I started with a business partner, which ended in tears. When my husband later joined the company it was very clear that he was the commercial side and I was the value side and there was that tension – tension is the wrong word: balance - running between us.

You have to have both. To be successful doesn’t mean you have to throw your values out the door. Anita Roddick was my role model because she set-up the Body Shop with complete integrity. It just means for me that you’re thoughtful about everything that you do and you take decisions in a considered way. And it means you do things differently. I know a lot of businessmen who say “This is how its done – and this is right”. And I say, “Why?... Why can’t we do it this way?” It’s about questioning and pushing the boundaries. 

When I started Planet my goal was to create a business that ran on completely different lines; to create a business that did good business and to prove that that worked. I knew that if I created a company like that, then I would draw people that wanted that too - and that was really exciting to me.


Say hello to Renée through Beluga Bean
Or have a browse of Planet Organic

Matt & Katarina