The must-know professionals transforming food and leisure

October 11, 2016


The business landscape is rapidly evolving — and there’s a set of professionals, all 35 and under, urging on this transformation using a combination of skill, guts and perseverance. These are the inventors, strategists and entrepreneurs that make up the LinkedIn Next Wave 2016, a group of 120 individuals across a dozen different industries that are doing extraordinary work and transforming their fields.

The list, which is driven by data from LinkedIn’s global professional network and editorial research, features several top names in food and leisure who are shaping the future of the industry.

Check out 10 standout Next Wavers in the food and leisure industry below — and see the full list here.

Justin Zabilansky
Biological engineer, AeroFarms

One of the biggest experiments in food is playing out in a former paintball and laser-tag arena in Newark, N.J. There, AeroFarms is operating the world’s largest indoor vertical farm, growing kale, arugula and other lettuces in tight spaces without soil, pesticides or even sunlight. It’s a method many consider the future of farming, given that such a facility uses just 1 percent of the land required of a conventional farm. Zabilansky, a 23-year-old biological engineer, is part of the team bringing the effort to life.

A recent MIT grad, Zabilansky tells LinkedIn that he’s working on the farm’s operations and data-collection systems — the company monitors 30,000 data points to keep crops healthy — along with its efforts to “improve uniformity of crop growth.” In picking a job, he says he looks for opportunities to make an impact on an industry and to do good. Bonus points for adventures in biology: “The operations platform we’ve developed will allow us to learn about plant biology in ways that have never before been possible.”

Sasan Amini
Co-founder and CEO, Clear Labs

Completing a Ph.D. in five years is one thing. Earning a Ph.D. at Princeton in genomics in that same time span is quite another. For 33-year-old Amini, it was all part of the groundwork for Clear Labs, an 18-person startup that’s using human-genome sequencing technology to create the “Google of food.” This searchable database of ingredients in packaged foods is now holding food brands more accountable for what’s in a product — right down to the molecular level.
From GMOs to allergens and contaminants, the database is currently only available to ClearLabs clients; the 2-year-old company does, however, periodically release consumer reports. Last October, for example, the media buzzed over the MenloPark, Calif. company’s Hot Dog Report, which found 10 percent of vegetarian products contained meat — and 2 percent of its hot dog samples had traces of human DNA. Like it or not, “[w]e look blindly into food samples to learn exactly what’s there,” Amini told LinkedIn.


Jessica Foust
Director of Culinary Innovation, McDonald’s

These days, McDonald’s is hoping you’ll love more than its new All-Day Breakfast menu. Other recent upgrades include adding baby kale, baby spinach and carrots to salads; ditching the iceberg lettuce in favor of Tuscan red leaf; and switching from margarine to real butter in Egg McMuffins. From developing recipes in a test kitchen to discussing new ingredients with suppliers, Foust is the 32-year-old dietitian behind these subtle menu upgrades — oh, and she happens to be the first female chef at McDonald’s.

“I am constantly thinking of new ways to influence and inspire change through ingredients, recipes, and ideas,” Foust told LinkedIn. “From kale and spinach to Sriracha and baked goods (separately, not together), food is quite literally always on my mind.”


Andrew Gauthier
Executive Producer, BuzzFeed

Tasty videos — those minute-long recipe clips that dominate your Facebook feed — have accumulated a staggering 30 billion pageviews since launching in July 2015. One of the creative minds behind these drool-worthy food videos? Gauthier, 33, who now leads Global Strategic Projects for the newly-formed BuzzFeed Entertainment Group. Some 2,000 videos later, the 75-person Tasty team has clearly stumbled on a winning recipe: one in four active Facebook users watch at least one Tasty video per month.

“The ‘oh, yes’ that can be heard at the ending of most Tasty videos was originally included as an inside joke,” Gauthier told LinkedIn. “When we were about to launch Tasty, we were talking about whether or not we should have an audio sting under the end card. As a joke, Adam [one of the producers] laid in another producer’s ‘ohhh, yesss,’ which was picked up by the camera mic. We all laughed about it, but then realized that it was a good presiding principle for the new page we were launching: each video should have at least one moment where the viewer can’t help themselves but let out an ‘oh, yes.'”


Nick Halla
Chief Strategy Officer, Impossible Foods

Founded in 2011 and backed by the likes of Bill Gates, Impossible Foods is focused on making plant-based food ingredients look and taste like meat. (When cooked, the meatless Impossible Burger patty appears to bleed when you bite into it.) This level of innovation took some serious molecular science, starting with replicating heme — part of the protein found in blood — at scale and adding coconut oil flecks to mimic beef fat.

Chief Strategy Officer (and Employee No. 1) Halla, 34, says plant-based versions of pork, chicken, fish and dairy could be next. “My upbringing on a dairy farm makes me super passionate about the work we’re doing at Impossible Foods,” Halla told LinkedIn. “Whether I’m a farmer, an engineer or a business leader, making the world more sustainable has been a longtime aspiration.” Industry watchers are keeping tabs: Google reportedly tried to acquire the 130-person company for $200 million.


Mark Newman
Founder and Chief Customer Officer, HireVue

The job interview is going to the machines. Newman is transforming the hiring process for Fortune 500 companies — especially within the travel and leisure category — with HireVue, a platform that records and analyzes interviews. Rather than showing up for an in-person interview, job candidates log onto HireVue and answer a series of questions directly into their computer camera. The company then analyzes those clips, for things like facial expression or word choice, to provide better insight into a candidate’s potential job fit.

This digital process is meant to reduce unconscious bias connected with human judgement and lead to more diversity and dynamism in hiring. Newman, 32, has expanded the company to more than 600 companies across nearly 180 countries, including big names in travel and leisure: Hilton, Delta Air Lines and United, among others. “All in all, we are having a ton of fun and just getting started,” says Newman, who stepped down as CEO recently to focus on building HireVue’s next big offering: skills training.

Ashley Peterson
Vice President of Experience, Sweetgreen

Vegan,gluten-free, local, seasonal: That’s what you’ll find at Sweetgreen, a fast-growing chain that sells salads and grain bowls in what Fortune calls “the new model for fast food.” SincePeterson joined in March 2014 to run operations, 31 new locations have cropped up. Now in charge of driving customer experience, Peterson, 33, says it helps that every Sweetgreen corporate employee works in one of its 54 restaurants at least five times a year.

Not much can replace this type of real-life experience on the front lines (think Chipotle-style assembly line): “Only by working on the service line, cleaning dishes, and chatting with guests in line can we truly understand the motivations for our customers and what we can be doing better,”Peterson told LinkedIn.


Vicki Poulos
Sr. Director and Global Brand Leader, Moxy Hotels at Marriott International

How does Marriott International, the biggest hotel operator on earth, create a new chain that manages to both appeal to millennials and “out-cool Airbnb”? Poulos, 34, is helping to develop just such a concept: one with 200-square-foot rooms, buzzy lobbies and enough smart design elements that one writer says it “could lay out a blueprint for how hoteliers in the future compete for young travelers’ cash.”Moxy Hotels is aiming to be fun (all-day bars; board games in the lobby) and affordable, priced at $100-200 a night.

Poulos is helping to oversee thechain’s rapid expansion — “growing the brand in 10 countries (three continents)in the first five years,” something Marriott hasn’t done before — while simultaneously amping up its cool factor (a YouTube web series, hosted in a shipping container, from popular comedian Taryn Southern). Something not on her LinkedIn profile: She’s been accepted into the executive master’s program in strategic design and management at The New School, Parsons Paris.


Greg Sewitz
Co-founder and Co-CEO, Exo

Should bugs be our next sustainable food source? Sewitz, 25, thinks so. Since co-founding Exo in 2014 to sell protein bars made out of cricket flour, Sewitz is hoping to help move people beyond the gross-out factor and educate them instead on the benefits: Crickets contain 2.2-times more iron than spinach, and cricket flour contains almost double the amount of protein as beef jerky. But will these cricket-infused food bars — currently available in flavors likeCocoa Nut, Apple Cinnamon, Blueberry Vanilla, Banana Bread and Peanut Butter and Jelly — find a place among fans of PowerBars and Clif Bars?

The company has already raised $4 million in Series A funding and garnered a spot last year on Fast Company’s Top 10 Most Innovative Food Companies in the World. “We think that consumers are starting to be way more adventurous and open when it comes to trying new foods, especially if there’s nutrition and sustainability to back it up,” Sewitz told LinkedIn. “Our bars are also produced by a three-Michelin-star chef, so you know they’re tasty.”


Ben Simon
Co-founder and CEO, Imperfect

American grocery stores are basically beauty pageants. For every four perfect apples you put in your car, one has been thrown away for its unappealing looks — shoppers just won’t buy odd fruit and vegetables. Simon, 26, is out to rescue the ugly ducklings of the produce world. His company, Imperfect, is educating consumers “that when it comes to produce, it’s what’s on the inside that counts,” he says.

At the same time, Simon is creating a very real market for these foods by delivering these imperfect fruits and veggies at an affordable cost to customers around the Bay Area. Imperfect has had a big year so far, showing up on the cover of National Geographic in March and tripling in size over the last two months.


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See the full LinkedIn Next Wave list of top professionals 35 and under.

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