Dairy industry, finding your crowd and spider genitals

Danielle Appleton

November 21, 2019

I met Danielle a few years ago when she was an operations manager at a deep-tech incubator, Level Two. New Zealand is a small place so we found ourselves meeting each other again and again.

Danielle has had a long career in Aotearoa dairy industry, she even co-founded two companies: Kia Ora Milk and Evolutions Meadows. You can listen to her recent TedX talk here on how the NZ dairy industry is getting disrupted. I am excited to hear about Danielle’s story on Storyo!

Danielle, you have worked in so many areas related to dairy and food manufacturing. Tell us a bit about your journey into it?

In some ways, I fell into it. As a girl, I went to a tiny rural school in Waikato. Most of my friends were farming kids, some of them are now running their family farms.

In high school, I had a difficult relationship with my parents so I needed to be able to support myself as soon as possible. The careers counsellor told me that engineers had a 98% hiring rate straight out of university. I quite liked maths, so being a pragmatic sort, I enrolled in engineering, got a few part-time jobs, bought a caravan, started living under a plum tree at my dad’s place then went to the university up the road. And funnily enough, after university, I started working at the dairy factory just down the road from my old rural primary school.

I worked in the dairy industry in one form or another for over 10 years. Along the way I got my Masters of Dairy Science & Technology, while working in factories and laboratories. I then focused on helping make moving and selling dairy products more efficient while also getting my Masters of Business Administration. So I know a lot about how New Zealand turns milk into money, along with all the complex acrobatics of farming, science, technology, engineering, transportation, sales, marketing and finance.

Tell us a bit about your experience founding Kia Ora Milk and Evolution Meadows!

A turning point for me was getting into the Disrupt programme, a startup accelerator for Fonterra staff, with our startup Kia Ora Milk. I was pulled from my corporate life to somewhere totally different, chaotic, and exciting where I had complete autonomy and an incredible team.

The amazing Kia Ora Milk team
The amazing Kia Ora Milk team

It was an awesome feeling - winning at our first ever formal pitch event. I can’t say much more about the company but I was stoked to see it continue within Fonterra. It was nerve-wracking but a really good time.

Corporate innovation programmes can be problematic as you typically end up owning nothing… but it was totally worth it for the experience.

After Kia Ora Milk I left Fonterra to help grow innovation communities before founding my own startup - Evolution Meadows. Creating a genuine plant-based milk alternative with the same protein, fat and carbs as regular milk. An allergy-free milk for the whole family. I learnt so much through the investment journey and while building the product and the business. My cofounder is continuing with it so watch this space.

After years of being in the dairy industry and now switching to plant-based products. How did that transition go for you?

While I was creating a vegan milk for Evolution Meadows, I refused to become vegan. To create a compelling vegan milk I had to know how close my plant-based milk tasted to dairy milk! Taste testing means I couldn’t give up dairy. And I now eat the best of both dairy and vegan alternatives. But becoming vegan is likely what I’ll do in the long term.

Most people in the large-scale food industry seem to have a divide between their personal and professional views. So when I started a vegan food company, and spoke at TEDx Tauranga on the future of dairy, I had a surprising amount of private support from old colleagues, certainly, more support than I expected.

Danielle on the stage of TedX Tauranga
Danielle on the stage of TedX Tauranga

In my personal life, like everyone else, I’m concerned about lots of things to do with food. Like climate change, dirty waterways, biodiversity loss, living a long healthy life, not contributing to human or animal misery... It’s a long list.

Nowadays, I only eat wild caught fish and animals – caught and killed by myself or close friends and family. Commercially farmed meat is problematic, and “out of sight, out of mind”. I prefer to eat pests (goats, deer, rabbits, etc.) that are destroying native bush, “murdered” by people I know well, who I can trust to be respectful and avoid unnecessary kills or unnecessary suffering. As a result, I only occasionally eat meat at family dinners.

A lot of my family grew up in isolated areas and hunting / fishing is a key part of staying fed, socially connected (and sane). Especially for men – mental health in rural communities is so important.  

By calling it “murdered” – I’m trying to practice radical accountability! It starts some interesting discussions! Eating meat from the supermarket but refusing to kill it yourself (if the opportunity arises) is a cop out. Some days I manage to annoy both the meat eaters and the vegetarians / vegans. I’m not too worried though. By trying to be perfect with food, you can make yourself crazy. I’m challenging perceptions on both sides of the divide and that’s a start.

Food is really personal and emotive for a lot of people. I get that. But when I talk about milk and dairy in my professional life I’m coming at it from a business and engineering perspective. I look at what is provable and measurable, and what that might mean for the future of dairy in New Zealand. So we can have real discussions about what is happening, and what that means for us, as people and as communities.

For example, only 4% of the milk New Zealand cows produce is consumed in New Zealand. Almost all of the dairy we make is exported. This means that the dairy products in your fridge have very little to do with how the NZ dairy industry actually makes money!

Another surprising fact is that over 70% of milk from New Zealand ends up as a powder, in a plain brown / white 20kg bag in a shipping container to be sent around the world! Those powders are often minor ingredients that go into other products - chocolate or muesli bars, pack of soups, etc.

Filling a train with export milk powder. Photo by Stephen Jaquiery, Otago Daily Times.
Filling a train with export milk powder. Photo by Stephen Jaquiery, Otago Daily Times.

If we just stopped milking cows, yes, it would be better for the planet, and so many jobs in rural New Zealand would just disappear. Not just farmers and factory workers but all of the product / services jobs that rely on the industry and are too specialised to do anything else. Agriculture is such a huge part of the New Zealand economy that your ‘spending power’ would likely reduce, no matter where you are in New Zealand.

The future of Agriculture is fascinating stuff! I can’t wait to see what the next 20 years will bring. But radical changes to the dairy and meat industry will also have a dramatic human impact that we can’t ignore. And there are a few massive changes on the horizon that we need to start talking about.

Do you have any particular guiding principles / values in life and in the work you do?

There’s one principle that I always come back to, being proactive and developing my passions. Do the mahi!

I remember doing the dishes with my Grandma when I was about 17. I was talking about how worried I was, that I’d make the wrong decision about “what to do with my life”. My rather stoic Grandma looked genuinely confused by the question. “What do you mean, what to do? Just do something and be useful.” She was right.

Some of my whanau, featuring Grandma (she’s usually right!)
Some of my whanau, featuring Grandma (she’s usually right!)

There’s a great article on this, about not trying to “find your passion”, but “developing your passion” instead. Allowing yourself to slowly invest in areas that you find interesting and see where it takes you. Then seeing the opportunities that open up. This way, no matter where you start out, you’re unlikely to be wrong. I’m still developing my passions and hope to never stop!

I’ve recently been diagnosed with adult ADHD which has been an interesting process. So many things make sense now. I have been learning everything I can about what my ADHD means for me - both the good and bad, and incorporating those insights into how I approach my life and work. So something I’ve been thinking about is shaping my consulting business, to fit in with how I prefer to work. So I can best use my very specific talents and skills, stay energised and contribute as much as possible. I’m always learning how to do this better.

When looking through the online / social media lens, people tend to assign more social value to someone who started a company. We all tend to compare ourselves to others and feel overwhelmed or like we are “not enough”. Could you please share some of the personal or professional challenges that you have experienced?

We all feel different and not enough at times. It’s tough. And that never changes, no matter how much you do to prove that you’re enough, how much money you have, how supportive your family is, how many degrees you have got, or your level of experience or seniority. I’m learning to manage the fear and the occasional bouts of doubt and to trust in myself enough to speak up anyway. Doing the work and connecting with other ‘doers’ is the most important thing.

Something else that I’ve been thinking about, is how important it is “not to chase someone else’s dream”. I can’t remember where I heard this saying, but it is damn good advice.

This is something I was struggling with while working in a corporate office in Auckland. I just didn’t want what everyone else seemed to want - that raise, the nice lunch, the slow pace, structure and security. Took me years to realise that even though I could do corporate city life, it just didn’t fit. So, I started finding my crowd at GridAKL, The Hardware Meetup, Mums Garage and then the Level Two Deep Tech Incubator. They challenged me to redefine myself and my career on my own terms. Rather than accepting the career path and expectations handed to me.

Gazing lovingly at the    Boxfish    marine drone with Elyse Wyatt and Ben King at a    Hardware Meetup
Gazing lovingly at the Boxfish marine drone with Elyse Wyatt and Ben King at a Hardware Meetup

I’m now trying to create a more meaningful, satisfying life (and work-life!). One that I want. Not what someone else thinks I should have, no matter how lovely and well-meaning they are.

I really believe that you should do you. Double down on your weird, on your unique strengths and on what makes you uniquely happy. Forget the rest. It’s amazing who will truly connect with, collaborate with, and support you and your projects, once they really see who you are and why you’re getting stuck in. When someone says “oh but you could”...something that sounds great but just isn’t your jam. Ask yourself: is this my dream or theirs?

This is how I recently made a big change. Moving from Auckland to Gisborne to spend more time with my family. This also means that my partner and I can buy a house without the crazy mortgage, and I can spend more time writing, on personal projects, and no doubt supporting, creating and growing businesses as I go.

Outside of food tech industry, what are some of the things you are passionate about, things that bring you joy?

For me right now, it really is the little things.

Catching up with my family here in Gisborne. Sharing my breakfast with my tiny cousin, only 18 months old and she’s already a little firecracker. Weekly supermarket shopping with Grandma. Discovering the seriously good Gisborne beer, cider, wine and exploring with friends.

Also hearing from my siblings who are taking on the world, in amazing and completely different ways:  from building and commissioning military vessels to advocating for animal welfare and leading a whole region of vet clinics, to writing stories and building awareness of the diversity in mental health, gender and sexuality. They’re mad. And, I really couldn’t be prouder.

Also, for fun, when I’m stressed I sew giant cuddly squids. I forget why I started doing it… but it’s always interesting to see where they pop up!

My cousin Dale on an impromptu squid photoshoot!
My cousin Dale on an impromptu squid photoshoot!

What are you currently learning / pondering about?

The short answer: Spider genitals.

The long answer: The state of the planet. It’s a lot. With climate change, pollution, urbanisation and agricultural impacts, biodiversity is taking a serious hammering. In New Zealand we are likely losing a huge number of plant and insect species that we don’t even know exist!

I’ve been thinking about what I can do to help, that’s uniquely suited to my interests and skills, but lets me learn something completely new. I love food and technology - but sometimes a change is as good as a holiday! The answer: Citizen science! iNaturalist NZ is this great app and website that lets you take pictures of plants and critters. Then other people tell you what species they are. It’s bit like PokemonGo and very addictive.

The first spider I ever dissected!
The first spider I ever dissected!

By using iNatNZ you can help scientists and conservationists find new species and protect the ones we’ve got. As you can only protect something once you know it’s there!

In his spare time citizen scientist Mark Tutty has found a new colony of the endangered Katipo Spider in Gisborne. He’s working with the council to make sure they get looked after. Truly awesome. I’ve always loved insects, so I’m on a mission to collect all the native spiders near Gisborne. Over time, hopefully, I’ll find a few new species.

You can tell a lot about a spider from a good picture. But it turns out that you usually work out the exact spider species a spider is, by closely examining its genitals. Developing your passion can lead you to some pretty weird places sometimes!

And finally, whose story would you want to read about on here?

Oh so many! There are so many women out there with amazing stories, on interesting journeys, who I’d love to know more about.

Amanda Gilbertson - an AgTech advocate with great insights on collaborative innovation and a wicked sense of humour.

Dr Janis Swan was my (very patient) science and engineering professor. An academic powerhouse, she was the first woman to lead a NZ Engineering School and recently became the second female Distinguished Fellow of Engineering New Zealand. I’m in awe of those women who were breaking the mould in the 60’s and 70’s, mad props.

Christine Roper - a beautiful human and Marine Biologist working to save the Great Barrier Reef!

Dr Olga Garkavenko - a serial founder, inventor and world expert on identifying pigs that can be used for life-saving human transplants. As you do...

And Dr Gertje Petersen, who is pioneering an entirely new field - bee breeding. Because bees are livestock. And you can breed them, too! Making commercial bees healthier and more resilient.

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