We recently took time to get to know Sarah Pinner, Kellogg ’22, founder of Beni, to learn more about her company and her mission to make shopping sustainably easier.
How is Jumpstart going so far?
It’s good! It’s already been five weeks, which is crazy. It’s been nice to develop Beni within the context of the University because it started as part of a case competition which had a lot of specific structure, and then I had a quarter off and then I worked on it within the NUVenture series last quarter. But I feel there’s a lot of support and structure, and that isn’t the case usually with startups. I’ve loved coming here because it feels like a startup office. And I love the Bevi! So it’s been good, and it’s been cool to be around others also working on startups all together in the same place.
Can you share a little about your background and what led you to found Beni?
I’m a rising second year student in the Kellogg MMM program. I’m from Santa Barbara, CA originally and I went to UC Berkeley for undergrad and studied political economy and Italian. At the time, I was very interested in food and agriculture, and policy in that area, and wanted to be a chef. I went to Italy for a summer and realized I really didn’t want to do that though – it’s a really tough life!
When I graduated, I thought I would go into policy or something, but ended up at a bank focused on the food and agriculture industry. That was a really interesting experience because I didn’t study finance or consider myself an analytical person, but I got to learn on the job and get some really solid skills. I also got a birdseye view into the food and agriculture industry.
While working at the bank, I helped start a pitch competition called Foodbytes! For about half of my time there, I was in the corporate banking world and the other half, I was busy navigating these food startups and helping the corporate side understand them. I also completed a moonshot project where I was able to work on a project internally for three months full time – and that was my first experience as an entrepreneur and in design thinking, which I got hooked on.
I knew I didn’t want to stay in banking, so I quit and went to New Zealand and worked on some farms and thought a lot about circular design and sustainability. I knew I wanted to work on the problem of waste – that was the guiding light. I came back and worked at Imperfect Foods for a year in business operations, and also started their sustainability team. I definitely had the entrepreneurial bug: identifying problems and realizing I could do things about it.
I left Imperfect Foods for the MMM program at Kellogg. I liked the program because I really wanted to develop design skills, and wanted that added “flavor” to my MBA.
I always wanted to be an entrepreneur, but didn’t really see myself – and still don’t see myself – as a risk tolerant person. The prudence score on my Hogan Leadership Series assessment is very high! But I always had that urge, creativity, and desire to solve problems. So when I came to business school, I thought, “I’ll try.”
Because of COVID, I had a lot of extra time, too. The idea for Beni popped into my head as an amalgamation of all the time wandering around, traveling, and my own journey of trying to shop second hand and having it be painful. I did a case competition pitching Beni and won, got some funding, and was hit by the bug.
First, we were focused on testing the concept with shoppers during the NU Venture series to see if customers will actually buy second hand if we made it simple. Now we’re focused on designing the actual product. It’s just been a step by step process. A cool thing about the way Kellogg and The Garage approach entrepreneurship is that it’s not the typical founder process of just throwing things at a wall and seeing what sticks. Your role is to mitigate risk. And as someone who isn’t very risk tolerant, that works for me.
What is Beni in its current form?
Our overall mission is to make secondhand shopping simple. The current iteration is very much a prototype. People can submit links on our website of items that they like, and we manually match it to available secondhand styles to send back to them. We have a prototype of a browser extension we are also testing with shoppers to see how well it works vs. the hand curated matches. We expect to have a closed beta in the winter of 2021 or early 2022.
What’s been your biggest challenge building Beni?
I don’t think we’ve had any major failures yet, but what I’m noticing is there’s a lot of shuffling things forward, and maybe one thing gets further along but then something else is behind. For example, partnerships are further along but the product isn’t in place. Making sure we have enough resources to build what we want and prioritizing that is a challenge. I’ve never worked on a software product before. I’ve always been a product manager, and for groceries, so I’m learning a lot about the technology nature of the company.
The sustainability space is something I’m comfortable with and passionate about, but there’s a lot to learn when it comes to building the actual product! There’s lots of new things, so I think not burning out or letting my insecurities get in the way is important. I’m working on reaching out to mentors, having those calls, and leaning on other people when I need it.
As a sustainability expert, how can we all do better?
My ethos around sustainability is progress over perfection. With sustainability, people think it’s all or nothing – you have to live in a bunker and never buy anything or have any fun or you aren’t trying. But in reality,the research around fashion and apparel shows that if just one out of five garments were traded through circular business models, we would significantly decrease fashion related emissions.
What I love about that is that while one out of five is a lot higher than we are at today, it’s also just one out of five, so not every single thing needs to be second hand – thinking of creative solutions where you can still have abundance but doing it in a less wasteful, and even sometimes cheaper, way. I’m a big proponent of those little choices adding up.
You can feel disenfranchised as an individual, but it’s important to note that customers – individuals – are the ones propelling resale. Anything we can do to keep awesome products in use longer is good for the planet.
How can we learn more about Beni or get involved?
Go to joinbeni.com to submit a link and we’ll provide a second hand alternative, and follow us on Instagram @join-beni. We’re increasingly putting out blog posts and information on how people can navigate the world of re-commerce.
This article is part of an ongoing series highlighting the startup teams admitted to Jumpstart, The Garage’s pre-accelerator Program. For more information about Jumpstart, click here.