Brandon Leon Richardson Hill, CEO of Vori, is determined to revolutionize the grocery supply chain for supermarkets. In 2021, Hill received the Progressive Grocer GenNext award and was inducted into the 2022 Forbes 30 Under 30 class for enterprise technology.
His entrepreneurial venture is particularly germane to his family lineage, where his maternal great-aunts and uncles owned convenience stores in Oklahoma. Hill’s parents worked on the manufacturing side of the grocery business for forty years, “met and fell in love in a grocery store.” Leon Hill, his father, was the first Black employee post-desegregation at Reynolds Consumer Products.
“My dad took them to a national scale; they gave him the lowest sales [representative] position in the company, almost begrudgingly, to meet a quota. Then he defied the odds and rose to the top North American sales position for the whole company before they got acquired for multibillion dollars,” Hill says matter of factly. “My mom, Tori Hill, worked at companies like Oscar Meyer, Kraft Heinz-Mondelez, like [with] Oreos, and some of the household favorites we all know. Then they met in Schenectady at the Price Chopper headquarters in upstate New York as two of the few Black people in the industry; my mom also has a computer science degree. So she’s very familiar with food technology, having worked at Nielsen, and I’m an offspring of that legacy.”
Originally from the Twin Cities of Minneapolis, St. Paul, he grew up near Viking Food Group‘s headquarters, one of the nation’s largest food distributors. In addition, he lived fifteen minutes away from Paisley Park studio, the estate and production studio of the late musical genius Prince.
Hill, a fellow at Stanford’s Human-Centered AI Institute, became enamored with software as a student at the university and how individuals can use technology to empower overlooked and underserved communities. “This took me on a journey, in fact, to places like interning with President Obama at the White House [and] serving at YouTube owned by Alphabet,” he says, detailing how essential his tech experience served for his growth.
“What pushed me into entrepreneurship explicitly was a moment when Jesse Jackson, one of Martin Luther King’s right-hand man, spoke at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business while I was an undergrad alongside Elaine Brown, the first chairwoman of the Black Panther Party, they’re on stage together talking about diversity, technology, and the explicit quote they said was ‘the civil rights generation of our time is access to the creation and control of technology.'” Hill recalls sitting in a diverse audience filled with 19 through 29-year-olds and instantly feeling compelled by the message of Jackson and Brown.
“They didn’t say the usage of technology. I would say, Black people and communities of color over index and usage of social media and all these technologies in terms of adoption, but how do we create it and control it in a way that can impact and benefit our communities? That’s the missing part,” he inquired. Hill left the assembly with an understanding that the Black community would have to become self-reliant because there was no planned immediate assistance coming to its aid.
“So we have to jump in and pair the progressive imagination of communities of color with powerful tools, technology, and what can be created. So that led me to start a co-ed school for low-income students of color called Enza Academy with a couple of other friends. Vic Mensa, the main co-founder, and Elizabeth Magallon and VMware backed that, Microsoft, Stanford, and Columbia University,” he says. “We were giving little Black and Brown students, micro seed grants, a few $1,000 to start up their businesses and pitch them to venture capitalists to get trained in product design, web development,” he says.
After graduating from Stanford, Hill launched a consumer social platform with Tremaine Kirkman geared towards facilitating meaningful civil dialogue through videos. He drew influence for this venture from his time as the student body vice president of over 16,000 graduate undergraduate and graduate students at his alma mater. He described the site as a politically conscious TikTok.
“I and my roommate John-Lancaster Finley, the President, were the first Black [governing] pair in Stanford’s history. Our experience dealing with campus dialogue led to the formation of Greo, a political TikTok, but that was an adventure out of college. I learned a lot, but it didn’t succeed,” he informs. But his involvement in his shuttered project would prove beneficial based on his acquired skills.
After shutting down the site, his parents presented him with a proposition. If he had no intention of pursuing a graduate degree or accepting the product management role at Uber or Facebook, they recommended that Hill solve some glaring gaps they saw for decades in the grocery supply chain. He became intrigued, which is the origin of his company Vori.
“I’ve been going to trade shows and on sales calls with them since I was a little and why we are innovating in the grocery supply chain,” he says.
The foundation laid by his parents’ careers in the grocery industry helped Hill form Vori, along with Tre Kirkman and Robert Pinkerton, in late 2019. Vori is an advanced inventory management system tailored for food and beverage stores. “Our technology allows local and regional supermarkets to easily replenish their shelves, manage prices, and control inventory, empowering retailers to improve profitability and optimize labor,” according to the company’s official mission. Hill and his co-founders lead a team with 100 years of grocery experience and achieved backing for his company from The Factory, Greylock, Y Combinator, Village Global, and South Park Commons. They receive insights from grocery industry experts from Safeway/Albertson and co-founders from Instacart, DoorDash, and Twitch.
“We help grocery stores order and manage inventory they procure from their hundreds of wholesale suppliers and move them away from outdated pencil and paper and expensive technologies. Food waste is one of the holes in the leaky bucket of the grocery business model that we’re helping to fix. Grocery stores are often ordering too much produce or not the right amount. We can help them dial in their purchase orders to reduce spoilage, which is both an economic and environmental concern, helping them price their products more efficiently, and in a more optimized manner, especially with inflation. Inflation has roiled the consumer, but it has also impacted the supermarket’s profitability,” Hill explains.
When a grocer has 30,000 items that fluctuate in cost in the wholesale marketplace daily, it is futile to comb through stacks of paper invoices to determine how much the cost of ketchup or green beans has increased. Hill determines that having a system that aids a proprietor in determining its price points is invaluable. A supermarket’s bottom line is directly correlated to how its products affect the consumer and if it can deliver fresher produce at optimal prices and keep its shelves fully stocked.
“Vori, we can ensure that the product is on the shelf, the customer is happy, and the store can gain that business; that’s the immediate micro picture. But the macro picture is reducing food deserts, reducing food waste, and ultimately because agriculture is responsible for some [11%] of all greenhouse gas emissions. That means by us playing a role in the food supply chain, we have a direct impact on global warming if we’re able to succeed at scale,” he assures.
Protecting the environment from increased levels of carbon dioxide is an imperative move and addressing the problem of food deserts in low-income communities. NRDC defines “food deserts” as areas where residents cannot access healthy, affordable food due to segregation. “Compared to 31% of white people, only 8% of Black people live in a census tract with a supermarket.”
“There’s also something poetic about that,” Hill stresses that Vori was founded in a food desert by three young Black men. “My co-founder, Trey, his great aunt, lived in East Palo Alto for a long time. No grocery store, no supermarket there to speak of, and that’s a problem for us is that so many of our communities, you can’t get within a 20 or 30-mile radius, you can’t find a fresh tomato.”
Through his company, he plans to tackle this dilemma by utilizing Vori’s heterogeneous data system, which has multiple data points throughout the supply chain to locate the number of goods and how much travels from the supplier to the cash register. As Hill’s enterprise expands, he can review measurable data and pinpoint the areas of food scarcity. In western Atlanta, he’s seen low transit of fresh produce; in another section of the city, there is a significant amount of food waste or spoilage. Hill says it’s possible to use his software to identify surplus and scarcity by connecting through third-party partners by rerouting deliveries and helping grocers with inventory transfers as part of the solution.
“I want to emphasize, as we were talking about the market segment, there are two things—overlooked markets in underserved communities, especially Black communities. But the grocery segment largely overlooked by technology is the underdogs [in this] important ecosystem known as independent grocers, and we call Mom and Pop grocers,” he points out. He indicates the various independent grocery stores around Florida owned by immigrants like Latinx, East and West Indians.
“Across the country, there’s 30,000 of them owned by diverse entrepreneurs, multifamily, multi-generation family-owned businesses. They represent $250 billion of grocery spending. They have grown from 25% market share to over 33% market share in the United States, and this fact often surprises people because [they] associate Mom and Pop stores with debt and consolidation. I’m not even talking about bodegas necessarily or small convenience stores; these can be full-fledged grocery stores. But in fact, these stores are stealing market share from the Kroger’s and the Walmarts of the world,” he adds.
Granted, independent grocers lack the resources to afford the same tools used by Walmart, Amazon, and Whole Foods, but Hill wants to “arm the rebels” and give Mom and Pop grocery stores the devices to succeed in the marketplace. As a result, they will become competitive, profitable, and efficient. Walmart may employ a team of data scientists and software engineers to build their inventory management stack; Hill promotes that Vori is a reasonable solution for 90% of the market. Currently, Vori signed on 600 smaller grocery retailers and grew its first order of $200 wholesale order of Kombucha from Lucky’s grocery store in Redwood City, CA, placed by the store director and scaled up to serve the West Coast. Hill’s company continues to innovate with a group of retailers and is preparing to implement a national rollout in the next 1.5 years. Recently, Vori secured $10 million in Series A funding, an impressive feat for a minority-led enterprise in such a challenging economic climate. The financial investment is essential for the company to build the Vori Back Office. Grocery stores will soon use such features as “cost change tracking, digital order management, scan-based receiving, automatic invoicing, DSD (direct store delivery) vendor management, and digital credit requests.”
Five years ago, tech startups took advantage of the raging bull market that saw gains made by technology stocks as a vital sector of the S&P 500 Index, and the trend continued post-Covid through the end of 2021.
Hill witnessed “crazy [and] insane valuations, and many verticals of technology got overheated and probably funded into existence when they shouldn’t have existed in the first place. [Such as] the 15-minute grocery delivery, the various stuff that you see in the Web3 community, not all, but various specific innovations. I wonder how connected they are to reality like the incredible amount of NFT marketplaces that came to life and now have died,” he queries.
He further explains that the billions of dollars of investment capital flowing freely suddenly froze around March and April of 2022 as he and his team began their Series A funding round. “We were Black founders in an industry most VCs don’t understand during the tech investing winter. So we had to put our storytelling game on and lean on the business progress we had made; we were pretty capital efficient,” he says of his company’s track record. “At the end of the day, even if we’re going into a recession, we’re building software for grocery stores [which] are counter-cyclical—meaning even in an economic downturn, people don’t stop eating groceries,” Hill reveals. He continues that his customers’ revenues increase more during downturns than at any other time.
“This means that our market was going flourish. So we’re essentially building critical software for a trillion-dollar segment of the fundamental part of the American economy during a once-in-a-lifetime set of macro forces. Covid, supply chain challenges, inflation, labor shortages, the Great Resignation [made] the need for this technology even greater,” Hill observes. “When you lay all these things together, it creates a compelling story where we had an oversubscribed round; there was more investor demand than we had equity to sell off at that stage.” Even his customers wanted to participate and own a piece of the company, which expanded his confidence. Hill used the capital to employ a world-diverse team of people who he certifies that without, the success of Vori would not be possible. He names his team members who work remotely: Eddie Kaiger, Rassan Walker, Clinton Blackburn, Sam Gooding, Abi Moogk, Sebastian Estrade, Elving Rodriguez, Jungsoo Woo, Monica Carcamo, Ruby Pai, Neel Sarwal, Brenda Jin, Simone Hadley Wilson, Kent Wu, Sasha Pinkerton, and Jason Green.
“Simone, Abi, and Elving, who were there from the very beginning, and folks with PhDs in complex technical topics and others come from supply chain backgrounds, the grocery industry, SpaceX, and Instacart. We have it all on one small but mighty team, and that’s where we are using the capital to continue to build a team and the technology to take it further in the market,” he says.
Hill and his co-founders were deliberate in building a diverse team at Vori. He cites a study that financial markets react favorably to the appointment of Black CEOs where a corporation’s market capitalization increases “+3.1% (or +2.0% after conservatively addressing outliers)” within three days of the company issuing a formal statement.
“It flows from the body of research that says more diverse teams produce better results because you can see around corners, [and] understand all your customers better. [They] produce more meaningful innovations, solutions, and products,” he attests. “You go to think about it intentionally from the front end, as opposed to ‘we go to do this’ once you’re already 10,000 [people] strong.” Adding to his thought of building diverse workforces, he is motivated by the numerous lawsuits regarding workplace harassment and discrimination against other major multinational organizations.
“Why do we have to subject ourselves to trauma to be able to do our best work? Over time, we’re going to go public. We want to be a place where people can come and be their full selves, especially diverse talent, which historically has been undervalued. We’re going to show what happens when you can bring an awesome group of people together from various backgrounds, walks of life, professionals, trades, genders, and races, and build a multibillion-dollar company,” he boldly insists.
Although Hill’s team boasts extensive experience and education, he wants to encourage future Black tech entrepreneurs not to allow being neophytes in the industry to prevent them from establishing their businesses.
“One of the biggest psychological barriers is this idea that we need an incredible amount of professional experience to start companies, which the data is mixed on, to be honest. You don’t need a Ph.D., an MBA, or masters in CS (computer science) [to create] a startup and be successful. Some logic says that the longer you wait, and the more time you or [if people] work at a big company for a long time, that might be counterproductive because what works at a big company at a planet-scale is not what it takes to get something from zero to one,” Hill affirms. He can vouch there is a growing ecosystem of people actively looking to support diverse founders financially. “I’m a big believer in fund people. Don’t just give them mentorship and coaching that’s lukewarm; you can’t feed people with air.”
Hill also offers to connect his network of investors to innovating business owners and shares that he is helping his younger sister with her pursuits.
“But I also say, the asterisk, many founders of color may be first-generation, or they need to go and pay some bills for their family or send remittances to other continents and countries. I understand why it may not be the first thing people can do is take the risk of starting a startup because it is a privilege. But if they’re in that kind of zone where they can take that leap, take the leap,” he concludes on an inspiring note.
To learn more visit vori.com.