Cover Story: Capitalism with a Conscience

John Elstrott, professor of practice and emeritus executive director of the Levy-Rosenblum Institute for Entrepreneurship, has served as chairman of the board of Whole Foods Market since 2009.

John Elstrott, professor of practice and emeritus executive director of the Levy-Rosenblum Institute for Entrepreneurship, has served as chairman of the board of Whole Foods Market since 2009.

“Have you had your hemp milk today?”

It’s a bright winter morning, and John Elstrott is fixing breakfast in the kitchen of his home in New Orleans.

Into a blender Elstrott deposits açaí berries, spinach, kale, blueberries and a banana. He tops that with a splash of hemp milk and presses the start button, temporarily drowning out our conversation. A moment later, he hands me a sample of the dark purple, unexpectedly tasty smoothie.

It should come as no surprise that healthy eating is a big part of John Elstrott’s life. After all, when he’s not teaching entrepreneurship at the Freeman School, Elstrott is chairman of Whole Foods Market, the world’s leading retailer of organic and natural foods. Elstrott has served as a director of the Fortune 300 company since 1994, but his experience in the natural foods industry goes back much further. In the 1970s, Elstrott was part of the management team that helped build Celestial Seasonings into the world’s largest specialty tea company. He was also a partner and board member at WhiteWave, which revolutionized the natural foods industry with Silk brand soy milk. Today, Elstrott continues to be a big player in the industry as a partner in Traditional Medicinals, a maker of herbal medicinal teas; NextFoods, which makes GoodBelly brand probiotic drinks; and Sambazon, manufacturer of drinks and snacks made with açaí, the so-called “Amazon superfood.”

But Elstrott’s interest in health goes beyond natural foods. He’s also the co-founder and chairman of NuMe Health, a biotech company that’s developing medical foods and dietary supplements to treat diabetes, and he’s chairman of Get Pull QuoteHealthy, a new startup co-founded with Tulane School of Medicine alumnus William Kethman (M ’12) that works with physicians to incentivize their patients’ better health.

If you expand your definition of health to include a healthy environment, you can add Resource Environmental Solutions to the list. The mitigation banking firm restores damaged wetlands to their pristine, natural states to offset the expected adverse impacts of development projects to similar nearby ecosystems.

In all, Elstrott currently has an equity stake in a little over a dozen companies, spanning industries ranging from natural foods, biotechnology and pharmaceuticals to venture capital, management consulting, and audio electronics and software.

An analyst might describe Elstrott’s entrepreneurial philosophy in terms of its sectorial focus, concentrating on a cluster of interrelated issues that enables him to leverage industry knowledge and experience.

Elstrott describes it more succinctly.

“I’m looking for businesses that can change the world.”

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