Conscious consumerism is a movement on the rise—and proving to have staying power.
In fact, product categories such as clean, cruelty-free beauty, vegan food, vegan and natural pet foods, and green cleaning supplies are expected to increase to more than $200 billion in size over the next five years, with the ESG section for each category reportedly growing at twice the rate of averages in the industry.
Yet considering the morass of sometimes dubious online retail options hawking items potentially propped up with greenwashed claims, how can people be sure they’re finding brands that truly reflect their concerns and that hold the same authentic desire to transform the marketplace and the planet for the better?
Briana Hart is on a mission to sort out that problem.
In June 2020, she founded buyVerde, an ethically driven online platform designed to serve those who aim to easily research, find, and shop brands and vendors that share their values. And in serving consumers who care, her business is also helping companies to connect directly with consumers: Through buyVerde’s proprietary software and data use, it acts as a resource providing accurate and verified values profiles for thousands of brands of all sizes selling more than 125,000 vetted and certified products through the platform—all while helping to economically raise the visibility of the brands and give consumers a simple, value-guided way to shop and compare prices across vendors in one place.
The innovative endeavor isn’t Hart’s first foray into the area. Having been at the leading edge of ESG when she co-ran a $350 billion portfolio, the McIntire School graduate previously launched and ran the first buy-side global syndicate desk at Blackrock and worked in structured credit with Morgan Stanley and Bank of America.
But she says that starting her own company, which she acknowledges always comes with its own unique set of challenges, has proven quite different than what she experienced in the past, when she joined Blackrock to take part in founding its Distressed Credit Advisory services.
“Starting a business inside of a company is not the same as starting a company. The skills may be similar, but the stresses and demands on your time and your attention are far greater when you are risking your own reputation and capital—and your friends’ capital,” she admits.
To find out more, we spoke to Hart about buyVerde and discovered how her professional past and current collaborative efforts with the UVA community are preparing and supporting her as she and her team further develop the company and ready it to reach the next level.
In what ways did your previous professional experiences prepare you for the challenges of founding your own company?
The most important skill I learned in my career was how to step back, read a situation, and evaluate whether it’s time to make a change. The lesson behind this was a harder one for me to embrace: Sometimes it doesn’t matter how much work you put in or how smart you are. If the opportunity isn’t there, you have to pivot.
During the financial crisis of 2008, I was challenged with the reality that the skills and market knowledge I’d been developing were quickly becoming obsolete. I realized that I couldn’t “wait out” the crisis, and had to decide to reinvent my career. In the fall of 2008, just days before the Lehman bankruptcy, I moved from Morgan Stanley to Blackrock, helping to launch its Distressed Credit Advisory business. At Blackrock, I made several significant changes to my career. The first was moving into the trading business as market conditions stabilized and distressed advisory gave way to distressed investing. Later, as my family grew and the demands on my time changed, I moved into a board management role, giving me greater ability to define my working hours.
Throughout this time, I learned to not shy away from change, but rather to quickly assess the need for change and put a plan into action.
In this assessment process, it is critical to gather opinions from different individuals and stakeholders. The goal is to help inform decision making by drawing from the diverse experiences and backgrounds of others. As I transition to running my own company, this same philosophy drives my selection of buyVerde employees and advisers.
Though I learned many other skills during each role that are serving me well in startup mode—big data analytics, C-suite messaging, strategic planning—the process of seeing and accepting change is by far the one I employ the most.
What drives you personally as your company’s CEO? What excites you most about the daily work or nuts and bolts of what you do?
I believe in bringing my vision for buyVerde to reality because I believe in building a platform to support conscious consumerism for everyday purchases. This is my North Star and driving force when things get tough.
I also believe in building a strong team to achieve that vision—and what I’m most proud of on a daily basis—is the buyVerde team. It also happens that 100% of my team and formal advisers are UVA graduates. My philosophy as a leader is to roll up your sleeves and work in the trenches side by side, regardless of title, while giving everyone enough leeway to put their mark on the business. The entire team is trusted with contributing to their own vision of buyVerde. And it’s always better than my vision alone because I prioritize hiring a team with complementary skill sets, and we challenge each other.
The title of startup CEO is a bit of a misnomer. It really just means that you have to do it all, from strategy to hiring to social media to technology to taxes and payroll. There is no room for an ego with that title.
Why is the mission behind buyVerde important to you, and why do you feel that it will resonate with others? How are you using commerce to better society?
I set out to bring the ESG focus from Wall Street into consumer spending. Each of us has a personalized value set, and those values may shift over time. There should be a way for individuals to express their own values in terms of the things they buy.
If we are conscious about our consumption, our choices can have a tangible impact on the greater good. If you choose to buy from a small business, studies show that the benefits include net new job creation and the reduction of inequality. We’re focused on more than just the environment: We are promoting fair trade, ethical product practices, diversity, clean ingredients, and companies that donate to nonprofits.
You’ve been heavily involved in working with UVA students and organizations in and out of the classroom. How have those relationships been valuable for you, the students, and the University?
We are so lucky to have Lara Theriault (McIntire ’99, M.S. in Accounting ’00) introducing McIntire alumnae through her new position as Assistant Director of Development in the McIntire Advancement office. She has been instrumental in connecting me to UVA groups focused on startups.
I am honored that buyVerde was selected as the startup for Batten School Professor Christine Mahoney’s fall 2022 Experiential Social Entrepreneurship project. Based on user testing, buyVerde switched away from ESG terminology to a six-category values framework to describe a brand’s values: founder identity, ethical production, planet friendly, clean ingredients, giving back, and point of origin. But there are two main weaknesses in the market that Professor Mahoney and her class will be working with us on: 1) vetting the overwhelming number of certification organizations using a UVA-developed framework and 2) creating a clearly defined consumer standard for clean ingredients and sustainable packaging.
I’ve had the pleasure of working with Rich Diemer (McIntire ’80), who is a tireless force behind CAV Angels. Rich just hosted us for the largest CAV Angels presentation ever, thanks to his support for buyVerde. But importantly, he also serves as a connecting point for founders.
We also just kicked off a fall project with SEED, the student-run social impact consulting group, and they are going to help us drive forward our consumer acquisition plan and competitor analysis.
This summer, we had two of the most amazing interns from UVA, whom we hired through Forge, which I highly recommend to anyone looking for interns.
As a student, I was fortunate enough to have Professor Larry Pettit, who was the most influential person in my McIntire career and my first “official” mentor who gave me confidence in my abilities. Since my time in the Comm School, McIntire’s commitment and the University’s commitment to entrepreneurship has grown exponentially and I look forward to seeing how the community continues to expand and flourish with such talented individuals focused on growth.