When you grow up going to your parents’ business meetings, you’re going to pick up a few things. In the case of Eden Prairie native Brandon Leon Richardson Hill, that meant learning a lot about the grocery industry.
For Hill, those seeds, planted in childhood, were a big part of helping him get to where he is today — co-founder and CEO of Vori, a company that he hopes will transform the business of how we get our food.
Hill, 29, who started Vori alongside Tremaine Kirkman and Robert Pinkerton in 2019, knew there was a problem in the grocery business. His parents, Tori and Leon, were in the business for more than 40 years, so Hill knew a lot about how companies got the food that eventually reaches our dining tables.
And he knew there was a problem.
“The grocery industry is one of the most under-digitized industries,” he said during a recent phone interview.
Stores were “using carrier pigeons and smoke signals to fill purchase orders,” he continued.
While Hill was being hyperbolic, he wasn’t exaggerating that much. Not in the 21st century, where goods can be ordered with one tap or click, and some grocery stores still rely on pen, paper, and a fax machine to order inventory.
So Hill, Kirkman, and Pinkerton stepped in.
The three friends, all Stanford University graduates, decided to try and effect change.
“We all have similar passions — how can we use technology to make an impact on underserved communities and underserved markets?” Hill said. “It became a clarion call for us. How can we modernize it?”
Vori, headquartered in East Palo Alto, Calif., is a business-to-business digital platform that serves two primary purposes for small and mid-sized supermarkets, according to Hill. First, it makes reordering inventory easier, streamlining the process. It also serves as a central operating system for those stores.
Hill said Vori’s direction “started off half right,” striving to make reordering easier. The focus expanded to developing a full-fledged operating system when he and his partners realized that their customers needed more of a leg up.
“It comes back to leveling the playing field and helping small and medium-sized businesses prosper,” he said.
Growing from Eden Prairie roots
So how did Hill get to where he is today? Like everyone, he had help.
It started with his parents, whose wide-ranging experience in the grocery industry spanned four decades.
His mother, Tori, worked in sales for various companies, including Nabisco, Oscar Mayer, and Eden Prairie-based SuperValu.
His father, Leon, was the first non-white employee at Reynolds Consumer Products, where Brandon said he was given the “lowest-rung” sales job. Leon worked his way up to become the director of North American sales. Tori and Leon then went on to start their own grocery brokerage firm.
As the cherry on top, Tori and Leon first met in a grocery store.
Brandon Hill said that his parents’ business-minded, entrepreneurial spirit rubbed off on him.
“The grocery business is inherently family-oriented,” he said. “We get to carry that forward.”
Hill, who spent his entire childhood in Eden Prairie, spoke highly of growing up in the city.
“It’s such a family-friendly environment,” Hill said while mentioning several aspects of city life, including the parks and schools. “I’m very blessed to grow up in that environment.”
It was at the schools that Hill learned many lessons that helped him on his journey.
(It should be noted here that Hill took pains to say that he could not possibly name all the teachers and staff members who helped him. So, suffice it to say that many others not mentioned here played a part in shaping him).
Hill talked about a writing course with Eden Prairie High School English teacher Kate Fullmer and an EPHS social studies course taught by Steve Cwodzinski, now a member of the Minnesota Senate.
“I hated social studies at the time,” Hill said. But Cwodzinski taught his course in a “social justice-oriented” way that resonated with Hill.
Wisdom was also imparted outside of the classroom.
Hill played on the defensive line for the EPHS football team. His position coach was Steve O’Toole, who also taught Hill in sixth grade.
O’Toole emphasized the value of hard work.
“He would always say, ‘Every test is an opportunity,’” Hill said. “That work ethic that he taught us has helped me be a leader.”
Hill graduated from EPHS in 2011 and moved on to Stanford. Among his many accomplishments at Stanford, Hill served as student body vice president and completed an internship in the Obama White House.
A Silicon Valley startup
Shortly before graduating from Stanford in 2016, Hill co-founded Greo, a social media platform dedicated to discussing politics and current events. A few years later, though, he changed course and worked to launch Vori, knowing full well that there was a hole in the grocery market that needed to be filled.
Of course, launching a successful startup in Silicon Valley is not easy.
Securing funding and all the other elements of such a project makes the work “like spinning multiple plates on sticks,” Hill said. Sometimes you have to add plates, like the focus on the operating system.
Hill, Kirkman, and Pinkerton, who are Black, were in their 20s when they were working to launch Vori. Hill said that their age may have made it harder to secure funding, but he didn’t think their race did. He doesn’t see it as a barrier now, either.
“I would not say our race holds us back in any sense,” he said.
Still, Hill sees the value in championing people from diverse backgrounds. He is quick to point out that Abi Moogk, the current head of operations at Vori, was part of the team with him, Kirkman and Pinkerton from the beginning.
The 20-person staff represents a variety of cultural backgrounds, which Hill says is an asset for Vori.
“Food is a thing that is diverse,” he said, noting as an example that they might have to speak Spanish to close a sale.
“We need to have a team that can respond to those nuances,” he continued. “We want a team to reflect the cultures we serve.”
Big goals for the future
Hill’s ambitions are far from stagnant, fitting for a man who has accomplished so much before his 30th birthday. He wants to keep spinning those plates.
He hopes that Vori continues to be a home for diverse, undervalued talent. He wants to take the company public (if it happens, it will be one of the few Black-founded tech companies to be publicly traded).
And he wants to spread Vori’s reach wider and wider.
“We want to have our technology in every grocery store in America,” he said.
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