From Tequila to Tech: Manuel Gonzalez's Quest to Unite Food and Finance

"Hold on a minute, I need to get my mojo ready"

Manuel Gonzalez steps behind a black curtain and fiddles with his microphone as he prepares to make his entrance on stage at FoodBytes! Boulder. As founder of the FoodBytes! event, he is clearly in his milieu, comfortable and confident.  He tucks a stray wire behind the neatly pressed lapel of his blazer worn over a plain white shirt that hints at his air of Silicon Valley business-cool.

"You're up, Mr. Gonzalez." says an aid, ushering Gonzalez onto the stage.

"Mr. Gonzalez was my father. Call me Manuel."

Manuel Gonzalez Guzman was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, a large city in the Jalisco region famed for its mariachi culture and tequila.

"Tequila was really my first love," said Gonzalez. "Oh God, I love tequila."

Gonzalez's love of the liquor derived from the native blue agave plant blossomed while studying at the Universidad Panamericana, but not the typical reasons a college student might love tequila.

"I loved the craft of it, the growing it. It's beautiful,” says Gonzalez, “ I especially loved the business of it.”

His affinity for food and commerce lead him to earn a degree in business administration and finance. After graduation, Gonzalez worked in and around the agri-business sector for several years before founding his own business in 1987, according to his LinkedIn profile.

The Gonzalez Guzman Alimentos company was a dairy distributor specializing in sour cream and yogurt in Mexico. Though it wasn’t tequila, the small business was profitable.  

"For my first business, it was pretty good," said Gonzalez.

In December of 1994, over-confidence in the newly agreed upon NAFTA and the  Mexican presidential election collided, resulting in the collapse of the peso in what is commonly referred to as the 1994 Tequila Crisis. Poverty and unemployment skyrocketed as Mexico fell into recession, causing Gonzalez to sell his company and leave the country.

"In the end,” says Gonzalez, “it was probably a good thing."

In the wake of the financial collapse, Gonzalez enrolled in The McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University in the hopes of restarting his career in finance armed with an MBA and a more vigorous economy. After receiving his MBA, Gonzalez was hired by Rabobank, a Dutch investment firm specializing in food and agri-finance to serve as a project manager in agri-finance.

"Food has always been my passion," said Gonzalez. "I'm always connecting people in agriculture and business. It's my passion."

Rabobank was decidedly a good fit. Originally started as a farmers' bank in 1972, Rabobank has grown to become one of the 30 largest banks in the world in terms of Tier 1 capital, the principal measurement of a bank’s worth,  though it focuses primarily on food and agribusiness subsidies and investment.

This passion for food and agriculture propelled him from project manager to eventually become the head of Rabobank Mexico in 2008. After four years in Rabobank's top leadership position in Mexico, Gonzalez was transferred to the U. S. to serve as Managing Director of the West Coast region for Rabobank.

Gonzalez's penchant for merging the sometimes disparate fields of agriculture and business prompted him to found FoodBytes! in 2015. FoodBytes! is a combination tech start-up conference pitch slam and networking event that fuses agriculture, business and tech in a Silicon Valley model of business.

"Working with Manuel is invigorating and inspiring because he is, in my opinion, a true visionary," said Sarah Kolell, head of communications for Gonzalez's Western Region Team. "He sees further down the road than most people do and he has the ability to help others not only see his vision but enthusiastically work toward making it a reality."

a business owner makes her case for investors at FoodBytes! Boulder

"It is important to me that I get farmers to think more like businessmen, and the businessmen to think more like farmers," said Gonzalez. "Then, maybe something exciting will happen".

FoodBytes! was first held in San Francisco, where Gonzalez is now based. It hosts events in Brooklyn and for the first time this year, in Boulder.

"People here are foodies," said Gonzalez, "there is a strong tech culture and entrepreneurial spirit. That's why we wanted to have FoodBytes! here."

Gonzalez seeks to disrupt the food chain by uniting his fondness for finance and food because, as he puts it, it's in his own interest as a food lover.

"I love salsa,” said Gonzalez.  “Anyone who can grow a better tomato, and anyone who can make that into a better salsa, I need to know about that! That is important to me!"

At FoodBytes!, Boulder-based food and agriculture start-ups had their chance to pitch their business to Gonzalez, who served as a judge in the contest. Everything from vegan fitness frosting, beer-based protein and "Fitbit for cows" elicited plain delight on Gonzalez's face as he listened intently to the pitches.

investors vote for the crowd favorite during the business pitch contest in Boulder

"I'm really looking for someone who has that something special, that solution to a problem that no one else has, that ability to make a true connection with investors," said Gonzalez.

He is particularly interested in the problem of food waste, a challenge that has become a sort of pet project of his as he pursues innovation in the tech and agriculture sector.

"Waste is the number one issue right now," said Gonzalez. "That's where the innovation is happening, and it's really exciting. The ability to take waste, and make it into food, into profit, it's really incredible.”

In an effort to expedite progress and collaboration in the tech and agriculture industry, Gonzalez recently launched TERRA, a San Francisco-based food and agriculture technology accelerator that plans to partner leaders and novices across food, technology, and agriculture. According to TERRA's website, it is a first-of-its-kind opportunity to bring together agriculture and technology on one campus.

"This project is really important to me. We're always looking bring people together. That's my job, essentially. To make connections. To feed people, " said Gonzalez.

"He's creating relationships that lead to feeding people in a way that respects the ag producers and the earth, it is work that I’m proud to be part of, " said Kolell.  

Gonzalez was reflective backstage at FoodBytes! After the contest.

"Look around. Look at what these people are doing. They're changing the way we feed people, they're changing the world." said Gonzalez.

"Here you go, Manuel," interjected an aid, handing Gonzalez a bowl of pungent, chunky salsa.

"Ah yes! My salsa!" said Gonzalez, scooping a heaping portion into his mouth with a tortilla chip.

"Now this is world changing."