Coca-Cola North America’s Venturing & Emerging Brands (VEB) unit is charged with identifying and building a portfolio of brands with billion-dollar potential in support of the company’s total beverage vision. To stay connected to both emerging trends and the startup community, the team invites a select group of food and beverage entrepreneurs to participate in the VEB Founders Forum.

Since its inception, the forum has fostered an engaged and committed community of founders dedicated to sharing business-building ideas and tackling shared challenges.

For each Founders Forum class, VEB convenes a diverse group of a dozen or so founders to explore a common pain point. Over the course of 12 months, the founders meet several times to share ideas, learn from experts, test their skills and, ultimately, create a product that codifies their learning.

“We intentionally select noncompetitive entrepreneurs in similar stages of growth who can learn from and build lasting connections with each other,” said Betsy Armentrout, marketing strategy director, VEB. “Our intent is to create a strong community that learns and grows together as we tackle challenges founders struggle to solve.”

Armentrout led the third iteration of the VEB Founders Forum, which developed a how-to guide for emerging brands to garner support from retail customers.

“We built a community committed to helping each other out, and enjoying the journey,” said Loren Brill, founder and CEO of Sweet Loren’s, a gluten-free cookie dough company. “The forum is unique in that there is no competition, only support and an authentic sense of understanding the unique challenges of startups. The members were so well handpicked that each of us got along incredibly well and built friendships that will last long beyond this year. We feel connected and proud to be part of this network.”

The forum takes entrepreneurs away from their day-to-day roles and locations and assigns them a project with universal value.

“It’s rare to get that type of time and space with people of a shared mindset,” said Chris Hunter, CEO and co-founder of Koia, a plant-based protein drinks company said. “It gave me the opportunity to hear about obstacles other entrepreneurs face, to learn from their creativity, and to get feedback on issues our business is facing. It gave us the chance to learn from experienced entrepreneurs who have been through similar situations, retailer buyers that shared their perspectives, and corporate executives who see things through a different lens.”

For VEB, the forum offers valuable visibility into the entrepreneurial ecosystem. “We learn what founders are going through, what’s driving their businesses, and how we could support them in their growth journey,” Armentrout said.

Brill added, “We were all surprised that Coke genuinely didn't want anything from us, and that the forum is a unique arm that only wants to help challenger brands grow and add value to the world.”

VEB will welcome the Founders Forum class of 2020 in September.