Emily Branton was raised by entrepreneurs. So it should come as no surprise that the small-town girl from Canada has forged her own entrepreneurial path at the intersection of business and social good. We caught up with Emily to hear how she decided Alpine Software Group (ASG)—an Alpine portfolio company—was the right home for her company, Link2Feed, lessons from her career journey so far, and why she’s energized by her next step as part of the Alpine community.
ASG buys, builds, and operates market-leading vertical SaaS companies. In February 2020 they acquired Link2Feed, an organization that develops food bank and food pantry software that provides data collection and reporting for non-profit organizations.
Tell us about your childhood. How did your upbringing inform your view of business?
I grew up in Wallaceburg, Ontario, a town of about 10,000 people; I‘m truly a small town girl at heart. I grew up watching my mom and grandpa run businesses. My grandpa is first-generation Belgian Canadian, he couldn’t speak English when he went to school, and I think he has a total of a fifth or sixth grade education. He ran his own barber shop and was known fondly as “Henry the Barber” around town. My mom is also an entrepreneur, she’s a financial advisor and worked from home even before working from home was a thing. They both showed me that entrepreneurship is a path to creating the life you want.
My grandmother has always had a big influence on me. She really wanted to be able to go to university, but she grew up in a time where that was very uncommon for women. So instead, she had the option to become a teacher, a nurse, or a secretary. She always says she didn’t want to deal with sick people or blood or children, so secretary was her only option. She taught me to go after what I wanted, and she always encouraged me to enjoy the opportunities I had growing up as a woman in more modern times.
Today I live close to Wallaceburg but in a slightly larger town called Sarnia. I don’t think you have to move to a big city to live the life you want. A lot of people want a big career and a big life, surrounded by the people they love most. I used to think that I would have to leave to find that big career, but I’m happy I was proven wrong. I love that I can feel grounded with lifelong friends and family nearby, while also being constantly challenged in my career.
Did you always know you wanted to be a CEO?
Definitely not! I started as a double major in drama and communications; I either wanted to be a high school drama and English teacher or the Monday night football on-field broadcaster. I decided to focus on communications with a minor in drama. My communications program was really social justice focused and helped me see the world in a whole new way. I became passionate about social issues and how I could help make the world a better place. I also did a business certificate in arts administration, designed for people who wanted to work in nonprofits or in the arts in a business role.
Working in nonprofits, I always saw the value that business thinking could bring. And when I completed my business certificate, I realized that I thrive on the business side. To me, it’s an art form; it’s my canvas and how I create. So when I was offered a full-ride scholarship to complete my MBA right after undergrad, I went for it. I actually failed my GMAT—the condition of my offer—because I’m TERRIBLE at standardized tests. But I somehow managed to talk my way into the program without it. It was really embarrassing at the time, but it ended up being the catalyst of a TEDx talk I gave in 2018 and taught me how to find success in failure.
Growing up I always worked multiple jobs, everything from a data entry clerk, to a bartender at a curling club, to a gymnastics coach, to a game day manager for varsity athletics. But my longest running “job” was refereeing men’s indoor lacrosse. I even refereed a national championship. There were no indoor women’s leagues, and I was told I couldn’t play with the boys, so to be part of the sport, I picked up reffing when I was probably 16 or so. I was one of the only women in a male-dominated sport, solid practice for all the boardroom dynamics later in life.
Tell us more about what you loved about business, and how that shaped your goals for starting a business yourself.
I love how business is such a mix of right- and left-brain thinking. There’s so much you can quantify and put on paper, but there’s also so much gray space to work in with things like culture. You may have heard the quote, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Strategy is important, and it’s part of business, but culture is what allows you to execute the strategy and really succeed.
As I moved from a social justice-focused undergrad, to business school, and back to tackling social issues with a business bent, I remember thinking how there’s so much room to bring these two parts together to fully live into both sides of myself. Before I even knew what a B Corp was, I remember thinking, “Isn’t a business incrementally better if it helps people and makes money?” I don’t think we have to choose between doing good and making a profit. I decided that if I’m going to run a business, I want to know it’s the best. I want to know it does good things for people and can also sustainably make money.
I decided that if I’m going to run a business, I want to know it’s the best. I want to know it does good things for people and can also sustainably make money.
So how did that goal—to run a business that does good while thriving—lead to Link2Feed?
After my MBA, I worked for a boutique market research firm and ran my own content marketing business on the side. I was introduced to a guy named Rob Dawson who ran a marketing agency. Rob convinced me to join his business and then later talked me into running this philanthropic side project building software for food banks. He asked me to think through the internationalization of the product. I said no at first because I didn’t know anything about software and I didn’t know anything about food banks. But the more I learned, the more I realized the importance of the work Link2Feed was doing. Food banks collect data that national policymakers rely on to create policies for people living in poverty and experiencing hunger. I knew we could improve that process of data gathering and be a voice for people who needed it.
Once you see a problem like that, it’s really hard not to be part of solving it. And the people running these food banks were so passionate about what they did in their communities. In 2013, I helped Rob exit the marketing agency and I became the president and one of the owners at Link2Feed.
Fast forward 10 years and today we serve 14,000 human services agencies with our software. We have helped 8.8 million unique individuals with hundreds of millions of human services transactions—things like providing a meal or a referral to a service.
Today we serve 14,000 human services agencies with our software. We have helped 8.8 million unique individuals with hundreds of millions of human services transactions—things like providing a meal or a referral to a service.
Tell us more about Link2Feed today (in 2022). What’s your vision and how does it play out for those experiencing hunger and poverty?
Our vision is to transform communities. We believe that having data and understanding the root cause is what allows organizations to provide the right programming and service to help lift someone out of poverty. We provide human services organizations with the technology, knowledge, and best practices, to be able to gather better data and to make that difference. Our software is the way that we do that, and our primary product is case management. When we are able to provide our software at scale, we can actually transform a community and hopefully help influence system change by having better data.
One example is our work with the Salvation Army of Canada. They provide food, housing assistance, and lots of other services, and we worked with them to expand our case management platform to help them actually track quantifiable outcomes for people. If you’re enrolled in their program, you go through the intake questions which identify your needs and how the Salvation Army can help. Then you work together to set goals which can be measured over time. Goals could be around things like job readiness, housing placement, etc. Tracking everything in Link2Feed allows the Salvation Army to prove the value they create. We have reported metrics like stability for 80% of the individuals that they worked with; that’s some form of stability for 625 people in a year and a half.
Day to day we also set smaller nonprofits up with our software. Sometimes that means getting rid of paper forms so that they can keep electronic signatures and client information on file. Digitizing things saves everyone time so that they can focus on conversations and on actually helping people. In those cases, our work starts with solving a basic administrative need, and then over time we evolve our partnership to help organizations in new ways. The ultimate goal is for everyone to have access to all of their data in order to make decisions about where to invest their time. Then once they’ve proven outcomes, they can make informed choices about how to tweak programs in order to provide more value for the people they serve.
How did you connect with Alpine Software Group (ASG)? And how did you know that they were the right future home for Link2Feed?
I probably got three or more messages from investors every month, and they would always ask to invest in or buy the business. I mostly ignored them. But ASG owned KidKare, a software solution that allows home providers, daycare centers, and food sponsors to manage meal programs, claims process, and accounting operations. They’re similarly focused on solving big problems like hunger, and they were a primary competitor for one of our products. Naturally we were curious to learn more about ASG and why they wanted to talk to us. I was still skeptical of private equity during my early calls with the team—I wasn’t sure I could get behind that Patagonia life.
We weren’t quite ready to sell the business when we first started talking to ASG, and the business wasn’t quite ready either, but I knew that we needed a partner to help us grow and serve more organizations. Alpine is also a B Corp, which is a big deal for us and for me personally. Alpine was the only firm that talked about taking care of people. I wanted to know that our team would have opportunities and be protected. And I wanted someone who had a track record of taking care of customers and understood what a social impact business means—and the additional pressure that comes with that.
Another part of why I sold my business to ASG was meeting two brilliant, extremely high EQ women, ASG COO Bess Yount and VP Haley Beck. ASG felt like a safe place for me if they were there. The more I’ve gotten to know them and the other amazing leaders across the portfolio, the more I realized that I don’t want to go anywhere.
We joined the portfolio and six weeks later, the COVID-19 pandemic broke out. Alpine delivered on their promises above and beyond my expectations. They made sure teams had the right form of EAP services and counseling through the business, they gave us tips on how to manage fatigue for employees, and we worked together to re-forecast all of the financials to make sure they were reasonable in this new COVID-19 reality. There couldn’t have been a higher pressure situation to see what PeopleFirst really meant. The way they showed up for the business and for me really meant a lot.
Sometimes as an entrepreneur, it’s hard to know where your business ends and you begin. And when you give that responsibility to someone else, you’re giving them part of yourself. My team was so well taken care of in those early days, it really earned my commitment and trust.
What did the ASG acquisition mean for you personally?
I was supposed to stay at Link2Feed for about a year and then exit out. And they asked me to stay longer. I thought carefully about that decision and had several discussions with Alpine related to valuation, expectations for growth, and, most importantly to me, culture. I wanted to make sure this was a community that reflected my beliefs and values. I had big questions about diversity across the portfolio and the ‘exclusivity’ I’d traditionally associated with private equity. Given the people Link2Feed represents and my own personal values and background, representation is really important to me.
Whenever I raised a concern, there was always a followup conversation. “Hey, I heard you last time. Here are the things we’re doing to get better. Could you tell us more about this?” I love being in a community that cares about being better and doing the right thing. I don’t think Alpine and ASG are perfect, but the core value of ‘continuous improvement’ is one that is lived here and that means a lot to me. I know big systems change is not all going to happen overnight, it takes the whole collective and I’m excited to be part of that.
The other Alpine CEOs are some of the most incredible people you’ll ever meet in your life. It’s like when you go backpacking, and you meet all types of amazing people, and you can’t believe that this amount of interesting people exist in the world. Alpine is like a big backpacking trip. I’m inspired every time I meet another CEO and hear their story. Being an entrepreneur and running a business is really lonely, and so feeling like you’re part of the community running a business has been one of the best parts for me.
How big is your team today?
We have 18 full-time team members. We’ve doubled since the start of COVID-19, which is great because we’re able to better serve organizations during a time when the need for services went through the roof. The organizations we serve changed how they operated during the pandemic, and we were able to keep up with that changing demand. A big part of that success was our sale to ASG. Alpine was incredibly supportive in making sure we were well resourced.
What are you focused on now for the business? And what’s next for you?
Right now I’m focused on how we help these organizations produce more and better outcomes. I’m focused on coaching and developing a strong leadership team. Building people is one of my favorite parts. You can’t be a good leader unless you have a great leader, and I’ve been lucky to work for some great leaders in my career, now I want to be that kind of leader for others.
And I’m doubling down and staying at ASG and Alpine. I just accepted a job at Radicle Health, an ASG-run group of industry-leading human services software companies. I’ll be leading the data strategy and helping to bring in other businesses that integrate with the core platforms of Radicle vertical. I’m excited to be here. I’ve been at Link2Feed for 10 years, so I’m ready to pass it off to the great leadership team and our new CEO, Lissa Marten.
One day I’m sure I’ll build my own business again, but I learn so much from everyone I work with every day, and that is incredibly satisfying.