Be Bold. Be Inspired. Be Real.

When you visit the Benson Hill headquarters in St. Louis, you might have a meeting in the Franklin Board Room or the Carver Conference Room and notice other names as you walk the halls. While some recognize these people, most are not familiar. Most visitors take a moment to read the brief descriptions found in each room alongside the illustrated portrait of the room’s namesake. Others who have watched some of our broadcast investor calls or participated in virtual meetings ask, “whose portrait is that in the background?”

Like most companies, the naming of our conference rooms was part of the interior design process, which for us was finalized as we completed our new building in 2020. Design partners and others presented options such as waterways or railroads around St. Louis. Ultimately, the team felt we could tie our naming convention more closely to our values and culture, making each room a visual reminder to: Be bold. Be inspired. Be real. We then actively engaged employees to select individuals representing these values for each room.

Each room is named after an individual whose life’s work was grounded in purpose and the fundamental belief in moving people forward through science, technology, and nature – often in the face of great personal prejudice, persecution, and adversity. Our team wanted every room in Benson Hill to be a reminder that your seat at the table is both a testament to your talent, uniqueness, and capabilities, and as well as a responsibility to recognize the same in the person sitting next to you. We all deserve credit for our contributions and accountability for our actions.

Before sharing their stories, let me share that the company itself was similarly named. Drs. Andy Benson and Robin Hill were instrumental in advancing our understanding of photosynthesis, which is the foundation for production of all food, feed, and fuel. Neither of these men received the recognition they deserved for their work, which is probably why you’ve never heard of them. Yet, they boldly persevered, and they knew their advancements would bring benefits far greater than personal accolades. I had the privilege of meeting Dr. Benson before he passed and shared with him that our company is named Benson Hill as a small token of acknowledgment for his contributions. In a sincere, real, and humble way, he simply asked, “Now why would you ever do that?

Our team members had only two criteria in recommending conference room names. First, the person’s work had to advance understanding and the betterment of science, technology, people, or the planet. Second, the acknowledgment had to be given to someone who did not receive broader accolades such as a Nobel Peace Prize. A committee of team members then conducted follow-up research and voted on the submissions. Here are those our team chose to honor. Every one of these individuals also experienced adversity in their personal or professional journey. We are inspired by their innovation while their persecutions serve as reminder that we, as humans, need to do better. 

The naming of our Board Room predates COVID-19 yet seems ever more fitting as we continue to battle the pandemic. It is named after Rosalind Elsie Franklin. Her work was central to our understanding of the molecular structure of DNA, RNA, and viruses among many other valuable contributions to our understanding of coal and graphite. Some of her work was recognized in her lifetime but her work on DNA was recognized posthumously. The victim of sexism, her contribution was under-acknowledged. Her own father is said to have judged that science was no career for a woman, and he discouraged her aspirations. 

The Turing Conference Room is named after Alan Turing, an incredibly talented mathematician, computer scientist, logician, cryptanalyst, and theoretical biologist whose work led to the first theoretical computer – the foundation of artificial intelligence that is fundamental to our work and that of many others. His work as a decoder led to victory over the Nazis in WW2. Despite all this, Turing was a victim of an English law banning homosexual activity. The British government apologized in 2009, and the Queen officially pardoned him in 2013. Today, a law informally known as the Alan Turing Law exonerates all who were victimized by this hateful legislation.

Oswald Theodore Avery Jr. was among the first molecular biologists. His work moved the field of immunochemistry forward. Along with colleagues, he isolated DNA as the material comprising genes and chromosomes. Nobel Laureate Arne Tiselius said Avery was the most deserving scientist to not receive the Nobel Prize, despite being nominated repeatedly over three decades. 

The Vavilov Conference Room is named after agronomist Nikolai Vavilov, who provided clarity on the centers of origin for cultivated plants. Vavilov dedicated his life to improving wheat, corn, and other cereal crops essential to sustaining the global population. Despite contributions that helped feed the world, Vavilov fell out of favor with Stalin and ironically died of starvation while imprisoned. His work and reputation were later rehabilitated.

Marine biologist, author and conservationist Rachel Carson had a deep respect for nature. Her famous book, Silent Spring, advanced the global environmentalist movement, despite fierce opposition from chemical companies, and spurred a reversal in pesticide policies. Her grassroots efforts led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. One of her most famous quotes speaks directly to perseverance in the face of this adversity and underscores her inspiration, “The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.”

The Lovelace Conference Room honors mathematician and writer Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, known as Ada Lovelace. She is (now) credited with inventing the Analytical Engine, a proposed mechanical computer, with colleague Charles Babbage. Although never built, it was the first step toward modern computing. Lovelace published the first algorithm intended to be carried out by a machine moving us toward modern-day machine learning. Her bold passion for science and its inspiration is clear: “Your best and wisest refuge from all troubles is in your science.”

Agricultural scientist George Washington Carver was the first African American to receive a Bachelor of Science degree from Iowa State University and later became a professor at the Tuskegee Institute. The most prominent Black scientist of the early 20th century, his work improved soils depleted by repeated cotton planting and led farmers to pursue alternative crops such as peanuts and sweet potatoes. A leading environmentalist, his work transcended racial polarization. Time Magazine dubbed Carver “Black Leonardo” for his intellect and innovative spirit, no small accomplishment for a black man who lived from 1864 to 1943. Just imagine the hills he climbed and the obstacles he overcame – many of which remain today. 

The Clutter Conference Room is named for biologist Dr. Mary E. Clutter, who empowered innovation and advanced the role of women and minorities in science. She advocated funding interdisciplinary research in biological sciences, including starting the “First Women in Genomics” annual dinner for leading women scientists in the field. 

Engineer and entrepreneur Oliver Evans was raised in rural Delaware and received little formal education. Despite this, he was a visionary and one of the most prolific inventors in the early United States with ideas far ahead of his time. He was the first to describe vapor-compression refrigeration and a design for the first refrigerator, which led to the establishment of the first cold chain for transport of fresh food long distances. Evans left behind a long series of accomplishments, most notably the first fully automated industrial process for flour milling, which proved critical to the Industrial Revolution and mass production. He also invented the first high-pressure steam engine, and the first amphibious vehicle and American automobile.

Finally, the Onslow Entrance to our Crop Accelerator is the namesake of biochemist Muriel Wheldale Onslow, a pioneering scientist who was at the forefront of combining genetics and biochemistry. Onslow was one of only two genetic researchers in the first decade of the 20th century who performed plant breeding experiments and one of the first women appointed as a lecturer in plant biochemistry at the University of Cambridge. 

Fortunately, today companies (including ours) are formalizing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) strategies and programs, creating more opportunities for employee engagement, and recognizing the true role employees play in creating value as part of broader ESG efforts (Environmental, Social and Governance). You might argue that had programs like these been in place, many of these bold and inspiring scientists and innovators would have been even more successful. Broader collaboration between each of them and their colleagues would have thrived in an environment that was less tolerant of prejudice, discrimination, and in some cases bullying – intellectual or otherwise. 

Yet, while policies, programs, and education can help identify and enable steps to rectify many of these situations early on, the ability and need to eradicate these behaviors need to be deeply woven into the belief system of each of us – as individuals, teams, and companies. Being bold, inspired, and real in the pursuit of one’s own thinking must be balanced with the confidence that others doing the same will only make us, and our planet, healthier and stronger.

–  Matt