Our entrepreneurs launched their brands and have succeeded with a sense of purpose and a passion. We apply our own enthusiasm and passion to help them realize the full potential of their vision.
I wonder if the people you went to high school with could have predicted that you’d become an entrepreneur?
They wouldn’t be shocked. I was independent minded. I reached the junior national road cycling team without any coaching— I just cobbled together information from a few books, knowledgable peers and learning from each race.
Speaking of learning from others, what lessons did you glean from your upbringing?
My mother and grandmother were serious cooks. My grandmother taught in the Fanny Farmer cooking school back in the late 1920’s. We ate well and I think that led to my developing a taste for healthy, good quality food.
Later, I was a national team and then professional road cyclist for six years and learned about nutrition and athletic performance. I also farmed for six years and helped transition a farm to grass-based, organic dairy. All of this must have led me to what I’m doing now.
Do you get a chance to exercise your love of food outside of your work?
My wife calls me the pancake master! She says I am unable to make anything exactly as directed by a recipe. I have dozens of versions and not one is written down. I change flours, mix-ins, and every time I’m missing an ingredient I wing it and try something new to make it even better.
At VS&C you’ve also created new products and recipes. Can you recall an “ah hah!” moment from one of them?
I do remember how the idea for Meat Sticks came about. I remember seeing Newman’s Own organic versions of Oreos back in 2001. That was a clear sign to me that every category would eventually have its natural/organic, better-for-you analog. Years later, after I was leading this local meat company, I thought what more iconic target could there be than making a healthy, culinary-flavor-inspired alternative to the meat stick?
I gather your family has been involved as taste testers?
My wife is our #1 taste tester. She has no problems giving the “thumbs down” on a recipe! Our two sons were the first fans of our Sticks and were trading them at school for Twinkies and Oreos even before they went on the market.
You said from an early age you were “independent minded.” Do you think that’s a requirement for an entrepreneur?
You need a certain amount of stubbornness, to create something new; if everyone thought it was a good idea when you started, chances are someone would have already done it. You believe you can make it work, even when others don’t believe you.
What else do you need to succeed?
I’d say the ability to do lots of different jobs at least tolerably well, since when you start you’ll do almost all of them until you can hire a pro for each job.
Any advice for those who are preparing for the journey?
This may be the hardest and/or most intense thing you’ll ever do but keep the end in mind —hopefully you’ll have created something new, something of value that improves the world.
Like an entirely new kind of pancake.
Now you’re talking!
You live in LA but you’re originally a Jersey boy?
I was born in Paterson, NJ—a very blue collar, Italian upbringing. I’ve been in Los Angeles 25 years now, but like most NJ natives, my heart will always be in the Garden State. I still have a place on Long Beach Island!
Aside from an LBI address, what other parts of your upbringing stay with you?
Values. Service to others and intense loyalty to friends, family and teammates. That was ingrained in me from a very young age.
Is that why you first became a lawyer?
Advocating for others was the draw. That’s how I started my career. And now at VMG it translates to a commitment to our partner entrepreneurs.
And you had another career in between, right?
There’s a scene in the movie City Slickers where Jack Palance says the secret to life is “Just one thing. Stick to that and the rest don’t mean sh**”. Well, I guess I’ve had three things. First it was the law, then talent management; the business of building artist and media brands—and then we founded VMG.
Sounds like your ‘one thing’ might be supporting and building others’ success?
It’s true that those skill sets can be instrumental in helping build consumer brands. Creating sustainable and supportive relationships is the goal. The level of trust any business owner has in their chosen partner determines the success of the partnership. It’s all about collaboration. We’re proud that many of our founder partners choose to continue to work with us on their subsequent investments and companies. That’s the sign of an enduring relationship.
Speaking of the “long game” you’re an avid golfer. Do you build relationships on the course?
For me, golf isn’t a social event. It’s a competitive sport with a 6AM tee time to minimize the length of an otherwise very long game. But it’s also my yoga— a rare chance to be completely in the moment. The other special thing about golf is that it is self-policed. As many have said, “show me how someone plays golf and I’ll know a lot about their character."
You’re pretty good at reading people?
As a lawyer you have to learn to read the jury, the judge and witnesses to be successful. It’s the same with talent and also with our founders and management teams. It’s critical that we understand their individual goals and desires.
So success isn’t always defined in dollars.
Success is defined differently by each of the founders we’ve worked with: becoming a brand and category leader, building a mission-oriented platform, positively impacting consumer and employee lives. Obviously, financial success is essential, but it's much more than that. Part of our job is to help identify that definition and reverse engineer to get to the desired result.
Sounds a lot like talent management.
The most successful entrepreneurs aren’t only great business people, they’re really artists--creative thinkers and passionate about their brands. As with any great artist’s career, long term strategy is critical. One wrong decision can be devastating. We need to be collaborative partners and provide a lens through which decisions can be made more easily.
That’s a lot of work for a recovering workaholic.
We’re all trying to find balance in life. A singular passion helps: for our work, in our personal life and in giving back.
That adds up to “one thing” very nicely.
Jack Palance is never wrong.
Can you describe yourself as a kid?
A weird combination of hyperactive and terrifyingly lazy.
Would your high school friends be surprised you became an entrepreneur?
In my yearbook I was voted “Personality Plus”—otherwise known as the less accomplished cousin of the class clown. Most of them probably assume I’m a failed stand-up comic.
What early lessons did you learn from your parents?
My parents made me hold summer jobs from the time I was 12—usually manual labor. I was so lazy, I just took whatever they found for me. My dad said it would build character, and he was right. Mainly, it taught me what I didn’t want to do with my life. I also learned that when you’re forced to do something you hate, you learn how to grind. It developed my intense work ethic.
What was the very first job your parents found for you?
I worked in a door factory in 6th grade. (Child labor laws anyone?) I desperately wanted a Nintendo, but my parents would only let me get it if I bought it with the money that I earned in the factory. I hated the job—but that Nintendo was glorious! And I learned you can control your own destiny if you’re willing to work for it. Earning my own success is still a powerful motivator for me.
What about recent influences. What books are you reading?
I listen to books on Audible— Mindset by Carol Dweck is always on tap. (Most important book in the English language!) Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin. (Sums up my life philosophy). And The Heart and The Fist by Eric Greitens. Compassion backed by a willingness to fight for what you believe. (He had me at hello).
You’ve also said that raising dogs has taught you about leadership.
Techniques from the Dog Whisperer apply directly to business. I’m dead serious. Calm assertive. That’s what’s up.
What do you do for relaxation?
I read voraciously. My wife and I also play ping-pong and video games like we're training for the Olympics. Most weekends we don't even leave the house. I'm all about that woman. She's my Universe. Everything I do is just a ruse to impress her.
Is that why you founded Quest?
I see Quest as a platform for positive transformation - for myself and others. To me, the purpose of life is to see how many skills you can acquire that have utility, and then put those skills to use in service of some grand goal. I want to look at the greatest challenges that we face as a society and say those are my problems to solve. Quest is my platform to do that.
That’s quite a journey from a lazy childhood!
Quest is a company born out of misery. My partners and I previously founded another company as a get rich vehicle. Turns out that chasing money is a terrible way to get rich, and at least in my case, made me profoundly unhappy. Being unhappy, however, led us to ask a transformative question - what would we love doing even if we were failing? The answer for each of us, for three very different reasons, was health and nutrition. And so Quest Nutrition was born.
And along the way what did you learn?
Focusing on profits and revenue is a good way to bankrupt your company. Focusing on serving others and delivering value in a business savvy way on the other hand is the secret building a successful company. Go figure. Oh, and manufacturing is not for the faint of heart.
If EQ stood for Entrepreneurial Intelligence what would that mean to you?
It’s simple: an entrepreneur is a hyper-effective team builder who destroys all obstacles in their path.
Wow. That’s powerful.
You think? I hope my wife reads this.
What were your earliest ambitions as a child?
I dreamed I would one day be on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
Did you ever dream of becoming an entrepreneur?
Where I grew up entrepreneurs were usually doing something illegal.
What early lessons did you get from your parents?
They taught me to think about the fact that every person is fighting a battle you know nothing about—to be kind and give until it hurts.
How did growing up in Boston shape you?
I think that’s where I got my strong work ethic and sense of family. Not to mention my blind loyalty to the Celtics, Red Sox, Bruins, Patriots… you get the picture.
Let’s jump to today. What book might we find on your nightstand?
The Power of Now. I carry it with me everywhere. Read it!
Has parenting had an influence on your work or leadership style?
Parenting teaches you the need to be focused and disciplined. But mainly that things don’t always go according to plan. Also, I’ve learned that it pays to listen. My kids are the ones whose enthusiasm convinced me to join Justin’s in the first place.
You’ve helped take Justin’s to the next level of growth. If you were going to start this journey again would you do anything differently?
Nope—learning and making mistakes early and recovering with a plan is all part of the journey. Develop a plan, drive hard against it, surrounding yourself with people who are smarter than you and let them do their job!
What keeps you up and night?
Thinking about all the wonderful things we can do with this brand.
Assuming to do sleep, what gets you up in the morning?
All the wonderful things we can do with this brand.
That’s a pretty motivating goal.
And a lot more realistic than making the cover of Sports Illustrated.
Let’s start at the beginning. What kind of a kid were you?
We were immigrants from Taiwan — English as a 3rd language. Both my parents worked several jobs. But I was also a latchkey kid with a ton of freedom.
And your parents passed on their work ethic to you?
Oh, yeah, timeless values: work hard, save money, be respectful and honest. My Dad always said, “ know thyself," and finally, “Make your family proud!”
So you worked from a young age?
At 14 I got my first job as a McDonalds lobby boy. I was so bored I’d nap in the broom closet. One day I got caught by the manager who instead of firing me asked what I really wanted to do. I said, “I want to cook!” and got transferred to the grill. I became a Crew Trainer, then Crew Chief and by 15 I was running the store.
There’s a lesson in there for entrepreneurs somewhere, right?
Do what you love and you won’t end up asleep in the broom closet.
What do you know today that you didn’t know when you started Vega?
Before I became one, I thought CEOs were oracles who knew all the answers. Instead, I learned that we become leaders through trial and error, mistakes made, courses corrected. It’s about having the humility to learn and get a little bit better every day.
So I gather Vega wasn’t an overnight success?
No, no. It was14 years of grinding it out. Incredible highs and lows along the way with an army of passionate people.
Was there a critical inflection point that defined the character of the company?
We endured a brutal recall 3 years ago. In one moment we lost $11 million — every penny we’d made up to that point. It could have put us out of business. But we rallied and became a better company for it.
And now your “baby” is all grown up?
It’s graduated from university, moved out of the house and is making it on its own! I’ll always be its parent but I won’t tell it what to do. But I’ll always be its biggest cheerleader.
Speaking of cheerleaders, you’ve said your wife and kids’ support has been critical.
When I told my wife I was going to put a second mortgage on our house (after already spending our life savings and maxing out all our credit cards), she asked me “What’s the worst that can happen to us Charles?” I said, “Well, if we lose it all, I go get a job and we get back to our current situation within 3 years”. She said “Ok, good enough for me”.
My kids have been guinea pigs for our product development over the years too.
Sounds like they backed the right guy.
Like my parents said, “Make your family proud.”
You’re the daughter of a police officer. That’s a powerful role model!
My dad loved his profession but it didn’t pay much. He worked several jobs to put his daughters through parochial school. That definitely influenced my work ethic and how much I value learning.
This was in Indianapolis. You’re a Midwesterner at heart?
My favorite people are Midwest transplants (including my husband whom I’ve known since we were 10). There’s a kind of no nonsense transparency about them. Friendly candid conversation is a part of our ‘culture.’
Did you hold a job in high school?
My parents didn’t have a lot of money. But I wanted to buy a cool pair of jeans and go out to eat with friends... so I got a job as a checkout girl at a grocery store. This was no Whole Foods. The produce and packaged goods were so grimy I got physically sick at the end of my first three days.
Which led to your investments in better-for-you brands?
Maybe! I fully support the paradigm shift towards healthier, affordable choices in the products we, and our children, consume every day.
Speaking of kids, what have you learned from parenting that might apply to your work?
I feel very lucky to have complicated, headstrong, opinionated kids. That makes parenting tough but also incredibly joyful. I’ve learned to pick my battles and focus on the big picture. My job is to keep my kids within the guardrails while they explore, fail and succeed on their path to their own great place- maybe one they wouldn’t have had the confidence to shoot for alone. We’re just there to help them find their best selves along the way.
Is that how you see your investor-entrepreneur relationships?
Entrepreneurs can also be complicated, headstrong and opinionated. They’re massively optimistic, doggedly determined people who have the genius (and courage) to often go where no one has gone. The trick for them is long-term survival. That’s where we can help. Our culture is collaborative and mentoring—both within VMG and with our partners in each brand. We’re not operators (and we don’t try to be) but we’ve travelled this journey with other founders and managers and helped them build amazing brands. We share our VMG toolbox and, importantly, we share our lessons learned and our best practices.
You’re also very interested in bringing more women into the field (both PE and entrepreneurship).
The world needs more strong, articulate women in leadership positions for sure. We need women who deeply understand what these consumer brands mean to families and we need the kind of communication and collaboration skills that women uniquely bring to the table.
What about the idea of “having it all”?
My mom used to say you can have it all, just not all at the same time. It ebbs and flows. Women need to trust that it’s possible even when it’s hard. It’s definitely not always pretty: when we started VMG, I was pregnant with twins, then put on bed rest, then temporarily paralyzed from childbirth and then my active-duty-military husband was deployed twice to the Middle East! It seems crazy now but you just don’t give up and you make it work.
Sounds like you’re both pretty heroic.
My husband served 20 years in the Armed Forces. I’m a working mom. Let’s save the hero title for him.
You grew up on a farm. What was that life like as a kid?
We rambled around with few limitations on our activities. We heated by firewood and ate food that came from the farms around us. My siblings and I slept with hot rocks each night to stay warm— totally connected to our surroundings in a really tangible way.
How did you get from the farm to entrepreneurship?
My father worked for Spalding for 35 years. He loved his job, but I think he also wished he’d been an entrepreneur. I think that’s why he encouraged my brother, sister and me to avoid taking a mundane path or a job. Turned out to be good advice.
Were you an entrepreneur by nature?
Even as an 8 year old, I was already trying out new business ideas, starting with collecting cans and returning them for the $.05 deposit.
But you’re also still that farm boy at heart.
Indeed! I recently hosted a traditional New England lobster bake complete with fire, rocks, seaweed—the works. We tried to source everything we ate from within 3 miles of our house. It was ton of work but a complete blast.
Do you remember the moment you managed to bring those two things together—your love of nature and entrepreneurship?
Well, I’ve always loved fruit. But I’m also a big fan of carbonated drinks. My breakthrough was the moment I realized that making sparkling drinks with fresh ingredients was technically possible. It was one afternoon in the late fall of 2009 when I discovered that there was a path to bringing real fruit and bubbles together—it was pure joy.
I imagine that founding a business and running it require different skills. Is that your experience?
Early on I felt I had to come over the top and will every project to the finish line. As we grew I realized a “swooping founder” can be a culture killer. I learned to hire better, which led to trusting the team, which has empowered the whole organization.
Speaking of hiring well, how can you tell that something has a high EQ(Entrepreneurial Intelligence)? Who are those people?
1) Explorers - they live hard but thoughtfully.
2) "People" people- they’re fascinated by other humans and what makes them tick.
3) Dreamers- they need to predict future demand. They need to peak around the corner and imagine what’s coming.
Any final words of wisdom for those dreamers who are just starting out?
You know, one of my first jobs was working in a tee-shirt shop. I was fired on the second day because I couldn’t find my way back from their warehouse to the store. That day I learned something valuable: know where you are and where you’re headed.
Guess you didn’t have GPS back then.
Something every exploring dreamer needs.
Joe Di Salvo
Partner of The Di Salvo Group*
Tell me about Joe, age 10.
Apparently I was known for my sense of humor, social skills and natural intelligence from a very early age.
And your humility?
Never heard that.
Your parents were immigrants. You must have made them proud.
I’m first generation-everything in my family. First born in the US, first to graduate college, then grad school, first to hold a professional degree. All because my parents passed on the work ethic and value system of immigrants who came to participate in the American Dream. Watching them build a successful business from scratch in NY’s brutally competitive garment industry was its own invaluable education. My dad always said “street smart is as important as seat-smart.”
Sounds very New York. Describe the neighborhood you grew up in.
Middle Village, Queens- back then it was first or second generation Italian, Irish and German families. A real community-focused neighborhood. Friends were as close as family in that neighborhood, and there is a tight knit group of us who have stayed close together even through today. (Shout out to Brian!)
And you worked with some of those friends at VitaminWater?
It was amazing to experience that kind of professional success along with my old friends as colleagues when we sold to Coca-Cola.
What attracts you to brand building vs. say, corporate law?
I like the David & Goliath nature of what we do, the hand-to-hand combat. I’m a street fighter from way back. In my past life I experienced both the misery of corporate law and the drudgery of brand identity maintenance and support at Coca-Cola. No creativity, accountability or inspiration. Helping entrepreneurs realize their professional dream is the Super Bowl every day. Never gets old.
What is it about the VMG culture that most attracted you?
The reassuring, paternal disposition of Mike and his Dalai Lama-like sense of calm and tranquility.
From someone who has lived through and now supports the entrepreneurial journey, any words of wisdom?
Is that from the Dalai Lama?
You grew up in Williamsburg, Virginia.That’s unusual.
Home of Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in the New World.
Lots of start-up spirit in that soil.
Jamestown was absolutely a start-up and it didn’t go too well! It gave me a deep appreciation for both history and the need to adapt and change.
Was your family an early influence?
I learned from the greatest generation. Both my grandfathers were WWII vets who came home from the war and became salesmen—giant, warm personalities. One of my grandmothers escaped the Nazis in Paris and the other grandmother served in the USO and was a Rockette who worked until she was almost 80. A force of nature. So, the lessons were: service to the greater good, learn to sell (you need to sell an idea to succeed), and fortitude!
What books are on your nightstand?
I have a hungry literary appetite. Right now, Infinite Jest, The Lion (biography of Churchill), Third Plate by Dan Barber, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Love in the Time of Cholera and Wind,Sand and Stars.
Let’s see, that’s history, food, adventure, satire, magical realism…
I am an equal opportunity reader (and eater).
What about your “baby,” Health Warrior. What’s your parenting style?
We’re all about building culture. That’s what gives our warriors the experience of their lives and makes a real brand. There’s a poster of Sisyphus in the office, pushing his rock up the hill. Someone wrote “FUN!” across the front. That says it.
You and your wife also have a baby at home.
I truly work better and faster since Ella came into the world. I spend every day thinking we’ve got to fix the state of food (and many other things) for her generation.
Can you describe the “ah hah!” moment your brand was hatched?
I remember our “ah hah!” naming moment! One of my partners, Nick Morris was on a run in Central Park when he came up with it. (We still own about 40 bad URL’s with “chia” in the name.)
Let’s say EQ stood for Entrepreneurial Intelligence. What is that for you?
The ability to know what you don’t know, to listen, and to get stuff done.
Also the willingness to admit that you’re probably not Steve Jobs.
What keeps you up and night?
The dollars schools get to feed kids one meal (average of $1) and the number of kids living in hunger in the US (15 million) — most of their calories come from school meals.
Assuming you can fall asleep after that, what gets you up in the morning?
Our team of teams. First thing I think about every morning.
If I gave you $10 million to create a philanthropic foundation relating to your company, what would its mission be?
A comprehensive plan to re-work the food system- from soil to farms to manufacturing to packaging to distribution to retail to waste. I have an outline started! (I’m going to need more than $10 million, by the way).
Any advice to those who are preparing for the entrepreneurial journey?
Start small, go deep before wide, and find good-willed and deeply knowledgeable people to help you along the way.
And maybe go easy on the URL acquisition?
I have a few I could sell if anyone’s interested.
What was your first paying job?
It was probably my hardest. At a local water bottling plant. Backbreaking, monotonous work. We’d fill, cap and stack the bottles onto pallets. Those 5 gallon water bottles are heavy! The warehouse was open, so during the winter it was freezing. We’d wear rubber rain suits that would drip with icicles and run hot water over our hands to warm up.
A great story to tell your kids when they whine about walking to school.
You mean whining about being driven while eating snacks and listening to audio books? Not sure my stories have much influence. I’ve come to realize I have far less to do with who these small humans are than I’d expected to. Children are emergent phenomena. They grow like mushrooms.
What have you learned from parenting that relates to your work?
I think I’ve learned the importance of maintaining calm amid the chaos. Both parenting and my job are challenging but hugely rewarding.
Which part is challenging? What brings you joy?
The entrepreneurs we work with put everything on the line. Their personal financial situation is often completely dependent on the success of the company and it isn’t clear what they’d do next if it doesn’t work out. Entering into a partnership with us is a critical step for them and for us. The decisions we make together have real weight and consequences. That’s both challenging and satisfying.
In your prior life you did a lot of work in the health care sector. How does that compare to working with brands and consumer products?
Well, health care is obviously incredibly important and impacts all of us, but it’s hard to have a conversation around the dinner table about dialysis equipment or wound care clinics. It’s awesome to talk to my family or friends about the brands I’m working with now. I’ll mention one to them and they’ll say, “Hey I love that brand, we use it all the time!”
How do the entrepreneurs you work with experience the relationship?
You’ll have to ask them! But being an entrepreneur can be a lonely place – the responsibility is all on their shoulders and they have to be good at everything. After we partner, it’s amazing to see founders settle in and shrug off some of that burden because now they have financial backing, advisors and resources that can help fill in the gaps.
If only your little mushrooms at home could appreciate your influence.
If only! But hey, they’re still young.
Can you describe yourself at age 10?
Mainly, I remember being inseparable from my core group of friends.
And what kind of life lessons did you get from your parents?
Well, both were foodies. My mother is French and cooked amazing dishes with delicate sauces. My father came from a large, extended Italian family, so for him food was something that brought everyone together. I also learned a lot from my very first job.
I worked in a fantastic Jewish deli where the owner insisted on only the finest ingredients. That stuck with me forever.
This was New Jersey?
New Jersey, yes, and summers in Cape Cod. Great ethnic foods, amazing seafood…
Starting to see a food-passion emerge here.
Food, but also the importance of ingredients that go into it.
Ok, fast-forward to that “ah hah” moment when your company was hatched
I think that would be the moment we thought of using “other beans” to create hummus — that’s our key differentiator. Like I said, it’s the ingredients.
You said "we". You were 3 original founders?
Yes, I don’t know how some entrepreneurs do it all by themselves!
An inseparable "core group" like when you were a kid?
Except unfortunately we were separated geographically. 3 founders located in different parts of the country. I don’t recommend that recipe.
What else did you not know at the beginning?
The importance of being well-funded. It helps you do things like actually open an office and fill it with people to make up for your shortcomings.
It’s refreshing to hear a leader talk about shortcomings.
You have to be honest with yourself. When we started the company we all agreed it was important to know what we were good at and what we weren’t good at. That’s how you create successful partner relationships both internally and externally. So each of you can compensate for someone else’s weaknesses in a particular area.
Sounds like you have a high EQ (Entrepreneurial Intelligence). How would you define that?
An entrepreneur has to have passion— for what you’re producing/creating/selling. If you don’t have that, it doesn’t matter how smart you are. Passion makes it so much easier to put the energy you need to into your business.
Any last words of wisdom for someone just starting a business?
Innovate! Without it you’re just another "me too" and the world has enough of those. Look for at least 3 points of differentiation and you’ll give yourself a chance to succeed.
Hence, the "other beans".
If we’d started with chickpeas I wouldn’t be talking to you today.
They say “to know the child is to know the man”. Describe yourself at, say, age 10.
I was a little surf grom whose whole world revolved around surfing. Nothing else yet mattered.
Well, that’s consistent. Any entrepreneurial glimmers?
My school buddies remind me I had a little racket going where I pooled our lunch money and paid others to stand in line to collect our lunch. It cost me nothing more than my own lunch cost. Good times.
What was your very first paying job? What did you learn from that?
Competitive Surfing – I was lucky enough to get paid to do something I loved at an early age. It taught me very quickly that you are your best asset. You need to stand out from the pack, promote yourself, build relationships, be competitive. Oh, and I learned that winning feels better than losing.
Is there anything you've learned from being a parent that informs your style as an entrepreneur or as a leader? Or vice versa?
Parenting taught me that my actions are more important than my words, that patience and understanding is key and to compliment and say thank you regularly!
Can you describe the “ah hah!” moment around your connection to your brand?
It was Tegan who saw the product in Hawaii and reached out to Tom. After our first conversation there was that epiphany ; everything in the brand resonated with us and there was a lot of mutual admiration and respect and identification of a good fit team. It was all about partnering with good people to do good things and disrupt a category that was perceived to be stale, boring and irrelevant to youth culture.
What do you know today that you did not know when you began this process?
The continuing challenges that come with regulated OTC products!
If you were going to start this brand/company from the very beginning, knowing what you know today, what would you do differently?
I think I’d try to enjoy the journey more. it’s hard when you’re passionate, competitive and relentless in a business environment. You become totally consumed by the business day and night. I now think there is opportunity to create more balance.
How deeply has your family been engaged in the building of this brand?
Well, they’re literally part of the company! My wife Tegan is one of my business partners so we live and breathe the business together. We relocated our two young sons to the US (away from friends and family) and they’ve had to hang out at our office much more than they probably would like. But they get it. They’re pretty resilient and have learned a lot about business early on.
How has your leadership style evolved from the very early days of your company?
Early on I was trying to do everything myself and lead by example.I’ve learned to take a facilitative leadership approach: set direction, lead, contribute, empower, trust, mentor and support. And then be there to catch them if they fall.
If you’re not at work or with your family, where could we find you?
How does where you grew up defines who you are today?
I grew up in a beach town in Australia, and I guess that beach culture defines me now as to what our family enjoys and also ultimately lead me to Sun Bum.
What books are on your nightstand right now?
I love reading, but getting the time can be a struggle. I read all genres. My most recent reads have been Anticancer (Dr David Servan Schreiber), I know why the Caged Bird sings (Maya Angelou), and Shoe Dog (Phil Knight). Oh, and I’m currently reading the entire Harry Potter collection with my kids.
Is there anything you've learned from being a parent that informs your style as an entrepreneur or as a leader? Or vice versa
Time management! Also that you need to be flexible to modify or adapt your style or your priorities depending on what is going on – at work or at home.
Can you remember the particular “ah ha” moment when you knew this was the brand/company you wanted to help build?
Totally -- I was in Hawaii on vacation and I saw a display of Sun Bum products. I emailed the founder, Tom, asking about his international expansion plans.
What do you know today that you did not know when you began this process? What has surprised you most?
The extent and variation in regulations, both here and internationally! Also the the evolution in product development and our customer’s expectations.
Start-ups often feel a tension between growth and stability. Have you had that experience?
We’ve often turned down opportunities that would have meant growth for us, but it just didn’t feel right. So far we’ve had a gut instinct about our growth and I think we need to continue to hold to that. But it’s a delicate balance.
On a scale between 1-10 how much risk tolerance do you have?
In business I’m an 8 or 9. I’m not afraid of hard work and know we could climb back or start again. Socially, I am not a big wave charger or an adrenalin junkie.
So, what keeps you up and night ?
What gets you up in the morning?
Adam’s alarm :)
Is there anything we should know about you as a child?
You’re talking to the 6th grade recipient of The Rose Smilowitz Award.
In case you don’t know, it’s for the student who “best demonstrates respect for all, a sense of responsibility towards self and others, and an understanding and pride in school and community.”
That’s a ton of pressure on a little kid. How do you top that?
Well, since you asked … my sophomore year of college I helped found Student Advantage—we grew a 6 person organization to a 650 person publicly traded company on the Nasdaq by the time I was 24.
So, you’re an entrepreneur from way back.
My Bagel Boy business in 4th grade is where it all began. Then I ran a designer clothing business out of my school locker in junior high school (carrying a beeper for my VIP customers), there was my school-logo-on-hospital scrubs business and then my high school HIV/AIDS peer-to-peer education program.
That sounds exhausting. What early lessons did you learn?
Execution is everything! Having something someone else wants isn’t the real challenge. It’s figuring out how to get it in front of them and sell it. As in everything, you get out what you put in.
Speaking of putting in, you’re busy with Babyganics and also a very busy Dad.
My wife Nicole and our kids Zach, Sky and Ashton inspire me every day.
Both as a parent and as a leader I work on patience and positive reinforcement. I work hard to make each of my kids feel special and empower them to make good choices. That’s also how I treat my team at Babyganics.
In your community you’re “Coach Keith” Explain that.
I’m a coach and a leader in my community athletic association. I’ve coached intramural and travel soccer and basketball for my son and daughter for several years. Sports helped shape who I am. I feel like I’m returning the favor by sharing all those lessons with my children, their teammates and the community. I hope that instilling confidence and teaching them the importance of sportsmanship, how to win and lose, will have a positive impact.
So now that you have a growing family what’s your tolerance for risk, as an entrepreneur?
If you’d asked me back in college, I would have been a 15 on a scale of 1-10. But as my business (and family) have grown beyond “startup” I’ve become a more calculated risk taker. A solid 7.5.
You call Babyganics your other "family." And you’ve known Kevin (Babyganics founder) forever?
Since grade school! From the minute I started working with him I saw how complementary we were—how we balanced each other. My passion for people, and making a difference in the lives of others (especially young families) and my entrepreneurial DNA made it a “no brainer” for me to join Kevin on the journey to build the Babyganics brand.
After all you “put in” at home and work, what do you do to recharge?
A few years ago I started my own journey in martial arts. My time in the dojo is as much a mental workout as a physical one. Early on my “sensei” urged me to focus with the same intensity on myself as I do on Babyganics. Four belts later, I’m hooked!
I feel the early influence of Rose Smilowitz.
We should all ask ourselves “WWRD” (“What would Rose do”?)
Can you talk about early lessons from your upbringing?
My parents came to the US with two suitcases and an infant (my brother). They sacrificed and worked super hard to give us a middle class life in the Jersey suburbs. The message was dream big, do honest, hard work and don’t be afraid to fail. Given the head start my brother and I had, my parents felt there was nothing we couldn’t accomplish.
So you grew up a typical American kid?
A proud Jersey boy! LBI, pizza, Giants, Yankees.
Are you still close to your family?
I come from a huge, extended family with lots of cousins. We’re really close—we all have each others’ backs. Our family parties can get a bit ridiculous.
Aside from partying with family, what else do you do to relax?
I mindlessly read cheap, trivial fiction and watch sports—the ultimate reality TV.
Ok, enough relaxation. What attracted you to the business of brand building?
The hustle! The best brands come from great teams of people who really get stuff done. Often big companies don’t have that kind of drive and can’t keep up.
You spend a lot of time with entrepreneurs. What traits do they share?
Again, the hustle, the creativity and the unyielding belief in themselves.
I imagine after working closely with them, they become like a second family.
I love building genuine relationships and friendships with them. Accomplishing something together is hugely gratifying.
How do you build trust with these founders and entrepreneurs?
The spirit of the partnership doesn’t come from a place of “I told you so!” or “I know better.” Ultimately, it comes down to what’s best for the brand is best for all of us, and that’s a two way street. We’re in this together.
Speaking of being in this together, how would you describe the VMG vibe?
It’s a close knit group. We know each other’s spouses, partners, and kids. Monday morning we ask each other what we did that weekend and are genuinely interested.
And you say, “I read mindless, trivial fiction and partied with my cousins?”
Perhaps I overshared here.
Partner of The Di Salvo Group*
Describe the neighborhood where you grew up.
I grew up in Middle Village, Queens, at a time before play dates and parental supervision (Joe DiSalvo was there too. Check his bio!) We did stupid things and (I think?) learned life lessons. Half the kids in my neighborhood became lawyers. The other half went to jail.
I imagine your parenting style today is a bit different from that.
I know I benefited from having freedom to make mistakes and learned from them. That’s how we all grew up. The challenge now is to give my kids some semblance of that experience without Child Services knocking on my door.
Any books on your nightstand right now that shed some light on your interests?
Moby Dick. I thought I’d be done by now, but that whale is proving to be more elusive than I thought.
You’re involved with brand building. What were some of your first brand loves from childhood?
That’s easy – Nabisco Chipsters. I could have been a Supreme Court Justice, but instead, I’ve spent my professional life searching for the next Chipsters. Fingers crossed...
I can see how you were more suited to brand building than corporate law.
I spent nine years at a big Manhattan law firm representing mostly financial institutions, investment banks, and other clients who exist in the stratosphere. The moment I walked in as a general counsel to a consumer products company, I realized there was a whole universe of incredibly smart, hard-working people, who were actually in the business of making and selling things. Things that could actually have an effect on people’s lives. (Ask anybody who’s ever eaten a Chipster, and they’ll tell you.)
A lot of us dream of creating a brand that people love. What qualities does it take to do that?
These founders I work with often achieve initial success by sheer force of will. You can’t lose the spark and energy that started it all, but the best entrepreneurs develop a deep sense of loyalty to the people who work with them and hang in there together to achieve a collective vision. In the end it’s a team sport. You can’t do it alone.
Right. Look what happened to Ahab and Moby Dick.
Shh! Don’t tell me how it ends
Mary A. Kayser
Chief Finance Officer, Chief Compliance Officer
What lessons did you learn as a child that serve you as an adult?
I was told that nothing comes easy. You have to work for it.
Speaking of work, I hear your first job was at a driver’s ed school?
Yeah, I was a receptionist. I was 15 and making $3 an hour. I saved every penny to buy a 1979 Chevy Luv pickup.
So Chevy was your first brand acquisition.
I loved that yellow truck!
What other brands did you love as a kid?
Oh, the Astros for sure. And Nolan Ryan, who was also a brand. He had so much integrity and persistence and was so accessible to his fans. I also loved Tiffany & Co. That blue box was a symbol of commitment and quality.
What do you think eventually attracted you to working with brands and consumer products?
Working with these founders and their brands feels like we're building something together. And because these are consumer products it doesn’t feel like they’re numbers on a spreadsheet. You can touch them. Taste them!
Several of the brands you work with are foods or snacks in the natural category. That appeals to you?
I grew up at a time when eating out of a microwave was common. And my Mom was a Weight Watchers consumer so...
... not a lot of farm-to-table deliciousness, I guess.
Not so much. That could be why I love being a part of making healthy, delicious products available to more and more people and why it’s so important to me.
What else do you love about what you do?
Watching the founders and their teams become wildly successful. Seriously, that’s a thrill.
I imagine you bring your work ethic to the job. What part of your character or personality do you think contributes most to the culture?
I think it’s my dedication to always doing the right thing.
And I always finish what I start.
Important traits since you’re also Compliance Officer, huh?
You grew up in a small town in Northern California. How did that shape you?
Willow Creek was a town of 1500 nestled in the mountains with fresh trees and flowing streams. I found peace in nature whenever things got chaotic – and with twelve siblings it did! That need to find peace in chaos and that practice stays with me today. People think I’m an extrovert. But I’d call myself an “outgoing introvert.”
That’s a small community. Did everyone know each other?
You were totally connected to everyone. Everyone knew everyone's business and around every corner you’d find a friendly face and someone offering support or constructive criticism.
Was your family into health and nature too?
Yes, and hard work! My dad had a side business selling whole food supplements. I was always looking for approval from my parents. Looking for that “pat on the back."
Has being a parent yourself informed your style as an entrepreneur?
The main thing I’ve learned from parenting is consistency. As you develop and have more people around you, you want to make sure you’re fundamentally consistent and true to your principles to stay grounded in your purpose. That, and patience!
Do you also see your business as another of your “babies?”
Oh yeah, definitely. I care for it, foster its growth. I take it personally when someone criticizes it. That said, I think you have to be open to constructive criticism if it’s coming from the right people. It takes a village.
Like Willow Creek. Or the many siblings you grew up with.
And work with today! The whole reason I'm here is because of their support. In the early years, they’d work for free without asking for anything in return. Without that, we wouldn't be here.
Working with your family must also motivate you.
Honestly, coming to work and being surrounded by my siblings and people who genuinely want to be part of this adventure we’re on together is what gets me excited every day.
Was there a turning point for your business when you knew you’d made it?
I’d say it was when I spent 30 days sleeping in my car. I was demo-ing at Whole Foods Berkeley, proving to them that a refrigerated bar was a unique and attractive selling point. When the buyer agreed and expanded us into more stores, I thought, "Yes, we can do this!” Knowing we wouldn’t go out of business – best feeling in the world.
That’s one heck of a “pat on the back.”
I’d like to thank my family: My Mom, Leigh, Heather, Charisse, Amyas, Monise, Zane, Lane, Annie…
Were you involved with the business back when your dad came up with the original Perfect Bar?
At age 10, I was my Dad's “secretary” taking calls, writing checks, running the books. That’s the year Dad came up with the original recipe and name for Perfect Bar, that’s where it all started. It's funny, I used to take orders from some of the distributors we work with today. Now they joke about how serious I was as a "little business woman."
Did you learn anything in school that helped you become an entrepreneur?
My parents home schooled us kids with a Montessori-style education. I saw almost all 50 states by the time I was a teenager and experienced more than I could ever have learned in a classroom. We were raised to embrace change, not get worked up over the small stuff we had no control over and were rewarded for out-of-the-box thinking.
You work with your family members all day, is that tough?
While not every day is a walk in the park, I can tell you that without a doubt, we always have each other’s backs. Working with seven of my siblings makes for such a fun-loving environment. One rolling pin at a time, every batch we’ve mixed, all the wins and losses, we've done it together; it's been all hands on deck since day one. Honestly, every one of our 120 employees is part of this crazy family of mine.
What’s been the most rewarding part about building this business?
It’s been especially incredible to be able to support our Mom, so she could focus her time and energy on raising the younger kids at home after Dad passed away, and to continue carrying on his legacy with my family by my side every step of the way.
If you were going to start again, what would you have done differently?
It's been such a wild and organic journey, with every "misstep" playing a role in bringing us to the company we are today. So, I’d have to say no, I don’t think I’d change a thing.
You’ve said you feel so grateful to do what you do. How so?
I feel lucky to walk into work every day to an office bursting with energy, filled with my brothers, sisters and friends. And honestly, I get to sell delicious peanut butter bars for a living —I mean how cool is that?
Speaking of working with your brother, are your styles very different?
He’s the push and I’m the pull; it's been a really fantastic balance. When it comes to risk taking on a scale of 1-10, I'm about a 7 and Bill's about a 9 (you’re welcome, bro!)
What keeps you up at night?
Well I’m planning my wedding this fall, which is kind of the cherry on top of an already crazy schedule.
With that many siblings how do you manage the seating chart?
Oh thanks, now that’ll keep me up tonight.
What was your very first paying job?
I decided that as an upper middle income kid I wanted to take a less expected summer job. So I worked at McDonald’s.
What did you learn from that experience?
It was a really humbling experience. I interacted with people I would never have met otherwise. I learned hard work and how to work within specific standards. It set me up well for what I do now.
Any other formative experiences from your youth?
After college I took another different path and joined the United States Marine Corp as an officer. I spent 5 years in the military and it really prepared me well for my later business endeavors.
Do you think it shaped your interests outside of work?
Well, I do love to coach! I coach everything from basketball to baseball. I also teach an entrepreneurship class at Northwestern. Teaching is sort of my drug.
Sounds like you’re a natural leader.
The biggest thing for me is always the team. You can have a great product or brand but if a business is going to succeed it really comes down to the people.
I gather you’ve got a good ‘team’ at Kernel Season’s.
When I met the people I would inherit I just knew this was the place for me. Once I met the founder Brian Taylor and experienced his passion I was sold.
And are you sort of the coach there?
It’s more like I’m the parent; I’m helping to guide the business on its journey from adolescence to adulthood. I’m a big believer in focus and try to instill that. Sometimes the brand doesn’t react like I would hope. (But then, my kids don’t always listen either).
What gets you up in the morning?
I’m super competitive and hate to lose. Feeling like I have the ability to affect change in order win—that gets me going. I get bored really easy and thrive on success. I’ve been fortunate to experience more of that than failure.
Do you hire people who are super- competitive too?
I want to hire people who are willing to stick their hand out and get it slapped, since risk is a necessary evil in growing companies. You have take chances and not develop a zero defect mentality.
Any advice to those preparing for the entrepreneurial journey?
Pay attention to the details! There is no single detail you can overlook or assume will just happen. Lastly, live by the acronym KISS (Keep it simple, stupid!). It in turn will help you manage the details.
Sounds like the military taught you well.
I owe it all to the US Marines and, of course, McDonalds.
What were your early interests as a child?
I was into a lot of things: sports, reading, drawing, graphic design, carpentry, engineering,etc.
A Renaissance child! Who were your early influences?
My grandparents helped raise me because my parents worked full time. Both grandfathers were incredibly handy and worked hard. My father was the first kid on his block to own a television because his father built it in the basement! My mother’s father was constantly inventing things and problem solving in his garage workshop.
So building things is in your DNA.
For sure. I was also raised in Marin County and went to UC Berkeley, the culture and values of the farm-to-table, organic, and ‘natural’ movements had a significant impact. Alice Waters and Michael Pollan were local heroes.
Do you remember your favorite childhood food brands?
Uh… Lucky Charms, Jones Soda, and Hot Pockets?
Alice and Michael are weeping right now.
I was a late bloomer.
Today you work with entrepreneurs to help build brands. What part of that attracts you most?
I really love building on each entrepreneur’s dream and contributing to their drive to provide consumers with better options. Every founder is unique. Each one truly cares about their legacy.
You started your career in finance. How is working with brands different?
As an investment banker (M&A), it was harder to articulate to my parents, grandparents, friends, etc. exactly what I did on a daily basis.
And you have dinner with your family every Sunday so…
I do! It’s easy to explain the human benefit behind consumer products investing— how we help fuel growth and bring exciting, healthy options to the market. We always say we’re helping to move people along a curve from Coke/Pepsi/Frito to Water/Green Tea/ Nuts.
Well, you’ve certainly come a long way from Hot Pockets.
We’re all on a learning curve.
What should we know about your childhood that shaped who you are today?
I grew up in St. Louis and NJ. Two hotbeds of soccer before soccer was remotely ‘hot.’ It was a niche sport played by kids like me who weren’t good enough athletes to play football. It became my passion and I played through college. That instilled in me the power of finding your niche, which is what entrepreneurship is all about.
So, straight line from niche sport to niche brand opportunities.
Looking back it makes a great story, but as I tell my kids, there are no straight lines in life. The fog of events and struggles obscures meaning until you’re on the other side of it.
Until you write your memoir. Speaking of which, what are you reading lately?
That’s why I read biographies and non-fiction. These aren’t ‘curated’ lives. They unfold in unpredictable patterns, go off on wild tangents before they make sense.
Sounds like jazz, which you’re also a fan of.
A big fan. My wife and I have been going to jazz clubs for 30 years and I have a leadership role in SF Jazz. I see the beauty of improv there all the time. The way each musician finds their own, passionate interpretation of the music. That speaks to me.
You mentioned you have 4 sons. That’s a bit of a single note, huh?
Only in gender! We have 3 biological sons and a son from Ghana. Each entirely different and unique. I’ve learned to appreciate that each is on his own journey- and it’s not mine. If I can help guide them, great.
And you founded VMG to help guide entrepreneurs. But you came from working with large institutions. Why the shift?
In the end I think you’re either a big or a small company kind of person. I’m the latter. I consciously wanted to plant my flag in that space and, importantly, not grow out of it.
Speaking of space, your offices have always been small. Is that intentional?
I’m partial to round tables and a crowded, open work space. (We move when two people have to share a closet). I think this fosters communication and a democratic, lively culture. There’s no place to hide.
Look, the world’s increasingly transparent. We’re all judged in the open by how we treat each other and our partners. And we should be— even when we’re not perfect. We can’t tell a ‘story’ that isn’t true.
So every entrepreneur can judge your relationships with other entrepreneurs.
Exactly. And they really are relationships. We’re joining them on the most important journey of their lives. It’s important to respect each other. In the end I want them to say “I really enjoyed walking this path with you.”
What qualities do you most respect about these founders?
They see a niche the rest of us don’t see. Big companies don’t see it. Market data says that it doesn’t exist! Still, they bet their lives on it. Plus, it’s a long journey- unpredictable and full of failures before the success. They get that.
There’s got to be a lesson in there for your sons.
25 years ago I’d never heard of PE or CPG and I’d never been to California. And yet here I am. I tell them you’re not following sheet music. You’re writing it along the way.
Ah, we’re back to jazz.
All roads lead to jazz.
Describe yourself in high school. Which kid were you?
I was the one running an eight-person tie dye operation – tie dyed boxer briefs to go under the uniform kilts at my all-girl-Catholic High School.
Tweaking the system from way back… sounds like a born entrepreneur.
Oh yeah. The quote under my yearbook picture was “I’m either irreconcilably crazy or the sanest person in the entire world.”
Where did you learn that crazy/sane balance?
Well, my father left us when I was 14. He suffered terribly as an alcoholic and in turn, caused a lot of suffering for my family before he left. I learned resilience from my mother and her parents really stepped up after that . My mom worked three jobs and my grandparents left their life in Jersey City to move down the street from us to help raise me and my sister. They pushed us to get our education and escape the cycle of abuse. Mainly, I learned forgiveness; my father truly suffered the most.
Any other early influences?
I’m more of a tree-hugger than most Jersey girls. My sister blames this on all of the “Little House on the Prairie” episodes I watched as a child.
What books are on your nightstand right now?
I’m reading “All Around the Mountains” – the essay based history of the town I live in in Vermont. And “A Thousand Acres” – a novel about farming by Jane Smiley.
A straight line from “Little House on the Prairie”. You were born to join the Vermont Smoke and Cure team!
Are you kidding? When they called I told them I eat Paleo, own a part-time farm in Vermont, buy 3 packs of their bacon a week at Whole Foods and my kids are meat stick fans. Where do I sign?
As a parent and a manager of people, what can you apply from one job to the other?
As a parent, I’ve learned that children are who they are. My job is to observe their true strengths and let them plug into the family in a way that maximizes their personal potential. Same goes for business -- put teams together that complement each other’s strengths, cultivate a culture that embraces style difference and they are un-stoppable.
What’s the biggest difference between working at an organization like P&G, as you did, vs. an entrepreneurial venture?
My time is not spent in meetings trying to align a bounty of resources, it’s spent actually doing the work! This is so refreshing and exhilarating and what every big CPG company is trying to figure out how to do.
On a scale between 1-10 how much risk tolerance do you personally have?
10! I’m a spontaneous, automatic, gut-following, data-driven engineer. There are many blind turns and leaps over dark chasms on the road to entrepreneurial success. This work is not for the faint of heart. You have to have faith, knowing you’ll succeed so you don’t get daunted on the first bump in the road.
Sounds pretty crazy!
Crazy-sane. Always crazy-sane.
VP of Talent
Describe Cassie in, say, 5th grade?
Ohh... super awkward, pudgy, smart, not socially savvy. Not a cool kid. I was a classic ‘over-achiever’ though.
I was Miss Honor Student! It took me years to learn that it’s not how many boxes you check off for extra credit or what your GPA was, but the meaning of what you’re doing— your longer-term goals. I finally learned to look at the bigger picture, ask for help and seek guidance from those who could help me generate new directions and ideas.
I’m guessing the books on your nightstand might reflect your interest in self improvement?
I’m a reader of all things happiness, feminist and/or achievement. The Happiness Advantage, Man’s Search for Meaning, Half the Sky, Lean In, Search Inside Yourself.
How do you apply all that inspiration when you wake up the next morning?
I’m constantly setting (sometimes breaking) new resolutions and goals for myself and my work. I post my resolutions and created a “1 Second Every Day” video. I’m doing another video soon.
Sounds like you’d thrive in a work culture which supports that kind of drive.
I’ve got the autonomy here to define my role and the trust to start executing a vision immediately. They’ve also given me the support and resources I need to be effective.
What’s an example of one of your goals?
Right now, increasing diversity in companies isn’t just a “nice thing to do” it’s also strategically and financially smart. I feel a responsibility as VP of Talent to move that needle, and I’m really grateful to have a team that supports this goal.
Must also be exciting to be around people who set their own audacious goals as they build brands.
The people I work with every day are truly inspiring. It’s an honor to help tell their story and a massive responsibility to find others who can contribute to the collective vision. I feel like together we can help create high quality jobs, healthier and more sustainable products and give tools to individuals to accelerate their careers.
There’s got to be an inspirational book in there somewhere.
Maybe a video!
Who were your earliest influences as a kid?
My father was a great teacher. He had so many one-liners of advice that stuck with me. He used to say: “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”
Any other early lessons that stuck with you?
When I was 14 I pulled down Virginia Creeper from my neighbor’s house. I was shirtless and wrapped head to toe in the stuff. That’s when my neighbor came out to inform me that it was poison ivy. The timing of when you get certain information is key. That stuck with me. Literally.
Any book you’ve read recently that had an impact on you?
Shogun (many times) and The Hard Thing About Hard Things
Sounds like a title your father could have written. Speaking of pithy sayings, what three words would you use to describe your company’s culture?
We Buy T-Shirts (go to www.jyve.com to find out)
What gets you up every morning? What motivates you?
As my lacrosse coach used to yell when we were shoveling snow off the practice field, “Every day’s a holiday! Every meal's a banquet!”
Another good one-liner!
For me it translates to the total commitment it takes to make a start-ups work.
Commitment and willingness to take risks?
I’ve started 5 companies from scratch. Several have been complete disasters. I never thought I was taking a risk. In other words, entrepreneurs aren’t necessarily incredible risk takers. They’re terrible analysts.
Can you remember a personal inflection point where you changed as a leader?
A few years ago, I got really sick. My team immediately went from followers to leaders. I realized then they were always potential leaders, I was just in their way. When I started to get better, I returned to a team of six leaders who had better ideas, better plans, better teams than when I left.
Did your leadership style change after that?
I’ve learned to lead with authenticity, transparency, vulnerability, and passion. I used to just be tough. (Feel free to check with my team, though. They may not have noticed the transition).
So following your father’s advice, what is your "main thing”?
I focus on strategy, vision, purpose and culture. But if I had to pick one I’d say we’re kind of obsessed with our company culture.
How does that translate to the market?
Given the demand for more authentic products and brands today you have to relate with authenticity and let people judge you for themselves. You may end up with fewer customers short term, but they’ll be rabid fans.
As a serial entrepreneur do you have any advice for others starting the journey?
Your backup plans need backup plans. Because your problems will have problems.
Thanks. I’ve been working on one liners of my own.
You had an interesting upbringing. You grew up in Israel?
Yes, and spent 5 years in the Israeli Air Force. That’s where I learned that fighting for your beliefs and goals is actually a way of life.
Where did you go after you stepped out of those planes?
I went backpacking for a year in South America. It felt like such great freedom!
And it was a good opportunity to meet people from all over the world.
You say you were a voracious reader as a child. What are you reading right now?
I’m reading Chuck Yeager. He was the first to break the sound barrier. I’ve read this book a few times already and love to read it again every few years!
Speaking of breaking the sound barrier, when did you know your business was going to be a big success?
Well, thanks to my great partners we’ve achieved a higher goal than I thought we could. But from Day 1 we knew we had a glass dome.
A glass dome? You mean glass ceiling?
Sorry, yes, my partners call my language “Glilgamesh.”
Ah, and how do you break this glass dome?
That’s when we knew we should look for someone who knows how to take us to the next level.
Going back to your founding days, when did the idea of your business come to you?
Bob and I knew we wanted to get into the hummus market. But we knew that we needed a “point of difference”. We were traveling around and happened to taste plain edamame hummus and that was the “Ah Hah” moment! And the "other beans" hummus idea was born.
Were there lots of surprises along the way?
So much that it's unbelievable - we were so naive when we started and in a way. I think if we knew the real challenges that we would face I’m not sure we would do it. But I don’t see that you can reach real success without taking risks.
Sounds like choosing the right ingredients were critical to your success.
You need the right product but the most important ingredients are the peoples- I have the best partners and trade partners I could ever dream for.
So your advice to other startups?
Find the right people to join with you, people you can trust and enjoy- when you have the right team you will be able to overcome all the obstacles.
Sounds like something you learned in the Air Force.
Yes, and also in Israel I learned that good food is one of the best ways to connect people!
How did being the son of a farmer shape your values?
My Dad’s thing was “be prepared to work hard.” Farming is a tough life. You work from the minute the sun comes up and through the night if animals are being born. Dad was also adamant about us anticipating what will be needed next and when he asked for something he’d say “You don’t walk to go get it - you run.” He meant that literally.
Did you have a job off the farm as a kid?
No, I've never had an actual job. I’ve always had my own businesses.
You sound a lot like your partner Ron Penna.
Ron and I met in college and started our first business together. I grew up with very little money— 2 pairs of jeans and one of them had holes. Growing up that way, I realized that I could resign myself to that life or break out and commit myself to becoming successful. I was committed to breaking out. Once I met Ron, we made a pact that we were going to stick together until we became “rich”, but it took a lot longer than we planned.
The books Ron is reading say a lot about him. What’s on your nightstand?
Bold, Start with Why, Scaling Up, Delivering Happiness, How to Fly a Horse…
Do you then lie awake thinking about how to improve?
If I’m going to lose sleep it’s thinking about some potential raw ingredient recall from one of our suppliers. The effects of something like that are massive.
And yet you’ve said you’re a risk taker.
Compared to the average person, I think I am. You have to be willing to take a risk for something you believe in, but not dumb ones. You have to have a contingency plan in case something goes awry. If you take enough risks, something will go wrong. Plan on it.
What was the moment you knew your risk taking had paid off?
I remember it exactly: we decided to create an offer to send two free bars to anyone who wanted to try them. I woke up the next day and went online and we had thousands of requests. Each time I refreshed the report, we had a few thousand more. I thought we’d been hacked! But I looked at the data and realized it was real. That was the beginning.
And so to come full circle, your kids now have a childhood very different from your own. Is that weird?
I struggle with this question daily: can they grow up with privilege and still want something so bad they’ll work and fight for it as hard as I did?
I guess if their jeans have holes it’s because they paid extra for that.
Let’s just say they’ve never birthed a calf.
Let’s start at the beginning. What were you like as a child?
I’d say I was happy, but completely unaware of my ability to change who I was.
What early lessons started to shape who you are today?
I had a loving family and learned a lot from them but what really impacted me as an entrepreneur came from books and the study of martial arts. That changed my life.
Is it true that you’ve never worked for anyone else? Never held a “normal” job?
Never. When I was 18 I watched a video about how trading time for money didn't make sense if you wanted to create wealth. I instantly decided to become an entrepreneur.
Wow. You’re a fast learner.
I’m addicted to seeking knowledge that I can apply. Everyone has a central question that drives their life. Mine is "Which force is more powerful, nature or nurture? How much control do we have to manifest our will into the fabric of reality?"
Powerful questions. Where do you look for the answers?
Psychology and science are the best places to look. Want to know what books I’m reading right now?
You read my mind.
Here’s what’s on my nightstand:
Anti-fragile by Nassim Taleb
Keto Clarity by Jimmy Moore
Cancer as a Metabolic Disease by Thomas Seyfried
And you apply all this to your brand… how?
I see our brand as sort of school of philosophy. Quest Nutrition is really about our employees’ and customers’ quests to find answers to how we can create the kind of power in our lives unimaginable to most people— whether that's vibrant health, laser sharp cognition or indomitable will.
How does your brand help others take control of their destiny?
I realized at some point that the best way for me to achieve the super heroic health I wanted was to create the FOODs that would take me there rather than waiting for someone else to do it. Apparently a lot of other people want the same.
You built a brand but also a successful business. What do you know today that you didn’t know when you began?
I didn't realize that everyone, regardless of their job, has a creative itch that needs an outlet. It may be the single biggest motivator —even in fields that aren't often considered "creative". Finding ways to help employees flex their creativity makes for a fun workplace, reduces turnover and makes people very happy. I learned to let people do things their way instead of the way I want it done. True magic happens when you give people control.
So building a successful brand isn’t always intuitive?
I had to learn to do what the business demands instead of what feels good. It still surprises me almost daily that the best course of action is almost always the one that doesn't feel good. Overcoming our animal nature to say and do what would give us instant gratification may be the most important quality for success. It is very hard to control the outside when you can't control what is within.
Any advice for others preparing for the journey?
No one is inspired by mediocrity. Present a more audacious, compelling plan and you’ll attract people like a magnet!
I’m sold, sign me up!
Have you tried the Mint Chocolate Chunk Protein bar? It’s delicious!
How would you describe yourself at age 10?
I was born with genes that contributed to an early start and late finish of an extended, highly awkward phase. Having an older sister with super critical friends didn’t help either. I like to think this all built character.
You mentioned you were an entrepreneurial kid in high school?
Just ask the customers of my t-shirt business, or the neighbors who had their car detailed by Ultimate Auto Polishing, my auto polishing empire— (2 employees! Branded uniforms!). Or ask the people who worked for me at the photo lab I managed.
So… physically awkward, but a wild overachiever!
They say 95% of businesses fail. So I guess I got through the first 94% in high school and college. (I accept much of the blame for the decline of print photography.)
Aside from your sister and her mean friends who were your early influences?
My Mom’s my number one teacher (and an actual teacher too). As a strong, single mom she was a role model for the confidence, independence and willpower I needed to take the entrepreneurial leap.
Ok, let’s jump to current influences. What books are on your nightstand right now?
I’m working my way through Baby Safe in Seven Steps. (by the esteemed authors Kevin Schwartz and Keith Garber). I’m still working through it but it’s hard to put down!
Has parenting your own two boys also influenced you?
My kids and my wife give me perspective. They remind me what’s really important every day. Certainly in terms of work/life balance but also as a reminder where my passion in both areas really comes from.
You’re a pretty high energy guy. What do you do to “unplug”?
I run! That’s how I find “me time”—I unplug from work and all things with screens. Running is for my body and my head. It keeps me (relatively) sane.
Many entrepreneurs refer to their brand as “their baby”. In
your case that must especially apt.
Babyganics has always been my baby but as it’s grown, I’ve learned to release my ninja death grip and let a more qualified team of experts give it the care and feeding it’s needed to reach the next level of success.
You were a helicopter parent at the beginning?
It was hard to give up control at first, but eventually I built our "family" around the brand. It’s been amazing to watch their love and attachment to it and how that’s created the brand we have today.
Speaking of family, has your own family been very involved in building the brand?
Oh yeah, my wife, Ali and my kids Tyler and Ryan are my guinea pigs for testing products. They’re natural innovators and my greatest influence and support system. Our first official employee was our dog Tucker, who came to the office with me every day. Until the place became overrun with humans!
I guess your leadership style had to evolve over time?
I went from managing myself and my dog Tucker, to working with smart, competent people who, by the way, are less forgiving and don’t always respond to treats.
Sounds like you’ve had a pretty high EQ (Entrepreneurial Intelligence) since birth. What does that mean to you?
It’s directly related to your ability to tolerate being told “no” and then your ability to keep going. Sure, you have to be open to feedback, but you need to learn from adversity and course correct – and most importantly never give up.
So actually, your sister helped you develop that skill.
I’m forever indebted to my sister Mindy and her tough-loving friends Rachel and Miki.
Can you describe yourself as a child?
I was a pensive, imaginative kid. But also a natural worker bee and loved being outdoors. I spent summers working in my family’s vineyards from a young age.
The land was in your blood.
My family’s name was on the package and the grapes we used were grown in the community where we lived—so there was lot of pride.
So, a direct link between work in the fields and the taste in the bottle.
There was so much pride of heritage, pride of the hard work that our ancestors did to get us to this place, pride of community, pride of the seasonality of each year’s harvest. You could see it, smell it, and taste it.
How did growing up in Sonoma shape you?
Sonoma is an amazing town – it’s given so many of us the opportunities to flourish on a grassroots level. It affords us this beautiful, unbroken connection between the earth and the end product. It taught me all about pride of ingredients and respect for the land that produces it. I learned early on, from this community, that along with craftsmanship, the caliber of ingredients you start with is an inescapable determining factor in the end-result.
You’re connected to your heritage but also call yourself a non-conformist.
I’ve always wanted to carve out my own path—always questioned the status quo and broke rules.
What book is on your nightstand right now?
Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future
I’m inspired by people like that. Entrepreneurism is all about having the courage to see and believe in things others don’t see, about finding the unknown that nobody’s doing.
In what ways do you push yourself outside of work?
Do marathons and Ironman events count?
Uh… yes. Discuss?
Oddly, I do them because balance of life is incredibly important to me. I seek extreme physical challenges not as an aggressive, ego-driven pursuit but really, because I find them fun!
Do you think this relates to entrepreneurship?
If you think literally about the time, energy, and focus required to complete these races – the odds are against you. In the same way, when you’re starting a business, the odds are so categorically against you in terms of succeeding. It’s all about stretching the boundaries and the norms we think we’re limited by.
Has your leadership style evolved over time?
I’ve realized the importance of surrounding myself with people smarter and more talented than I am. I’ve also seen the direct impact of a workplace that people want to come to and fostering relationships with my team such that their brains are always thinking about their job not because it’s a job, it’s part of their lives.
If EQ stood for Entrepreneurial Intelligence, what characteristics would constitute a high EQ?
Agility –the ability to respond to cultural shifts, your own evolving ideas and to challenges from your team. Also the ability to recognize small successes and use them to motivate that team and build on future, more important wins. On the other hand, being comfortable with failure and having the ability to make another (and another, and another) attempt the next day. You have to ‘leave it all on the field.’
Is that a vineyard reference?
It’s either from Vince Lombardi or my grandfather.
You look like a guy who was into sports as a kid.
Until I was 15, I was absolutely convinced I was going to be an NFL quarterback. Unfortunately, I was alone in that belief.
So your early heroes were Montana, Manning, Young?
As much as I loved them, my hero was, and still is, my uncle David. He struggled to graduate from a small rural Ohio school, moved to Chicago, slept on his brother’s floor, and finally persuaded someone to give him a job as a trader at the Merc. He’s worked his butt off and has been a managing director at a major bank for more than a decade now. Not that title is a measure of success- I just think he proves you don’t need a pedigree to achieve your dream.
That sounds like something you learned from your own family.
I grew up in Cleveland. My mom came from a blue-collar, hard-working family and I have like 25 cousins on her side. Even though my parents afforded me a lot of tremendous opportunities, I’ve always retained that aversion to entitlement that my mom and her siblings instilled in me.
And now you work with a group of individualistic, hard-working founders and entrepreneurs who also share that aversion to entitlement.
Exactly, and I think the last thing any of us wants to do is to corral or stifle that individualism. To be as successful as they are they have to be a little (or maybe a lot) crazy and stubborn– but they’re also all exceptionally passionate and know how to communicate their excitement.
I take it the founders’ stories really resonate with you.
I could be deathly allergic to peanut butter, and I’d still eat a Justin’s peanut butter cup after hearing Justin talk about how he came up with the idea.
Wow. That’s brand power. So consumer products excite you more than, say, industrial chemicals?
To me, it wasn’t even a question– if I was going to be sitting at a desk working on a sector for 16 hours a day, why not focus on something that fascinates me? Something I could form a tangible connection with.
Sounds like you’re a guy who values making a connection with brands, with entrepreneurs, with your co-workers…
Playing football my whole life taught me how to thrive in a team environment and how to channel my competitive drive to further the goals of the group– how to subjugate myself for the good of the team.
Like eating Justin’s despite your deadly peanut allergy.
Whatever it takes.
Your parents were both doctors. What did you learn from them?
My brothers and I learned the value of helping others, especially those less fortunate than us. That was instilled from the beginning. We also learned the importance of smiling.
Now that you mention it, you are a smiley guy.
Life’s too short not to enjoy it… and help others enjoy it along the way.
What kind of neighborhood did you grow up in?
I grew up in Denver in a middle-class, fairly homogenous area. Fortunately I attended an inner city public school so I was exposed to a great deal of diversity and other perspectives and upbringings. That helped me become aware of my own privilege and really shaped a lot of my values. It fueled my commitment to community involvement.
You said you mowed lawns as a kid?
I guess it's a passion that evolved from an early age :). When I was four I asked for a vacuum cleaner for Christmas and my parents took advantage and delivered my wish. I guess somewhere along the way vacuuming morphed into mowing and in middle school I started a lawn-mowing business and hired two buddies to manage all the demand. At our peak we were caring for over 16 different lawns.
Impressive. So today you’re ‘caring’ for a group of entrepreneurs and brands. What do you most enjoy about that?
The companies we partner with are founder-driven and managed by passionate people— people I genuinely enjoy and respect. We end up developing strong bonds as we work collectively through tough issues to come up with solutions that really help their company and their brand. Naturally, we build great friendships along the way. These relationships will hopefully last well beyond any investment period.
Entrepreneurs have had to be self-reliant to defy the odds. Is it hard to get them to allow you to help them?
Well, first, we recognize that our role and theirs are very different. They have taken a tremendous amount of risk getting their company to where it is and wouldn’t be where they are if they took “no” for an answer and always listened to “reason”. Their company is truly their ‘baby.’ Our job is to augment their passion with additional resources and a data-driven approach. We are able to lend perspective on what has worked well for similar companies in similar situations and what hasn’t worked so well. Our partners tend to really appreciate that.
How would you describe the general vibe of VMG?
Open, collaborative, supportive, friendly...
I think the fact that the brands and companies we work with all make positive, healthy contributions to the markets they serve makes us all feel pretty good.
Are you smiling right now?
Any early hints from your childhood that you might end up an entrepreneur?
I used to invent games, coordinating dozens of friends running through the forest in my backyard. These usually involved a mission that included spying, hiding and chasing. I created a baseball card store in my basement and a regular flow of customers (friends) ready to buy, sell or trade. In high school I started a t-shirt company with a friend.
Those are some pretty big hints. Where did you get this drive?
Both my grandfathers founded family businesses. I witnessed first-hand the impact and legacy that starting a business can create. Plus my parents put no pressure on me. They just wanted me to do something that made me happy. Even when I told them I was going to live at home and start a “popcorn seasoning business” straight out of college.
Wow. That is supportive. When did the, uh, kernel of your seasoned popcorn business first come to you?
I was a philosophy major but decided to dedicate one semester to business classes.
I was in my dorm room eating popcorn and seasoning it with lots of spices (trying to recreate my favorite BBQ potato chip seasoning).
What do you know today that you didn’t know back in your dorm room when you began this process?
I was inexperienced in business and because our product was unusual I used to think Kernel Season’s was a very unusual (even weird!) company with unique challenges. But as I’ve gotten to know other businesses and entrepreneurs, I realized how “normal” we were. Product development, quality, manufacturing, employees, marketing, finance, etc.—these are normal challenges. I made tons of mistakes along the way. An advisor once told me I probably would have “screwed it all up” if someone gave me a lot of money too early on.
So as an advisor to those just starting out, what would you say?
My biggest piece of advice is to simply make it happen. Too many people contemplate entrepreneurship but never take the bold jump. There will always be obstacles in the way or reason to wait, but don’t let that stop you. You can’t be too young or too old. Start small if you need to, but just make sure you get started.
Now that you’re a “seasoned” vet, how has your leadership style evolved from those early days?
As we grew, I learned that I didn’t have all the answers and needed to lean on people more experienced than me. It was liberating to let go and empower our team. This propelled our growth to the next level.
You and your wife have 4 kids. Are there similarities between your parenting and leadership styles?
For both my kids and my team at work we use "inspirational communication".
I like to paint clear pictures of what I want the future to look like, our goals. This helps with kids’ bedtime and inspires my teams at work. It’s kind of like an athlete visualizing a certain play.
Do you think about flavors at home too? Do you experiment with food?
I make my kids amuse bouches for breakfast. They include mini parfaits, cereal with milk in sunbutter-lined apple bowls, French toast towers, and hard-boiled egg cups filled with all sorts of goodies. I can furnish photos of my handiwork if you want!
That’s fine. You’ve painted such an inspirational picture I can see it.
See how that works?
You grew up in Silicon Valley. How did that shape your world-view?
I’ve witnessed a few booms and busts really close up. I think it taught me to appreciate the entrepreneurial spirit from an early age. Growing up in Cupertino, I lived through Apple’s dramatic rise and fall and rise– it definitely highlighted that things can change quickly.
Do you remember any of your first brand ‘loves’ from childhood?
Nike’s Jordan. That was my first memorable experience of brand dominance. No matter where you were from, or where you went, it was (and still is) cool everywhere. That’s a brand with staying power.
Sounds like you were aware of the power of brands from an early age.
It's always fascinated me how brands become such a meaningful part of our lives and help us shape our identity. So if we're able to help entrepreneurs make an emotional connection on that individual level, it's a badge of honor.
What do you like most about working with entrepreneurs?
They’re a special breed— from the founders who intuitively understand their creative vision to operators with the knowledge and hustle to make things happen. The magnitude of obstacles they face every day is overwhelming. These people really practice the art and science of business. I like playing any part in helping their dreams become a reality.
You seem to really understand the spirit and sacrifice involved. Is that because you’re married to an entrepreneur?
She always reminds me that being an entrepreneur is an experience that's earned, like a chef with oven burns— each mark was there before the diner or critic or anyone else showed up. Unless you've done it yourself there's a part of their experience an investor can never truly know.
So what qualities would you say an entrepreneur needs to succeed?
A positive attitude in the face of great odds! (And hopefully an understanding, patient spouse who limits his/her unsolicited comments).
Someone like you, for example?
Ok, so you win the prize for the most unusual first job ever. Tell us about it.
It was definitely not your standard babysitting gig. I worked at a funeral home when I was 16 and was a greeter. I also created funeral programs and dealt with grieving families.
What did you learn from that?
It really helped me develop a deeper appreciation for emotional intelligence and a sense of empathy for the struggles and pain that people feel every day. Everyone’s story was different, but they were all experiencing loss. Through the job I recognized that you never really know what someone else is going through.
What else about your upbringing defines who you are today?
My father worked for General Motors for 30 years and we moved every 4 years- within the U.S. and internationally. I lived in Germany, Mexico, Canada, Michigan and Wisconsin… From a very young age I experienced so many different people, cultures and backgrounds. When you know you’re only going to live somewhere for a short time you learn to make quick connections with others and adapt to the new environment.
I imagine that emotional intelligence you learned helps you today?
I think it gives me an empathic understanding of the entrepreneurs we work with. It helps me recognize and appreciate our different strengths. Our job is to be an additional asset and use our own talents to complement theirs. Together, we work as a team to help the companies grow and reach their goals. But before any of that, we first have to “get” who the entrepreneurs are and understand their unique stories.
How else do you think you contribute to the VMG culture?
I think I add light-heartedness and humor. In our office they’ve told me, you can always hear my laugh before you see me. Humor allows people to let their guard down, and that’s so important in work environments.
Except maybe your first job?
Yeah, there maybe not so much.
You’re a child of Chinese immigrants. How has that shaped you?
As an Asian American I lived in two different worlds. I was always trying to bridge the gap between my Chinese family and my Texas roots. I was a naturally social kid and team sports was a great outlet.
So you’re a Texas boy at heart.
I have tons of Texan pride. Rockets basketball most of all, but also Astros baseball and Texans and Longhorns football. I thought 5,000+ folks in the stands for a Friday night football game was normal until I left Texas.
What about food? Texan or Chinese?
Dim Sum for lunch and Fajitas for dinner. (Shout out to Pappasito’s Cantina!)
Sounds like both food and sports help you bridge your two cultures.
I love playing soccer and basketball. I was one of the few Asian American kids out there, so I learned to deal with occasional racism by winning! I wasn’t usually the most talented player but I was always hustling, the hardest working and the most tenacious. Sports taught me how thrive in a team environment. Sadly, I retired my basketball jersey on my 36th birthday.
That’s when you picked up your sticky mat! You’re really into yoga— a good east/west bridge activity!
The young me (and my wife) can’t believe it—but yes, yoga is my new “sport”. I love it and practice almost every day. Even when I’m on the road.
It’s a good way to stay centered with three young kids at home.
I find as a parent you really have to embrace your lack of control. I can’t guarantee their safety, success or happiness. And I can’t make those irrational tantrums make sense. But man, when I come home at night and walk through that door I feel like a rock star! Smiles, hugs, kisses, they’re yelling “daddy!” My wife and kids are everything to me.
How does that translate to your work style?
Control is never the goal there either. It’s about developing deep, personal relationships and supporting the whole CPG ecosystem: our founders, entrepreneurs and brands, (even those we haven’t yet partnered with), brokers, buyers, consultants, recruiters, lawyers— they’re all part of it. Many investors want to prove they’re smarter or more sophisticated than the entrepreneur and exert their control. We just focus on how we can help them. I’m a huge believer in the Karma that comes from doing right by all.
Sounds like you could have been a coach. Or a yoga teacher.
Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose. Oh, and namaste!