“If you are inexperienced in dealing with diversity, every time that you experience it informs your viewpoint on it” with Kareem Cook and Chaya Weiner
Human nature can sometimes lead people to do things that they are comfortable doing. If you are inexperienced in dealing with diversity, not only are you less interested in pursuing diversity, every time that you experience it informs your viewpoint on it. As a person of color who may find yourself in this position, it is incumbent upon you to do your best job, give your best effort, because whether you know it or not, you may be either opening or closing the door on future opportunities for people of diverse backgrounds.
I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing CMO and Co-founder Kareem Cook. Kareem Cook and Claude Tellis acquired Naturade back in 2012. However, it wasn’t always an easy journey for these two. These two entrepreneurs have banned junk food from Los Angeles schools, overcome adversity, and have family histories of diabetes and cancer. Their experiences growing up have inspired them to start living healthy lifestyles and share them with the African American community. Kareem and Claude first meet in college at Duke University and later reconnected after attending business school. They made the move to California together and began spreading healthy ideas across the area. Growing up on the east coast both Kareem and Claude believed that everyone on the west coast, and California in particular were extremely healthy and fit. They were shocked to see first hand the rate of childhood obesity in the Los Angeles area. They decided to help reduce that number. This is where their journey to spread health and wellness began. The worked to start a healthy vending company in LA. and were responsible for junk food being banned in LA schools, and leading the state of California to banning junk foods. The pair put the first healthy vending machine in LA and acquired the contract for all of the public schools in LA. While banning junk foods in schools across LA is a large accomplishment the men were unsatisfied. They wanted a larger platform to help African Americans prevent common illnesses that plague the community. Both Kareem and Claude’s families and many African Americans across the country suffer from hypertension and diabetes, illnesses that can be prevented or managed largely based on diet. This passion lead them to develop a business plan to prevent illnesses like diabetes. Their plan involved the purchase of Naturade. Once Kareem and Claude purchases Naturade their efforts to educate the African American community on the benefits of a healthy lifestyle began in earnest. They were introduced to people who shared similar viewpoints, including John Lewis. Kareem and Claude paired up with John Lewis to create VeganSmart, a plant based protein powder. The pair has made strides to spread health and wellness among the African American community, as well as americans across the country. Kareem Cook and Claude Tellis plant to continue to share their passion for living healthy plant-based lifestyles with the African American community.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I believe that what Claude Tellis and I are doing right now is the manifestation of a conversation that started in 1992 at Duke University. We were both students and one day we realized that we had the same number of aunts and uncles, 8 and at that most of them were living with diabetes. We both agreed that there has to be something that can be done to address this crisis that we saw in black families.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
Before acquiring Naturade and launching VeganSmart, Claude and I started a healthy vending machine company in Los Angeles called Healthy Body Products. We founded this company with the goal of changing the diets of children. We always thought big. We just didn’t know that our drive would have such a quick and effective impact. Within 2 years of moving to Los Angeles, we founded a healthy vending machine company, co-lead a movement that resulted in junk food being banned in Los Angeles public schools, were awarded the contract for every public high school and middle school in LA, were invited to present to President Clinton and Governor Huckabee in Arkansas, and for almost that entire time, I literally lived in the office as a struggling entrepreneur.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Within a week of moving to Los Angeles and coming up with the idea of launching a healthy vending machine company, we crashed a meeting by the parks and recreation division of LA county where they were discussing awarding a vendor with all of the parks in Los Angeles County. While driving to the meeting, we were trying to come up with the name of the company. We narrowed it down to Healthy Body Products and Fresh Body Products. We decided on Health Body Products while walking in. All of the big soft drink companies and vending companies were all sitting around a large company and we introducing themselves one by one. I looked at Claude and asked, “Healthy Body Products right?” He said, “Yes”. I asked again as they were approaching me. Again he confirmed. When it got to be my turn, I introduced myself, “Kareem Cook…Fresh Body Products.” Claude put his face in his palms. Then it was his turn, “Claude Tellis…” shakes his head and looks at me “…Fresh Body Products”.
Can you share three reasons with our readers about why it’s really important for a business to have a diverse executive team?
We have 2 women and 4 men at the executive level. 2 black, 2 white, 1 Hispanic, 1 Asian. 2 foreign born 4 US born. Three from extremely humble beginnings, three middle and upper middle class. The way we view and solve challenges starts from a diverse place, but because we are all down for the team, we arrive at awesome conclusions because of our diverse perspective. As a result, we talk to different consumers in vastly different ways and are aware of crises that affect more people.
More broadly can you describe how this can have an effect on our culture?
Here’s an example. Our top competitors all go to the natural, wellness, plant based, health conventions just like us. There may be 10, 30, up to 90 thousand people there. When we go to the Essence Festival to engage consumers, we are the ONLY company there and there are 500 thousand people there. Our competitors don’t know where healthy products and education is needed most because they have no representation within their management teams. Because our 2 owners are black and have black wives, we are aware of the issues that face black women and have the vested interest and desire to push our company in the direction of creating solutions for those issues.
Can you recommend three things the community/society/the industry can do help address the root of the diversity issues in executive leadership?
Human nature can sometimes lead people to do things that they are comfortable doing. If you are inexperienced in dealing with diversity, not only are you less interested in pursuing diversity, every time that you experience it informs your viewpoint on it. As a person of color who may find yourself in this position, it is incumbent upon you to do your best job, give your best effort, because whether you know it or not, you may be either opening or closing the door on future opportunities for people of diverse backgrounds. Do your best at all times is #1. #2, celebrate and highlight the accomplishments of those people of diverse backgrounds and the success their presence brought about so that everyone can see the value of diversity in executive leadership. #3, reward companies that practice diversity with your patronage. Write letters and leave public reviews expressing that their openness to diversity is why you are patronizing their businesses and purchasing their products.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leadership is inspiring loyalty, dedication and the best within others such that they trust you and will follow you. When we acquired Naturade, the employees thought we were just some business people looking to make money and that’s it. The first thing we did was call a company meeting, tell our story, share our vision and values and then were the first ones in the office and the last to leave. That went a long way towards our employees having belief in us.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1. Be quick but not in a hurry. Make decisions quickly but don’t rush and succumb to pressure to move before knowing the right answer.
2. All money is not good money. We have gotten major distribution but there are some accounts that are problem accounts. Problems such as not paying on time and charging for unforeseen costs as a cost of doing business in a major chain. You might have to say no to some customers.
3. Make sure all your employees share in your vision. There were some employees who were excellent at doing their job but didn’t buy into the strategy and culture we wanted to build. Those people can be dangerous for company moral.
4. Don’t fall in love with your own ideas. Be willing to concede that someone else may have a different idea or point of view that you can’t see. It may require changing your perspective and rewriting your own business plan.
5. Keep innovating. Don’t become complacent with your success. The same way you looked at the market and figured out a way to do things better, someone is looking at you and figuring out how to improve upon your strategy. Beat them to it.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I would try to inspire as many young people as possible to start businesses as early as possible. Learning how to run a business is an invaluable skill. I wish I had the desire to understand corporate finance operations and accounting as a kid.
The other movement would be healthy eating to avoid the diet related illnesses that disproportionately plague our community. I believe that I am doing that!!!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Be ready so that you don’t have to get ready. There was a point that I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do with my life, but I knew that I needed to grow in areas that would allow me to be the best company leader that I could be. That was what led me to going to get an MBA and taking some of the jobs I took as a young adult. I also knew that I needed to make strategic relationships that I could call on later in life. It all came to fruition when we bought this company.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)
I would love to meet Michelle Obama. I wanted to have our company work with her Let’s Move campaign when President Obama was in office. She and President Obama have been the most inspirational people on our culture during my lifetime.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Our company social media is @livevegansmart @naturadelife and my personal account on instagram is @kareemcook9
This was very meaningful, thank you so much!
About the author:
Chaya Weiner is the Director of branding and photography at Authority Magazine’s Thought Leader Incubator. TLI is a thought leadership program that helps leaders establish a brand as a trusted authority in their field. Please click here to learn more about Thought Leader Incubator.