Social Impact Heroes: How Ryan Black of SAMBAZON is helping to support sustainable management of the Amazon
…First, acknowledge that you are a powerful, beautiful being of light with incredible talents and a wealth of skills. Your experience can inspire others, but more importantly inspire yourself. If you don’t yet have the courage to believe you are an all-powerful bad ass, go inwards, seek counsel from the spiritual leaders, start a practice of daily meditation to organize your thoughts, and make sure you are loving yourself and those around you. I believe that if we take care of each other, everything else will work itself out, including our environmental problems. Additionally, optimism is contagious and that inner glow inside of your heart and mind is what will attract the positivity into your life, as well as the lives around you. We are all in this together and we need each other, for we are all-one or we are none! … Take care of yourself, each other, be mindful of what you eat and what you feed your kids. Be an activist everyday with every single dollar you spend. These are three things that society can do to address the root of the problems we are trying to solve. The power is in your hands!
As a part of my series about “companies and organizations making an important social impact, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ryan Black. Ryan is the CEO and co-founder of SAMBAZON, (stands for Sustainable Management of the Brazilian Amazon) which is the largest and first company to bring organic and sustainable Açaí to the U.S. Ryan started his business knocking door-to-door selling a berry that was widely unknown to juice bars and consumers virtually everywhere in 2000. With a multitude of challenges associated with bringing the berry to the U.S. sustainably, Ryan didn’t look for the fast and most affordable plan. He built his business on the foundation of passion. Passion for the Brazilian culture, people, and a belief in a berry that has powerful healthy properties. In 2000, he invested in a growth plan that prioritized supporting the local economy and local Brazilian farmers who harvested the berry. Today, Ryan is “passing the torch” to the next generation of social entrepreneurs with a passion. Ryan continues to pay it forward and aims to inspire the next generation of entrepreneurs to run their business with a socially conscious lens.
Thank you so much for joining us Ryan! Can you tell us a story about what inspired you to create your company?
When I was 11 years old, our elementary school studied U.S. history and at the end of the year we performed a “Patriotic Pageant” where stories of George Washington, Abe Lincoln, etc., were acted out and performed on stage. I played the part of Martin Luther King, Jr., and I studied and then recited in a pastor’s robe the “I Have a Dream” speech in front of the students, teachers and parents. It was at this special moment in my life, that social justice became a cause that inspired me.
Later on, I played college and professional football, which not only taught be about teamwork, but also taught me about the trials and tribulations of being the underdog. As I was winding down my football career in 1999, I traveled to Brazil to celebrate the millennium. I not only fell in love with the nature of Brazil, but also the spirit of the people and the taste and health benefits of these amazing bowls of fruit smoothies, called açai bowls.
Social entrepreneurs identify a social or environmental issue, and they attach a shiny object to it. As I dug deeper into the origin of the açai fruit, I learned of its social and environmental significance to the Amazon Rainforest. For example, its ability to combat poverty, deforestation and support local communities. That is where I discovered my underdog scenario. A light bulb went off in my head. I realized that if we could build a vertical supply chain which ensured that the rainforest and the people inside of it benefitted from each and every berry of wild-harvested, organic and fair trade certified product we sold, then we could prove the case for sustainable development in the rainforest. And thus, we created SAMBAZON, which is an acronym for Sustainable Management of the Brazilian Amazon.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading SAMBAZON?
Way back in 2002, just a little over a year into the business when I was just beginning to explore the Brazilian Amazon Rainforest and spoke very broken Portuguese, I traveled to the city of Manaus in the state of Amazonas. Manaus is a big city as far as the Amazon is concerned with its landmark, an 18th century pink and French opera building. However, in the açai world it is not nearly as significant as say, Belem in the state of Para — where a majority of the fruit comes from. Through an acquaintance, I was able to schedule a meeting with the Governor of the state of Amazonas. He was a legendary gentlemen named “Amazonino” Armando Mendes, who I didn’t know much about at the time. Amazonino was the leader of perhaps the most important state of the Brazilian Amazon for ~30 years and had seen it go back and forth from a jungle state, to one with huge economic success.
I sat in the waiting room of what felt like the White House, and an elderly, grey haired, Santa Claus looking man dressed in all white with glasses was generous enough to meet me. I was a 26 year old “gringo” with plans for introducing one of their unique commodities into the world market in a way which added value to the forest and its inhabitants. Amazonino told me that what I was working on made great sense, and that he believed that the wild harvested, exotic fruits of the Amazon Rainforest could and would be the “third cycle” of economic boom in the Amazon. He told me that the first boom surrounded the rubber tree, which in the early 20th century was the primary source of the world’s rubber. It supplied all of the tires and needs of the military to fuel the world wars and automotive industry. Even Henry Ford came to Brazil and set up a town called “Fordlandia,” which still exists today. At some point, the seeds of the rubber tree left Brazil and began being cultivated in Malaysia, and eventually the Brazilian rubber business declined into insignificance.
The second cycle came in the 60’s and 70’s in the form of electronics, when Amazonino and other Brazilian politicians created a “Zona Franca,” or free trade zone in the city of Manaus. The state enticed multi-national corporations such as Samsung, Xerox and Sony, among others, to import components into Brazil and utilize the inexpensive local labor to assemble their finished products. This brought jobs and economic growth to the region, that lasted for over a decade until other cities and countries followed suit and the business declined.
The third cycle, Amazonino believed, was going to be the expansion of the Amazon fruit business, which gave me goosebumps considering that is was what I was working on. What he liked about my approach, he said, was that it wasn’t simply utilizing the local labor which was available in the region, but also the raw material, which was different than importing components like in the second cycle. My vision was to do it in a way that added value to the “wild-harvested” aspect of it, which if done right, could ensure the protection of biodiversity along with healthy jobs.
For a moment, even though I was just beginning and our sales revenue were tiny, I felt like I had an opportunity to be part of history, to “make a dent in the universe” as Steve Jobs said. I essentially wanted to create a win-win situation for everyone. From the forest, the growers, to our employees, and the health and wellness of all customers. I never spoke with Amazonino again, and he passed away a few years later. With that said, I will never forget the moment of nostalgia and inspiration it gave me to follow my dream.
How do you think SAMBAZON and #PurpleforthePlanet making a significant social impact?
PFTP is an amazing campaign, not only because it is protecting plant and animal species, but because it allows our customers to have a direct impact in complete alignment with our company’s mission; Sustainable Management of the Brazilian Amazon! Eating or drinking our açai based products is tasty and satisfying because they are filled with healthy fats, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. Additionally, they contain “delicious powers”, and these powers are the intrinsic ones that help prevent climate change, deforestation, and provide healthy jobs. PFTP allows you as the customer, to become an activist, and to be a part of something bigger than ourselves.
Can you share examples of what species in the rainforest were impacted by #PurpleforthePlanet?
With #PurpleForThePlanet, we have partnered with the Rainforest Trust’s Conservation Action Program. This program protects critical areas throughout South American rainforests, and supports conservation of the biodiversity within. This campaign aims at saving all the species that we are at risk of losing due to deforestation. This is inclusive of plants, animals and insects. As stated by Scientific American, ~29 million acres of rainforest are lost every year to deforestation. We are losing ~135 plant, animal and insect species every day — or ~50,000 species a year, as the forests continue to fall. Doing the math, that means 50,000 species are lost per every ~29 million acres = 1 species lost per every 584 acres. For every #PurpleForThePlanet participant, we are making a donation to the Rainforest Trust Conservation Action Fund, protecting 5 acres on their behalf and preserving the rich biodiversity inside. We are aiming to protect 17,520 acres = 30 species in 30 days between Earth Day and World Biodiversity Day.
Are there three things the community/society can do help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve in the rainforest?
Yes! First, acknowledge that you are a powerful, beautiful being of light with incredible talents and a wealth of skills. Your experience can inspire others, but more importantly inspire yourself. If you don’t yet have the courage to believe you are an all-powerful bad ass, go inwards, seek counsel from the spiritual leaders, start a practice of daily meditation to organize your thoughts, and make sure you are loving yourself and those around you. I believe that if we take care of each other, everything else will work itself out, including our environmental problems. Additionally, optimism is contagious and that inner glow inside of your heart and mind is what will attract the positivity into your life, as well as the lives around you. We are all in this together and we need each other, for we are all-one or we are none!
Second, our planet’s environmental future largely depends on what we are putting in our mouths and on our bodies. Reduce animal products consumption! I’m not getting into a philosophical debate. What I am saying is that because of many of our overindulgences of 5–20 times per week of meat or dairy, we are clear cutting rainforest, poisoning our farmland (and our bodies), committing atrocious acts of inhumanity against animals,and causing global health epidemics! I feel that we should change “Meatless Mondays” to “Organic Meat Mondays” and the rest of the week eat a strictly plant-based diet. With that change, we could help fix the environment, be more humane, reduce health care costs, obesity, and dramatically cause a wave of wellness and longevity.
Finally, intentionally vote with every single dollar you spend. As shoppers, we have the power to move mountains, we just don’t realize how truly influential we are. Every single business’ objective is to serve their customer’s needs, and anytime their customers give them sincere feedback, they listen. So, the root of the problem is not some multi-national company or some far up decision maker, it is by definition, you and I. I believe that conscious capitalism and social entrepreneurship have the power to change the world. As generations get smarter, they are supporting the businesses which align with their values and their products. They are understanding that they are casting votes with their dollars for the type of business, products, and world they want to see. This is called participation, and you do it every single day whether you recognize it or not.
Take care of yourself, each other, be mindful of what you eat and what you feed your kids. Be an activist everyday with every single dollar you spend. These are three things that society can do to address the root of the problems we are trying to solve. The power is in your hands!
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
I believe that leadership is the willingness to serve at the back of the line, while having the courage and willingness to take the risk of being at the front of the line. The front is where you take the most bullets, but the back is where you watch over your team.
A true leader must be able to serve in both places and have the foresight and insight to walk in the shoes of both positions. This is why I think you often hear of the employee who started in the mail room, and ended up as CEO, or as a dishwasher, and now is head chef of the restaurant. These women and men started from the bottom, and learned the value of listening, long hours and team work. I’d beg to say that any leader today has first paid their dues at the bottom of an organization and learned the life lessons which serve them at the top.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- If you first ensure the success of your customers, your success will follow — In the food industry which Sambazon competes, a typical distributor margin is roughly 20–25%. The first time I went to sell our products to a distributor, I negotiated hard and got the customer/distributor to accept a 15% margin. I walked out of the meeting and thought I did a good job. Months later, we really weren’t selling much and I found out that the distributor wasn’t paying much attention to our product line because he calculated that he’d have to sell almost twice as much of our product line to earn the same that he did for the other brands he offered. I learned a lesson to first think of the success of that customer/distributor, and if she/he was successful, then we would be successful. With that said, I went back and changed the pricing and sales took off.
- People and relationships will be your greatest benefit and challenge — when you are starting a business from scratch, everybody wears many hats. Eventually, at least in our industry, you will get your 5 key people in the areas of sales, marketing, operations and finance. Adding the President or CEO, that makes five, similar to a basketball team. And once all five of those people are in place, the success or failure of the business is mostly going to come down to the way that those key people work together. There is an old cliché that says that it’s “all about the people.” As you move along, you learn that this is absolutely true. Having an inspired team that works together as a unit, whether 5, 50 or 500 people, is the difference between winning, losing or winning a championship.
- The definition of working capital. Despite getting a bachelor’s degree in finance, I never truly understood the concept of working capital until I struggled consistently. Basically, it is the change in cash, inventory, accounts receivable, and accounts payable. It has everything to do with payment terms, number of days of inventory you hold, how long you have to pay for your product before you sell it, and more importantly get paid for it. You may have a profitable business that struggles because you don’t have enough cash to deal with the growth or the seasonality. For some businesses like ours which is agricultural at its core, this makes all the difference in the world.
- It can be lonely at the top and that sometimes the right decisions for a business are in opposition with those of individual employees, friends, even family. As I previously mentioned, people are your greatest asset and your greatest challenge. And sometimes the outside environment or even the strategy or direction of the company requires swift business or financial decisions that have no place for emotion or friendships or the fact that an employee has financial hardships. When you look at these on an individual case by case, it is almost cruel to think that anyone would terminate or lay someone off, who in many cases has given their hard work to building your company for “x” amount of years. But as a CEO, sometimes you are faced with these gut wrenching decisions and no one can make the decisions for you. I’ve always, always tried to do the right thing and find another place in the company for positions which are eliminated or for people who are loyal and dedicated, but it is not always so easy. As an example, Sambazon used to earn a large part of its revenue from the sale of beverages. And in that business, we had 10–15 sales reps on the street, which was typical. However, when we decided to focus on our frozen business instead, we had to let some or even most of these sales reps go. The business simply could not sustain the expense of employing them all. These people didn’t do anything wrong. In fact, most of them were fantastic, and even good friends of mine even outside of work. But as the CEO, I had to make the decision and then have the conversations and separations. They don’t really teach you how to deal with this kind of situation in school, and a heart-felt leader like me, struggled with it and still do.
- Success is a journey, not a destination. When you start a venture, you think of the end game. You dream of the business thriving, making money and how everything worked out for every employee, every stakeholder, every investor. But the truth is that business, life, relationships — they are like surfing a wave. The waves go up, the waves go down. There are good things and there is also plenty of adversity in any given day, week, or quarter. The most important thing, is for you to recognize that your gracefulness and ability to not get knocked off the wave, is your greatest Jedi mastery.
- You are not your job. You are not your brand, or your bank account. You are a light worker who chooses to devote energy into your work and if you don’t stop to smell the roses and celebrate the little victories, you’ll find yourself on a hamster wheel of always chasing “success.” The reality is, is that if you find work which you are truly passionate about and inspires you to make the world a better place, then you are successful, even if things don’t go “the right way.” We learn either experience or through making mistakes. If you have no experience, like I didn’t, your only option is to make mistakes and learn. Get out there and make mistakes and be successful! Even in our first years of Sambazon, when it seemed like our attempts were more incorrect than correct, we were learning, and thus, we were successful. Stay on the wave, don’t fall off your board. Trust me, for anyone who has tried, knows the feeling.
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. :-)
Some amazing organic industry changemakers and I created a non-profit called “the tri” (tree), which was founded to provide a connection hub for people who want to be part of the solution, not the problem. The tri’s mission is to educate, inspire, and empower people to make positive change by voting with their dollars. In practice, we participate in all kinds of community service initiatives, transformational music festivals and digital marketing. Brands like Dr. Bronner’s Soaps, Numi Tea, Imlakesh Organics, All Good Products and AnnMarie have joined the collaborative to show that you can do good by doing well, and that when we put our energies into common goals and leverage our strength in numbers, magic happens. More and more people and companies are taking the pledge, joining the tribe and creating the future we want for ourselves and our kids. You can find out more and become a Catalyst for Change at www.thetri.org or @thetriorg
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
All arguments which we endeavor to convince the doubters are but afterthoughts; all labors which we endure to make true our dreams are but its consequence. — Harry Emerson Fosdick
I came across this quote in college and wrote it on the cover of my notebook as a constant reminder that all the blood, sweat, tears and passion we put into our big, hairy, audacious goals are but the necessary sacrifices and struggles required to achieve them. It’s like putting bricks in a wall to achieve something of value. The human potential is enormous and I feel exhilarated by the glimmer of hope, the long shot, of laying it all on the line for that one in a million chance to achieve something extraordinary. The greater the battle, the sweeter the victory. The best way to predict the future is to create it. Luck favors those who are prepared. I believe it was Einstein who said that if we as humans knew what we were capable of, we would literally be astonished.
Dream big and don’t ever let yourself be outworked by others, and reach for the stars. The Optimists Creed tells us to be so strong that nothing can disturb our peace of mind. To talk health, happiness and prosperity to every person you meet. To make all of your friends feel that there is something in them. To look at the sunny side of everything and make your optimism come true. To think only of the best, to work only for the best and to expect only the best. To be just as enthusiastic about the success of others as you are about your own. To forget the mistakes of the past and to press on to the greater achievements of the future. To wear a cheerful countenance at all times and give every living creature you meet a smile. To give so much time to the improvement of yourself, that you have no time to criticize others. To be too large for worry, too noble for anger, too strong for fear, and too happy to permit the presence of trouble. Above all, show love. This is what we are meant for.
How can our readers support SAMBAZON and #PurpleforthePlanet on social media?
#PurpleForThePlanet is challenging the public to color their hair purple and share their support for the cause on social media before the end of the campaign on World Biodiversity Day (May 22nd). For every person who participates, SAMBAZON will protect five acres of rainforest through Rainforest Trust’s Conservation Action Fund. To support this year’s campaign, we are asking the public to color their hair purple whether it be by dye, chalk or digitally, and share on their Instagram page tagging @SAMBAZON and using the hashtag #PurpleForThePlanet. You can become an activist today just by taking a selfie. Don’t be like a sloth. We can do this!