Beyond Coconuts

Alumnus Mark Rampolla went out on a limb in starting the company that introduced North Americans to coconut water. Then and now, there’s a mission to his method.

By Jeff Bentoff

Mark Rampolla, Bus Ad ’91, combined his insatiable entrepreneurial spirit with social consciousness to help forge a whole new, multimillion dollar market category in the beverage industry.

Many entrepreneurs first work hard to build wealth and, if they succeed, only later start to give back and seek deeper meaning in their lives. But Mark Rampolla, Bus Ad ’91, doesn’t subscribe to what he calls the classic “make-give”: Make a lot of money and then give some of it away.

Instead, Rampolla advocates trying — from the very start of a new business — to do good, find spiritual satisfaction and make money. Rampolla followed his own advice creating and growing ZICO Coconut Water. In the process, he helped create a whole new beverage category and became a multimillionaire.

Inspired by a Peace Corps trip to Costa Rica, Rampolla helped bring health-minded coconut water stateside in 2004, when he began selling ZICO out of his garage.

“I think it’s a mistake to think you can draw these simple, clear, definitive lines between one’s career, one’s physical life and one’s spiritual life,” he says.

Rampolla first fell in love with business at Marquette. After a stint in the Peace Corps, he earned advanced business and environmental degrees from Duke University and then spent five years at International Paper, rising to the top ranks of its Latin America and Caribbean operations.

Feeling the entrepreneurial itch, Rampolla found himself ready to leave International Paper to launch his own company. At first, he considered starting ventures focused purely on making money. But his wife, Maura, who knew that making a difference was “also part of (his) DNA,” encouraged him to seek something more meaningful, he says.

Eventually he decided to create a beverage company based on coconut water, which he’d first seen sold on Costa Rican beaches during his Peace Corps years. In addition to sensing a potential market, he liked the idea because it involved a healthy beverage, provided badly needed jobs in developing countries and sustainably used a waste product from coconut processing.

Rampolla entered the extremely competitive beverage industry in 2004 with an unfamiliar product, starting in his garage and selling out of his van. His breakthrough was to focus on a few key uses — post-workout recovery for yogis and triathletes. “Once we gave people a reason and occasion to use ZICO, they started to discover and find other ways,” he says.

In pitching ZICO to investors, Rampolla emphasized its social benefits, helping him stand out and attract investors who shared his social innovation and business goals. The company’s success led to its sale in 2013 to The Coca-Cola Co. When Coca-Cola fully acquired it, ZICO had an estimated $86.7 million in annual sales. Since selling ZICO, Rampolla co-founded a $42 million venture capital fund, PowerPlant Ventures, investing in plant- based food and beverage businesses focused on health, wellness and social impact. And he wrote a book, High-Hanging Fruit: Build Something Great by Going Where No One Else Will Go, about his ZICO experiences.

ZICO was the perfect storm for Rampolla, who sensed an untapped market that would also provide a healthy option, provide much needed jobs in developing nations, and sustainably used a waste product from coconut processing.

Pursuing a passion for purpose- driven entrepreneurism that began taking root during his Marquette years, Rampolla now uses lessons from his ZICO experience at his fund, helping 30 socially engaged companies build businesses the way he built his. “The more focused they are on their mission, the truer they are to their objectives, the more they attract capital, talent, customers and business partners,” Rampolla says. “And that’s what it takes to build a successful business that also makes an impact.”

Adapted from the 2017 issue of Marquette BIZ, the annual magazine of the Marquette University College of Business Administration. Read the cover story on ultra-real world learning experiences or the entire issue to learn how the college is being the difference for students and its partners in business and the broader community.