Featured Thought Leader: Ryan Black

Can a business be a conduit for transforming our world for the better? Yes. Find out how from Sambazon CEO Ryan Black.

Featured Thought Leader: Ryan Black
Photographer - Ernesto Borges

Social entrepreneurialism is at the heart of the acai brand, which started with the belief that what they do can change the world for the better. The first company to bring acai from the Amazon to the states, they’re committed to harvesting acai in a meaningful and sustainable way. Keeping their practices sustainable in nature, allows them to share acai superfood nutrition with the world while keeping the Amazon intact.

Last year, we partnered with Sambazon to find students and student-led organizations around the nation that are putting in work to create change in their communities and ecosystems. At the end of last year, the Sambazon pilot program, The Greenhouse Initiative, powered by The Ecology Center, named four college students groups the winners of the grant. Each group will receive $4,000 and a semester of mentorship from the team at The Ecology Center. We are excited to bring you the stories of each group and share the good work they are doing and how we are furthering them in their success.

Evan Marks, Founder, and Executive Director of The Ecology Center sat down with Ryan Black, co-founder, and CEO of Sambazon to learn more about Sambazon’s  commitment to social entrepreneurship.

Good afternoon Ryan Black! Do you want to talk to me a little bit about your vision for business as a conduit for transforming our world?

Ryan Black: Yeah, that was the original intent. I think it was Henry Ford who said businesses that don’t make a profit will fail, but if they only make a profit they’ll fail as well — because the intent is to create something that helps the common good, that helps everybody. I think that was the original idea of commerce: not just how do I line my pockets, but how do I make a bigger impact on the community?

So what about when you went to Brazil? Were you in the search for a business idea or did it all just fall into place on its own?

RB: We certainly weren’t looking for a business opportunity, we were there really to celebrate the millennium in a beautiful place. I read later on that somebody said social entrepreneurs take a conservation model and they attach it to shiny. And certainly, when we came across acai and acai bowls, we knew that we had a very shiny object because it was already so popular in Brazil. Between the flavor and the nutritional profile we knew it was something exciting and when we learned about the social and environmental significance in the Amazon rainforest, we knew we had a triple bottom line business in the making.

That’s cool. Is it not inherent you know? There are a lot of people who are selling acai who are not in connection with the planet. So was that something that was part of your consciousness always or did it evolve?

RB: I think from a very young age there was a combination of both. For one, I had an underdog mentality. I was always fighting for the little guy because I was the little guy in a lot of ways. [In high school and college, Ryan had dreams of becoming an NFL player]. You know I was small – I was fast too – but compared to the world-class athletes, I was always smaller and trying to get bigger. Because of that, I was always rooting for the underdog, whether it be in sports or whatever it was. Then through my university experience in Boulder, Colorado, which is a very liberal school, I learned about organic food, social justice, and about how through a business you could help the environment or fight poverty or things like that. And that became my understanding that beyond sports when I actually grew up and got into the world that whatever I did I knew I wanted to make a difference and put all my energy into something that would make some sort of lasting difference into the environment, people, and community.

That’s epic. I mean, what a legacy you’ve built in 20 years.

RB: It’s gone by really fast, it’s been an amazing learning experience. It keeps getting interesting because, you know, it’s never stagnant because we’re going into both more vertical or horizontal in our supply chains or our geographies, as well as the geographical expansion of the products. And business over the world there’s always new, exciting stuff going on.

It’s a big planet and you guys are starting to hit all corners of it, that’s pretty cool.

RB: It’s taken us to a lot of places in the world that we never thought we could touch and that been an amazing privilege, truly.

What keeps you optimistic and hopeful?

RB: I think that we as human beings have the capacity to supersede and solve all of our problems, truthfully. And we have this amazing, younger generation that is smarter, more efficient, and most importantly, more loving and more conscious than the generations past. So as you see over time the direction the world is headed, that’s an inspiring thing. So every day that goes by I think there’s less and less darkness in the world and more and more light, so I’m excited about all those things.

It’s interesting to see the balance of the light, the pendulum swing back and forth because it feels like the darkness is on the microphone right now.

RB: It’s a crazy time in our country right now with politics. But at the same time, just like when we were doing our Greenhouse Initiative, we saw all those student groups that are out there in universities and in America right now and they’re more educated and knowledgeable and wise about social entrepreneurship, sustainability, conscious living than even we were ten, fifteen years ago. So that’s actually happening quite fast. When we were in college, there wasn’t a sustainability club. There might have been a gardening or a farming club, but now people are getting a four-year university education on social entrepreneurship or sustainable business practices.

What do you think are some of the most important skills people should have to help thrive on this beautiful planet?

RB: I think the simple concept that we learn first from our parents is just leave something better than how we found it. If you think about the way that you consume a product, the way you consume food, the way you emit waste… If you can, as a person, take care of yourself and make sure your environment is better off then the world is going to be better off. It starts with you, be the change. And another big part is voting with your dollars and understanding that as consumers we have serious purchasing power with where we spend our money. So if you don’t want to support things that cause heart disease and obesity, don’t go put your money into McDonald’s. Just don’t, just say you know what I’m going to turn away from that and all of a sudden, McDonald’s is going to have to start serving healthier foods, or they’re going to go out of business. We have all this power, we just need to realize it.

Your business is global, so how do you define community?

RB: I don’t really define community geographical really, it could be a group. It could be a community of business leaders across an entire industry, which has nothing to do with geography. It could also be your community around where you live. It really depends on how you’re defining community but basically what it means is a group of people that are coming together. You become a community when you start sharing and communicating. When you’re sharing and communicating then you can share best practices, you can talk about how whether people are in the struggle together with you and sort of the 1+1 = 3 idea that if we work together there’s nothing we can’t achieve.

Well, you have an amazing community of young entrepreneurs who are interested in a conscious endeavor.

RB: One of the things that certainly drew me to this organic, natural foods industry, if you will, is that you have all these pioneers who had their hearts in the right place and a lot of them started out driving pickup trucks with grain in their backseat and then they created this amazing wave of both civil rights and female rights and you know all kinds of empowerment, truthfully, over the 60s, 70s, and 80s. And then the second generation — which is really our generation in the natural foods world — was made up of all these social entrepreneurs who said, wow, our predecessors created this amazing industry and now I can walk right into it with my awesome idea. It was a real privilege that was already here for us in some ways and we could pick up the torch and carry it a little bit further. And now there’s another generation of social entrepreneurs who are coming up.

Who are you inspired by?

RB: My biggest inspirations certainly go back to the guys that fought for social justice the most like Martin Luther King. I was also inspired from a business perspective by Anita Roddick at The Body Shop who went into indigenous cultures and set a precedent of were not here to extract what you have, we’re here to work together with you to build a partnership, learn from you, share best practices across communities, and then bring and celebrate what you have into the marketplace and not just take raw materials, for instance. And then some of the guys more connected with my industry are the guys who started Whole Foods and this guy named Steve Demos who brought soy to America and created Silk Soy Milk. That was brought on by his desire as a vegetarian to replace some of the protein that was in the American diet. I always thought when I was growing up if it’s not chicken or beef it’s not a meal. I almost told myself I wouldn’t get full if I didn’t eat that. And now a percentage of the population is vegetarian and vegan. Still, some people don’t realize their eating habits have actually driven us to all kinds of environmental and health problems.