As captain of the football team and a business major at the University of Colorado at Boulder, Ryan Black might not have seemed like the most likely pick to be at the helm of a sustainable, fair-trade "superfruit" company. But fast forward a decade and he's CEO of Sambazon, working hard at turning the world on to fair-trade, certified-organic açaí.
After a brief pro football career with the Minnesota Vikings, Black was on a surfing trip in Brazil in 2000 when he discovered the native açaí berry at a local juice bar, and the idea to bring it to the U.S. was born. But he didn't just want to make money. His years living in forward-thinking Boulder, where natural products abound, had rubbed off on him. He wanted to use his business degree to help açaí farmers earn a fair living and also promote environmental sustainability. He turned to a triple-bottom-line business model that includes social and environmental, as well as financial, aspects of a business.
He named the company Sambazon, which stands for "Sustainable Management of the Brazilian Amazon," to reflect his dedication to his business model. He and his colleagues work closely with international conservation agencies such as the World Wildlife Fund and The Nature Conservancy to ensure sustainable business practices are used while harvesting and processing açaí in the Amazon.
The company co-founded the Sustainable Açaí Project to focus on issues affecting the Amazon forest and native peoples as the demand for açaí grows. It aims to address overharvesting and açaí harvest byproducts, and to monitor how the açaí market is affecting local economies.
In 2006, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice awarded Sambazon the "Secretary of State Award for Corporate Excellence" for helping to create worldwide awareness and demand for the açaí fruit while supporting indigenous communities in Brazil.
What was your first job in the naturals industry? Or first exposure? My first real exposure was during college while working at Boulder's Alfalfa's [natural foods store].
What are the biggest challenges facing the naturals industry? Keeping our eyes on making change and not just making money.
What would you like to see change in the industry in the next five years? Bigger commitment to organics. Retailers say they are committed, but in many cases you find multinationally owned companies with nonorganic products getting the shelf space and attention you would expect the organic companies to be getting. Raise the bar and others will follow!
What do you enjoy most about what you do? Positive energy and consciousness all around.
What was your inspiration when you were getting started? To create the world's first mainstream eco-product.
What keeps you going on a tough day? The satisfaction of working for a higher purpose.
If Ben & Jerry's named a flavor after you, what would it be? Rastaberry.
As a little kid, you wanted to grow up to be … An NFL football player and then president … and maybe James Bond.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 8/p. 14