From his extra-curriculars, you might think T.J. McIntyre already spent a little too much time with energizing drinks when he was in school. First, he led his classmates at the University of Oregon business school away from a future of meetings around boardroom tables made from 500-year-old Douglas fir trees. (Many grads went to jobs at Northwest timber giant Weyerhaeuser.) With a buddy, McIntyre created the school's sustainable-business symposium, an event that continues to bring 2,000 people and progressive models of sustainability to the school annually, revealing greener business opportunities to graduates. Then, he convinced the administration to include a truly sustainable case study into each year's curriculum, to balance the ballyhooed Harvard cases studies, which he calls "abominations."
The first study focused on Oregon Chai. McIntyre worked for the company during school and "the insight into the coffee industry it provided serendipitously led to the Pixie Maté adventure." There were a few other stops along the way: creating the Simply Organic brand at Frontier Natural Products Co-op and working at White Wave. His experience in the broader naturals industry and within the coffee and beverage industries helped him realize the potential for yerba maté. "The coffee industry needed a healthy upgrade, and yerba maté perfectly fit the bill," he says. In addition to quenching consumers' thirst for a cleaner, healthier buzz, Pixie Maté also works on reforestation projects in yerba maté production areas, planting trees that will never end up as tables in corporate boardrooms.
What was your first job in the naturals industry? Driving a truck delivering seafood in Vermont. At the end of the day, my shirt could stand up on its own because of all the fish oils.
What are the biggest challenges facing the naturals industry? Sustainability. The industry has a lot of cut-and-run types of businesses … people looking to the industry to make a whole bunch of money in a short time, with exit strategies within five years. That's not how the industry was founded.
What do you enjoy most about what you do? Fulfillment comes from introducing something to the world that makes people's lives better. This happens for me in a few ways: marketing a product made from sustainably harvested yerba maté, our relationships with farmers, meeting people who drink our product and feel like it is a positive thing in their lives. We're challenged with popularizing a pretty exotic beverage, one of the least known, and as people integrate it into their lives and get really into it, it's very fulfilling.
What are you afraid of? Failure.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 8/p. 31