When she was 16 years old, Angela McElwee stocked the shelves of her local health-food store with Gaia Herbs supplements. More than 20 years later, she joins a growing number of women running natural products companies when she was appointed president of Gaia in late August.
While noting other women’s successes in leadership roles, such as Naomi Whittel, who now runs supplement company TwinLab, McElwee tried to downplay the woman card. Instead, she is eager to focus on the company’s success she wants to build on—most immediately, Gaia’s 350-acre organic farm in western North Carolina that features an on-site manufacturing facility that is in the midst of significantly expanding in size.
“Our industry is very supportive of women,” said McElwee. “Gaia has certainly been very supportive—in fact, gender-neutral. I’ve always felt it’s more what I bring to the table as a human working to represent a balance of heart and mind, and less than as a woman.”
She did, however, make mention of some leadership qualities that can differentiate women from men.
“Women are naturally inclined to be nurturing and compassionate, their communication softer and emotionally in tune,” she said. “But many men have that same skill set. I’ve worked alongside many balanced men in my career who have a very high emotional quotient. Our industry tends to attract people who embrace wholeness, and who bring their heart to what they do professionally. ”
Company founder Ric Scalzo will continue in his role focusing on Gaia’s herbal formulations and deep quality commitment, vertically integrated farming, as well as Gaia’s visionary evolution.
“Angela speaks with belief and passion, and her leadership helps people embrace those qualities,” said Scalzo. “She brings alignment—not just on the details of business direction, but alignment on spirit and on values and philosophy, the deeper elements that make relationships work.”
McElwee joined Gaia in 2008 as vice president of sales, and was subsequently promoted to vice president, sales operations, and elected to the Board of Directors in 2013. During her tenure, McElwee has contributed to numerous milestones for the company, including more than tripling net sales, launching more than 50 new products, spearheading a rebrand of the entire product line, as well as being an integral part of establishing the industry’s first seed-to-shelf traceability program, MeetYourHerbs.
“We will continue to elevate Gaia’s transparency story through the Meet Your Herbs platform,” she said. “What if every company in our industry did this? If every brand were able to bring this type of radical transparency to the table, we would all be stronger in the eyes of the consumer as an industry, and that is where we all truly win. Gaia is the only brand offering a true seed to shelf experience in transparency at the level we are, and we will continue to tell that story.”
There are other key areas that she said she will focus on. In the short term, one is to manage the company’s expansion—both with its facility as well as its supply chain for the roughly two-thirds of its botanical offerings that are not grown on its home base farm.
Another effort is to bring botanical medicine—plant intelligence, as the company would have it—to potential customers who have never taken an herbal supplement. Part of that effort is to make shoppers confident that the products they buy are safe and effective.
“Gaia is now set up to be a multi-generational, totally sustainable organization,” said Scalzo. “When you have a vision and perspective of longevity and you want a company to exist in a healthy way for a long time, you have to think about how to uphold the culture and people and nurture these qualities. Angela will do an amazing job here.”
For her part, McElwee said she looks forward to maintaining and continuing to elevate that vision of quality and integrity throughout the company—from the people who work there to the products they produce.
McElwee will continue to oversee Gaia’s sales strategy, along with fellow natural products industry veteran Guinevere Lynn, who has been promoted to senior director of sales, as well as Tammy McIver-Gay, to vice president of business development. This shift allows Gaia to balance continued growth with staying true to founding values, and will allow Scalzo to focus on farm operations in both North Carolina and Costa Rica, expert herbal formulation, long-term vision and philanthropy, all of which are integral parts of Gaia’s future—including the company’s 30th anniversary in 2017.
“Gaia’s founding vision remains behind this brand and company,” said McElwee. “When my 18-month-old daughter is old enough to drive to our local health food store for groceries, I know that this company will still be helping to connect plants and people in meaningful ways. That connection is the heart of Gaia, and that will not change.”
Gaia Herbs has more than 200 liquid extracts, functional powders, teas and patented Liquid Phyto-Caps. It cultivates more than 6.5 million plants per year on its organic farms in the U.S. and in Costa Rica. Watch Scalzo describe the power of plant medicine on its farm in North Carolina.