Up & Comers: An Interview With Ryan Black, CEO of Açaí Category-maker Sambazon

Len Monheit, CEO

March 23, 2008

18 Min Read
Up & Comers: An Interview With Ryan Black, CEO of Açaí Category-maker Sambazon

Ryan Black founded Sambazon in 2000 after discovering the amazing açai fruit during a surfing trip to Brazil. Quickly realizing that the sustainable trade of this fruit was a powerful vehicle to spread a message of corporate social responsibility, Ryan began the arduous task of building a sustainable business model in the third world with mainstream promise. His efforts are paying off as Sambazon Sustainable Açai is now being enjoyed by world class athletes and health-conscious people across the globe.

A social entrepreneur, Ryan is guided by the philosophy of the “Triple Bottom Line” which demonstrates that corporate success can be achieved on an economic, social and environmental level. Intrinsic to Sambazon’s corporate mission was creating a force in the Amazon that would enrich the lives of thousands of local families, aid in the economic growth of the region and protect the biodiversity of the Amazon Rainforest through Market Driven Conservation. Working closely with the world’s foremost conservation organizations (World Wildlife Fund, The Nature Conservancy) and other key non-governmental organizations (NGOs), Sambazon has pioneered the first of its kind Fair Trade, sustainable and certified organic supply chain of açai.

Prior to Sambazon, Ryan attended the University of Colorado, where he led the NCAA in tackles in 1996 as Captain of the Buffaloes nationally ranked football team. After graduating with First Team All Big 12 Academic Honors and a degree in Finance and Business Administration, Ryan joined the Minnesota Vikings in the NFL and finished his professional football career playing overseas in Europe. An avid surfer, sports have remained an integral part of Ryan’s daily routine, and he constantly searches for ways to improve his energy and endurance through nutrition and healthy living.

Most recently, Sambazon was named a winner of the prestigious 2006 Secretary of State Award for Corporate Excellence by the United States Department of State. Sambazon also was awarded the 2006 Socially Responsible Business Award and the Changemaker Innovation award for sustainable agro-forestry from the revered Ashoka Organization, which recognizes market-based strategies that benefit low-income communities. Ryan received a Tastemaker Award from “Food & Wine” Magazine – an annual award which recognizes the top 35 talents in food and wine under the age of 35, was listed as one of the top 40 agriculture stars under the age of 40 years old by “American Food & Ag Exporter” and was a ‘readers choice’ winner for Fast Company magazine’s “Fast 50” award. As Chief Executive of Sambazon, Ryan leads a new generation of social entrepreneurs who successfully use business to create positive economic change for the planet.

Q: Ryan, can you give us a bit of your background, interests, what got you into being an entrepreneur and specifically into this industry?

In college (at University of Colorado in Boulder, Colorado), I was exposed to organic foods and a liberal counter culture, which was active in expressing its desire to improve things, fix the wrongs, and continue on fighting for truth and justice. This had a big influence on my outlook of the world. In 2000, when I first discovered Açaí in Brazil, I was pretty focused on my football career and just kind of looking for what might be next. When I learned of the social significance that Açaí could represent for the people of the Amazon, and the obvious environmental aspect of it all, I felt that I had found a perfect vehicle to promote sustainable development and right livelihood. From there we engineered a marketing strategy and a plan to execute our vision.

On the personal side, I’m an avid surfer, my personal heroes are Martin Luther King, Ghandi, Bob Marley, and any champion fighting for truth and justice.

Q: Did the opportunity and its unfolding meet your expectations?

Absolutely! We’ve really felt like we have been blessed with this opportunity to introduce an amazing new fruit to the world that people can enjoy and that has also helped many people (we get many emails from people who love how it makes them feel, helps their psoriasis, lowers cholesterol, gives them energy through chemotherapy…and we’re now hearing positive results from a leading doctor in the field of autism who has been recommending it to parents for their children). We’ve also had an opportunity to create an organization that gives an incentive to people for practicing organic agriculture and protecting biodiversity, and does a lot of good in the world.

With a new industry to pioneer and the ability to create standards, we embraced the opportunity and created standards that we knew would influence the way people look at and work with Açaí and the thousands of people and acres in the Amazon Rainforest. It only takes one innovative idea to break the norms, lead the pack, and send everyone else scrambling to meet that standard lest they be left behind. This idea was the realization that we could use Açaí as a vehicle to create positive change.

Q: What is the most significant achievement for you personally? For the company?

Back when I played football (18 years), words like determination and desire and passion were very real and meant so much to me when I heard them. Growing a company from scratch and focusing on a tangible mission has provided me an outlet to throw all of my heart and energy into, which is a fantastic thing. It makes me excited to get up every morning, go out there, and get in the game. Additionally, the opportunity for a young entrepreneur to be exposed to the international food and beverage business and corporate finance, and to build and lead a management team is truly a great experience.

For the company, I believe we are really just getting started. Americans and even people across the world are just beginning to understand what Açaí is. Furthermore, they are hopefully being introduced to Açaí in a way that we helped influence with our business model. From day one, we always said that we wanted to set the bar in the industry so that anyone who worked with Açaí after Sambazon would give some degree of attention to the social and environmental situation surrounding the Açaí and the grower families. Today, most companies in America that are working with Açaí have a social and environmental mission to accompany their economic goals. That is the Triple Bottom Line.

Q: What has been the biggest challenge?

We haven’t tried to simply start a company or market a new product. We have built a vertical infrastructure from the forest to the consumer with a foreign word, a seasonal crop, perishable goods at retail and multi-national borders. We have also dedicated ourselves to the Triple Bottom Line business model (economic, social, and environmental success), which makes things even a little bit more expensive. All this results in a capital-intensive venture. Lack of experience will kill you if you are not extremely tough as well as careful but we have zero regrets. You learn through your mistakes and keep on truckin’.

There was no real specific challenge- it’s all been hard, a really challenging journey. On a personal level, I would have to say that University doesn’t prepare you for the real challenges you’ll face, and this includes some of the people-related issues, the human stuff, that you’ll have to deal with as a business grows. When you start out, you’re typically working with family and friends, and it’s a great source of support, it’s familiar, there’s relationship trust and that’s huge. As the company grows, you might need investment, and as the company evolves, agendas and objectives can change, shareholders and boards become involved and if not managed correctly, this can strain those personal relationships. This is all part of the maturity you get. There’s another important point too, and that’s the importance of being with people who have done it before. As they say, “you need people who will pull ‘you’ across the finish line.” There’s no replacement for that.

Q: Açaí has been caught up in both the Superfruit and antioxidant trends. First of all, fad or trend? Why? What have been the benefits? The downside?

People are becoming a lot more aware and mindful of what they put into their bodies. Organic foods, whole foods, plant-foods, non GMO or Transfat foods…what promotes vitality and health and protects the earth is part of an overall movement, and it is certainly not a fad. It is intelligence and consciousness.

Antioxidants I sometimes compare to the discovery of amino acids in the 1950’s. It took the next 50 years for scientists to discover what unique effects each of the 20 or so amino acids have in the body. Other than Vitamins C and E, it has only been very recently that scientists have understood that in the broad class of antioxidants, there exists a wide variety of molecules that perform different functions. Açaí is one of the highest sources of antioxidants on the planet which certainly makes it one to watch.

The real magic of Açaí, and the reason that it really is a superfood, is its rare combination of a host of other benefits – omega fatty acids, fiber, protein, phytosterols and other vitamins and minerals. Not only has Açaí has been shown to have one of the highest ORAC values of any fruit, but is a dream for overall health and nutrition. Mighty foods like this are here to stay!

Q: What is the future of the Açaí business over the next few years? Will its growth outpace overall industry growth? How do you measure and recognize that Açaí has become more mainstream?

I believe that Açaí will continue to grow in awareness, which will translate to additional products on the shelf. Industry numbers show huge growth rates in the export of Açaí from Brazil and also the number of entrants into the marketplace containing Açaí. Additionally, since the taste of Açaí is not only good but sophisticated (like a cola, chocolate or red wine), consumers don’t get tired of it. Add the nutritional benefits which continue to become more substantiated and you’ve got a hot category that has a lot of open highway.

Awareness is everything. We’ve now got it with healthy, tasty exotic fruits, the tide is on our side and more people are getting into this current in the world of healthy and natural. For Açaí fruit, there is more product awareness and we’re on a public learning curve so that defining Açaí is a real process. Is it a juice, a puree? As America digs into this, Sambazon is positioned in the right place. We’ve developed brand and distribution, and as buyers dig deeper, they cannot help but find out about Sambazon and the highest quality we offer.

Q: You've vertically integrated to supply the ingredient as well as finished product? What was the driver? How has this unfolded? What's the future for the ingredient business? more or less important?

Our mission since our Company’s formation has been to promote the sustainable management of the Brasilian Amazon through manufacturing and marketing the highest quality Açaí products to consumers worldwide. Providing a low risk, high quality source to the world’s largest (and smallest) food and beverage corporations propagates the business model we have developed and promotes sustainable development. Vertical integration allows us as marketers to match consumer demand preferences with technological developments on the supply side. Vertical integration allows us to ensure quality, taste and nutrition and also to improve the lives of both the consumers who buy the product and the people we work with through environmental stewardship, the creation of new jobs and economic freedom.

Now that Sambazon’s industrial ingredient is readily available on 4 continents, we can focus on increasing our brand’s distribution in the consumer market and innovatively delivering our products to the masses.

People often ask which are – ingredient or brand, and we certainly are a brand – but it’s not that simple. As we set out to create the brand, we quickly realized that there was not a supply infrastructure so it would be up to us to create that as well, so the two, in this case, can’t be separated. We walked into a situation with no specifications and standards so we found ourselves with two main drivers or goals. First, we had to establish product specifications and standards, even at the ingredient level. The fruit is wild harvested, it has variances, so if you don’t control origins, processes, manufacturing etc, you’re asking for trouble. Secondly, none of the existing manufacturing operations, by itself, was large enough to handle our needs. So taking a number of different manufacturing sources – well, good luck trying to establish specifications and consistency. We felt strongly that the only way to go, was to control the source, control the mechanics, to ensure consistent supply therefore giving even the biggest companies the confidence to work with us.

That brings up an interesting issue too, if we were able to control the ingredient origin, we could apply an environmental and social element – we had the chance to set industry standards, so not just buying product, but ultimately to be able to look back 20 years to have created a positive force in the rainforest. Without this as part of our model, it just wouldn’t get done.

In other sectors, we’ve seen domestication, mono-cultured products, the creation of factory farms and a really negative people impact. That could happen with Açaí so we needed to take all the steps so that all the fruit was not cut from the farm and so that standards and guidelines were put in place.

Q: How would you evaluate the importance of sustainability, fair trade and other practices versus profitability for emerging companies in the natural products industry?

Our company was engineered from its inception with the business philosophy of the Triple Bottom Line built into all that we do. Profitabilty vs. Sustainabiltiy is not an either / or situation. The importance of profitability and growing a business based on core disciplines certainly cannot be underestimated. Implementing these practices is the only way a company will be able to live to fight another day when the scale and footprint you make as an organization will have meaningful effects on your customers and environment. Henry Ford once said that the purpose of business is to create profit, and that a business which fails to create profit will die. But a business that only creates profit will die as well, as it will fail to produce a benefit for the common good, which is the purpose of a businesses’ existence in the first place.

We hope that Sambazon can be an example to future generations of companies – so business can help create positive solutions toward bettering the world we live in. The Natural Products Industry’s founders have provided us with a tremendous amount of guidance and direction about how to cross over into the mainstream. We want to make this easier for the next guy and bring all of our friends with us.

Q: Are you seeing and able to capitalize on consumers' desire to do business with companies 'doing good'?

Sambazon has a loyal following because we are a brand that stands for more.

We don’t just produce and market healthy, organic products that are really good for you – we stand for environmental protection, social justice, helping others, and helping promote positive change in the Amazon Rainforest and ultimately the planet we share. We have world-class athletes, celebrities and consumers who are proud to put our logo on their board or their car or hold up our bottle on television. We have people who write us because they love eating Açaí and they love being associated with something inspirational. Consumers are realizing they can vote with their dollars and affect change in their stores and in their lives. We aim to facilitate such change and our existence today is a testament to that.

Q: What are the characteristics within you that allow you to be the visionary driving Sambazon? At what point will you know you've been successful?

Sports certainly helped me develop a mental toughness and attitude that I would certainly not be outworked. In college in Boulder, CO, I was the captain of the football team, earned a Finance degree, and learned about a liberal revolution going on in the city. Boulder is famous for being an epicenter of natural living, wellness, organic foods and diversity. I started learning the importance of organic foods, sustainable agriculture and many issues surrounding wellness, positive energy, and what all the fuss was about. I learned that the hippies of the 60’s and 70’s had certain principles that they stood for, which had nothing to do with flower children. It did have everything to do with taking the power back from a system of government and private interests which had stolen it in the name of the almighty dollar at the expense of the poor, the unfortunate, and the everyday people just like me. At that time I became an activist, a world-class athlete who craved the freedom, justice and happiness that our country was founded on.

What was most enlightening, I believe, was that I learned that there was a fight going on, and that sitting around watching television and consuming blindly was not going to do anything to help the situation. I am a sucker for a challenge, and so I made it my goal to take the high road, to not eat junk foods that poisoned my body because it’s what everyone else was doing, to not watch television all day because it rots your brain, and to not just go with the flow and pretend it wasn’t my problem. After college I played 2 seasons of football in Europe which gave me further perspective on the outside world and helped my language skills. All of this helped prepare me for the next chapter in my life.

Q: Do you and if so, how do you differentiate between building the company and building the category?

Sambazon has always been the gold standard. We had the privilege and responsibility to do it right from the beginning, and we took this very seriously. Of course there have been other entrants, which grows the category and awareness that we all need. Fortunately, when people really get into Açaí, they can’t help but become loyal Sambazon customers. We will continue to be the category leaders, to innovate and produce highest quality products – and continue to set high standards of environmental protection in the Amazon Rainforest. We hope others continue to follow!

Q: Who are your mentors and what have they taught you?

My mother pretty much raised my brother Jeremy and me on her own and instilled great values in us. Growing up, it was always my football coaches. I have already shared my experiences with that so I will focus on my life after college. I have been very fortunate to work with a few extremely talented entrepreneurs and businessmen. Within Sambazon, our Brazilian General Manager Riva Gusmao has probably taught me the most about business and what it takes to be successful. I really enjoy finance and he has helped me look at our operations in the US and Brazil with a mature perspective. The building of our plant in the Amazon has also been a great experience. Steve Demos, John Elstrott and Gary Hirshberg, three of the great entrepreneurs of the natural food industry, serve on Sambazon’s Board of Directors and continue to help me see way ahead of what I could see on my own. There is no substitute for experience. Finally, my big brother Jeremy has always been a great example for me to follow.

Q: What would you like to teach those that emulate and those that follow? What would you do differently?

A simple lift in global consciousness. A realization that as citizens and also as brothers and sisters of planet earth, we not only have a responsibility to get involved in our democracy and create the future in which we want ourselves and our kids to live, but we also have the Power to move mountains with the way we spend our money. I also hope that Sambazon can serve as an inspiration for social entrepreneurs and show that business can be created for all the right reasons and that everybody can win. There is no limit to what you can achieve as long as you don’t care who gets the credit for it. I’m not concerned with my legacy at this point, just trying to work hard and push for positivity and peace.

Q: What's in the future for Sambazon? For Ryan Black?

Sambazon will continue to build a successful and inspirational company and drive value to each step of the ‘value chain.” We will also continue to promote positive energy and Triple Bottom Line initiatives for our stakeholders and consumers, from the forest to the marketplace. Twenty years from now we’ll want to say that Açaí (as a non timber agro-forestry product from the Amazon Rainforest) is a sustainable business model that has positively influenced the rest of the business world. Personally – I want to keep learning on a daily basis, having fun, and successfully doing the things that everybody says can’t be accomplished. That’s what changing the world is all about.

About the Author(s)

Len Monheit

CEO, Trust Transparency Center

Len Monheit has been in the industry for 20 years, initially as a cofounder of digital media leader NPIcenter, which was ultimately sold in 2006 to New Hope Natural Media, As part of New Hope’s senior leadership team, Len assumed responsibility for digital media operations, then the ingredient portfolio of Functional Ingredients, Engredea, and Nutracon, initiating international market preparation workshops in Japan, China and India and finally, in market analysis as part of Nutrition Business Journal and the NEXT insights platform. Len has guided ingredient and supplement companies on strategy, is a sought after speaker on multiple continents on topics such as: ingredients, the supplements market, supply chain and sourcing as well as emerging trends. Len is currently CEO of Trust Transparency Center.

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