This is the latest in a series called Lead Human, which features interviews and profiles conducted by Elliot Begoun in search of answers to the question “What is it like to be a leader?”
I recently had the opportunity to chat with Ahmed Rahim and Reem Rahim Hassani, the brother-sister founders of Numi Organic Tea, which started in Oakland in 1999 and has grown into a leading brand of organic premium teas. It is a brand that many founders have tried to emulate. Numi is a B-Corp and has remained committed to its ethos of creating healthful, innovative products that nurture mind, body, and planet.
We had a wide-ranging discussion on leadership that I am excited to share with you. I hope you enjoy.
Why are you guys doing this crazy thing?
Reem Rahim Hassani: “We were both doing various things in our lives, and we both intrinsically knew that we could do more. We’re both artists, and Ahmed had owned and operated teahouses in Europe. We imported this tea we drank as children from Iraq called Numi, which is a dry dessert lime. We were on a family trip in the Grand Canyon, and we both said sort of simultaneously, ‘Let’s do it.’”
“Ahmed did all the sourcing because he knew a lot about tea, and I did the original artwork on the packaging, which were paintings inspired by his travels around the world.”
Ahmed Rahim: “There was a feeling that we could bring all these pure, organic ingredients from culture to culture. It was also about being innovative and authentic to the types of herbs and teas we’ve brought to the market, as well as the authenticity from the farmers to the consumer.”
What have been some of the biggest obstacles that you have faced?
Ahmed: “It’s really been finding the right people that can share the brand story and the brand authenticity, because it’s a unique culture and a story that we’re trying to share. It is just about finding those that are either very skilled at their work or very in tune with our culture. It is essential to find that right blend of people that can grow with us and be right in the seat of what we need them to do without falling too much off balance from one way or the other.”
You have made it your goal to be a company that benefits the world. Why is it important to you to be leaders in doing that?
Reem: “A lot of businesses are sort of depleting Earth’s resources and maximizing people without considering them as people in a sense — just skill sets. I guess we intrinsically aren’t like that as people.”
Ahmed: “People come first, and it’s important to not take anything for granted. It’s also a bit about our upbringing, because we come from the Middle East. In the Middle East, our culture is a lot about hospitality, and making sure everyone feels warm and welcome. We had to leave Iraq due to political strife, and we witnessed our parents take in family, friends, and even strangers. Those actions really inspired us. We were always taught to just take care of one another.”
“Since day one, protecting the environment has been important. The idea of spilling chemicals into the earth or using plastics bothers us deeply. We want to let nature speak for itself. It’s our job to be a protector, and to leave the planet better than when we first touched it.”
How do you deal with any doubt and fear?
Reem: “My life had taken so many different routes. I wasn’t scared of falling, because I was used to getting up. I was more, in a sense, scared of success.”
What do you do to care for yourself?
Ahmed: “Time and nature are great. Both of us live on our own little farms. For myself, it’s spending time in the earth, in the forest and by the ocean. I live right by the ocean. It’s getting a lot of free time to enjoy the bigger things in life than our little tiny business, because the world is much bigger. And always reminding ourselves that finding a way to take a 60,000-foot view of your business, because you will always get too caught up in it, and it becomes too ‘micro.’ Maintaining that ‘macro’ perspective is essential.”
“Besides being immersed in nature, it’s also doing other projects. Helping young entrepreneurs to grow. They teach me because they’re learning new ways, and they’re a different generation that look at business differently. Some of them might have degrees and some of them might not. But just the idea of helping them and also at the same time learning from them has been very helpful.”
Part of that ‘macro’ view is being involved and working with other entrepreneurs, similar size or larger. I do a lot of that by a group I co-foundedstarted called OSC2, One Step Closer to an Organic Sustainable Community”
Reem: “For me, I try to make time for painting. I also do art residencies and workshops every couple of years in Italy, which really rejuvenate me beyond measure. I’ve also done meditation retreats and things of that nature. It allows me to focus onf healing as well as spirituality.”
What does it take to effectively motivate and engage with people?
Ahmed: “It is important to find the people that can do the jobs right, and who understand the goals of the company. Then you have to empower them to take ownership. Obviously, you set some clear goals and objectives, but after that it is about getting them to feel like they’re an entrepreneur, and that they’re a part owner of the business–so that they take it personally.”
“Another thing is creating a culture that makes people feel like they belong, that we are a family. We are not a place that they take for granted, because there aren’t a lot of companies like Numi out there. We’ve had a lot of employees that have left but want to come back because they miss the culture we have created. We are very family-oriented and mission-driven. Part of my work is to deepen that and make sure that it stays on the front burner. We give them, also, a purpose to come alive at Numi and do the best that they can do, and challenge them as well.”
What would your current self tell your former self?
Reem: “One thing that comes to mind is I probably would have let go a little sooner. I think entrepreneurs have the issue of holding on to control. I would have tried to let go of it a little sooner and allowed people to do things their own way. Not to say everything’s going to go haywire, but find ways to trust people more in that endeavor. Then when something doesn’t necessarily go the way I was hoping, I don’t take it personally. There’s been many times where I feel like it’s a personal slight and then I would react. But really you cannot beat yourself up over things. Those are just personal behavioral things.
“From a business perspective, being more calculated with risk is important, so that we can run a more profitable and sustainable business from a top-line and bottom-line perspective.”
“Lastly, if I was to start a business now, knowing what I know, there’d be a lot more strategic thinking in terms of where to sell and how to sell. It is not about going after every single mom-and-pop business in the world and thinking that you can be everything you so desire. You have to really focus more on the things that work, or the things that can potentially work, and not be too scattered. That ability to focus, obviously, has come with time and experience.”
Elliot Begoun is the founder of The Intertwine Group, a practice focused on helping emerging food and beverage brands grow and become scalable and investable. He works with clients to design and execute customized go-to-market strategies that drive sales, build velocity, gain distribution, and win share of stomach. Catch him at FoodBytes in his role as a mentor and find his articles in publications such as the Huffington Post, SmartBrief, and New Hope. To get an article each week, nothing else, no B.S., sign up.
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