Always do your due diligence and clearly state your expectations to any partner helping you develop or manufacture your product. To be fully transparent to your customer, you must first have a clear understanding of everything going into your product and the manufacturing process, or else even you could fall victim to green washing. The buck stops with you when it comes to the standards and claims of your product and brand.
As a part of my series about the women in wellness, I had the pleasure of interviewing Cynthia Tice.
Cynthia Tice got her start in the natural foods industry before green juice was cool. She opened a natural foods grocery store, Center Foods, in Philadelphia in 1978, and owned and operated that store for 20 years. As supermarkets realized the staying power of natural and organic foods, Tice began consulting retailers on how to launch or build out their natural and organic offerings. She also began advising brands looking to launch natural and organic products. While working with a client who wanted to launch a natural soda, Tice became aware of the opportunity for naturally sweetened, no added sugar foods.
As a long-time user of stevia, when the ingredient was granted GRAS status in 2008, Tice began experimenting with making chocolate with stevia to satisfy her own need for a no added sugar chocolate (her favorite food) that she could eat daily. In 2011, the recipe was perfected using not only stevia, but also the finest Fair Trade, additive-free, and Non-GMO other ingredients in order to benefit both people and planet. By 2012, Lily’s was on shelves in Whole Foods stores nationwide. Today, Lily’s remains a leader in the no added sugar movement through continued innovation, and the company’s chocolates and confections can be found in more than 24,000 stores nationwide. Lily’s has been recognized by Forbes as a, “mission-driven company reinventing the packaged food industry.”
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?
I am a serial entrepreneur with a passionate focus on the natural products industry. Like everything else I have done in my career, Lily’s was born from a personal desire, in this case, to limit my sugar intake without giving up my favorite food: chocolate! Lily’s has been a magical journey from the very start when I presented to Whole Foods Global in August of 2011, and was accepted as a national brand launching in March 2012. I expected Lily’s would be successful, but the degree to which consumers love Lily’s has amazed even me!
Since founding the company in 2011, Lily’s has experienced extraordinary growth year after year. In 2017, I realized that I could no longer manage the company by myself and with the current team that consisted of only four people, two being my kids! I had been in the food industry long enough to recognize that the way Lily’s was exploding in the marketplace was hardly typical, and I wanted to see Lily’s reach its full potential. After a lot of deep thought and due diligence, I partnered with VMG Partners, private equity investors with a reputation of being founder friendly. They did not let me down. Since my skill set does not include team-building or management, I stepped away from the day-to-day management of the business, handing the reins over to Jane Strode Miller as Lily’s new CEO. Jane has amazing leadership skills, and she and her dream team (aptly named for the fact that she hand picked every person) have grown Lily’s into the brand that I knew it could be.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? What were the main lessons or takeaways from that story?
I can remember a specific event that sparked a major career change. In 1998, I attended an educational conference hosted by FMI, The Food Industry Association. Even though I had been an early adopter of natural foods, including opening and operating one of the first natural food stores in Philadelphia since 1977, it was at this conference I finally understood the staying power and opportunity that natural foods represented. This epiphany occurred during a Whole Foods presentation to conventional grocery executives from all across the country. When asked how Whole Foods’ aggressive growth strategy could be supported by the existing pool of natural products consumers, Whole Foods boldly announced, “we are not targeting natural products stores’ consumers, we are targeting your consumers!” That statement confirmed I had correctly identified more than just a passing fad. The natural products industry was a movement that had the potential to change our country’s eating patterns for years and years to come.
This realization catapulted me to sell my store in order to take my career to its next level; specifically, by consulting supermarket retailers on how to incorporate natural products on their shelves and how to market them to conventional shoppers. I share this story as you never know when inspiration will hit, and you have to have the courage to take the lead when it does.
Can you share a story about the biggest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
The biggest mistake I made early on was believing that I could do everything myself. I also mistakenly believed that it would be less costly to do everything myself. I am incredibly passionate about the natural products industry, and thought that so long as I was doing something I loved, I could tackle it all. When I first began, this included not only running my store, but also opening and running a bakery business with my friend. I even lived behind the bakery and worked into the wee hours of the night. While I believed in what I was doing, the surprising outcome to me was that I was always working really hard, but inefficiently. The result was that I was constantly strapped for cash and resources.
By the time I founded Lily’s, I had learned to surround myself with people who knew the things that I didn’t know, allowing the company to achieve success more quickly and more easily. This early lesson learned — to not bite off more than I could chew, and honestly appraise what I am good at and not good at — served me well. This especially was the case in 2017 when I made the decision to partner with a private equity firm and experienced CEO who could help Lily’s reach its full potential.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I have been helped by so many over the years that it would be too many to mention, and I would likely forget someone deserving of mention. I have been so fortunate to have had so many people to go to for advice. From my perspective, what’s most important for entrepreneurs to do is to have a network of advisors that you can access for seasoned guidance. None of us can do this alone, and having trusted advisors will help you achieve even greater success, and greater success more quickly.
When it comes to health and wellness, how is the work you are doing helping to make a bigger impact in the world?
Promoting healthy eating became my life’s work when I was in my early 20’s and healed myself from chronic digestive pain by changing my diet. I recall sitting in my college cafeteria, complaining about how I didn’t feel well, when a random stranger pointed out, “no wonder you don’t feel well, look at what you are eating!”
That simple proclamation caused me to pause and evaluate the food I was eating. In doing so, I made some drastic changes and immediately began to feel better. I became hooked on the belief that we can use diet as a way to achieve health, and was determined to spread that message as much as I could.
My first response was to open a natural foods store right out of college. I loved working in my store and educating my customers on how they could heal and thrive with better food. Through this work, I also came to realize that the health of the planet was as important as our own bodies, as the Earth produces the foods that nourish us.
As I founded Lily’s, it was just as important to me to source thoughtfully-selected, sustainable ingredients that limited environmental impact as it was to provide the best-tasting, no sugar added chocolate. Chocolate so good you don’t even miss the sugar. Current research indicates that more than 80% of consumers strive to limit or reduce sugar intake. At the same time, a recent study found that 79% of Americans admitted to spending more money on comfort food during the peak of quarantine. My hope has always been that Lily’s can not only provide the freedom to indulge chocolate cravings, but also be an example of how thoughtful sourcing and manufacturing can support greater, social and sustainability-focused values.
Can you share your top five “lifestyle tweaks” that you believe will help support people’s journey towards better wellbeing? Please give an example or story for each.
- Insist on the best quality food that you can find. High quality foods, grown without the use of chemicals pesticides, added hormones, or GMO’s are far more important to overall health than the adherence of any specific diet. There are so many diets to consider, and so many differences — vegan diet, keto diet, paleo, weight watchers, low carb. I believe that no one diet is right for everyone, but what is true across any diet is the importance of good, quality food.
- Maintain a flexible and curious attitude about food. As an example, I was a vegan for a very long time, but felt that I wasn’t experiencing optimal health. Additionally, my daughter’s pediatrician shared concern that my daughter was not thriving on a plant-based diet. I was resistant to the idea of eating animal products,, but when I tried some high quality animal products in limited quantities, and also introduced them to my daughter, I discovered that I felt much better and she thrived!
- Enjoy the food you eat. Discover the joy of cooking! Cooking is such a creative and collaborative process. It is so fun to cook with others, and it results in sharing meals that can become like a holiday feast everyday!
- Enjoy the food that you eat. After all is said and done, if you don’t enjoy what you are eating, even if it is in principle the best food in the world, it can’t be good for you. Wellness comes from nourishment affecting body, mind, and soul, so eat quality food that you love and makes you joyful. This is the best recipe for lasting health!
- Find your balance, and it’s okay if that includes wine and chocolate. I’m a big believer that without time to rejuvenate, you risk burnout that can greatly impact your health. For me to thrive, I need to get in daily cardio and a yoga practice, eat good food, and also indulge in a glass of wine and chocolate. The recipe for optimal wellness varies by each individual, but likely includes practices that support your mind, body and soul. Find what rituals best fit your needs and then make them a priority.
If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of wellness to the most amount of people, what would that be?
I feel incredibly lucky to have discovered my passion for natural products so early in life, and to find ways to share that passion with others. However, this work is never done. I hope to continue to find ways to bring wellness to the most people possible by shining a light on the benefits of the natural products industry and ‘good for your’ eating. Eating whole foods of great quality that you love is a winning recipe for wellness! Limiting sugar is an overall good strategy, especially now when there are so many delicious products, like Lily’s, that give you the freedom to indulge without missing the sugar.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?
- Do what you love because you will be spending much more time than you could ever believe doing it.
- Figure out how much money you need to begin, and then double that amount as a buffer. Guaranteed unexpected costs will pop up and you want to be prepared to weather the unexpected.
- The costs of doing business are enormously high; it’s impossible to have too much margin built into your costing strategy. If you need to make a choice between having your product perceived as premium due to a retail price point, and having sufficient margin, choose margin. Consumers are willing to pay a premium for products that they understand are worth the premium, and you can’t stay in business if you are not making money.
- Have the courage to assess and admit what you are good at and not good at, and make sure you fill the voids with someone else who has complementary skills.
- Always do your due diligence and clearly state your expectations to any partner helping you develop or manufacture your product. To be fully transparent to your customer, you must first have a clear understanding of everything going into your product and the manufacturing process, or else even you could fall victim to green washing. The buck stops with you when it comes to the standards and claims of your product and brand.
Sustainability, veganism, mental health and environmental changes are big topics at the moment. Which one of these causes is dearest to you, and why?
While each of these are important topics, I can share with you that the passion nearest and dearest to my heart is using your business to effect positive change. I hope entrepreneurs like me take time to reflect and understand the ways in which their business can be used to positively benefit people and the planet.
At Lily’s, this positive change began by thoughtfully selecting the ingredients for our chocolate and confections. From the beginning, we have sourced Non-GMO, Fairtrade certified and gluten-free ingredients, providing assurance to our retail customers and consumers that they could feel good about the clean ingredients in our products and the limited environmental impact. Since the beginning, we have also given back to causes that support childhood wellness, including various organizations that provide resources to families going through a cancer diagnosis and treatment. As we grew, additional opportunities arose to provide a positive impact, including creating great jobs — our team now has more than 40 members — supporting diversity initiatives like the J.E.D.I. Collaborative, and seeking out opportunity to provide advice to other budding entrepreneurs. Your business is an extension of you and your values, and can be a vehicle for the change you want to see in the world.
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
Readers are invited to reach out to me on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/cynthia-tice-4a87a648/.