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“Better for you” With Penny Bauder and Ryan Fortwendel

MINNA is a “better for you” sparkling beverage, made with only organic, non-gmo ingredients, with no added sugars or sweeteners. As a gay founder, I wanted the philanthropic aspect to make sense for the company, and one that was also authentic to myself. MINNA means “everyone” (in Japanese), and we donate 1% of sales to […]

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MINNA is a “better for you” sparkling beverage, made with only organic, non-gmo ingredients, with no added sugars or sweeteners. As a gay founder, I wanted the philanthropic aspect to make sense for the company, and one that was also authentic to myself. MINNA means “everyone” (in Japanese), and we donate 1% of sales to nonprofits advocating for inclusion. Our intention is to support nonprofits advocating for communities fighting for equality. We wanted to create a sparkling beverage that everyone could trust by ingredients, and feel good about supporting.


I had the pleasure of interviewing Ryan Fortwendel.

Minna founder and CIO, Ryan Fortwendel is a former executive of e-commerce for Marc Jacobs. After spending over a decade in the fashion industry in New York City and Chicago, in 2016, he was inspired to make a fresh start, traveling across Asia and India exploring health and wellness. Upon returning to New York City in 2017, Ryan noticed a change in the beverage space; everyone was drinking sparkling water, but the flavors often fell flat or were artificial. After visiting a local cafe that served hot brewed tea poured over ice and topped with sparkling water, he saw an immediate space for a “better for you” sparkling tea beverage. Ryan crafted the perfect recipe for a delicious, lightly brewed sparkling tea with a clean, transparent label.

Knowing that people are drawn to beautiful things, Ryan knew creative branding was equal to the product itself. Focusing on consumer shopping behaviors, as CIO, he has spent extensive time on product development, crafting a social mission, and beautiful packaging that pops off the shelf in a sea of beverage options. Since launching in Summer ’19, community engagement and inclusivity have been at the core of Minna (meaning “everyone” in Japanese), which donates 1% of sales to nonprofits advocating for inclusion. As a gay founder, Ryan’s philanthropy inspired the name and message behind the brand. Organic, non-GMO Minna is served in beautiful art deco inspired cans that reflect three refreshing sugar-free flavor profiles that pop, with another one on the way.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?

My name is Ryan Fortwendel, founder of MINNA sparkling tea. I am a current New Yorker, been here for ten years, and Chicago before. I was raised in southern Indiana, but as a gay child/adolescent inclusivity was not something I felt until I went to college at seventeen

You are currently leading a social impact organization. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?

MINNA is a “better for you” sparkling beverage, made with only organic, non-gmo ingredients, with no added sugars or sweeteners. As a gay founder, I wanted the philanthropic aspect to make sense for the company, and one that was also authentic to myself. MINNA means “everyone” (in Japanese), and we donate 1% of sales to nonprofits advocating for inclusion. Our intention is to support nonprofits advocating for communities fighting for equality. We wanted to create a sparkling beverage that everyone could trust by ingredients, and feel good about supporting.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

There was an “aha moment” for the conception of creating a sparkling tea beverage, but that’s just the product. The holistic vision for the name, and philanthropic mission, is what made it click and worth pursuing. Without the whole package, it’s just a delicious beverage on a shelf. Millennial and Gen Z consumers expect more from brands today; I expect more of brands.

Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?

Two tips I can offer any person that is looking on how to get started:

First, Google is your friend. I went from running ecommerce for Marc Jacobs, to beverage. I knew nothing. In retrospect, that has been an advantage and disadvantage. I didn’t approach the process the same. Do the research and educate yourself in your space of interest. Then make a plan, and start chipping away. A business is not developed overnight. It took from idea to finished product, a year and four months before I was selling in my first store. And once you get to that point, you are only just beginning. Keep going. Chip away at that goal, day by day.

Second, acknowledge early on, without ego, what you will bring to your brand and growing team. Use that first tip, and research to find the experienced people in your space of interest, and be vulnerable — reach out to ask for advice. Know your strengths, and what you enjoy the most. Hire around your weaknesses. That’s a key to your own happiness and success to your company.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

By the end of our first year, we had eight part-time and four full-time employees. A nonprofit that we are proud to support and be engaged with is NYTAG (New York Transgender Advocacy Group). One of the greatest honors of my first year was taking the team to the NYTAG office for a sensitivity training from this organization. The feedback, learnings, and overall positive response from my team was the most rewarding thing of my year. To experience acceptance, understanding, and growth within my colleagues from one quick two hour program was incredibly special.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?

Contents under extreme pressure! MINNA has a considerably high carbonation level, and during the second production, I am moving hot cans just coming off the pasteurizer (a heating process used to keep items shelf-stable), and I’m carrying a tray of Tropical Green Tea, when they literally start exploding in my face as I’m carrying them. Terrifying and hysterical. Luckily all was okay, but I smelled like a pineapple the rest of the day!

None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?

Success is measured in many ways. We are only a little over a year into our business and feel that we are just getting started. I am grateful for everyone who ever sat down with me for a cup of coffee, who helped review a business plan, or challenge my go-to market strategy. I am grateful for the nonprofits that we have partnered with who share their objectives and knowledge with myself and the team. I am grateful for the training that these nonprofits do on a daily basis to educate our communities.

Are there things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

We are in a revolution with Black Lives Matter. We are in a moment that needs a radical shift in defunding the police, and moving money into programs that actually benefit the communities. Funding towards education programs that have been cut for decades. For inclusivity, we need to educate people. Racism, homophobia, etc, it all stems from fear and ignorance.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

A lot of these I was told, but sometimes you have to live through them to learn the hard way. So, in no particular order:

Know what you stand for, and your vision — know when not to settle, and when to bend. If you’re raising outside capital, or finding a manufacturer to help execute production, you will quickly have opinions in your ear. This is excellent, you’re building your team! But don’t lose sight of what you set out to build. Be grateful for all the advice that comes your way, take note, and decide what works for you.

An example of this, I always wanted MINNA in an aluminum can — 12oz standard, the size of a normal Coke can. I didn’t want it in a sleek/skinny “Red Bull” can, that reads energy/high caffeine to me, which MINNA is not. I wanted to use aluminum v. plastic or glass. Aluminum is endlessly recyclable and the best sustainable option. I can’t tell you the number of times manufacturers who tried to get me to go in a skinny can, or a bottle because it was easier for them. In the end, some things might take you longer to find your solution, but can make all the difference when you’re looking at the bigger picture. Again, know when to bend, and when to push.

It will take longer than you expect. Growth, scaling, team building, fundraising, community. It all takes time to get there. Patience is an important virtue as a founder.

Don’t buy all the hype you’re fed. Opportunities will knock, and will sound huge, but most things don’t come to fruition the way they’re pitched.

Stay local and focused. The hype will make you want to expand, but growing slowly and building a loyal community is so important.

Protect your time. Mental health is super important to avoid burnout. There will not be time in your days for you, if you don’t carve it out in your schedule. Set boundaries. This is something I still struggle with weekly.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

I do not think we need to tell our young generations to care. I am inspired by our youth, some of the most vocal environmental activists are shaking things up. I am most concerned with the Baby Boomers and Gen Xer’s, who hold the wealth and are unwilling to change their processes of their businesses because it might cost them some money. Cheaper, usually doesn’t always mean better for our environment. It’s the youth that are begging the older generations who hold the big companies to change their processes for their futures.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Jane Fonda! Not only is she hysterical, and would be amazing to have a laugh with, but to discuss her environmental work and advocacy.

How can our readers follow you online?

https://www.drinkminna.com/

@drinkminna

@ryanfortwendel

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