I have always been impatient with the pace of change, but the world must provide the environment for ideas to be successful. I ultimately overcame the naysayers with a combination of patience and working outside the system to create a startup that would start a new reality.
As a part of our series about “dreamers who ignored the naysayers and did what others said was impossible”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Helene Rutledge.
Helene Rutledge was a career corporate pharmaceutical and health and wellness executive until she suddenly found herself unwilling to take the very products that she was in charge of developing. So, she left, co-founded Upgraid, and flipped the script on synthetic quick fixes. Now she’s behind Upgraid’s line of fully organic, scientifically tested supplements designed to be both safe and effective. Formerly, Rutledge was chief innovation officer, New Avon, in charge of infrastructure, implementation and virtual development. While there, she led a development team that launched the Espira Nutritional Supplement line and achieved a no animal testing claim for the company’s entire NA portfolio. Prior to that, Rutledge was vice-president, R&D, NBTY (Nature’s Bounty Co.), and before then, head of global open innovation, GlaxoSmithKline; and director, global clinical supplies, Pfizer. She holds an EMBA degree from New York University Stern School of Business; and BEchE, Chemical Engineering degree in Chemistry from Manhattan College. Rutledge lives in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood and enjoys an active lifestyle, recovering from rotator cuff surgery but itching to get back in the water for triathlon training.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us your backstory?
Iwas a career corporate pharmaceutical and health and wellness executive for companies such as Pfizer GlaxoSmithKline, where I was head of Global Open Innovation, and Avon, where I was chief innovation officer. I am a person who likes to think big and get things done, so my innovation roles had the mixed blessing of giving me access to cutting-edge technologies and ideas that tasked me to compel large organizations to see the need to change for the future. My motivation to change came when I got pregnant and started to worry about exposure to synthetic chemicals. That led me to realize that it’s the chemicals we ingest every day that can be cumulatively more dangerous to our health. I found myself unwilling to take the very products that I was in charge of developing. My passion for change was to disrupt the narrow, profit-focused view of big pharma and create people-centered solutions. So, I left the corporate world to co-found Upgraid, to help people un-pharma themselves with products that are both effective and better for people and the planet.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I co-founded Upgraid with the belief that real wellness doesn’t come from synthetic chemical quick fixes. We are using organic, clinically supported ingredients to create products that provide a better solution for everyday health. Our first product contains highly bioavailable turmeric, ashwagandha, ginger root, and tart cherry to promote a healthy response to daily inflammation in the body. I formulated the product to shorten muscle recovery time and reduce daily stress, aches, and soreness with all organic ingredients when taken daily for about two weeks. We are excited to hear from our customers about the difference Upgraid has made in their lives already. Some have experienced results in less than a week.
In your opinion, what do you think makes your company or organization stand out from the crowd?
At Upgraid, we are using a pharmaceutical mindset and process to develop organic products that work, creating a new category of products. We stand out because our nutritional supplement products will not claim results that aren’t supported by science. We stake our reputations on making products that people can trust to be active and better for their bodies and the planet by taking a preventative, daily health approach to get a little better every day.
Ok, thank you for that. I’d like to jump to the main focus of this interview. Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us? What was your idea? What was the reaction of the naysayers? And how did you overcome that?
During my Executive MBA studies, our visit to China included seeing a traditional Chinese medical facility, and I was fascinated with the differences between eastern and western medical practices. My idea was to use elements of western science to curate effective ingredients and provide holistic health products. However, in every big corporate role I had since that visit, I tried to get support for research in this area but was denied approval every time. The naysayers claimed that, financially, these products would be a niche market at best and never justify the work and money needed to develop them. Technically, many western scientists doubted they worked at all.
I have always been impatient with the pace of change, but the world must provide the environment for ideas to be successful. I ultimately overcame the naysayers with a combination of patience and working outside the system to create a startup that would start a new reality. The need for more natural products has been a steadily growing consumer trend over the past several years. Still, the industry can’t even define what “natural” means, leading to more consumer confusion and frustration. So, now the demand is established, and Upgraid is filling the need with science-backed organic products.
In the end, how were all the naysayers proven wrong?
We’ve just launched and already have a solid subscriber base and partners that are leaders in nutrition such as Sam Kass, Obama’s former chef and advisor, foodie writer Cameron Rogers, and a host of athletes and fitness leaders, such as U.S. wrestling champion Reece Humphrey. Best of all are the testimonials from our customers that our product has made a huge positive impact on their daily lives.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful to who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I would say my children helped me to take this leap. Becoming a mom heightened my instincts for choosing very carefully what I put in my body and theirs and started the journey that led to Upgraid. Having children also puts a focus on making a better world for their futures, and I wanted my legacy to be that I created positive change. When I met my co-founder, Justin Kamine, we aligned on wanting to do good things with good people, and what better idea could I wish for my children. Both challenge me every day, and I am grateful for seeing the world through their eyes.
It must not have been easy to ignore all the naysayers. Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share the story with us?
My Dad was a New York City police sergeant who always challenged me to work hard, do the right thing, and to improve and do good things for others. However, growing up in the Bronx, I also learned that the world isn’t fair and that you must learn to adapt and find the gray areas to get ahead. My parents taught me a valuable lesson that it is essential to stand up to bullies. As a kid, we sat on benches during lunch, and I was assigned to the end seat and would getting pushed off and laughed at when I would fall on the floor. Bronx code would not let you tell the teacher, so I suffered over this until my mom noticed some bruises. My father sat me down and asked why I didn’t think I had a right to sit at the table with everyone else. When I explained how the kids pushed me, he told me to hang on tight to my seat. From that day forward, I kept my seat and my ability to stand up to bad behavior.
Based on your experience, can you share five strategies that people can use to harness the sense of tenacity and do what naysayers think is impossible? (Please share a story or an example for each)
1. Embrace experiences that push you to uncomfortable limits.
I believe that people have more potential than they ever explore. One strategy I have used in my life, in general, is to take on challenges that require every ounce of my effort and that I know I did the best I possibly could. I did my first Olympic-distance triathlon to benefit the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. It was the first time I pushed myself like this athletically, and completing it not only increased my confidence, but it benefited a good cause, and, in this experience, I met three of my best friends that are still in my life to this day. Many times, when I am facing a challenge that seems impossible, I call on that same inner strength that pushed me during the race, and it gives me the resilience to go on.
2. Set big goals, but monitor your daily progress and adapt.
Trying to accomplish a big goal has many psychological hurdles. As the leader of disruptive change, I have found that people who benefit from the status quo look for the opportunity to exploit any reason to undermine progress. A strategy I have used is to set the vision for the general direction but “load the deck” with some quick wins along the way to get positive momentum and support. Regular monitoring allows you to see patterns and adapt. Setting these interim goals also makes the endgame feel more achievable. In business, most big projects are not marathons but a series of sprints with rest in between to regroup and redirect so you don’t go off course. At Upgraid, we believe in making small changes to get a little better every day. We launched our first product in six months, compared to 18–24 months, which is standard in a big company. We believe it is better to get our products in consumers’ hands to start benefitting them sooner and to give us a chance to incorporate their feedback as we continuously improve our product.
3. If you want to go far, go together and so bring others with you, even the negative ones.
Early in my career, when I encountered people who didn’t agree with my views, I found ways to work around them. I didn’t realize I was planting the seeds for those same people to undermine my work in subtle ways later by withholding support or with a negative whisper in the right ear. Luckily, I had the gift of great feedback and learned that my style was hurting me because my desire to go fast was perceived as a lack of respect for their point of view. Moving into the innovation space, I then realized that diverse perspectives yield better solutions every time! It takes time and effort, but understanding why people are rejecting your ideas can make them even stronger. Building successful teams also benefit from diversity; “group think” is the outcome when everyone is too alike, but if you are consciously choosing people with opposite personalities and perspectives leads to richer solutions. Finally, when everyone feels heard, it is less likely that projects will be torpedoed out of nowhere. I score off the charts as an intuitive thinker (N on the Myers-Briggs profile). In past roles, I have purposely found a person with predominantly S thinking to challenge me, even though at times I was pulling out my hair with frustration.
4. Be a lifetime learner since all your education is obsolete almost immediately.
The pace of change in the world has accelerated, and it is no longer possible to rely on formal education to equip you for all you need to do in a lifetime of work. We have all heard about people who spent their entire career with one company or in one job, but it is now commonplace to change jobs every two to three years. I was ahead of this trend because of my focus on change and innovation, and it has served me well to be always learning and challenging my assumptions. One great example is when I first met my Upgraid co-founder, Justin Kamine, he asked me to make a fully organic product that would work to help with daily inflammation. I told him that was impossible — of course, I thought I knew this answer immediately, having just recently been the VP of R&D for Nature’s Bounty Vitamins, but it nagged me that something may have happened since then. I did some research and found that new ingredients have been developed that made it possible, and that’s how we launched Upgraid.
5. Don’t lose your sense of wonder
The worst thing that can happen is to become cynical when you aren’t able to achieve your goals. I used to laugh at the expression that “old age is when a narrow waist and a broad mind change places,” but sadly, I see so many people lose the willingness to believe that things can get better. The ultimate victory of naysayers is when you allow them to make you give up. One strategy to combat this is to remember your sense of wonder. For some people, it is what you loved when you were eight years old. For others, it is nature or something beautiful. Whatever that is, finding time to reconnect with that emotion can rekindle the memory and positivity of striving for an important goal.
What is your favorite quote or personal philosophy that relates to the concept of resilience?
I was not born with roses in my chest to be afraid of thorns. I was born to bloom in spite of them.