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Ivan Saldana: “To be prepared against surprise is to be trained. To be prepared for surprise is to be educated”

I think that thought leadership is something that is very useful for any creative endeavor. It is a very good way to look for value — to look for blue oceans or spaces that haven’t been occupied. When you identify something with great potential, you then have to understand in what context that potential can be used, […]

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I think that thought leadership is something that is very useful for any creative endeavor. It is a very good way to look for value — to look for blue oceans or spaces that haven’t been occupied. When you identify something with great potential, you then have to understand in what context that potential can be used, that’s again where the subject and the context and efforts of identifying patterns come to life. In my particular profession where I have to develop liquids, brands, products, reasons to believe, this is true and suddenly there is a raw material with a great potential of flavor and smell and that has a story to be told.


As part of our series about how to become known as a thought leader in your industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ivan Saldaña, Co-Founder & Chief Innovation Officer at Casa Lumbre.

Iván Saldaña grew up in Jalisco, one of the most biodiverse regions in all of Mexico and home to the iconic agave. He was fascinated by such natural wonders from his earliest years, leading him to receive his PhD in biology at the University of Sussex, England. Afterward, Iván returned to his homeland in Mexico and began working for international spirits industries in research and development, quality, and environmental impact initiatives. He led the launch of more than 60 products in virtually every spirits category. Then in 2011, Iván and his partners Moisés Guindi and Daniel Schneeweiss, founders of Tequila Milagro, started Casa Lumbre. Casa Lumbre was created to champion Mexico’s raw materials and traditional production methods in sustainable ways while creating “farm to bottle” spirits. At Casa Lumbre, Iván made Montelobos Mezcal (2011), Ancho Reyes (2013), and now in 2020 he has created Abasolo Ancestral Corn Whisky and Nixta Licor de Elote. These two new spirits champion ancestral Mexican corn and use nixtamalization — the ancient cooking technique — for the first time in the industry.

Today, Iván is one of the leading educators in the spirits industry worldwide. He has been recognized as one of the most important entrepreneurs in Mexico, led seminars all over the globe, and authored various scientific papers and books. Iván looks forward to deepening his passion in biological heritage for many spirits to come.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?

My name is Ivan Saldaña and I’m the Master Distiller at Casa Lumbre and an entrepreneur focused on bringing spirits to life that are sensorial, biological and pay homage to Mexico’s cultural heritage. I am trained as a biologist and have a PHD in evolutionary biology, specifically focused on agave plants. My intention was originally to understand the evolutionary solution that these plants require in order to survive. After my studies, I had an opportunity to work for a spirits company, which furthered my knowledge. While my formal studies pertained to the theoretical perspective of what different molecules of the plants create for survival, this gave me the chance to learn how to use my instincts and senses to create a world of flavor and smell.

During my time at the company, and later on, I was able to better understand strategy and innovation. I became fascinated with the process of innovation and eventually, I became a Manager of Innovation. It was then that I learned the craft and techniques of Master Distilling.

10 years ago, I started Casa Lumbre in partnership with my two good friends, Moises Guindi and Danny Schneeweiss, dedicated to producing premium, farm-to-bottle Mexican spirits. Since our inception, we have introduced brands like Montelobos Mezcal, Ancho Reyes Chile Liquor, and Abasolo Ancestral Corn Whisky, to Mexico, America and the world.

Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority about the topic of thought leadership?

I think the opportunity to have a deep immersion in the substance, a specialized understanding of something, is the first step to becoming a thought leader. It is absolutely necessary to have a capacity and sensitivity for context. For me, thought leadership is a mixture of great capacity of understanding for not only the specific knowledge or technique but to go even deeper into the context of where those techniques and base knowledge applies.

I think being an authority comes with creating with something relevant. And when that happens a couple of times, then people may refer to someone as an authority. Still, I truly believe, at least in the world of brands, that every new exercise, every new brand is a new adventure. It is true that understanding the physical and chemical rules on how, for example, to make a liquid or a product is fundamental, but there are also circumstances and context in which that particular liquid has to succeed. And in that sense, it’s a new story.

If someone considers me as a thought leader, it’s likely because I’ve created a couple of successful brands and concepts that people seem to like a lot. But also because through the exercise of what I do as a Master Distiller, I have a very clear congruence or alignment of my perspective. I look at raw materials, reflect and try to create something special. My passion is raw materials, and I believe that to be a great Master Distiller, you have to understand the raw materials and let them speak. By doing that, by making a conscious effort in letting them speak, is how you can achieve an extraordinary product.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

I find it difficult, because often what I find interesting might not seem that way to others. But one anecdote I can share is when I decided to pursue my Ph.D. in England and was absolutely committed to doing it on the agave plant. The trouble was, the agave plant is not naturally predisposed to grow in the UK. So, I had to import a great number of live agave plants — around 2 tons. Because I was already enrolled in the university, I had to obtain a permit to bring the plants into the UK. It gave me a great deal of learning experience. First, I had to deal with a Mexican government in order to get permission to take the plants out of Mexico. I had to make a dark case to foster potential reproduction of the plants outside of a greenhouse and demonstrated that no agave could survive outside of a greenhouse in the UK. Overall, the entire experience, from hiring a car and driving on the opposite side of the road to being able to enter into an airport to unload the cargo plant-by-plant by myself and two other friends into a huge car to driving them back to the biology department to unload and plant them in a greenhouse, offered a number of key learnings. This was a 48-hour operation and it was crazy because the plants were obtained a few hours before from the highlands of Jalisco. I had to move fast if I wanted to recover the plants and not lose them. It was a very complex, technical and human experience for me, and I think it was one of the most exciting and enriching moments of my career.

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

For me, one of the most enriching moments in my professional career was when I had the opportunity to speak at a seminar in Berlin for entrepreneurs in the spirits-making business. They allowed me to speak about authenticity. I have worked very hard to build a rubric to show what is needed for a project to be authentic. I developed multiple steps and subjects that could be built upon to ensure you could create a product and a brand that could succeed and be recognized. That particular event that I had the chance to express it to a larger public opened up so many doors to me to have conversations with different people. I finally got feedback on what other people who were also in the business of entrepreneurship were thinking about.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define what a ‘Thought Leader’ is. How is a thought leader different than a typical leader? How is a thought leader different than an influencer?

I feel leadership can be reflected in multiple ways. Sometimes, you inspire and motivate others, and in that sense, I believe there are many people that can truly lead. Thought leadership, I think, is more about creating context — the ability to connect two things that are not apparently connected. Thought leadership is required to create new things because you need to be able to deal with the abstract, with the things that are still not done, and in order to do that, you have to understand a detailed problem and move around the context to find solutions. And that requires an integral effort to forge a path or indicate what the solution is. Once something has been established, or the key elements are put together to bring a solution to light, a thought leader can connect the dots and other leaders can come into play. You can have these forces that move people in order to develop and innovate. But I believe that is the first requirement of thought leadership — filling the gaps, conceptualizing something that is new and useful.

Can you talk to our readers a bit about the benefits of becoming a thought leader. Why do you think it is worthwhile to invest resources and energy into this?

Anybody can, in a way, exercise the power of connecting the dots. But in order to be creative, one should take interest in all things, even those outside of a certain subject that they specialize in, and learn from other areas. I believe for that to happen, you need to be as knowledgeable in general culture, to be generalistic and be in love with the capacity to do the logical exercise, flowing from general to the particular just as much as people like going from the particular to the general. And trying to, for example, make metaphors is something very useful. Try to understand and take away the object that interacts but to define how two things are connected together — the mechanism of interaction. Then later, it’s possible to move to the things that are in connections because someone is able to identify how that pattern or interaction may occur in other circumstances. And when those patterns become evident, then it becomes possible to study the deeper capacity for the specific component but also study the context and new things and propositions and solutions that can be created.

Let’s talk about business opportunities specifically. Can you share a few examples of how thought leadership can help a business grow or create lucrative opportunities?

I feel to dedicate time and effort to being a thought leader is diligent, but you also need to enjoy it. So in a way, yes you invest, but you have to invest in something you like. Sometimes, you may like things that are totally disconnected. For example, you may understand psychology but you would like to understand how the markets work or a deeper understanding of the specific kind of products you sell. But then you start to question why people like to buy certain things. And I take this time to understand who we are as individuals and our deepest motivations. Thinking is not just about what is outside, but also about the emotions. And I believe the best leaders, not just thought leaders, but any kind of leader, are constantly trying to understand their sentiments/feelings and understand aspects such as conflict, the tension between two things, how two truths can coexist from different perspectives.

Ok. Now that we have that behind us, we’d love to hear your thoughts about how to eventually become a thought leader. Can you share 5 strategies that a person should implement to become known as a thought leader in their industry. Please tell us a story or example (ideally from your own experience) for each.

Well, I think that thought leadership is something that is very useful for any creative endeavor. It is a very good way to look for value — to look for blue oceans or spaces that haven’t been occupied. When you identify something with great potential, you then have to understand in what context that potential can be used, that’s again where the subject and the context and efforts of identifying patterns come to life. In my particular profession where I have to develop liquids, brands, products, reasons to believe, this is true and suddenly there is a raw material with a great potential of flavor and smell and that has a story to be told. Let us take for example the agave itself or let’s talk about corn — using corn from Mexico, there is a story there. Explaining that corn originated in Mexico, that’s a powerful point. And then understanding the diversity of corn that is created in Mexico. So then we have a very good starting point that if you have specialized knowledge to get deep into it, it’s going to be easy to identify that potential. Then comes the next two questions: how can corn be transformed into something other people will value and then what people are valuing, which is the context in which a product made from corn could be valued. My profession is in spirits, so I know that the context is a spirit that is well done with respect to the environment, so I’ve been immersed in the trends and interests for consumers, and I’m personally passionate about and a lot of what I do are products I like myself. So I would say this is the way that I believe thought leadership can be created. And once this group of arguments marries around the corn, once the product has been perfected and it’s delicious and great and there’s a story that is congruent in itself and its relationship with other things, a team can take that and bring it to new levels. So my leadership is expressed by creating congruence in the process, in the raw materials in the product and in the people who will buy this product. That’s what I bring into the company and then many other talented people with their own skills and ability will be able to take that and get inspired — not about me, but really about what has been conceived — and can take it to a higher level. From defining the packaging, knowing how to sell it, creating the messaging, negotiating deals, my job is to bring that specific substance in connection with a context and materialize that and allow others to do with it what they already know to do.

I will try to share a few things that can help someone to become a thought leader. I think one of the first ones is to listen and spend time listening through reading. There needs to be time to just think and get deeper into the context and into the substance. Without that time, it’s impossible to develop that thought and identify patterns.

The second thing that I think is fundamentally important is to not be afraid of sharing whatever the idea or thought being created is with others to see their reactions. It needs to be a dialogue. It could be more formal but it could be just having a dialogue on the subject with other members of the community or company. And then to see what they have to say about those ideas. I think many ideas don’t exercise a deeper level of analysis because people don’t dedicate time to reflect on what they have in their minds with others. It’s important to speak to the industry, and it’s important to speak to your peers and consumers. I think there’s a lot of work to do between communicating with other people outside the company also. Thought leaders are about polishing and producing a relationship between context and substance and that can only be achieved by exercising thought and putting out ideas and concepts and then listening to what’s going on.

I have seen some discussion that the term “thought leader” is trite, overused, and should be avoided. What is your feeling about this?

I think that the concept of thought leadership can be very broad, and I’m not sure that this specific concept is immediately understood by everybody. I think that when thought leadership is being used as a concept, it has to be defined a little bit more. My feeling is that words like thought or leadership, whether they’re used separately or together, are a little overused so it’s important to define what’s being referred to for whoever’s speaking.

What advice would you give to other leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?

My advice to those that are in the task of leading by creating or bringing knowledge into life, is that when a solution cannot be found immediately, it’s important to go out of a specific circumstance or thinking to go into the context of the situation. I believe there is a time to rest and to play when a solution cannot be found by concentrating or putting all your efforts into finding a pattern. When there’s a shadow that you can’t see completely, the best choice is to get a picture in your mind and do something else. Your understanding can get clarified like a photo gets revealed. You need to have a calm mind, and I think meditation is extremely powerful. Breaking your stress and then going back to a problem can be key to finding a solution.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

If I could contribute to one cause to bring the most amount of good to people, that would be to participate in or contribute to transforming experiences. I believe people are truly moved to new places when they are taken out of their comfort zone. Even if it’s for a relatively small period of time, it allows them to reach an environment with a totally unexpected space to interact. I believe that there are particular times during our lives where having these types of experiences can truly change you. For example, when we are going from being children to becoming teenagers. At 11 or 12 years old, I think that a trip, for example, teaches you to have empathy for others. The ability to have empathy for others and to have a challenge during a prolonged amount of time can truly change our perspectives. I believe equally that later on in life when you are going from a teenager to an adult, the opportunity to work hard at something, in particular, is extremely formative. I think that these two moments, moving from childhood to teenage years and then from teenager to adult years, when the rules and demands change, that’s when all these things can happen. If I could help with something, it would be to promote situations of self-reflection and self-actualization.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” C.G. Jung

“To be prepared against surprise is to be trained. To be prepared for surprise is to be educated.” James P. Carse

We are blessed that very prominent leaders in business and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a lunch or breakfast with? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I think that one of the biggest thought leaders in this world is Humberto Marurana. He was really trying to understand from substance and context how our brains develop and how this world is constructed because it’s really the system that processes reality. How the marks that previous experiences create inevitably better my future experiences of reality. He developed this idea by doing experiments in the nervous systems of different organisms of different levels of complexity. The ideas of self-creation were so fascinating, and that he’s now in a totally different place and profession, but one that is still congruent to his identity as a neurobiologist. Now he is in the world of spirituality, trying to understand how humans deal with their feelings, how those feelings are constructed, and what the spiritual world is from a philosophical perspective. This is an example of a thinker that was able to go into a different specialty because he was equally obsessed with context as he was with substance. I truly believe he is one of the most exciting people out there as a thought leader.

How can our readers follow you online?

I can be found on Instagram @agabiotico and Iván Saldaña on Facebook.

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