Take Care of Yourself First. Being a CEO is like an athlete: You need to manage your time and energy for peak performance. Honoring and committing time to yourself to re-energize, eat and sleep well and connect with loved ones will greatly help how effective you will be with your company.
As a part of our series about strong women leaders, we had the pleasure of interviewing Judy Yee.
Judy Yee is the CEO and Co-Founder of K-Zen, a maker of cannabis-infused drinks committed to normalizing cannabis and inspiring new ways for consumers to enjoy its benefits. A seasoned executive with 20+ years in healthy food & beverage, Judy’s expertise in new product innovation, along with her passion for bringing fresh and healthier products to consumers, are the driving forces behind her work to create great tasting cannabis beverages and brands people deeply enjoy and trust.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
The bulk of my career spans over 20 years in the healthy food and beverage space where I held senior-level CPG positions at Nestle, Earthbound Farm and Crystal Geyser. I’ve always maintained a healthy and active lifestyle, but after I had my daughter I took a few years off from both work and a pretty dedicated fitness routine. Once she was a little older, I decided to get back into my fitness routine but found my recovery to be longer and harder. Remedies I’d used in the past such as acupuncture weren’t as effective.
So, I was encouraged by some friends to try incorporating low doses of cannabis into my daily routine but was initially unsure. To provide a bit of context, I was born in Taiwan and my family emigrated to the States when I was young. My father is an ex-military officer and we grew up in a fairly conservative household where I had to overcome many cultural differences. He strongly believed in President Reagan’s war on drugs campaign “Just Say No,” so I had a very negative, but false, perception of cannabis — including its effect on people and the image it projected on those who used it. However, once I tried it, I quickly discovered a whole new outlook on self-care and well-being.
I was extremely fortunate I could leverage my food and beverage background and started researching and experimenting with cannabis. It was challenging (in a good way), and eventually, I found and partnered with, a team of highly skilled food scientists and cannabis experts. Together, we created great tasting cannabis beverages and that’s when I co-founded K-Zen, a maker of delicious and effective cannabis-infused drinks.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Moving from the traditional, Fortune 500 CPG corporate companies to a public advocate for cannabis was not easy. It took awhile for me to get comfortable sharing my story publicly — especially as a mom to a young child who’s active in her school community. But telling my conservative parents was the most challenging. How do I explain that I left a thriving CPG career to start a cannabis beverage company?
I finally found the right moment to tell my mom on one of my trips home as we prepared dinner together. The Chinese word for cannabis is a bit crude (it’s pronounced as “da ma”) so I was looking up other alternative words, but there simply wasn’t any. So I mustered up the courage to finally tell her what kind of drinks my company was making. To my surprise, she reacted with curiosity and asked a lot of questions. It quickly turned into a “Cannabis 101” discussion where we both came away feeling even more connected and supported. Although my mom hasn’t been able to try K-Zen’s products (she lives in WA and interstate commerce is not yet allowed in cannabis), she has now incorporated cannabis topicals into her self-care routine.
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 and a lot of people I’ve spoken with, I think the word ‘edible’ still has a bit of a negative connotation — we all know someone who’s had a bad run-in with a cookie or brownie.
So when I was really thinking about getting into the industry, I spent a lot of time going to dispensaries and taste testing cannabis-infused beverages sold in CA. To make a long story short, I drank too much because I was still not feeling any effects, even after an hour. But then the high hit me like a ton of bricks and lasted for at least 8 hours. I remember thinking, “When is this going to stop?”
After that, I was determined to build a company that would help educate consumers (especially new users) about what to expect from consuming cannabis drinks and to have predictable experiences every time they choose our drinks. I didn’t know this at the time, but many beverage companies were adding cannabis oil straight into the liquid, which was not best practice. Through much research, we found that the cannabis oil needs to be emulsified in order for it to be evenly dispersed in the liquid. It was then that I knew I needed to launch a company and create products people could trust, and that could end up being consumed by someone like me: a Canna-Curious person.
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’ve been very lucky that I’m surrounded by a group of supportive and hard-working people. But the first person who comes to mind is my husband, Craig Yee. He believed in me and my vision and helped me take the leap of faith from leaving my secure CPG job to start my new career in cannabis. How this decision would impact our family and raising our daughter was a huge consideration. He leaned in and stepped up in taking care of our family responsibilities.
Another person is K-Zen’s other co-founder, Soon Yu. Starting a company in such a nascent industry can get pretty lonely and challenging and having him as a true partner in the early beginning was so critical. It was such a huge departure and a big turning point — Soon has skills complementary to mine; he’s also innovative, creative, and possesses that ‘You can do it!’ positive mentality.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
I have an everyday routine that includes meditating for 15 minutes before I do anything else, and before my husband and daughter wake up and start their day. Then it usually includes some form of exercise, like pilates, running or yoga.
In certain high stakes situations — like if I’m preparing for an important stakeholder meeting — I’ll block out 15 to 30 min beforehand to calm my body, energy levels and make sure I’m in the right mindset. I’m all about mental imagery and visualization so I see how the meeting will play out in my mind — sort of a “mental dress rehearsal” so it’s familiar and comfortable. And if I find myself anxious or if something’s starting to affect me in a negative way, I’ll give myself a quick ‘time out’ (even if it’s for five minutes) to reset, count my breaths and clear my mind.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
It’s extremely important. As a female entrepreneur who’s also a person of color, I’m very mindful of who we employ and partner with — in fact, I’m proud to say that 70% of K-Zen employees are people of color.
Bringing together different perspectives and formulating new ideas, whether it’s through a cultural lens or a unique personal experience, helps form better ideas and fuels our creative spark. At K-Zen, we also choose to work with an ecosystem of partners and advisors who share our same beliefs — women and people of color should have equal opportunities to succeed in every industry, not just cannabis.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
- Start by increasing diversity and inclusion at your own company. When I’m in the process of recruiting new talent, of course I look at a candidate’s qualifications and previous work experience. But if I’m choosing between two candidates who have similar qualities, I tend to gravitate towards the one who comes from a different background.
- Give back where, and when, you can. I’m committed to supporting organizations that are moving the needle towards equity and inclusion for all. In September, for example, a portion of our Mad Lilly Spritzer sales were donated to Supernova Women, a non-profit organization empowering women of color to be self-sufficient shareholders in the cannabis industry.
- Mentor and enable entrepreneurs who share the same mission and impact on equity. For many years, I was a mentor with ICA where many of the entrepreneurs I supported were women of color. ICA’s mission is to provide coaching, connections and capital to grow businesses in the Bay Area to close the gender and racial wealth gap. Not only did many of these businesses thrive but many had an exponential effect on creating jobs and wealth creation for women and people of color in their local communities.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
A CEO is ultimately responsible for the company’s successes or failures. While a company’s performance is enabled through the collective work of the company’s employees, the role of the CEO is unique:
Defining the business we are in and what external value we are creating. A CEO should take the aspirational future state and distill it down to the operational level of the business, all while guiding the organization to look ahead. Oftentimes, a CEO can be tempted to go in an entirely new direction because of competition or fear of being left behind on an emerging trend. Having a clear and long-term vision of what business you are in will help a company stay focused and invest resources that will yield stronger outcomes.
Balancing short term and long-term priorities. This is one of the hardest jobs as the CEO, especially as an early stage startup when managing cash is critical. Most often, you are pulled into short term activities because those demand immediate solutions and impacts results that matter the most before your next raise. While the next 6 to 12 months milestones are of the greatest importance, don’t lose sight of the next growth phase of your organization and preserve / hedge for sustainability.
Nurturing the company’s values and standards. This is arguably the most important job of the CEO because a company’s success and failure is greatly determined by the collective contributions of its people. It’s not enough to have these ideas written down, it must be actualized through how a company makes decisions, who to hire, how we handle mistakes and failures, how we celebrate and recognize success, etc. It’s the CEO’s job to continually revisit the relevancy of these values as an organization grows and changes over time.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
- It’s not all strategy talk and holding important business meetings. K-Zen is a relatively new company (we are just under two years old), so we operate like an early-stage startup. I am literally packing bottles of product myself and picking up and dropping off deliveries. There’s no task that’s not within the boundaries of what I should or should not do just because my title is ‘CEO.’
- CEOs don’t have the answers to everything. And I don’t expect my team to think that I do, nor do I want them to feel like they have to come to meetings with every answer. This also ties into the myth that a CEO can be unapproachable, which couldn’t be further from the truth: I’m all for fostering environments where my team and I can collaborate.
- A CEO works nonstop. I work really hard, but I also prioritize a healthy work-life balance. Overall, I try to protect certain times of my day. I’m a mom to a young daughter and really value that ‘transition time’ from the end of my workday to time spent with my family in the evenings. I don’t do any work and don’t check my phone. That in-person connection with loved ones, without any distractions, is so important to me and my mental health.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
I’m the only female on my company’s board of directors. So I don’t really see it as a challenge per se, but more of an asset and opportunity… especially in the cannabis industry where a majority of growth from new users are women. My male peers recognize and respect that I’m coming to the table with deep knowledge and expertise in the healthy food and beverages space, a passion for cannabis, and the ability to operate a business in a highly regulated environment. Gender doesn’t necessarily play a huge role that one might think.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
You might think after spending 20+ years of my career in the healthy food and beverage space I could take the lessons I’ve learned and reapply them at K-Zen. But the reality is it was much harder than I thought it would be. While I was able to use my past experience and knowledge to create K-Zen’s products and the brand itself, there was difficulty in the actual execution of it — the cannabis industry is heavily regulated and dynamic, with very little infrastructure and capabilities to begin with.
To say the least, it was a huge learning curve for me. Thankfully I have my amazing team that brings discipline and helps us propel and accelerate forward with the right level of speed, but also with that high level quality of execution.
Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
Besides having the qualities of ‘The 5 E’s of Effective Leadership,’ I do think there’s a certain level of emotional intelligence and empathy that directly correlates to success. When you’re a CEO it’s about building the cohesiveness of your team. I try to bring out the best version of themselves — not just as employees, but as human beings.
It’s really easy to achieve your goals when you have unlimited money and time, but 99.9% of the time you don’t. Really prioritize mapping out your spending, resources, etc. and set milestones so you can do things the right way. Plan your business and your activities with that in mind. It can make or break startups.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Team collaboration is key. I have a regular check-in with my team on how they are doing overall (both professionally and personally) and how I can be of help or positively enable them, especially since we’re all working remotely these days. If your team is happy and motivated, it’s a win-win for all.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I always ask myself, “Am I doing something each day that is making a positive difference with my team, business partners, family, and community?” Most of the time it’s the little things — a simple act of kindness goes a long way. When I found out there was a high demand for food in my local community, I rounded up my network of friends and we brainstormed what we could do to help. I pulled all of our resources and we ended up buying gift cards for grocery stores and donating them to people in need.
To me, success doesn’t have really anything to do with it. Just be a good person, work with what you have, and set a positive example for others.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Take Care of Yourself First. Being a CEO is like an athlete: You need to manage your time and energy for peak performance. Honoring and committing time to yourself to re-energize, eat and sleep well and connect with loved ones will greatly help how effective you will be with your company.
- Fail Forward. While many great companies are admired and remembered for their great successes, those achievements are often gained through mistakes and failures. It’s about how you learn and strengthen from those experiences where true greatness awaits.
- Trust Your Instinct. Some of the toughest decisions I’ve had to make often came from moments where I didn’t have a great deal of data or facts and where I relied heavily on my judgment / gut instinct. In those moments, I often ask myself “What’s the worst case scenario if I choose this decision?” If the implications are reversible and I can manage those down-sides, I go full steam ahead with greater clarity and confidence. And those decisions almost always turned out to be the best ones for me.
- It’s the People that Matter the Most. Your team is your company’s greatest asset, especially in an early-stage startup. Fostering the right culture from the beginning often separates those businesses who thrive or die. Talent acquisition, development, retainment and teamwork should be at the top of any CEO’s priority.
- You are the Story. Growing up as an Asian American immigrant, I was encouraged to not stand out and be humble. Early on in my company pitches, I leaned heavily on the financial viability, business strategy / model and spoke of myself as a supporting point. I quickly realized how much more compelling (and authentic) the story was as I continued to share more of myself — my background, why I’m in this business, and my relentless drive to achieve K-Zen’s overall mission. And it became so much more fun along the way, too!
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Calling attention to the global water crisis. When I was at Crystal Geyser, I became hyper aware of the lack of access of clean water around the world and how that affects every aspect of someone’s life, the local community and economy, education, etc. And especially how it affected women and girls disproportionately.
According to the CDC, an estimated 790 million people (11% of the world’s population) live without access to an improved water supply. There are millions of women and girls around the world who spend hours each day to collect clean water for their families. Which pulls them out of any potential ability to work, go to school, or participate in other positive ways in their community.
According to UN Women, increasing girls’ education attainment and advancing women’s participation in the workforce account for nearly 50% of economic growth in many developing countries. Access to clean water has exponential impact across global communities.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Know Your Self Worth.” This has been a quote that has guided me personally and professionally. It’s something my father has said to me at times when I felt like I was at a crossroads — should I stay in something because it’s familiar and comfortable but not fulfilling, or unleash my full potential to pursue something that is unknown, risky, and unpredictable? As women, we often are being judged or defined by what others expect of us or how we’re perceived vs. the reality. It is in those moments where we most honor our own truths and no one else’s.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
Michelle Obama. She redefined the role and image of First Lady not only because she was the first First Lady of color, but by her words and actions. She has her own unique voice and platform that’s equally as powerful and compelling as her husband. Her focus on helping families lead healthier lives and empower young girls across the world to go to school and stay in school resonated with me on a personal level.
Throughout my career I’ve seen first-hand how early education and access to healthy food choices are paramount to an individual’s lifetime health. As a mother, I have admired how she raised her two daughters through eight years in the White House under intense spotlight. She also seems to be a woman who doesn’t take herself too seriously and would be fun to have a meal with.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.