Kari Warberg Block of EarthKind: “Perspectives, values, skillsets, passions and collaborations”

Perspectives, values, skillsets, passions and collaborations. Women really bring so much needed uniqueness to the table. In fact, it’s been studied that female entrepreneurs focus more on collaboration, are more relationship-oriented, and have ranked slightly better in emotional intelligence competency than men, making for great leaders. Women founders also have the power to then create […]

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Perspectives, values, skillsets, passions and collaborations. Women really bring so much needed uniqueness to the table. In fact, it’s been studied that female entrepreneurs focus more on collaboration, are more relationship-oriented, and have ranked slightly better in emotional intelligence competency than men, making for great leaders. Women founders also have the power to then create a women-friendly workplace environment and culture, helping to set the standard and create more equitable corporate culture from the top-down.

As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kari Warberg Block, Author and CEO/Founder of EarthKind.

Kari Warberg Block, an unlikely disruptor, challenged an industry that by its very nature is toxic. As the Founder & CEO of EarthKind®, Kari discovered that 98% of pest control products sold were poison & kill methods, so she set out to invent a better solution: plant-based pest control powered by nature, becoming the first to develop, manufacture, and commercialize poison-free rodent and insect repellents for farm and home use. Once a mom on food stamps, Kari built EarthKind® into the 7-figure company it is today, and has achieved a lot, including the launch of her debut novel Gathering Around the Table: A Story of Purpose-Driven Change through Business, nationwide product distribution, carbon neutrality, being selected as an Ernst & Young “Entrepreneurial Winning Women,” working with the National Women’s Business Council to advise the SBA, Congress and the White House on policy that impacts women in business, and receiving the 2019 GMDC Retail Champions of Change award for her role as an inspirational industry leader.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! 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?

Well it started when I was about 5 years old. I can still remember the day I woke up to my purpose, though I didn’t know it at the time. It was shortly after I saw a shampoo commercial of a young blonde girl washing her hair, she looked so happy and cool, that I decided I wanted to be that girl. Naturally I begged my parents to buy me the shampoo bottle, I had to have it. When I finally got it, the promise given to me by the sweet blonde girl was broken — I was met with utter disappointment as the chemicals in it burned my skin and scalp, it was a total let down.

That’s the moment I became a conscious consumer, wanting to bring everything about a product’s brand promise and lifecycle into light. I started to wonder, what happened to bottles after they were thrown away? My dad, who was an entomologist, soon after brought me to “The Away” — AKA Kills Dump in Staten Island, that nation’s largest dumping ground. To my horror, I saw the miles and miles of garbage and waste, and it was then that I also made the conscious decision that I didn’t want to use plastic, chemicals, or anything else harmful to the earth.

So, feeling a deep connection to nature and all living creatures has really always been in my DNA, especially being the daughter of an entomologist and wife of a farmer. When it comes to my career path with pest control, our farm, like many farms across the country, suffered greatly from rodent infestations and the costly damage that came with it. But growing up, there was only one solution for this — poison and kill pest control methods. Understanding the damage and hazardous effects pesticides have on not only the pest, but also on the health and safety of ourselves, our pets, and our environment, I was tired and angry of this being the only answer, especially in learning that at the time, 98% of pest control products on the market were poison-and-kill based.

Like many entrepreneurs, I started out of necessity. I was a mom of two and despite our best efforts, we were struggling to get by. My “a-ha” moment occurred when a mouse ran up my leg! My first instinct was to repel it, not kill it. I had extensive knowledge on herbs, essential oils, and background with making potpourri that I used to sell locally, so I began thinking, what if scents in nature could repel pests? And with that, I began EarthKind® at my kitchen table, putting herbal mixes together and testing to see what combinations proved effective with repelling pests. So, with a lot of tenacity, passion, patience and hard-work, EarthKind® was born!

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

When I was brought into the EY Winning Woman network, life became so much more interesting because of the group of inspirational women I was now a part of — who all had amazing stories! We have developed bonds, and we always help one another when asked. It’s fun to see how they’re disrupting their respective industries with their products and services, and to also be a part of their growth journey. One of the most interesting and moving moments was when I watched fellow EY Winning Woman Jamie Kern Lima, Co-Founder and CEO of IT Cosmetics, grow her business on QVC, and when I was with her on the night she signed the papers on a 1+B deal. I’ve watched S’well, Hint, and several others rise to now become nationally known brands. It’s all about women supporting women, and not only is it interesting, but it’s inspiring and exciting!

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?

When I first started out and succeeded in getting my EarthKind® Fresh Cab® Botanical Rodent Repellent into the market, I had no idea I would need EPA registration in order to sell it. I’ll never forget, we had a local news crew come in to cover the launch, and I was thrilled because the day after, there was a line about 2 blocks long of people wanting to purchase it to help with rodent control on their farms. That proud moment was short-lived, however, because the very next day, an EPA inspector walked in and said, “Do you know it’s illegal to sell this product without a federal license?”

My heart shuddered, I kept thinking, what’s illegal about this? It’s made with all natural ingredients, how can this be illegal? Well, turns out, if you’re going to do anything to repel a pest, you need to get it Federal EPA registered, and not only had this never been done before because you can’t take something natural and get it registered, he informed me it was also going to cost around 2million dollars to do. They told me it would be impossible.

At that point, we were barely making ends meeting. Living off around 18,000 dollars a year, I did everything I could on my own, selling my beloved camper, packhorse, and produce on my farm. I applied for grants, got everything scientifically proven, and partnered with local, state, and federal institutions. It took about four years and a ton of hard work, patience and faith, but I finally received EPA registration, and officially launched EarthKind® afterwards!

Truthfully, I’m grateful for this experience because it brought to light that I would go to the ends of the earth to bring this safer solution to the market. It affirmed to me that this was my purpose, and I tapped into every ounce of drive, passion, patience, and perseverance I had to make it happen. There was a point that I toyed with the idea of giving up, I didn’t understand how, barely breaking even, I could begin to tackle such a hurdle. But my response to being told something is impossible has always been “Nothing is impossible, so how can I approach it differently? Who can I get to help me with this?” So in hindsight, I can finally find this mistake “funny,” because if it weren’t for this test, I may not have learned that I can always depend on my sense of purpose and determination to guide me through any crisis to keep my vision alive.

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?

Absolutely, I’ve received such great guidance and help along my EarthKind® journey. I was lucky to have a state ecosystem that supported me in the early years. As I mentioned, the state of North Dakota helped me receive the grants to gain EPA Registration that allowed me to bring my product to market. The Bank of North Dakota helped in the early years with gap financing (the only state owned bank in the USA); The USDA helped with a farm diversification grant so that I could commercialize products made from plant-based ingredients that we grew. The list goes on. As ND is a small state, new job creation and industry diversification was noticed.

Sister Thomas, President of University of Mary, was very inspiring to me. It was rare for an entrepreneur to live out their values in the business world, to use them as an operating platform. Sister Thomas knew that I wanted to live life, all 360 degrees of it, according to the Benedictine values of community, hospitality, moderation, prayer, respect for persons, and service. Even though I wasn’t Catholic, these were values that I lived by, and wanted to grow a business with them as well. She encouraged me to attend college at the university, and I did. She was ahead of her time in making higher-education available to those in rural communities, she stated that it was because of people like me. I eventually won the highest alumni award for students that live, work and play with the same Benedictine values, and she will always be remembered as one of my greatest role models and inspirations.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

My favorite books are: Five Stars: The Communication Secrets to Get from Good to Great, by Carmine Gallo, and pretty much all of John Maxwell’s books. It’s truthfully challenging to pick just one, but I always refer back to these choices because not only are they inspiring and have a nod to theology, but they all lay the groundwork and provide deep knowledge and valuable tips on how to effectively lead, communicate and influence others. As a CEO and entrepreneur, I consider these essentials.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

“Look deep into nature and then you will understand everything better” — Albert Einstein

If I’ve learned one thing, it’s that everything we need can be found in nature, it holds all the answers. When I first started my entrepreneurial journey, I turned to nature, not against it, to solve the most difficult pest problems without poisoning the pest, the planet, or ourselves. In doing so, I discovered that the balsam fir tree produced its own biopesticides specifically to deter rodents away, functioning to prevent rodents from feeding on the monarch butterflies living in the trees or eating its bark for winter nutrition. It’s by looking deep into nature, the natural functioning of its delicate ecosystem, that sparked the idea and understanding that businesses can work in harmony with nature, support sustainable ecosystems, and still be profitable. It’s by looking to the strength of Mother Earth that I’ve understood the true meaning of resilience, and the limitless capacity to heal, grow, and keep moving forward. It’s by looking deep into nature that’s laid the blueprints and propelled me into where I am today.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

My mission is to create a world of protection that works in harmony with nature in all places we live, work, learn, and play. For me, this takes shape in a lot of different ways, from working to eliminate toxic chemicals in our everyday products, to working on policy change, consumer education, sustainable initiatives like pollinator protection, and empowering young entrepreneurs. I strive to make progress and an impact in these areas day in and day out.

When I first started EarthKind®, 98% of pest control products on the market were used poison and kill methods, now, we’ve helped lower consumer reliance on toxic pest control products by 10%, and the EPA was able to ban the 8 most toxic rodenticides on the market because there was no longer a justifiable place for them on the shelves, now that there was an affordable, accessible, safer alternative. Through consumer education, innovation and policy, I hope to reduce consumer reliance on toxic pest control products from 88% to 50% in the next 5 years. This requires a lot of change, including policy work and championing new players in the category. At EarthKind®, we also employ, empower and honor a strong team of handi-capable individuals to give them fulfilling, long-term jobs that suit their abilities and needs. We strive to maintain a 20% handi-capable workforce within our company.

In addition to protecting the planet with our poison-free products, we also work heavily with environmental advocacy and supporting our teachers. This year, EarthKind® launched The Year of the Monarch campaign, a national collective effort to preserve and protect the threatened monarch butterfly population, and to support K-12 teachers across the country, while helping schools eliminate the use of toxic pest control practices. Under this we’ve launched our Harmony Hero Award, which recognizes and supports teachers who are involved in sustainability and environmental education programs aimed at connecting kids with nature. Each month, we spotlight a nominated teacher who will receive complimentary in-service training from an entomologist on Integrated Pest Management (IPM) practices for their school, helping them become safer, healthier places. They’ll also receive sustainable essentials for eco-education and outdoor adventures. The Harmony Hero Award winner will receive a trip for themselves plus three guests to the Kingdom of Monarchs in Mexico for March 2022! We are also partnering with a milkweed seed distributor to plant thousands of milkweed plants on US farms to relieve Monarch butterflies’ food supply shortage, their biggest conservation threat, and working with the American Sustainable Business Council and others to create policy promoting pollinator protection, education and more insect studies.

As a member of the American Sustainable Business Council, I’m also working on policy and advocacy around Childhood Cancer Prevention from environmental toxins, and speaking on panels and webinars to educate on reducing pesticide exposure and its relation to cancer prevention. I also just wrote my first book! Launching March 2021, Gathering Around the Table: A Story of Purpose-Driven Change through Business, is written for aspiring, unconventional entrepreneurs. This novel seeks to inspire, highlight and teach how to access the dormant leader lying deep within all of us, and how to build a new sustainable economy, transform a category, and build profitable businesses around a world that works in harmony with nature.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?

I became an entrepreneur out of necessity. I had to generate income for my family. I started with what I had, where I was. For necessity entrepreneurs like me, here’s what is holding them back:

  1. Market Need for Product: they don’t know how to prove an idea for market need. I saw the market need for non-toxic pest control. I saw it before anyone else as a mom, and nature lover. Chances are, what pains a person the most, is where their passion lies as an entrepreneur.
  2. Money: they don’t have enough money due to school loans for the average 40K dollars needed to start. I started with a .99 cent package of garden seeds. It can be done with resourcefulness and purpose. I’m living proof.
  3. Financial Knowledge: They don’t have the financial knowledge needed, or know their credit score. I took free classes at SBA, and asked for SCORE help. It was enough to get me going.
  4. Finding the Right Advisors: The do not have the right advisors. These can be free. I boldly and courageously asked for help. No one turned me down, because I was so driven and passionate to do this. I ask successful entrepreneurs how often they get asked for help, and they usually say rarely. Long story short: ASK.

Can you share with our readers what you are doing to help empower women to become founders?

As Isaac Newton said, “If I have seen further, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” Networking, learning and receiving advice from strong powerful women has been paramount in my journey, and I hope to reciprocate that by empowering and arming women with tools, resources, and knowledge to help propel their success.

Selected as an Ernst & Young “Entrepreneurial Winning Women,” and as a prior member of the National Women’s Business Council, I’ve advised the SBA, Congress and the White House on policy that impacts women in business, also speaking on numerous women leadership panels, including the “Founded by Women” panel at the Bentonville Film Festival. On my One of a Kind blog, I frequently share advice, how-to’s, and experiences about entrepreneurship, conscious leadership, self-growth and start-ups to help hopefully kickstart and support future female business owners.

I also wrote my book to be a source of inspiration for women entrepreneurs who are starting out “unconventionally,” as I did. I’m hoping to give a voice or a sense of community to those that feel they want to do the impossible, and simply don’t know how to start because they come from a place “outside the norm.” It touches heavily on the importance of value-based decision making as the foundation of conscious leadership, and how making decisions from a place of personal beliefs and strong morals can lead to businesses that are filled not only with financial growth, but also great potential for social impact.

This might be intuitive to you, but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?

Perspectives, values, skillsets, passions and collaborations. Women really bring so much needed uniqueness to the table. In fact, it’s been studied that female entrepreneurs focus more on collaboration, are more relationship-oriented, and have ranked slightly better in emotional intelligence competency than men, making for great leaders. Women founders also have the power to then create a women-friendly workplace environment and culture, helping to set the standard and create more equitable corporate culture from the top-down.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Can you please share 5 things that can be done or should be done to help empower more women to become founders? If you can, please share an example or story for each.

  1. Find your passion, that one thing you know you can do better than anyone else in the world. The one thing you won’t ever give up on. That one thing that will leave the world better because of you.
  2. Find your ideal customer. Every product has a customer. Make sure you have enough of them, or it’s never going to be a viable business.
  3. Find a networking group to help you meet each clearly defined milestone. These groups will change as a business grows.
  4. Know the numbers, and what moves them. Most small businesses don’t make it after 30,000 dollars in revenue a year. 75% of all businesses are small businesses, and 45% of them don’t know their credit score, or what the industry average is for the expenses they have. The only way to know you are hitting the target is to know the numbers.
  5. Find your strengths as a leader, and know your leadership style. The business grows in tandem with the leader.
  6. (Bonus): Don’t hire family to save money. You get what you pay for. Hire what the business truly needs.

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.

This bridges back to the World of Protection movement. A movement focused on nontoxic living and co-existing with nature to empower people to be proactive in protecting their homes, families and environmental ecosystems without harmful chemicals. What does this look like? Passing policy and calling on the industry to regulate toxic chemicals in both our pest control products and everyday household and personal products. Requiring companies to disclose full ingredient and supply-chain transparency. Educating and spreading awareness on the impact of toxic chemicals on our health and environment, and also on the importance of pollinator protection. Taking action to better protect our pollinators through government programs, increasing their food sources, creating nationwide pollinator gardens and preserving their eco-systems. Protecting our children and teachers from pesticide exposure and preventing unsanitary pest issues in schools by enacting nationwide Integrated Pest Management (IPM) programs. Supporting children’s education programs that are focused on connecting them with nature at a young age. Under this initiative, I’m on a mission to recruit teachers, leaders, NGOs, entrepreneurs, social influencers, children, and other companies to help create a World of Protection in all places we live, work, learn and play, where we can each be one-of-a-kind, using our collective energy to focus on purpose, health, and empowerment.

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.

Reese Witherspoon. Not only is she an award-winning actress, but also an activist and successful female entrepreneur that seeks to inspire young women. I remember reading an interview with her where she put it so blankly, saying, “What? Men are entrepreneurs but how dare we be anything more than actresses? We, as women, are expected to stay in our lane — that was the inference…I remember calling one of these other women going, ‘What are we doing about this?”

Her boldness, drive and unapologetic way of fighting for a woman’s place in a male-dominated industry resonates so much with me, especially being in an industry that, especially when I first started off, had little to no women in it. I also can’t help but put pink onto so many things and say, “I think it gives it a little something extra, don’t cha think?” I use this with attorneys and they always laugh. I use this with co-workers and they always laugh. That line, along with Reese, is just so empowering for any female gamechanger, or underestimated individual.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Website: https://www.kariwarbergblock.com/

Check out my new book!: https://www.amazon.com/Gathering-around-Table-Purpose-Driven-Business/dp/1950466205/ref=sr_1_4?crid=29ENTX565A8HB&dchild=1&keywords=gathering+around+the+table+book&qid=1614298402&sprefix=gathering+around+the+%2Caps%2C164&sr=8-4

IG: @Kari_Warberg_Block

Twitter: @KariWBlock

FB: https://www.facebook.com/KariWarbergBlock

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/kariwarbergblock/

EarthKind: www.earthkind.com

IG: @earthkind.living

Twitter: @EarthKindLiving

FB: https://www.facebook.com/earthkindliving

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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