When you get knocked down — and you will get knocked down — you have to be able to pick yourself back up, time and time again, and keep going. That’s resilience.
Being a founder, entrepreneur, or a business owner can have many exciting and thrilling moments. But it is also punctuated with periods of doubt, slump, and anxiety. So how does one successfully and healthily ride the highs and lows of Entrepreneurship? In this series, called “How To Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur” we are talking to successful entrepreneurs who can share stories from their experience. I had the pleasure of interviewing Karli Miller-Hornick.
Karli Miller-Hornick is the co-owner, co-founder and CEO of Head & Heal, a CBD producer and regenerative and organic hemp cultivator in Cortland, New York. Her company started producing hemp and CBD in 2017, including high potency CBD tinctures, but she’s been an organic vegetable farmer since 2010. She grows over a hundred varieties of organic vegetables, including carrots for the fast casual salad provider Sweetgreen in New York City. Head & Heal sells produce at farmer’s markets and through their 400-member Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, a symbiotic relationship between the farmer and the community.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I help to run the farm, but I didn’t start in farming. I graduated from Cornell University School of Hotel Administration in 2012. While at Cornell I became interested in agriculture and enrolled in a program called Groundswell, a nonprofit to teach and foster beginning farmers. My business partner Allan Gandelman was one of my classmates — that’s where we met. We toured dozens of local farms and I realized that I am not built to be a farmer. But, my biggest takeaway from the program was that farmers hate the sales side of the business; they want to be in the fields, not in an office in front of a computer. That’s when I realized the value of my position; I wanted to work for a startup that helps small farms thrive.
When I was finishing at Cornell, I was advised to apply to large hotel corporations, think Hilton, Marriot, and so on. I bought a suit — which I never ended up wearing. I just donated the suit a few years to a women’s business center and it still had its tags on it. After that, I got my dream job at a software startup called Farmigo to help small farms manage their CSAs. Before this, farmers did everything on paper — but at Farmigo we used a cloud-based software. I worked with that company for five or six years, and I worked with 300 farmers, bringing their programs into the 21st century. I then got Allan trained on the software.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
After I left Farmigo I wasn’t really sure what my next step should be, I just knew I wanted to help small farms thrive and I wanted to have a big impact. I reached out to Allan and I said ‘I have all these ideas, I just need a farm to work with.’ So I took over management of the farm’s CSA program. We’re up north; so in the winter, we were having a problem keeping our farmers employed year-round. We were always looking for a value-added product, struggling to find something that would fill that gap during the winter. In 2017 we doubled the size of the CSA, but then Allan got Lyme disease and things started falling apart on the farm. Serendipitously, one of our former colleagues in Colorado sent us some CBD oil. After several months of using CBD oil, Allan’s symptoms started to alleviate. Then, in 2018, New York started issuing hemp licenses, and a hemp farmer asked us for help planting. We helped him and that’s when we got the idea to apply for a hemp license, just as New York started opening up.
We got license number five in NY! We decided then and there that we wanted to do everything, start to finish, in our business. So, we acquired a processing license. In 2018, we started growing hemp.
In your opinion, were you a natural born entrepreneur or did you develop that aptitude later on? Can you explain what you mean?
As a child I was always independent; I didn’t like to hold my mothers’ hand. In college I did entrepreneur competitions, I was always on the journey to becoming an entrepreneur. But pretty soon after our starting Head & Heal, I had really bad Imposter Syndrome, and it led to deep depression. I went into the darkest place in my life, and it took a long time to recover. More on that later.
Was there somebody in your life who inspired or helped you to start your journey with your business? Can you share a story with us?
I definitely have to give all that credit to Allan, my business partner. Allan has taken me under his wing and mentored me in many ways, including teaching me how to raise money and run a business. Allan has always been extremely open to my ideas. He brought me in as a partner and, even in my darkest days, trusted me to run the company. He believed in me even when I had trouble believing in myself.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I think we’re in a unique situation. It’s more about the way that we care about the people and the planet — we actually care about our customers. Cannabis is such a green rush. But farming is never an industry about making money. We’re about sustaining the community, whether it’s by providing food, jobs or medicine. We’re proving that we can do this through regenerative farming.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Empathy, vulnerability, and gratitude.
Empathy: The best way to understand your customers is to listen to them. A lot of the people who use Head & Heal products are suffering. They’re in a really dark place, some of them, and I know what it’s like to be there. I never felt truly listened to in a doctor’s office. In my case, I was getting support from family and also a treatment plan. Empathy is essential to understanding your customers and employees. Covid-19 has really brought to the surface the importance of having family in our lives. Life is uncertain, and I think it’s important to spend our lives in a positive way and to be there for other people. That’s what really matters.
Vulnerability: Acknowledging your own vulnerability is important. In male leadership and male-dominated companies, vulnerability is rarely spoken about. Men were taught to never show weakness — but the only way to learn is to admit that you don’t know everything. Hemp, CBD and cannabis are new fields; Allan and I traveled the whole country going to conferences seeking answers. We figured out that nobody has the answers because nobody has done this before — we’re pioneers. We’re also smart people and we can figure out how to do this. I would rather try and possibly fail, than not try at all. Vulnerability is all about leaving your comfort zone. And how else will you evolve as an entrepreneur?
Gratitude. It’s important to be grateful for all that we have in our lives. When I was in that depression, I would be in bed all day. My mood was dark and it was like being at the bottom of a well. A lot of my time was spent thinking about ending my life. But when I contemplated gratitude, I would think about how lucky I was to be in a comfortable bed, to have a house, to have food. I get to do something every day that I am so extremely passionate about. I am so grateful to my parents who provided me support and made sure I got a great education. I definitely recognize my privilege to be in this position and I hope one day to pass that down.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
I feel like I haven’t gotten too much bad advice, I feel very fortunate that I received a lot of good advice. The advice that I don’t agree with, I don’t follow. At Cornell, I was advised to interview with big hotel corporations. I could never bring myself to sit in on those interviews as I felt I could never answer the questions genuinely. Instead, I decided to hunt down my dream job… and eventually after much persistence, I found it.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them create a work culture in which employees thrive and do not “burn out” or get overwhelmed?
I pay them a living wage. This is a critical part of showing empathy towards employees. We really try to get to know our employees and form their job to their specific skill set. We sometimes try to build the person around the job description. That gives people autonomy, ownership of their work and fulfillment.
What would you advise other business leaders to do in order to build trust, credibility, and Authority in their industry?
Be truthful. We encounter a lot of shady characters in this industry. Truth and integrity go a long way. If you have an honorable reputation, people will do business with you.
Can you help articulate why doing that is essential today?
We find that some people hold on to what they consider “proprietary” information — but I think it’s good to share information. Nothing is proprietary on our farm; we host tours on our farm and we share knowledge. The more people who are growing natural plant medicines, the merrier.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
I think that many people think they need a lot of money to start a business. They raise a lot of money and they give up a lot of equity — and they never get to launch even a minimal viable product. We didn’t build out a whole facility at first, we built our way up. You can start small. You can build a company from the ground up without giving up your equity and your power.
Can you describe to our readers why no matter how successful you are as an entrepreneur, you will always have fairly dramatic highs and lows? Particularly, can you help explain why this is different from someone with a “regular job”?
I think the biggest difference from a regular job is that you’re not just responsible for your livelihood and the livelihood of your family, but for all your employees as well. The highs are when you can do that successfully, the lows are when you can’t, or when you believe that you can’t. You ride through the emotional ups and downs of carrying that weight.
Do you feel comfortable sharing a story from your own experience about how you felt unusually high and excited as a result of your business? We would love to hear it.
I love brand swag! I love making T-shirts and hats that people actually want to wear. It’s been a goal of mine to be out in public seeing someone with one of our shirts. And it finally happened! I saw someone at a local restaurant wearing one of our shirts. That means so much to me, seeing a local person supporting our brand by wearing our shirt. It felt so nice.
Do you feel comfortable sharing a story from your own experience about how you felt unusually low, and vulnerable as a result of your business? We would love to hear it.
I told you about my Imposter Syndrome, which led to deep depression. In 2019, a few months after we raised capital from friends and family, I started getting sick, started throwing up. I actually didn’t leave my house for nine months. I became suicidal. I admitted myself to the hospital several times, in fear that I would take my own life.
Based on your experience can you tell us what you did to bounce back?
It was not an easy path to recovery at all. With therapy and proper medication and the help of my friends, I started slowly coming back to work. I started gaining my confidence back and regaining my health. Now, we have 30 employees and a multi-million-dollar business. Now I have the confidence that nobody can run my business as well as I can.
Okay, super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “Five Things You Need To Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur”? Please share a story or an example for each.
Community, Health, Perseverance, Resilience, Curiosity
Community: Being part of a community is essential to running your own business. For me the community includes local business owners with like-minded interests in sustainability and prosperity. It also includes our initial investors, the first supporters who helped us start the company. And of course it includes my family, who help me through the highs and lows.
Health: Launching your own business is not for the faint of heart. Keeping your business alive, year after year, is stressful in the extreme. The ups and downs (most especially the downs) can take a toll, both mentally and physically. When I was deep into my depression, friends and family members would come out and stay with me to make sure I didn’t take my life. You can’t be working all the time. You also need to have fun and take care of yourself.
Perseverance: There are no get-rich-quick schemes that actually work; certainly not in farming. The only way to make a business succeed is to keep it going year after year, riding out the bad days and crises, keeping yourself alive during the darkest times. Farming is hard work, but it comes with great rewards. One of the greatest ways for an entrepreneur to ensure perseverance is to pursue those goals and lifestyle that you were born to do.
Resilience: Human beings are the ultimate adapters. We can go anywhere and do anything, more or less. We didn’t get that way by being complacent and giving up at the first sign of trouble. When you get knocked down — and you will get knocked down — you have to be able to pick yourself back up, time and time again, and keep going. That’s resilience.
Curiosity: You have to be curious about what you’re doing. I am completely fascinated by hemp and CBD and I’m driven by my desire to provide wellness to people who are suffering. It’s easy to learn when you’re interested in the topic. My curiosity is in finding new ways to help people, and that’s the core of my business. People have helped me when my life depended on it, and now I want to help others. That’s the core of my curiosity in CBD. You really need that curiosity when you’re devoting your entire life to your business, it has to be interesting.
We are living during challenging times and resilience is critical during times like these. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?
I think resilience is being able to adapt quickly with change and being able to pivot on a dime when needed. The characteristic needed most for resilience is agility. You have to be open to change. Our business plan changes every six months, if not every day, in huge ways. You have to be open to change and always looking ahead. You have to think for yourself instead of following others. That’s how you stay resilient.
Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Would you mind sharing a story?
I didn’t experience depression for the time until I was 21. I had a pretty happy childhood and I was a happy teenager. Since then, I have had three major episodes of depression. I really didn’t think I was going to make it through the last one. When you do recover, then you get to celebrate the wins in life, big and small. That’s when you’re truly happy that you haven’t made the decision to take your life, which is a permanent decision. You can’t take it back. This is an important realization, because I will probably deal with grief and depression again.
In your opinion, do you tend to keep a positive attitude during difficult situations? What helps you to do so?
I’m becoming better at that. I used to a “Dooms Day” person and freak out about everything that happened. I’ve now been able to develop confidence in our business and our experienced workers and their ability to overcome day-to-day difficulties, big and small.
Can you help articulate why a leader’s positive attitude can have a positive impact both on their clients and their team? Please share a story or example if you can.
I still read every single review that comes into our website and I read them to our team. We’ve received many five star reviews! This reflects our positive impact on people who are suffering, whether they’re dealing with pain, or anxiety, or children with autism, or dogs with tumors. We are at the infancy of cannabis medication and it feels great to be at the start of that and to have our customers interact with us. I’m talking about conversations with customers who have had incredible life-changing experiences from CBD. We want to break the stigma of the racist war on drugs with this plant. Hemp can be turned into medicine, food, clothing and even batteries. The future of hemp really excites me. I’m hoping that in our lifetimes we’ll see a sustainable industry with hemp. There’s so much power behind this plant!
Okay, super. We are nearly done. What is your favorite inspirational quote that motivates you to pursue greatness? Can you share a story about how it was relevant to you in your own life?
“Remember that not getting what you want is sometimes a wonderful stroke of luck.” — Dalai Lama
Right before COVID, we were working hard to get on the shelves at Vitamin Shoppe. We were rejected and I was not happy. We felt like we had a really good chance of getting in. A few months later, I went to Vitamin Shoppe to see which competitors had beat us out. To my surprise, Vitamin Shoppe had chosen to bring in brands, but then also make their own brand that undercut all the competitors. I was so relieved that we hadn’t hit those shelves. It would have been a huge lift for us to prepare for that sale, and in the end, with poor merchandising, I know it would have been a flop for us. I’m now grateful we didn’t hit those shelves, and could focus in on our ecommerce site where we can truly connect with our customers.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!