Michelle Russell of the Kula Connection: “Business is a universal language”

Business is a universal language. I was concerned that since I hadn’t studied business I would be at a disadvantage. Business was never offered to me as an option and as it turns out everything I’ve done prior to launching a business was great preparation for business. All my years teaching really helps with employees, […]

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Business is a universal language. I was concerned that since I hadn’t studied business I would be at a disadvantage. Business was never offered to me as an option and as it turns out everything I’ve done prior to launching a business was great preparation for business. All my years teaching really helps with employees, communication and patience. All my public speaking experience has made it easy for me as a founder to pitch my company. All of my lifetime interactions through world travel have given me perspective and the ability to get along and work with all kinds of people. There was never any reason for me to think I might not have the right education. All my life experiences come to play in the business world.

Many successful people reinvented themselves in a later period in their life. Jeff Bezos worked in Wall Street before he reinvented himself and started Amazon. Sara Blakely sold office supplies before she started Spanx. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was a WWE wrestler before he became a successful actor and filmmaker. Arnold Schwarzenegger went from a bodybuilder, to an actor to a Governor. McDonald’s founder Ray Croc was a milkshake-device salesman before starting the McDonalds franchise in his 50’s.

How does one reinvent themselves? What hurdles have to be overcome to take life in a new direction? How do you overcome those challenges? How do you ignore the naysayers? How do you push through the paralyzing fear?

In this series called “Second Chapters; How I Reinvented Myself In The Second Chapter Of My Life “ we are interviewing successful people who reinvented themselves in a second chapter in life, to share their story and help empower others.

As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michelle Russell

Michelle Russell is the founder and CEO of the Kula Connection, LLC a plant-based wellness company. The former professor turned plant-based chef and cookbook author reinvented herself in the 10 years between 40 and 50 by entirely transforming her health. Michelle lost more than 80 pounds, rid herself of the need for 12 prescription medications and cured her depression while becoming an expert at using plants to heal.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

I grew up in the 70’s in Southern California eating whatever, without sunscreen, or much concern for anything. I loved animals and swimming. I wasn’t especially predisposed toward a healthy or unhealthy lifestyle. We just didn’t think about it.

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

When I was trying to work up the courage to change my life I would often ask my sister if I was crazy. She would answer, “The only difference between crazy and courageous is the outcome.” This seemed to hold true so I resolved to have a successful outcome.

You have been blessed with much success. In your opinion, what are the top three qualities that you possess that have helped you accomplish so much? If you can, please share a story or example for each.

The top qualities I possess that have helped me succeed are:

  1. Resilience of mind. When I run up against roadblocks I immediately start brainstorming ways around said block. When I couldn’t find a commercial kitchen that I could afford to start my product line out of, I didn’t take out a loan or give up, I got creative. I found a 58’ former FEMA trailer to cook out of. There was no bathroom or heat, and sometimes all my knuckles would be bleeding from working on such a big piece of machinery, but it was mine, and I was determined.
  2. A spiritual practice that helps remove fear and ground me. My yoga mat has a lot of miles on it. Every day regardless of what happened to me or the business, I stand on the mat and practice. This practice has allowed me to suffer well and kept me physically and mentally strong.
  3. Kindness. Kindness is what I lead with and from. I endeavor to make everyone feel like the special human they are. People remember this and I have had innumerous opportunities simply because someone liked me.

Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about ‘Second Chapters’. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before your Second Chapter?

I began teaching in 1998. I became a teacher because it would allow me the same schedule as my young sons. I wanted to be really present for my children. I was an excellent teacher and taught every grade between 7th and 12th. I taught Language Arts, Literature, Writing, Advanced Placement, Speech and many elective courses. I led student trips to Europe. I was the advisor to many clubs. I was everyone’s favorite teacher and many of my students became family. One of my former students remains my best friend to this day. All this teaching, education and experience led to me landing a dream job teaching for the Department of Defense and getting to travel the world teaching. This segued into becoming a full-time professor of Education at Eastern Oregon University.

And how did you “reinvent yourself” in your Second Chapter?

Although I was very successful, seemingly, as a teacher, I was not happy. My sons were my greatest source of happiness and love for them kept me going in an otherwise miserable situation. I was fat, sick and addicted.

Reinventing myself involved a lot of small steps. The first day I did yoga the video I was using took us into a gentle shoulder stand. My belly fell into my face. Not quitting was the first step in reinventing myself. Learning what was making me sick and understanding how I got there were huge steps in my reinvention. Using this information to heal myself became the impetus for my reinvention. As I understood more and more how the things I was putting into my body were hurting me and creating problems in my physical and emotional health I changed all of it. I spent thousands of hours studying and then enacting my new knowledge on myself. This led to losing over 80 pounds, ridding myself of the need for 12 prescription medications, attending culinary school and becoming an expert in plant-based food for healing.

Can you tell us about the specific trigger that made you decide that you were going to “take the plunge” and make your huge transition?

I was wearing metaphorical golden handcuffs. I had healed myself and was passionate to help others heal, but I had a great job with perks like…living in Europe, traveling, summers off, free housing, great retirement… and so, as you can imagine, the final step in my reinvention was a doozy. It was Mother’s Day 2017 and I was face down on the earth bawling my eyes out in a field of sunflowers in a German meadow. When I had cried out all my fear, I wiped my muddy face on my sleeve and walked home to compose a resignation email. The trigger was simple…the calling was greater than the fear. The bawling in the field was the result of my failed denial of calling. I determined that I had to try.

What did you do to discover that you had a new skillset inside of you that you haven’t been maximizing? How did you find that and how did you ultimately overcome the barriers to help manifest those powers?

In the book Deep Work by Cal Newman we learn that 10,000 hours spent in practice of something makes you an expert. When I very first changed to a plant-based diet and began to feel it’s benefits I resolved that I would become an expert at creating the healthiest, most delicious, nourishing, enjoyable, sustainable food possible. I pushed myself to create. I wanted to make food that was so good that people wouldn’t want to eat anything else. I found this ability through constant practice. Sometimes I made mistakes…things didn’t turn out or weren’t well received, but eventually I had amassed so much knowledge that I intuitively understood how to create the kind of food I dreamed of.

How are things going with this new initiative? We would love to hear some specific examples or stories.

Since taking the plunge and leaving the security of my job and the comfort of Europe we’ve returned to Boise and I’ve launched a plant-based cheese business. I decided to start with cheese because I have several friends, who are younger than myself, who are fighting breast cancer and need to avoid dairy. The cheese line has grown from an experiment in my apartment closet to being carried at over a dozen locations throughout Idaho. I’ve expanded to baked goods (all V, GF) and mushroom products. I’m making appearances on multiple podcasts, being asked to host support groups, and continuing to grow. During the pandemic I wrote a first of its kind cookbook, Just Mushrooms, which offers vegan and gluten-free recipes featuring mushrooms as the protein. It’s available on Amazon and has opened many additional doors for me.

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?

There are so many people I’m grateful for in this venture. I didn’t have any money to put into the business and didn’t borrow any. Instead my friends, adult children and strangers came alongside and helped me lift. Kula means community and it was truly built by the community. Thousands of volunteer hours have helped me create the company and product lines.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction?

When we moved to Boise from Oregon, after I hung up my professor hat, I was determined to hold onto my meager savings and start my business without any money. It was a tremendous challenge that led to a lot of interesting moments. While enrolled at Boise State’s Venture College program we were squatting in a friend’s vacant home to save money while looking for a place. When I first needed the use of a commercial kitchen a few months later I found that they were limited and expensive, so on the recommendation of a friend I went into Boise’s famous West Side Diner and asked Chef Lou Aaron who is possibly Boise’s most famous chef (making multiple appearances on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives with Guy Ferrari) and asked if I could work in his space. This was a preposterous request considering he didn’t know me at all, and he sells hamburgers, and I’m vegan, and making vegan products. As unlikely as this seems Lou, against all logic, said, yes. I started my vegan cheese business out of a classic hamburger joint. Lou became a mentor and a friend. He shared with me that he used a plant-based diet to help fight cancer. I worked side by side with Lou for an entire year.

Did you ever struggle with believing in yourself? If so, how did you overcome that limiting belief about yourself? Can you share a story or example? During last winter, just after the pandemic hit, my grown kids who had been helping me run my rapidly growing business moved to Hawaii to pursue their Master’s degrees. I was devastated from a business perspective and super happy/proud from a mom perspective. My kitchen, at that time, a 58’ former FEMA trailer was freezing and I was super lonely. My home life was not good and things felt like they were falling apart. I cried a lot, but I kept working. Business slowed to a crawl as the pandemic took hold, and I nearly gave up. Again, my yoga and meditation practice showed me the way. Often, during yoga, I see solutions, ways around, creative possibilities and as a result I launched several new initiatives, hired help and actually grew the business.

In my own work I usually encourage my clients to ask for support before they embark on something new. How did you create your support system before you moved to your new chapter? I’m a big audiobook consumer and listened to a book about how to start a business while still in your current job. I tested recipes on other professors and my students. I enrolled in the InventOR business competition through the university to get some practice. When I returned to Boise I enrolled in BSU’s Venture College program through M14. This program gave me access to tons of help and support through the community and the university. We got to pitch to VC’s, bank presidents, professors and other community members. It helped me develop a large network of support for my business ventures.

Starting a new chapter usually means getting out of your comfort zone, how did you do that? Can you share a story or example of that?

I’ve really had to change my internal dialogue as my second chapter has taken shape. The first steps outside my comfort zone were incredibly painful. I shared the story of laying face down in a field of sunflowers, sobbing, trying desperately to reconcile the fear over leaving my safe job to reinvent myself. I was sick with the anxiety of this choice. As time has gone by and I haven’t died without the security I thought I once had and I am learning to change my inner monologue. I coach myself to lead. My new mantra is simply…”if you’re going to do it…then do it.” As simple as this seems it has been wildly helpful. During the pandemic I wrote a cookbook while growing my business. I did this by saying to myself, every morning, at 5am, “if you’re going to do this…then do this. Get up. Let’s do it. Write. Work. Create. Mean it, own it, do it.” I’ve become my own coach and when people marvel at my ability to manifest it’s really my resolve to “do” that they are seeing.

Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my organization” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Business is a universal language. I was concerned that since I hadn’t studied business I would be at a disadvantage. Business was never offered to me as an option and as it turns out everything I’ve done prior to launching a business was great preparation for business. All my years teaching really helps with employees, communication and patience. All my public speaking experience has made it easy for me as a founder to pitch my company. All of my lifetime interactions through world travel have given me perspective and the ability to get along and work with all kinds of people. There was never any reason for me to think I might not have the right education. All my life experiences come to play in the business world.
  2. I don’t need anyone’s permission. When I first started out before making any decision I would consult with every smart, successful person I knew. In some cases this saved me from mistakes, but in other cases it discouraged me and made me doubt my decisions. Now, a few years in, I no longer feel that I need anyone’s permission and feel confident in my ability to make decisions for my business and employees that align with my ethos.
  3. Create a business that facilitates your life. It was kind of by accident that non-dairy cheese became the focus of my business. It was an experiment that turned out incredibly well. Selling it was an experiment to see if people would buy my new invention and two years later I’m running what is primarily a vegan cheese company. I’m now working to create the future of my company, by design!
  4. Head down working. This was something Chef Lou Aaron actually said to me after he watched me get super excited about the possibilities of my first corporate meeting. He gently told me when you’re new and doing exciting things lots of attention comes your way, but very few of the talked about possibilities actually manifest. This was super important to my work ethic. I learned early on to celebrate quietly and keep working. Doing the work is what matters.
  5. Most people won’t be able to take this journey with you. Changing everything about your life, starting a business that consumes your passion and entering the world of start-ups means that a lot of well intentioned people will come alongside for a while, but won’t be able to go the distance with you. The first few times this happened I was devastated and thought I might quit too. I’ve since learned to survive the setbacks of people moving on, but it is still a shock. Initially, my best friend helped me, then my adult children, then a paid manager, then another friend…all these people ultimately tired of start-up life, its unpredictability, lack of consistent financial reward, exhaustion, etc…and moved on. Each time this happened I suffered a major internal crisis. Am I crazy? Do I push people too hard? What I’ve learned is that this is my journey and I need to accept that most won’t be able to go the distance with me and that like everything else in life…the players will also change.

You are a person of great 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?

I would love to see the plant-based movement hit critical mass. It’s so inspiring to see and feel how a plant-based lifestyle can dramatically improve your health. I wish everyone could understand that these lifestyle diseases: cancers, heart diseases, obesity, autoimmune disorders, etc… don’t have to be a life-sentence. We can heal. We can heal our bodies, our minds and our planet. Mushrooms provide special hope in this healing with their vast array of health benefits, power to heal, ability to help the environment and sustainable promise. If I could create a larger awareness of how good it is possible to feel and help people connect to themselves, their communities and most importantly the natural world, then I will consider my life well lived.

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. 🙂

Paul Stamets, the mushroom God!

Miyoko Skinner, the vegan cheese mogul

Will Bulsiewicz, Gut Health, MD

How can our readers further follow your work online? https://www.instagram.com/thekulaconnection/

https://thekulaconnection.com/ https://www.facebook.com/thekulaconnection/

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

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