Priscilla Tuan: “Change is hard.”

Unexpected Good. Change is hard. But it doesn’t have to be all bad. Sometimes the things that feel like they are happening to us end up being things that we later feel happened for us. Whatever it is that we are struggling with during this period, there’s often a secondary or tertiary ripple effect of […]

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Unexpected Good. Change is hard. But it doesn’t have to be all bad. Sometimes the things that feel like they are happening to us end up being things that we later feel happened for us. Whatever it is that we are struggling with during this period, there’s often a secondary or tertiary ripple effect of that struggle that is actually leading us to a new realization or a better option.

As a part of my series about the things we can do to remain hopeful and support each other during anxious times, I had the pleasure of interviewing Priscilla Tuan.

Priscilla is the Senior Vice President of Marketing at Sovos Brands, a food company with a mission to acquire and build a portfolio of one-of-a-kind brands. Priscilla’s expertise runs wide and deep across all things marketing, innovation and strategy, building and accelerating household brands like Clorox, Hidden Valley Ranch, Brita, Glad, Coca-Cola and insurgent brands like Rao’s and noosa. She has leadership experience across a range of fast-moving consumable categories including food, beverage, pet, cleaning, laundry, auto and apparel.

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

In college, I was voted most unlikely to go into business by my friends. My more career-minded friends did summer internships in New York City or Boston, building their resumes with banking or research jobs. Each summer, you could find me working at our neighborhood Safeway deli or the local chocolate shop so I could be at home with my family. I decided to be an English major because I love books.

When graduation day came, despite applying for dozens of positions during my senior year, I didn’t have a job. I spent the next six months pounding the pavement. I dreaded going to parties because I knew people would ask me “what do you do?” and I wouldn’t have a good answer. I ended up getting an amazing role with a start-up in Boston called City Year, an urban peace-corps and model for the AmeriCorps program. I was given significant responsibility at a young age and exposure to authors like Rosabeth Moss Kanter and Doris Kearns Goodwin; business leaders like Jeff Swartz, COO of Timberland and Mitt Romney, then head of Bain Capital. The co-founders Alan Khazei and Michael Brown really invested in my development, believed in me, and gave me opportunities to grow and stretch. It was while I was at City Year that our Development Director, Randi Shade, who used to be a brand manager at P&G, introduced me to the idea of brand management. I had never heard of it, but she explained it to me in a PowerPoint training over lunch. I became very interested and asked, how would I get a job like that? She said, go to business school. So I did.

I’ve since had a series of career adventures. I’ve been able to work with Coca-Cola internationally, build a P&G joint venture, win a Bronze Anvil with Hidden Valley, oversee multiple new product launches, help lead a Clorox business team across the 1B dollars sales mark, earn an Ad Age award, and build a high growth portfolio of leading one-of-a-kind food brands at Sovos.

I learned three really important career-defining lessons from these experiences. First, it’s ok to follow your heart even when it doesn’t take you on the most direct path from point A to point B. In fact, the curvy path may turn out to offer more growth. Second, to not let my sense of value be defined by title or job. Finally, pay it forward. What has really inspired me are the leaders and mentors at Clorox, P&G and Coca-Cola who went out of their way to help shape my career journey. They opened up opportunities to learn and grow and took risks on me. As a woman and person of color navigating the corporate world — this has made a big difference for me. I hope to do the same for others.

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?

Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air. A good friend and sales partner gave me this book as a gift during my career transition. It’s a beautiful story by and about a brilliant doctor and gifted writer, written during his own process with stage IV lung cancer.

I was on the brink of a major career transition. I had just decided to leave the Fortune 500 world after nearly 17 years to join an exciting and young start-up called Sovos Brands as their eighth employee. Sovos was a new food company based in Berkeley, CA that didn’t yet have an office, IT support or even a printer. But it had a BHAG (big hairy audacious goal) to be a major player in the delicious, clean food space, with aspirations to grow to 1 billion dollars from ground zero. I was inspired by the vision, the CPG talent of our CEO, Todd Lachman, and the senior management team, as well as the challenge of building something with my own two hands. But, taking this role came with risk and uncertainty, betting on the come.

Sometimes in transition or change, we feel we are in-between, where our past is known, and the future feels both uncharted and uncertain. Kalanithi writes, “To the east, the full light of day beamed toward you; to the west night reigned with no hint of surrender. No philosopher can explain the sublime better than this, standing between day and night.” But even in these moments of change or transition that can feel overwhelming, you may “feel your speck-like existence against the immensity of the mountain, the earth, the universe, and yet still feel your own two feet on the talus, reaffirming your presence amid the grandeur.” He wrote this book vulnerably with grace, facing each day with courage and optimism. It gave me a new perspective.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your perspective can you help our readers to see the “Light at the End of the Tunnel”? Can you share your “5 Reasons To Be Hopeful During this Corona Crisis”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.

First, let me say that this is a difficult and uncertain time for many of us. Our daily routines have been upended, unemployment is an issue, COVID is a leading cause of death for Americans, and parents struggle through the pandemic with rent, jobs and disrupted school. This stuff is real. This is an incredible moment in time that we haven’t seen in our lifetime. Yet, amidst this reality, this is also an amazing time for creativity, human connection, family, giving and invention.

  1. Creativity: Necessity is the mother of invention. As a lifelong marketer, I get to see examples of creativity all the time. Well laid plans were in place at the start of the year. Then all of a sudden, we had to pivot to meet the suddenly changing demands brought on by a global pandemic. Thinking on our toes in this way is not always going to be comfortable — rapid change and uncertainty creates an environment that can certainly be stressful. But it also pushes us to stay nimble, strengthening our ability to adapt to changing environments. Some of our best work at Sovos Brands that I am proudest of came out of our response to the pandemic. We asked ourselves — as an essential food business, how can we play a role in helping? This birthed our award-winning Rao’s #sauceforcause campaign where our fans posted homemade recipes after watching Cake Boss’s Buddy Valastro or food writer Gail Simmons teach them a recipe on Instagram. Each recipe triggered a donated meal to Jersey Cares, a nonprofit out of Montclair, NJ. I think this is an essential skill, and it’s also a guiding principle of ours at Sovos Brands. Extraordinary times make for extraordinary outcomes, whether that be revolutionary marketing campaigns, one-of-a-kind pieces of art, or innovative solutions to long-standing problems. I think we are going to look back eventually and see that a lot of profound creativity came out of this period of great uncertainty. And it will change the way we move forward in life and do business post-pandemic
  2. Connection: While there are many reasons right now that people understandably feel isolated and disconnected, there’s also so much opportunity to create connectivity in new and different ways. Many companies and HR leaders are surprised at how productive work in a virtual environment can be. At Sovos Brands we have employees spread across five different locations nationally. Because of this, I’ve set a standard for our marketing and innovation teams to operate fluently in a video-first culture in order to build connection and collaboration. So our team was very prepared for remote work through our training with Virtual Work Insider when COVID hit. But we’ve seen a whole new level of interpersonal connectedness emerge out of COVID. Now that every interaction has been pushed to virtual and not just for people in different geographical locations, my team has reflected that they feel closer to one another now than before COVID. This seems counterintuitive, but people who didn’t interact with one another on a regular basis before are now striking up friendly conversations over Teams. Video-chat has become the new water cooler. It’s just as easy to chat with someone on the other side of the country as it is to chat with the person whose desk used to be next to yours. This applies to our personal lives, too. Maybe you’re FaceTiming with your uncle in Wisconsin who you previously hadn’t seen in years; or getting to know your neighbors more intimately with Sunday sidewalk socially distant happy hours. This has been true for me. I’ve been speaking regularly with my parents and siblings at our weekly Tuanapalooza Zoom calls more than I have since high school. Out of disruption and isolation can come new and different modes of connection.
  3. Family. It’s also a unique moment in time during which some people are able to spend more time at home with their families, which can be a beautiful thing. Of course, this is also a major challenge for people who are juggling jobs while trying to help kids with school, etc. I know it is for me personally; we struggle with internet bandwidth between me my husband’s video calls for work and my three kids’ Zoom homeschooling. In fact, last month we maxed out our 1.2 terabytes of data in the first two weeks of the school year! Our kids bicker more than they have in the past. But they are also playing together more, helping each other with homework, learning to cook together and my personal favorite, doing PE in the backyard together. In my role at Sovos, I was on the road two weeks out of every month. Now, it’s such a treat to be able to eat lunch with the kids in the middle of the day, and better yet, when it’s their turn to make lunch they are cooking for me. My teenage son looks forward to our new after-dinner game night tradition on weekend evenings. We have done several outdoor movie premiers in the backyard with Hamilton and Mulan. With one kid each in elementary, middle and high school, I know that I’ll look back on this period and be grateful for the extra time I got to spend with them. Whether you have kids or not, there’s probably some way in which this time is uniquely different in allowing you to do something you previously weren’t able to — e.g. picking up a hobby you have been meaning to try out for years or cleaning out all the closets in the house, that project you’ve been meaning to get to. Our family has taken up bodyboarding and skimboarding. During the crisis, we discovered the beach is only 45 minutes away and the waves are good (even if the water is cold!). Taking advantage of those things is a way to find the silver linings.
  4. Giving. With so many people negatively impacted by the pandemic, we are also seeing tons of opportunities to give back to our communities and those in need. If you look around, heartwarming examples of compassion and generosity are all around us during this pandemic. Earlier this year Sovos Brands donated to a charity called Frontline Foods that was born entirely out of COVID circumstances. The initial idea for the charity was to boost morale among healthcare workers with food deliveries. Then it evolved as the organizers realized that two issues brought about by COVID could be tackled through a single program: restaurants could prepare meals for frontline healthcare workers while donations from the community allow them to keep their kitchens open. It became a unified movement, delivering over a half a million meals nationally to date. As we see the needs increase around us, we can also look to the ways people are uniting to help one another. It’s a great time to show our humanity and bring comfort and hope with generosity like the stories in John Krasinski’s #somegoodnews.
  5. Unexpected Good. Change is hard. But it doesn’t have to be all bad. Sometimes the things that feel like they are happening to us end up being things that we later feel happened for us. Whatever it is that we are struggling with during this period, there’s often a secondary or tertiary ripple effect of that struggle that is actually leading us to a new realization or a better option.

From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?

Supporting one another is critical during these especially challenging times. I find that one of the best antidotes to anxiety is to ground in our connections with one another.

1. I’d say the first step is to simply check in. Ask how someone is doing. Really ask from a place of genuine concern for their wellbeing; this in itself usually goes a long way.

2. Then pause and listen to their response. Most of us could improve our active listening skills. I’ve been working on this as a leader. It is something the CEO of Sovos, Todd Lachman, talks about as a core leadership skill. While the other person is talking, we’re often planning what we’re going to say next versus tuning in to meet the needs of the person speaking. We are used to people responding to ‘how are you doing?’ with a short answer like ‘good,’ and the conversation moves on to the next topic. But if we really want to support someone and know how they are doing, we should be prepared to actively listen to their response, and ask follow up questions if needed, even something as simple as ‘say more’ rather than quickly bridge to another topic.

3. Be vulnerable. When we are vulnerable with one another, we allow a bridge to extend between us, and then both parties are able to feel seen and heard in a real way. This in turn builds trust, and trust builds stronger connection. This is also a life and leadership skill I am working on. The vulnerable leader is one who can say “I need help” or “I don’t know but I’ll find out,” and models this for their team so people feel they can be themselves.

4. Encourage self-care. For anyone experiencing anxiety, chances are they could benefit greatly from improved sleep, improved diet, prayer or meditation, and regular exercise. Can you do one of those things together (while safely distanced)? A friend introduced me to Pilates ten years ago and it has been a life changer both in eliminating back issues I had from running and also centering my mind from a busy week. I once had the pleasure of meeting with Arianna Huffington, sleep evangelist, in her New York office. The first thing she said to me is “How is your sleep? You must sleep!” and immediately gave me her sleep book.

5. Share food with others. Food is more than a basic need, it reflects culture, craft and love. I grew up in a food-centered family where every social gathering involved delicious food: Chinese, Japanese, Italian, Hawaiian, you name it and plenty of it. It’s no secret how healing connecting over food can be. Offer to cook a meal for someone who’s struggling. Try out a new recipe. I’m learning to make pies from scratch, two at a time, one for us and one for a neighbor. If you don’t cook, order out from your favorite local restaurant or bakery to share. Remember how great it felt to get a care package in the mail? I love when my kids’ friends or for that matter their parents say, what are you going to feed me this time when I drop by? Will it be scallion pancakes?

What are the best resources you would suggest to a person who is feeling anxious?

First, take three deep slow breaths, where your inhale is longer than your exhale. Second, reflect on the day: What are the moments and situations where you felt joy? Give thanks for them. What are the places where you felt fear or anxiety? Become aware of what triggered that. When we recognize patterns and triggers it can help our awareness to stressors as they happen and catch ourselves in the moment. This is a form of Ignatian meditation I’ve been learning to practice for the past few years. It’s really helped me. Third, talk to a friend. Don’t go it alone. Be vulnerable even when it’s hard. We are better when we can share and carry each other. Lastly, I think getting help from a therapist is a great idea. We are learning as a society that the stigma is misplaced while access has greatly improved. Today there are wellness apps like Calm and Headspace that are popular, apps like Talkspace that offer virtual therapy, as well as my Apple watch which reminds me to breathe. But as I mentioned before, I also find that leaning on each other — whether that’s friends, colleagues, or family members — is one of the best resources we have to counter anxious feelings.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

  • Robert Frost

This poem is meaningful for me, because whether intentionally or unintentionally it describes some of my life choices. When life has opened itself up to offer two ways forward, I tend to find myself on the path less worn. It has more uncertainty and risk, but also more adventure.

Born and raised in the Hawaiian islands, I decided to go to school on the East Coast. I figured if I was leaving Hawaii to experience college on “the mainland,” I might as well go to the other side of the continent. I got on a plane and 10 hours later showed up alone in Rhode Island, a state I had never been to, at Brown University, a place I’d never seen or set foot on. I didn’t own a winter coat. I didn’t have proper socks because the only socks I owned were athletic socks for running track. Needless to say, it was a tough adjustment culturally and socially. It took me the better part of a year to get my bearings. But I learned so much from the experience. It deepened my sense of empathy and my understanding of diversity and inclusion.

Three and a half years ago I was reminded of this poem. Our Board Chairman, Bill Johnson, retired long-time Chairman and CEO of H.J. Heinz, was talking with me about the marketing role at Sovos. He said to me, you have two paths, the one you are on now is the known and certain one. Or you could take the second path with Sovos which has more unknowns, but will be a lot more fun.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start 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. 🙂

Social justice is a core value in our family — whether we are building houses in Tijuana, delivering meals in the Tenderloin of San Francisco or holding a kids garage sale in our driveway to benefit a cause. There has never been a better time to advocate, influence and give than now when the need is so great. My husband Collin and I volunteered for a summer with a team of college students in Smokey Mountain in Manila, Philippines. It’s the third-largest garbage village in the world. We worked with the scavenger children there partnering with a Catholic priest and community organizer Father Ben Beltran, on community health, safe water and access to education. We have stayed in touch with these children over the years through social media. We’ve raised money for schools and helped send several of the kids we met to college. We had the opportunity five years ago to go back with our three children to spend a week in the garbage village. Our children loved it. They got so much attention and love from their ‘uncles’ and ‘aunties’. The kids we befriended years ago are now adults with better economic prospects and starting to have their own families. We were asked last year to be the godparents for a baby whose name is Priscilla. The movement I would start is a giving movement. In doing so, we may be surprised that we end up being the ones who benefit the most.

What is the best way for our readers to follow you online?

The best way to follow me is on LinkedIn:

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

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