I had the pleasure of interviewing Ahmed Rahim, co-founder, CEO, and Chief Alchemist behind Numi Organic Tea, a Public Benefit Corporation and founding B Corporation with a 19-year history of using business as a force for good. He started the company in 1999 in Oakland, California with his sister, Reem Rahim Hassani. In addition to being responsible for all of the unique Numi blends and products the company introduces to the marketplace, Ahmed sits on various for-profit and non-profit boards enhancing their growth and sustainability goals. His core goal is to be in service to those focused on caring for their community and creating positive change for our environment.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us about your journey to becoming CEO?
Before starting Numi, I studied theater and psychology in New York City then left to spend a decade living, working, and traveling throughout Europe as a professional filmmaker and photographer…
What is your definition of success?
Business and personal life share parallel paths to success when we have the opportunity to decide our intentions and goals. For me, being conscious of our decisions, and fair in all our endeavors and relationships, to carve that path to success by doing the right thing in all the relations one touches. Whether it’s how we serve and protect planet earth to the people we care for along the way, success is a fulfilling experience knowing that I tried my best to treat all living elements with the utmost care. In business, success is enhanced by the connection of our products to the audience and sharing that intention with gratitude and enthusiasm. Success is connecting all the dots and finding rewards of achievement along the way
What failures have you had along the way? How have they led you to success?
Experimenting with various products has been a hallmark at Numi, and with that innovation comes some failures. One pioneering product was our Savory Teas, blends of dried vegetables, spices, herbs and tea. The product was very innovative and hit the market before its time. All the retailers loved the concept and product, wanted it in their stores, but the consumers weren’t ready for it. After a few years of trying our best to market these Savory Teas, we ended up discontinuing them. These failures keep us trying innovation, and keeping our customers excited about the newness we bring to the market. The failures are costly and time consuming, and we learn along the way how to choose the best new ideas to enter the market that will stick for many years of success.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Numi stands out from the tea category based on our 100% real ingredients and the organic and fair trade values for each product. When I moved back to USA 20 years ago, I was surprised how almost all the other tea brands use “natural flavorings” in their products. Even with a simple ingredient like mint leaves, natural flavorings would be added. This surprised me that ingredients grown in nature need to be masked with other flavorings created in a lab. For 19 years in business, Numi has stayed committed to using only real organic ingredients sourced from fair trade farmers in over 35 countries around the world.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?
One of my newer projects is a CEO group I co-founded with Lara Dickinson. The group is called OSC2 (One Step Closer to an Organic Sustainable Community) that brings together on a monthly basis 26 CEO’s from sustainably driven food companies. We also have collaboratives around sustainable packaging and climate, bringing together hundreds of other food businesses that share a common need and commitment to finding sustainable solutions to protect our planet and drive excellence in the natural food space. One of our most recent projects is around diversity and equality in the workplace. Being born in Baghdad, Iraq, I’ve always fought for equality and inclusion, both personally and professionally. This new collaborative is teaching me many facets of what it means to be inclusive, importance of diversity, and how to live a just life with others.
Can you tell us about the initiatives that your company is doing to become be more sustainable? Can you give an example for each?
Numi has a few pillars in our sustainable efforts. Organic, Fair Trade, sustainable packaging and real ingredients. Organic spreads across each of our 120 plus ingredients sourced from 34 countries. This entails getting certification that no chemicals, pesticides or other harmful materials are doused on the tea and herb plants. This commitment is ongoing with each product and Numi even goes to the extent to certify many farmer’s tea or herb plantations. Fair trade is another major pillar for Numi, working with over 14,000 organic, Fair Trade and Fair Labor farmers and their families. Our main partners are in India, China, Egypt, Madagascar and South Africa. Visiting these farmers annually is important to build the partnerships, learn about the ingredients and production and to dive deeper into how we can support each of the farming communities with better livelihoods, from homes, schools, hospitals, better roads, higher wages and whatever the farming communities decide they need. One of our recent projects is Together for H2OPE, a nonprofit initiative bringing clean, safe drinking water and proper sanitation into our farming communities. Lastly, our sustainable efforts spread into each element of our packaging. The last project to have a 100% sustainable product is the tea bag overwrap. After nearly a decade of research and development, we finally found a solution using non-GMO, plant-based ingredients for an overwrap that is commercially compostable. This, along with our use of 100% real ingredients, ensures our customers are receiving a product that is cared for on every level and in all the details it takes to produce a tea bag
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?
Create a vision and culture that is true to your heart, your product and ethos of how you want your company and brand to live. With the support, guidance, and help from your team, get it down on paper so each person that walks in your front door for an interview, or coming to work each morning, knows why they’re there and what purpose they’re there to serve. A clear plan for many years to come is also helpful so there are no surprises and employees feel safe, and understand the common goals, whether short or long term. Having perks like health insurance, 401K, massage, gym membership, and other ways to keep employees feeling safe, protected, and caring for their families is a sure way to keep employees happy and empowered.
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 have been fortunate to have many mentors, angels, and advisors to guide and provide help along the way. One person that provided endless support and guidance is Drake Sadler, founder of Traditional Medicinals. Early on, in our first few years in business, Drake supported us by sharing information freely, allowing me and my team members to work with his experienced senior leaders. From finance to operations, sales, and marketing, his team were always there to support our growing needs. Drake joined our Board of Directors to help Numi during a challenging time, and he provided unbiased support to help us grow. I’m grateful to Drake for all his years of mentorship, friendship and caring for a smaller brand like Numi, when we needed it most.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Similar to the mentorship I received from many successful leaders, I turned my attention to support young entrepreneurs with emerging sustainable brands and great ideas. I use this time as volunteer efforts to help these young entrepreneurs succeed, and in many cases join their board of directors, or simply act as an advisor.
Co-founding OSC2 has been a way to share my knowledge and success, bringing great friends that are natural food CEOs and founders together to drive more positive impact on our collective efforts. Through the power of collaboration, we use our resources and the natural food industry to drive bigger change. This group is growing rapidly and is becoming an anchor in the natural food industry as a voice for a more just and sustainable planet.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO” and why?
- Creating a limited amount of products to start, testing their success and building from there. When my sister and I started Numi, we launched more products than necessary to build and grow our business. Next time around, I’d create fewer products and drive more awareness with the proper resources.
- Bringing in money from the right people. Choose your investors carefully. We brought in money during a growing time of need, and made a decision with an investor that wasn’t aligned with our values, business goals and family philosophy.
- Create a board of directors that is aligned with your business and intimately interested in the goals and values of your business. One misaligned board member can derail the conversation and plans for the business.
- Create a community of loyal fan base early on, gaining their loyalty and ambassadorship from the early days. This will help spread the mission and growth of the business. We had lots of loyal fans early on, and don’t believe we catalyzed then effectively to keep them in our camp for all these years. Consumers float around from brand to brand, and gaining their loyalty is not easy. If we did it again, I’d find more ways to share the gratitude and care we have for each consumer early on.
- Creating a team that is passionate about the business, knows how to perform to excellence, and meets company culture and values. In the earlier days, we hired for one or maybe two of these criteria, but not for all three. If I were to do it again, I’d hire employees more carefully and vet them out on culture, performance, and passion, ensuring they’re joining the company with clear expectations and keeping themselves accountable for their success in the company.
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? You never know what your idea can trigger.
The company I co-founded called OSC2 is doing just that — touching thousands of people to treat our planet and the people we work with in a just and sustainable manner. From our Climate Collaborative, with over 300 companies involved to bring positive affect to our planet earth, to our packaging coalition, bringing together dozens of brands to co-create the first non-gmo, plant-based packaging material that is commercially compostable, to our Rising Stars, helping young sustainably-driven entrepreneurs to grow their emerging businesses and lastly, our working groups, allowing employees from over 25 companies work together to learn from each other, share resources, and create a larger community of employees that care for success by working together.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Carefully watch your thoughts, for they become your words. Manage and watch your words, for they will become your actions. Consider and judge your actions, for they have become your habits. Acknowledge and watch your habits, for they shall become your values. Understand and embrace your values, for they become your destiny.” (often attributed to Ghandi)
“Everyone can rise above their circumstances and achieve success if they are dedicated to and passionate about what they do.” (Nelson Mandela)
Both of these quotes remind me that our life path and choices that we make each day are the key to the destiny we want to create for ourselves, our family and the greater good in the world. This is a delicate and precious life, and we can’t take anything or anyone for granted. It becomes an intentional path that is caring for all people, and for all living species on this planet. No matter where we were born, or how we were raised, we all have the choice to make decisions and create a life that is meaningful.