I realize our history doesn’t suit everybody’s narrative but don’t try to rewrite history — learn from our history. The founding, creation and growth of our country is the ultimate story of resilience. Through our high and low points, we learn from our past. We are one people — one country — let’s start living that way. If you don’t like your current situation, change your situation — don’t rely on governments to change it for you. This country is based on the fundamental “Equality for All”! Take charge!
I had the pleasure of interviewing Randall Popelka, Vice President of Government Affairs at Herbalife Nutrition and Erik Cooke, Government Relations and Government Business Development, Feed the Children.
Randall Popelka serves as vice president of Global Government Affairs at Herbalife Nutrition. Based in Washington D.C., he works on a variety of policy issues for the company with the U.S. and foreign governments. He is also responsible for managing industry relations, helping ensure Herbalife Nutrition continues its industry leadership role in advancing healthy, active lifestyles, balanced nutrition; and financial empowerment.
Prior to joining Herbalife Nutrition, Mr. Popelka worked in the U.S. Senate for over 12 years as a policy advisor and legislative director for two U.S. Senators. While working in the U.S. Senate, he was responsible for providing policy guidance on multiple issues including tax, trade, technology, economic development, transportation and science related topics.
Following his work in the legislative branch, Popelka moved from Capitol Hill to the Executive Branch where he was appointed by President Bush as the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Legislative and Intergovernmental Affairs at the U.S. Department of Commerce during the tenure of Secretary Carlos Gutierrez. While at the Department of Commerce, Popelka focused on trade and technology related issues including U.S. free trade agreements with Panama, Peru, Colombia and South Korea. He also worked with the Department’s Office of Inspector General (OIG), a law enforcement agency dedicated to exposing waste, fraud and abuse of taxpayer dollars. His role included establishing an Office of External Affairs and working with Congress, other Federal agencies and the media to provide awareness and transparency of OIG products.
Popelka is a native of the state of Montana and holds a degree from Montana State University.
Erik Cooke heads government relations and government business development for Feed the Children, a nonprofit dedicated to ending hunger in the United States and around the world. Prior to that, he led government business development for Easterseals, one of the country’s largest disability service providers. For many years, Erik has taught a popular course at American University on theories of democracy and human rights. Past assignments in the nonprofit and government sectors include the U.S. Senate, Witness for Peace, Students for Sensible Drug Policy, the International Scholar Laureate Program, political campaigns, and a fellowship at the Center for the Study of the Presidency. He is also active in local mentoring programs and community gardens. Erik holds degrees in government and international politics from George Mason University and comparative politics from American University.
Thank you so much for joining us Eric and Randall! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory?
The path to my current position was mostly influenced from my work in the Legislative and Executive Branches of our U.S. Government. My career has been focused on addressing challenges for business growth and opportunities — promoting jobs and economic development for Americans on a domestic and international level. In my current position, I use those skills to promote Herbalife Nutrition’s mission — ensuring our business model can succeed in a manner that protects our consumers, promotes our great product and creates awareness to issues related to food security and hunger.
(EC) I actually started in the mail room on Capitol Hill. Back then in Congress, the entry level staff members were called Staff Assistants. I had a range of jobs, all at once, from driving the senator, opening the mail, fixing the computers, and whatever else needed to be done. After that, I had a few other political and Hill jobs before moving to nonprofits and education. Even years later, running a team on a campaign, at a university, or in a nonprofit office, I’ve always wanted to know what everyone was doing so that I could jump in and help if needed.
Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
(RP) It’s really a culmination of my career — mostly working on Capitol Hill. Many leaders of all backgrounds came through the office to meet with the elected officials I worked for. It was those meetings that I learned how legislation and regulations impacted our economy, jobs, the daily lives of our fellow citizens. This input was important. The legislative process is incomplete without it.
(EC) One of the most memorable moments to me was years ago, when I brought my son in for take your kids to work day. He was four years old. He wore a collared shirt and tie. He walked around to everyone’s desk and asked them what they did. When he came back to me, he said that I must work with very important people because they all were all very happy to be there. Then he told me that I must have an important job because I help to make them happy. There aren’t many days when I don’t pause and remember that.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
(RP) Herbalife Nutrition is really two companies in one — the company is a direct selling company in which independent contractors — called distributors — create their own business and sell the product — the best part of this business model is that the distributors are consumers of the product so not only do they know the product, they can also work with consumers to help them meet their weight management goals. The other half of the company is defined by the product proven and refined over the last 40 years. Our biggest advantage is our quality control. Combining the high touch of the business model with the great product and the proof is in the results! We all know how difficult it is to stay motivated — eat healthy, exercise regularly. When you belong to a community of like-minded people using a common product, it’s amazing to see the energy and results! I’ve met several of our distributors over the years and they all carry a level of charisma and enthusiasm you won’t ever find in any retail store. They are amazing!
(EC) Feed the Children is a unique entity. Most of our peer organizations are based on the coasts and specialize in either domestic work or international work. At Feed the Children, our mission leads us to work in both domains, and with the perspective of an organization from the heartland. I’m not saying that’s better, but it is unique, and I remind my team and the folks we lobby of the distinctive value that we bring to whatever we’re working on.
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?
(RP) I’m most grateful to those I’ve worked with who understand the value of real leadership and are confident enough to encourage self-motivation and drive within their teams. If you have good people working on your team and provide a collaborative foundation for them to do their job, the gears turn!
(EC) That’s hard to answer, only because there are so many people who have given me a needed boost in career and life. I’d say that my friend, Liz Ching, who helped run the district office for my US Senator and helped me get my first job in Washington is maybe the most pivotal. I was a very young 20 years old and leaving my coffee shop job to work with a photographer. Liz enthusiastically pressed me into service to work for the Senator in Washington. It all had to come together in a few days, and it did! I moved to DC, sight unseen, and have happily been here for more than 20 years. I always try to emulate that enthusiastic encouragement with others. There’s something about just being someone’s cheerleader that can give them the needed margin of courage to change their lives.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the trait of resilience. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?
(RP) Resilience is a necessity in the world of politics. Thick skin required. It’s my job to work with anybody and everybody — Republicans and Democrats alike — I leave my personal beliefs and opinions at home. Authenticity is also important — if you can’t understand and see the empathy in another party’s plight, you’ll not be taken seriously in today’s environment. In my perfect world, there are no real losers — but there’s always a path to common ground.
(EC) I don’t think that resilience is a single thing. There is the resilience that shows up as an individual’s ability to recover and face challenges. And oftentimes that’s as far as we think of the idea. It’s all on the individual. But I also think we need to pay much more attention to how our communities, policies and systems support people and their resilience. On an individual level, we can see how some people are like rubber bands — they snap right back. That’s wonderful and we should encourage and honor that. But we often attribute resilience or its absence solely to individuals, and that’s usually misleading. What about their starting line, what about their upbringing, what about the support they get that helps them develop that resilience? That’s why our work at Feed the Children is critical. Our starting point is that in order for kids to thrive and grow into resilient, strong adults they need some basics covered. Food, educational supplies, role models, support when disaster strikes. The fact that they might not have enough of those things is no fault of theirs as individuals, yet those are critical ingredients to their long-term resilience. Only once people have what they need — food, security, love and support — does it make sense to start talking about building individual resilience.
When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
(RP) Not trying to seize on our current social environment but I believe resilience is ultimately defined by Martin Luther King Jr. I mean, given the mountain he climbed and overcame in the face of such fierce division and intolerance. And, in retrospect, he did it for all of humanity, not just a race. He was focused, used his platform with integrity, all while promoting a peaceful approach to change. Patience is a virtue for most but for King, it was his foundation.
(EC) In truth, no single person holds this title for me. When you look for it you see it everywhere — like when you buy a new car and see it everywhere. There are a lot of famous folks — Malala, Robin Roberts, Gabby Giffords. But I also think of moms on the train wrangling kids and your coworker who’s well beyond retirement age. I do have a very personal hero, a cousin who has since passed away. He was born severely autistic and approached every day as an opportunity, as though he had the right to be there. It’s not that he never got frustrated or was always happy, but he approached every day ready to give it another shot. Despite all the challenges that he lived with every day — dietary, medications, speech difficulties — he never gave up on grabbing every day with both hands. It’s the only sensible way to be, and I sometimes remind myself that I’m using excuses not to try that my cousin never would.
Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us?
(RP) I find many people are generally quick to criticize and take a negative approach to life. It’s just more difficult for people to think positive and respond with encouragement. I try to make this my goal — be positive. Give everybody a chance to succeed. That’s particularly true where politics, policy and advocacy intersect. You can’t just read a textbook to understand Capitol Hill, you need to experience it. Once you do, you’ll realize there is no one single solution to any problem — not only are the many solutions but the solutions are always evolving.
(EC) I’m incredibly lucky to have had support throughout my life. Especially from my parents, they held me close enough to support me but not so close that I didn’t have to do the work. I will say that there were times when I saw a collective head-scratching from my friends and family, especially early in my career. When I first came to Washington and for several years, I had not completed college. I remember that following the 2000 political campaign, during which I worked in my home state, I decided to return to DC and then find a job. I had to regularly reassure my family that I would be okay. Until I actually had a job, I don’t think that they were sure. I may have been overconfident, but their support and love allowed me the room to take that risk.
Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?
(RP) In a former role, I was terminated as part of an M&A process in which my office was eliminated. It was devastating as it all happened so quickly. Totally out of my control. However, I realized I had no choice but to move forward — I started interviewing for multiple positions while consulting for former clients who were seeking assistance — four months later I was offered a position with two different organizations — I accepted the position with Herbalife Nutrition.
(EC) We all face setbacks all the time. It just depends on how we remember them. Were they the times that we got cheated or failed, or were they the times in which we learned and showed ourselves that we would try again in spite of getting knocked down? Just to pick one — several years ago I fell and broke my kneecap, which was a much more difficult recovery than I would have imagined. On top of that, in the course of my care my doctor accidentally broke it again, extending my recovery. It took me years of therapy, training, and practice to recover. In the course of that recovery, I realized that I didn’t want to just return to how I was before, but to improve. So, I continued my training and rediscovered running. Today I regularly run races and am in better condition than ever before. It’s turned out to be such a critical practice, and running has been my lifeline during a period of personal turmoil over the past couple of years.
Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share a story?
(RP) I grew up on a cattle ranch in the middle of nowhere in Montana. So yes, I have a story or two about resilience. We hunted for our food — big game animals like deer and elk — it was what we did — it was how we were raised. Harvesting the animal is only half the battle. Getting the animal off the mountain is always the other half.
(EC) I think that one of the most formative aspects of my childhood was being born with a cleft palate. I was incredibly lucky to have the parents I have and to receive excellent medical care and therapy, but through the course of that part of my childhood, I had to regularly confront surgery and medical appointments, speech impediments, my body image, pain management, and occasional childhood bullying. There was something about grappling with my life and the world, with the support of my wonderful parents, that gave me a strong training ground for dealing with the challenges in life. I remember my dad telling me when I was 17 and aging out of the state service system that we met with the plastic surgeon who reconstructed my face when I was young. The surgeon — a wonderful guy — asked me if I wanted any additional reconstruction of nose and lip to further subdue the evidence of my cleft. The care would be covered at no cost to my family and the doctor assured me that no one would ever know that I had a cleft palate. According to Dad, I calmly and confidently told him that I was happy with how I looked and didn’t need the surgery. Dad told me that was the day he was proudest of me and knew that he raised a strong child. I carry that with me every day.
Resilience is like a muscle that can be strengthened. In your opinion, what are 5 steps that someone can take to become more resilient? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Listen and learn from other people — people want to talk about themselves and share their experience and guidance. Your job is to take the best. I say that to my children — watch your parents, learn from your parents: adopt those traits you admire and learn from those you don’t.
- If you are hired for a job, do your job but find ways to expand your job description. Do the work that others won’t do or don’t want to do. That’s the guy who stands out.
- Read a book. Stop watching You Tube and Tik Tok. You know who you are….
- Be patient and flexible — learn to adapt — your ability to adapt is your key to success. During my career, I’ve had my share of managers who didn’t know how to manage. It’s better to adapt and help those managers become better at what they do than to resist. And if that doesn’t work, take them hiking in the mountains and push them off a cliff.
- Always be positive! Negativity is paralyzing not only for you but for your team.
(EC) I believe the first step has to be recognizing that life will often be hard, unfair, or otherwise defy your expectations. Once you accept that, then you have decisions to make. Will you let your circumstances define you? Will you keep trying? Will you accept the support of people around you? What is worth doing even when things don’t go your way? Adversity can be refining. If you can smile in the face of unkindness, if you can be a good friend even after not having one, if you can keep practicing your craft even when you know you aren’t good, then you will become a better version of yourself.
I had a student several years ago whose first language wasn’t English. He was very frustrated in expressing himself in class and in his writing. Early on in the semester, he came to my office and shared his disappointment and fear that he was going to fail. I felt his pain, and especially because he had very sophisticated and original thinking that he really wanted to express. At some point, after coming into visit me regularly, he said basically, I’m not good at communicating in English and I need to get better. What was remarkable was that you could see the emotional clouds had cleared and he was stating a fact. We identified a number of resources, including ESL writing, an academic tutor, and a writing support group. He was basically working the equivalent of a part-time job to improve his English writing. By the end of the course, not only did he have one of the best term papers but had applied for and received several scholarships for grad school. It was such a joy to witness that transformation.
You are both people 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. 🙂
(RP) Learning U.S. history. I realize our history doesn’t suit everybody’s narrative but don’t try to rewrite history — learn from our history. The founding, creation and growth of our country is the ultimate story of resilience. Through our high and low points, we learn from our past. We are one people — one country — let’s start living that way. If you don’t like your current situation, change your situation — don’t rely on governments to change it for you. This country is based on the fundamental “Equality for All”! Take charge!
(EC) I vote with my work. Organizations such as Feed the Children that support children and vulnerable people help make society live its values. I believe we’re judged by how we care for the most vulnerable among us.
We are blessed that some very prominent leaders 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, especially if we tag them 🙂
(RP) Dwight Schrute
(EC) How do you choose one person? I love to talk with artists and creators about what inspires their work. I would have wanted to meet the late Octavia Butler, who was a pioneer in science fiction. Currently, I would have to say the inimitable Tawny Newsome, who is a force of nature. I don’t know how she has time to be incredible across all the media that she’s on — recording artist, podcaster, actor. She proves the power of comedy and art as a voice of clarity. If you have the opportunity, I highly recommend anything she’s in.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
- Facebook: @feedthechildren
- Twitter: @erikwcooke and @feedthechildren
- Instagram: @feedthechildrenorg