Rhys Powell of Red Rabbit: “Plan for the company to last forever ”

Plan for the company to last forever — Early on, my planning was done in monthly or quarterly chunks — as in — if we could only get to Q2. An early advisor told me that I needed to be planning as though the company was going to last forever. It was a huge mind shift for me. Many successful people reinvented […]

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Plan for the company to last forever — Early on, my planning was done in monthly or quarterly chunks — as in — if we could only get to Q2. An early advisor told me that I needed to be planning as though the company was going to last forever. It was a huge mind shift for me.

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 Rhys Powell.

Rhys Powell is the Founder and President of Red Rabbit, which provides chef prepared, farm-fresh healthy meals to over 150 schools in the New York Tri-State area daily. Through the celebration of nutritious and culturally relevant food in the lunchroom, especially BIPOC cultures, he aspires to give children a vision of themselves with every meal. By aligning these meals with children’s heritage, Rhys is invalidating society’s arbitrary boundaries of who is allowed to be healthy.

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 Bahamas. My formative years were rooted in my community which remained important to me when I came to the US at 17 to study computer engineering and computer science at MIT.

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

The Press On quote from Calvin Coolidge — “Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan ‘Press On’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.” This quote gave me perspective and continues to give me a view that life and success are marathons not sprints. Lasting success takes time and effort which helped me accept losses in the short term and gave me the consistency and confidence to stay the course. There are no shortcuts.

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.

Persistence is definitely one of them. I’ve had an inner fire that has driven me to keep going despite whatever obstacles come my way. In some ways, no matter what one’s station in life, the ability to stare down and look beyond life’s challenges is a beneficial trait. Folks underestimate how much value there is in showing up — just show up and keep showing up.

A thirst for knowledge — I’m always learning. I’ve recently come to terms with the realization that I will always be learning, and that an entire lifetime is insufficient to understand all the amazing things that the world has to offer. I am consistently humbled by how little I know. One day I hope to acquire some modicum of wisdom in an area of life.

Staying calm, or keeping my head about me when things are chaotic. I inherited this trait from my mother who always had a steady hand. She was one of 9 siblings, so growing up, her household was ‘chaotic’ to say the least. But to this day, she remains the stillwater that binds her family together. As a leader, my team looks to me when things get rocky, and I draw on that calmness to help keep a clear head and make good decisions.

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 was an active participant in the early years of the technology upheaval — in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. My work was finance and capital markets centered inclusive of my time as an equity trader on Wall Street. On the surface, my move to build a school lunch enterprise would appear to be my “Second Chapter” but it’s the current iteration of the business that resonates most for me, primarily for the personal journey. The challenges and potential rewards that come with this transition have greater significance.

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

The reinvention began with me taking a good hard look at how the school food system evolved. I researched the history of business in America, the history of food, and food businesses going back almost 150 years to the founding of the Great A&P. I also studied social businesses and social movements and how they impact society. What I learned was not what I had expected. Having been groomed with a technology mindset, I had assumed that businesses moved and evolved at the pace of technology — that is a very short cycle of creative destruction. However, I learned that food, food business and social impact movements have a much longer timeline, and that the structure of the school food system today was driven by societal changes that occurred 50, 60, 70 years ago.

That helped me realize that in order to make a difference in the lives of generations of kids’ we would need a much longer time horizon both forwards and backwards. I looked to the civil rights movement to gain a broader perspective, and pulled inspiration from leaders whose impact went beyond a single business cycle — leaders who aspired to affect the very structure of society.

Once my lens shifted, and I understood within myself the type of impact I / we could have, I then began the work of bringing that vision into reality.

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?

If you asked me in 2019 I’d tell you that my trigger occurred when I had to put my own child into the NYC school system — which happens to be the most segregated school system in America. I came face-to-face with the realization that schools (as an institution) were not honoring the heritages of kids of color. As a father, I was motivated to do everything in my power to address this. Going through the school selection process gave me a more nuanced understanding of the ‘unspoken’ messages that kids consume at school, which came with a revelation of the responsibility and the power that Red Rabbit has to influence that messaging.

If you ask me today, I’d have to say that the trigger for my Second Chapter was 2020. Specifically, the rise of the BLM movement which was sparked by George Floyd’s murder. My work has always been centered in addressing food equity for children of color in the school lunchroom. However, when George Floyd lost his life and the Black Lives Matter movement accelerated, so did my drive to be vocal and deliberate in my expression of the work. That is when my Second Chapter began.

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?

Finding out what the real purpose of an organization is, and articulating it in a way that everyone involved — gets passionate about it, or reveals their internal passion for it. There is lots of technical work that needs to get done, and lots of management that needs to get done. It’s a challenge to cut through the day-to-day and spend time focusing on impact and narrative that spans across time and space. Then the challenge of every leader is turning that ultimate impact into small bites that are tangible and digestible by the team and by the other stakeholders in a way that they can take concrete cohesive action steps.

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

It’s been a transformational journey for me, the business and our team. We’ve taken specific care to make sure we properly convey the depth of what we do and why we do it. For example, when we were ready to rebrand we needed to make sure our brand identity and assets captured the story we want to tell — there were lots of cerebral moments that ultimately needed to turn into copy and visuals that represent the brand in a new way and in a way that helps our audience connect with the purpose of the work that we do. It was a process that required thoughtfulness and the inclusion of perspective which can take a considerable amount of time away from managing operations.

To provide a foundation for our messaging pivot, we tried to have a ghostwriter capture an op-ed in my voice. The output was unsuccessful. The process however, made me realize that I was the only person that could accurately relate our narrative and vision. So, I isolated myself as much as I could for 3 months and penned the 1600-word piece. The response I received from a handful of parents who had the opportunity to read it was overwhelmingly affirming and a validation that we were on the right track with our new approach.

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’ve got to give it up to my mother once again. My ability to stay focused, persistent and collected is what has gotten me here and I owe that to her. I liken the comparison of her growing up in a home with 9 siblings to one scenario that required my emergency cool instinct to kick in right around the time business had really picked up.

Our team prepares thousands of meals in the wee hours of the morning. All of those meals need to be loaded into our vans and en route like clockwork. One morning approximately two thousand meals were being moved to box and ship out for school delivery. A human collision occurred. It was unreal. Literally thousands of meals toppled over like a domino effect spilling onto the ground. I barely recollect exactly what happened after that, but it has been told to me that I didn’t skip a beat and immediately got into the kitchen expeditor and delivery dispatcher role of calling out directions — “fire up the grill”, “400 chicken pestos stat”! Granted, without an A list team it would not have been such a remarkable save, but with only a short delay, we got those meals fired up, boxed, loaded and out to students across NYC in time for their lunch. It’s all a blur but that was definitely a moment for the books.

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

The most interesting story since I’ve started in this new direction is not a story, it’s a recurring question — what’s different about Red Rabbit now? At first my response was simple, nothing changed. We will continue to provide nutritious and culturally relevant meals to the students we serve. The more the question was posed, I realized that stating that you are advocating for children of color, which is the only difference, could be received as a change in quality or service. In fact, advocacy has always been part of my mission, but stating it and including messaging about that mission raised questions about the business that surprised me. What this recurring question confirms is the depth of lack of understanding of the experience of people of color. In response, I recently penned an op-ed that addressed the systemic challenges faced by children of color in the American school lunchroom.

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?

Interest from investors and potential growth opportunities that would be a dream-come-true for most

entrepreneurs, gave me a bit of a pause. I had to take a step back and turndown investment offers that would have quickly expanded the business. My concern was twofold — firstly that quick growth would lead to a compromise in the nutritional integrity of our meals, which I had seen happen with some of our competitors. And secondly, that having a premature focus on financial returns would skew my perspective at a time when we were just beginning to understand the true impact of our work.

This strategy, of playing the long game, is inconsistent with general entrepreneurial orthodoxy. There were definitely days where I questioned my own logic. Confidence came from realizing I had the knowledge, game plan and a phenomenal team to grow the business to a sustainable and then profitable state. If I remained steadfast, focused and committed to the mission of the business I could get to the same end goal without the compromise.

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?

Respective to my new chapter being the next iteration of my business, the support was always in place. I invested time carefully selecting the team and cultivating our culture. Meticulously selecting the right team who share the same values is critical in a mission driven business. For example, my executive team had been with me for more than 5 years in our 15 years of business. This new chapter is a natural progression as our company evolves.

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?

For years, the organization was exclusively focused on operations and maintaining our mission driven goals. In May of 2020, in the midst of a pandemic, while feeding food insecure students and their families, George Floyd was murdered. The way he died was played over and over and over again for the world to see. At that moment, I decided that I could no longer silently execute Red Rabbit’s mission and needed to intentionally share why Red Rabbit serves communities of color and why nutritious meals and food representation in school lunchrooms are an imperative for society. More than ever, this is the time where our communities need to realize themselves as worthy, valuable and important.

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. Mind your cash flow — this needs to be front and center every day. If you misstep here, there is no return.
  2. As a leader, your voice creates your culture — it takes a while to truly understand the power that you have as the leader. And that your voice, mannerisms and the energy you put out, will have a larger impact on your organization than any tasks or projects.
  3. Humans don’t naturally self-organize — I was shocked at how much effort is spent organizing people. My assumption going in, was that if you put qualified people in a room, they would naturally figure out how to add value, but it turns out that’s not the case. Today substantial amounts of my energy are spent ensuring the team has the right information, at the right time, and being very clear and consistent about what the desired outcomes are.
  4. Negative people never work out — if someone brings down your culture they need to be off your team asap. I’ve learned this the hard way, over and over and over again, and it always holds true. Make those culture-fit decisions as quickly as you can. No other value-add is more important than culture fit.
  5. Plan for the company to last forever — Early on, my planning was done in monthly or quarterly chunks — as in — if we could only get to Q2. An early advisor told me that I needed to be planning as though the company was going to last forever. It was a huge mind shift for me.

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?

The civil rights movement helped to dismantle the legal aspects of racism, but it fell short when addressing the cultural drivers of racism. I hope that my work helps supercharge the movement to disrupt and dismantle the cultural hierarchy that persists in America. If we could restructure our society to value and cherish all American children independent of their background or heritage, we would unleash an amazing torrent of talent and art and ingenuity for future generations.

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. 🙂

Sidney Poitier — Sidney, like me, grew up on a small island in the Bahamas and moved to NYC to follow his dreams. He leveraged his platform as a successful, world-renowned actor to speak out against racial injustice at a time when taking such a stand brought much risk to his career and to his physical safety. His activism (along with others in the movement) paved the way for top universities like MIT to change their enrollment practices to accept more Black students like me. I would love to ask him about that period in his life — what were his motivations and how he found the fortitude to stand up, and stay standing even as he experienced push back and hate.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

I’m not very active on the popular social media channels but you can connect with me on LinkedIn and follow the progress of Red Rabbit @myredrabbit on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn. Of course, there’s also our website linked above.

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

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