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Ryan Woodbury and Julie Sawaya: “The best leaders are coaches; Your job as a leader is to bring out the best in others”

Your job as a leader is to empower others to own their growth. The best leaders are coaches. Like a coach, your job as a leader is to bring out the best in others. Your job is not to create the agenda for others, but to empower others to create and own their own. Coaches […]


Your job as a leader is to empower others to own their growth. The best leaders are coaches. Like a coach, your job as a leader is to bring out the best in others. Your job is not to create the agenda for others, but to empower others to create and own their own. Coaches are accountability and thought partners, not micromanagers.


As a part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ryan Woodbury and Julie Sawaya. Ryan and Julie, the Co-Founders and Co-CEOs of Needed, were next door neighbors at Stanford’s graduate business school. It didn’t take long for them to realize their shared passion for and desire to improve the nutrition category. Needed grew organically, beginning as friends sharing nutrition products, textbooks, and scientific white papers, along with frustrations and ideas for improving the existing options. From there, they interviewed hundreds of friends, family, researchers, health and wellness practitioners, and consumers — realizing that this community shared many of the same nutrition frustrations and challenges. Needed’s mission — to make thoughtful nutrition products and education inspired by nature, informed by science, and tailored to the consumer — was directly informed by the needs and perspectives of this community.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

We met at a similar point in our careers and personal nutrition journeys-each of us having worked in demanding investing careers, spending much of our spare time immersed in researching and understanding how to better care for ourselves and those we care most about. Around the same time, we both realized that despite a lot of care put into what we eat, we had big nutritional gaps that weren’t fully met through food alone. For Ryan, this was in part due to genetic factors (she’s a poor converter of Omega-3), while for Julie it was due to microbiome and choosing to follow a vegan diet.

While our paths converged around the need for better supplements and better information to help us understand our needs, our individual paths here looked a bit different.

Julie: I discovered my passion for nutrition around my family dinner table. Like most doctors of his generation, my dad, a board certified cardiologist, received very little nutrition training. And, amidst the demands of practicing medicine, he lost touch with the traditional nutrition wisdom and emphasis on whole foods of his Lebanese heritage. His diagnosis and subsequent struggle with diabetes has been a powerful influence throughout my life, leading me to research, experience firsthand, and advocate for the connections between the food we eat, the families and communities we are nurtured by, how we feel in our bodies, and how we show up in our world.

Ryan: My interest in nutrition and health grew out of my interest in the environment. As a young girl in Los Angeles, I was always outside with a menagerie of animals in tow. I have two vivid memories of being upset as a young kid 1) learning for the first time that my dad suffered from lung damage growing-up in bad LA air pollution and 2) seeing dead dolphins on the beach from algae blooms related to city drainage run-off. It was clear to me, even then, that our health as humans is directly connected to the health of our environment. So, I started volunteering at a local aquarium, leading educational tours to teach kids about marine science and environmental advocacy. From slowly convincing my family to shift towards a more sustainable diet, to developing resonant stories about our environment for NPR, to co-authoring a farm and nutrition curriculum for school children, advocating for broader awareness of the human and environmental health connection has carried through much of my life.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

We started Needed to bring real product differentiation and clinical validation to the nutrition space. Beyond forming our partnership with a team of leading experts on nutrient absorption, one of the most exciting moments since founding Needed was hearing validation of our product from a research expert on Omega-3 for prenatal, fetal, and infant health.

It’s well-recognized that there is a lack of research on women’s health, especially research studying pregnant women. Several ongoing NIH-funded studies are looking at the role of Omega-3 in preventing preterm labor and improving other pregnancy health outcomes. But, the researchers overseeing these studies have struggled with patient compliance, especially in lower socio-economics populations, given the very real palatability issues with most Omega-3 supplements (think huge pills, or strong-tasting liquids). Our liposomal Omega-3 powder is uniquely suited to address these palatability concerns. It’s incredibly exciting that, just two years into starting the company, we have an opportunity to meaningfully contribute to the research on nutrition and women’s health. Proving our products can help people through clinical validation and real-world testing, making them and the accompanying education broadly accessible, and pushing forward important conversations on nutrition and health — that’s what it’s all about.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When you start a company, people jump out of the woodwork to share their opinions about your idea (both positive and constructive). This feedback was often helpful, and occasionally misguided.

In our early days, we took meetings with just about anyone who would listen to our ideas, including a number of venture capital investors. In one notable meeting, an investor suggested that we deliver our nutritional supplements via a Juicero-style hardware device (think a Keurig-like delivery, but for supplements). This was just weeks before Juicero permanently shuttered due to lack of product-market-fit!

Thankfully, we didn’t go too far down a path on that idea. But, the experience reiterated to us the importance of finding investors who are aligned with and supportive of our vision of building products that meet real consumer needs (vs. trend-driven fads).

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

We design our products to work better in the body, so that they are highly absorbed, and to be easily incorporated into our consumers’ daily routines. Our products are trusted and vetted by expert practitioners and consumers alike, because they truly work. Very few nutrition companies can say the same. For example, our first product is an Omega-3 powdered supplement that is backed by 10+ years of research and development in partnership with leading scientific experts on nutrient delivery, and over a year of real-world testing in the lives of our practitioner community and their patients.

The serious science underpinning our products enabled us to start a conversation with a diverse community of health practitioners, from eastern to western, modern to ancient. Through our practitioner community, we’ve been able to “real-world” and clinically prove that our products are very, very differentiated. And, the insights we gather from these practitioners — about their own needs as consumers, and the most common needs they see with their patients — has fueled our ongoing product and educational development. Beyond helping us to develop and prove our product and education, our practitioner community is a strong sales referral channel for us.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We are seeding a series of conversations about nourishment beyond just nutrition. From our community of practitioners and real families, we know there is a need for broader nourishment, beyond the more limited focus on what’s needed for biochemical nutrition alone (the foods we eat, and the supplements we take). We think one of the best ways to empower real nourishment is to bring together our community to interact meaningfully with one another. We believe strongly that we can all learn from one another — whether it’s bringing together a doctor and a doula, or a naturopath and her patient — each of us has something to offer and learn. Our experiences of nourishment are all unique, yet interconnected. And, we are finding that talking about nourishment begets more nourishment in a very powerful way.

We are excited to empower many more of these conversations throughout the US, by partnering with practitioners and their local communities.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

Actively invest in your growth and the growth of your team.

As co-founders and leaders, we are very committed to individual and interpersonal growth, and have found that feedback is a huge part of this growth. We have been very intentional about setting good partnership “hygiene habits” from day one, including establishing regular feedback channels, and creating shared and individual “growth goals” that we help each other stay accountable to. We’ve worked with an incredible leadership coach, both individually and as a pair, since our Stanford days. This upfront investment has been invaluable, especially as the company and our roles as leaders gets increasingly complex as Needed grows.

As we build out our team, we’re working really hard to translate our shared leadership values of owning our own growth, and meeting needs one at a time (starting with your own, so that you can more fully show up for others), into a company culture. Culture isn’t just set from the top though — we do our best to empower our team to own their own growth/the company’s growth. We see everyone on the team as responsible for co-creating the environment they need/want to do their best work in.

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?

Julie: My nana (my dad’s mom) was a first generation Lebanese-American who lived a very long, very healthy and meaningful life (she passed away at age 96). She was the valedictorian of her high school class but was unable to attend college due to her family’s financial constraints. She was the most persevering, committed person I’ve known — she didn’t let her life circumstances get in the way of lifelong learning, a value she passed along to her family. She had a love for growing and preparing her own food, and lived for bringing together her friends and extended family around a shared meal and game of bridge. To this day without exception, each of her 3 kids, 10 grandchildren, 10 great-grandchildren and our spouses come together for a 4 day Thanksgiving “family reunion” in honor of our Nana and her husband (my Papa). She taught me that food, family, education and love are deeply interconnected.

Ryan: My great Aunt Michele. She is love. She wears giant red heart-shaped glasses, stacks of symbolic bangles around her wrists and neck, a big smile, and a full heart, always. She says Hail Marys for others every day.* She knows how to love and make friends with everyone around her. People show up for her, because she’s made a difference for them. She notices and she cares. At her 83rd birthday last month everyone was there from girls in the Girl Scout Troop she led almost 55 years prior, to her housekeeper, doctor, hairdresser, and manicurist. In the end, love is all that matters. And, if I can learn to love even a 10th the amount that she does, I’m going to be in a pretty good place. Plus she married me and my husband, Dave, my biggest love.

*I certainly have benefited from so many of them, despite being kicked out of Sunday School as a kid for asking too many questions and a young adopter of Frank Lloyd Wrights’ philosophy “I believe in God, only I spell it Nature”.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

It’s still early days for us as a company, but we’ve taken steps to make a positive impact on the world at every stage of our growth. We formed Needed as a public benefit corporation (“PBC”). This means our board will, by its charter, prioritize our mission of expanding access to better nutrition products and education right alongside its other priority of maximizing shareholder interests. We think this is the right way of doing business, and that prioritizing public good while building a hugely successful company needn’t be mutually exclusive.

We have big ambitions for Needed to serve as a platform to make meaningful improvement in human and environmental health — but, we also recognize that we have to start with meeting one need at a time. Today, we are meeting a need for better nutritional supplements, starting with a fundamental nutrient, Omega-3, and a source of trusted information. We do this to empower our consumer to meet her own nutritional needs, so that she can more fully show up for her family, her community, and the causes (local and globally) that she cares about.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Remember the “WHY”. Why is your reason for being, as a leader and a company. It’s the anchor to come back to when the journey gets hard, or uncertain. As a leader, your job is to rally the team again and again around a common “why”. Our “why” is nourishment (beyond just better nutrition) — empowering our own nourishment, and helping others to achieve nourishment in their own lives, whatever that looks like to them.
  2. Authentic leaders know and care for themselves, in order to more fully show up for others. The most magnetic leaders act from a deep place of authenticity. That authenticity is thanks to self-knowingness and self-care. By identifying and authentically meeting your own needs, you are able to show up more completely, and to recognize and meet the needs of others.
  3. Your job as a leader is to empower others to own their growth. The best leaders are coaches. Like a coach, your job as a leader is to bring out the best in others. Your job is not to create the agenda for others, but to empower others to create and own their own. Coaches are accountability and thought partners, not micromanagers.
  4. Focus your attention on the areas where you can you add differentiated leverage or remove barriers. Your time and attention will always be scarce. Focus your energy where it will count the most, and get comfortable bringing in others’ to add leverage in areas that don’t require your full focus.
  5. Enjoy the journey, and remember it’s a marathon not a sprint. As a leader, it’s your job to think two, three steps ahead at any time. And yet, in doing so it’s very easy to forget to enjoy the moment, not just what’s next. If you forget to celebrate the little wins along the way, the satisfaction of big wins can feel very fleeting. It’s also important to remember that starting a company is a marathon, not a sprint. It takes a ton of hard work and energy, often over many years, to build a really differentiated company. We take the long view, making time amidst the hustle for self-care and to nurture our relationships. We find that doing so is a renewing source of energy to tackle the long road ahead.

You are people 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. 🙂

Helping people to see that we are all interconnected: to one another in our families and communities, to our environment, to the world (even when it seems we have very little in common). Where nutrition culture (and our culture, more generally) has gone wrong is in viewing things in a silo. For example, isolating for macro and micronutrients, without a focus on how nutrients interact with one another in nature, subscribing to “ancient” or “modern” wellness modalities while missing the interplay of the two, or failing to recognize that we are only as healthy as our soil, our food, our water, our families, our communities, our culture. There are countless ways in which we are interconnected; the recognition of this interconnectedness is the foundation of improving our health, and that of our family, communities, and the world.

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

Julie: “In the end only 3 things matter. How much you loved, how gently you lived, how gracefully you let go of things not meant for you.” My favorite yoga teacher ends her classes with this quote, and it has always resonated with me as the great challenge of my life. As a naturally born-perfectionist, learning to accept what is outside my control, gracefully letting go of that which is not meant for me, is a lifelong journey for me. Entrepreneurship involves a lot of uncertainty, and navigating circumstances that are beyond your control. I am learning how to accept that my part is to show up as fully as I can, to make the best decisions I can in the moment based on a combination of instinct and data, and then to let go of the outcomes that I can’t control. Releasing this need to control the outcome has freed up a lot of mental space for creativity and forward-thinking that I would otherwise miss out on. Learning to embrace uncertainty, and the circumstances that are beyond my control, is a lesson with applicability throughout my life. Though, starting a company from nothing, without a playbook to follow, has certainly accelerated the learning curve (there are countless opportunities to embrace uncertainty on a daily basis)!

Ryan: “It’s a beautiful day, it’s great to be alive.” Every day while driving me to school, my dad would say, “Ryan, look at the mountains.” And, I had learned to follow with, “It’s a beautiful day, it’s great to be alive.” These mountains, the San Gabriels in Los Angeles, were a big deal for my dad because he could not see them growing-up, when thick smog constantly shrouded the LA skyline. For me, this quote is important for three main reasons:

1) It’s a reminder of how much a single saying can shift my mindset for the day to actually make it a beautiful day.

2) My dad and I used to sing “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” as we biked up those same hills almost every weekend. I am reminded that I can climb really big hills, sometimes it just takes training.

3) It’s a reminder of what I care about — my family, my community, and the environment. Those are the things that will make tomorrow beautiful too.

Some of the biggest 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 🙂

Julie: Michelle Obama. I admire her as a model of authentic and graceful leadership, and for her advocacy of nutrition education and healthier food for school children and their families.

Ryan: Wade Davis, an anthropologist, ethnobotanist, and Emeritus Explorer in Residence at National Geographic. I think he had possibly the coolest job ever — he explores the history of human culture and the environment by really diving into communities. And, he tells the best stories to share and bring meaning to his experiences and the people and the environments he studies.

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