A piece of high-hanging fruit inspired Mark Rampolla to step off the corporate ladder and into the beverage startup scene.
In 2004, Rampolla was living in El Salvador running a packaging business for a FORTUNE 100 company. His career was on the move, but the former Peace Corps volunteer had become restless and was no longer passionate about his professional trajectory. After some serious soul-searching, he decided to pursue a more entrepreneurial path and plunge headfirst into the unchartered waters – of coconut water. He and his family had spent years sipping on the refreshing drink, which was a staple in Latin American culture but had yet to reach the U.S.
Rampolla launched ZICO Coconut Water and, in less than a decade, grew his startup into a leader in a new $8 billion global beverage category. ZICO’s success also brought hundreds of millions of dollars to developing-world farmers while delighting American consumers. The Coca-Cola Company invested in ZICO in 2009 and acquired the brand in 2013.
In Rampolla’s new book, High-Hanging Fruit: Build Something Great By Going Where No One Else Will, he shares the behind-the-scenes details of ZICO’s rise and explains how his passion for social good paid off. The book pushes readers to never settle for the “low-hanging fruit” of profit, but to reach higher by trying something that others might consider too difficult to tackle.
We spoke to Rampolla about his new book (read the first chapter here), which hits shelves on July 19.
Why did you decide to write this book, and why is now the time to share your story?
When my ZICO journey really started to unfold, I began to realize that it was as much a social experiment as it was a business idea. My wife and I were deeply committed to a few things. First, leveraging the power of business to make a positive impact on health and wellness in the world. My wife’s background is in public health, so it was on our minds. At the same time, we wanted to make an impact on the tropical communities where we’d lived and worked. And we wanted to stay sane, married, connected, happy and humane while we worked toward all these goals.
We learned that by doing these things, we not only stayed sane and happy… we accelerated our business success. The fact that we had values and bigger goals became a touchstone for us. We began to see it as a message that could resonate with entrepreneurs. Then, wonderfully, we realized that what we were doing wasn’t actually that rare. We discovered an entire generation of entrepreneurs who are approaching business in the same way and achieving incredible results while making a difference.
Who’s your intended audience?
I wrote it for entrepreneurs and anyone thinking about starting his or her own business. It should also be an interesting read for many of us working or investing in food and beverage. But it goes beyond that. This concept resonates with Millennials across career paths. Young corporate employees are struggling with how to balance their work with their values, views and priorities. So it speaks to them, as well as to those in the nonprofit world or public health who want to lever up their impact by using the power of business.
What do you want readers to take away from the book?
There are two groups. There are what I’d call missionaries; these are the treehuggers and social advocates. Then there are the mercenaries, the business executives who are all about making a buck and believe that capitalism alone is all that matters.
I want to bridge the gap between these groups. I want to help the missionary crowd recognize the role business can play in making a positive impact. It’s one thing to run a nonprofit, but making an impact at scale often requires partnering with a big company. Don’t think small.
And for mercenaries out to make money and nothing else, my message is that you’re missing the point. In this day and age, if you’re not building a business without social impact and a larger worldview baked in, your chances of success are slim. I hope to empower and encourage a cross-section from these groups to become the next wave of visionaries by helping them understand they can build profitable businesses that make a social impact without compromising their values, health or family.
You’ve been away from ZICO since selling the brand to Coca-Cola in 2013. What’s life after ZICO been like for you, and how do you feel about where the brand is headed?
I was thrilled when I got the chance to hand the brand over to Coke. I had intentionally dedicated a decade of my life to ZICO, and I knew I’d take my time to figure out what was next. Now I have the chance to invest in and advise businesses across the food and beverage sector and other industries. I’m drinking from the fire hose in terms of what I’m learning as an investor, but I’m so excited about this movement we’re seeing.
I’m pleased with how Coke is maintaining the integrity of the brand. We had a Fair Trade organic coconut water in the works when I sold the company, and Coke rolled it out and it’s beautiful. Our original spirit is still there. Everyone I met at Coke early on was so excited about ZICO and wanted be part of something new and make an impact. Coke employees have a reason to be proud of taking such a bold step.