Editor's Note: We recently spoke with ZICO founder Mark Rampolla about his new book, High-Hanging Fruit: Build Something Great By Going Where No One Else Will, which chronicles the pioneering coconut water brand'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.
Read the first chapter of the book here, then click over to Amazon to pick up your copy.
On an unusually cool, clear Saturday morning in San Salvador, we drove to the beach to meet friends for the day. The air was filled with that uniquely sweet Central American scent comprising notes of jasmine, bougainvillea, tropical humidity, crushed sugar cane, and burning trash. After several years living here it now smelled like home. Maura was asleep in the passenger seat. Six months into her second pregnancy she was struggling with an all-day version of morning sickness. Ciara, our 18th month-old, was conked out in her rear-facing car seat behind us. My work for International Paper’s (IP) packaging business had taken me to Argentina and Venezuela that previous week and I was tired myself and looking forward to catching a few Zs in one of the hammocks strung between coconut trees at the little beach house that would be our refuge for the day.
As we descended from the mountains to the coastal plain I could feel my ears pop and the temperature rise. We drove into the sleepy port town of La Libertad. Maura awakened out of her slumber and spotted a roadside vendor, saying, “Agua de coco! That’s something I can drink. Can we stop?” I said sure, but reminded her that we were only ten minutes from the house. “You know Jorge will have one ready for you in five minutes and you can drink it while floating in the pool.”
“Ah, that sounds perfect,” Maura said. “Keep going.”
I pulled up to the tall blue gate and beeped twice. Jorge, the property manager, opened the gate and ushered us in. We chatted a little and I asked him if he could get us a bunch of coconuts for the day, “Maura está un poco enferma hoy.” He said back to me, “Qué lastimá. Agua de coco fresca es exactamente lo que ella necesita!”
After we parked, we watched as Jorge picked one of the coconut trees to harvest. He tightened a rope between his feet, wrapped his arms and knees around the trunk and expertly shinnied up twenty-five feet or so to the top. He pulled out a machete from the sheath strapped to his waist and hacked away at a branch. Down fell a bunch of five or six coconuts still attached together.
By the time I helped Maura from the car and took Ciara out of her seat, Jorge had hauled the coconuts to the palapa. Holding one in his hand he used the same machete to slice off the husk until he breached its tender shell. I took a picture of Ciara standing, staring down, fascinated at the bunch of coconuts on the ground, while Jorge put a straw inside one and handed it to Maura. She took a long drink, thanked him and melted into one of the lounge chairs.
Within the hour, our group of friends were sitting poolside. There was Don, the deputy director of the Peace Corps, and his wife Candy who was an executive with Save the Children. They owned the house. Dave and Terry, who both worked at the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador, were there. Lane and Kelly, who had recently moved from El Salvador to Guatemala, were the last to arrive. Lane was Country Director of Catholic Relief Services (CRS) and Kelly consulted for UNICEF. I loved hanging out with this group, although their professional dedication to good works and higher callings sometimes made me wonder if I was doing enough with my life.
As we floated in the pool, we chatted about typical expatriate topics: safety, the economy, local politics, and the latest stomach illnesses. Inevitably, the conversation drifted to what we planned to do next in our careers. Expats tend to be transients, usually staying only a few years in a given job or location. Most of us had been in the country for at least two years and were all beginning to plan what came next.
Dave, we learned, was being considered for a big promotion that would take him to Colombia. Terry wanted to move to Indonesia and hoped to shift from the consular section to the economic development track. Lane and Kelly talked about their dreams to move to Ecuador or Africa and continue their work for the poor. “What’s next for the Rampollas?” Terry asked.
The question was timely. We’d been living in El Salvador for almost three years and Maura and I talked constantly about the paths we might take: what was best for our new family, our careers and us as a couple. Maura could do her consulting work from anywhere, but for me I admitted, “that’s a tough one.”
I told them that work at IP was going well and that I’d likely soon be running all of Latin America for my division, which made it worth staying a few more years. Then I would be ready to move on and it looked like there might be opportunities for me in Europe or Brazil.
“So it sounds like you’re on your way,” Terry said.
“I guess,” I said, “but . . .” I looked around at the group. “The truth is that I don’t know that paper and packaging is really what I want to dedicate my life to. If I leave IP, I guess my next logical career move would be to run the Latin America operations for some big U.S. company. But I know what that job would mean: We live in Miami and I travel 100-200 days per year. And for what? So I can make a ton of money for the company, some for us, work my way up the ladder and eventually retire and spend my days golfing? That’s not what either of us want so I’m not really sure what we’re going to do.”
Maura, worried that I was heading into an existential crisis, chimed in: “Mark, there’s a million things we can do. And yes, many of them are more interesting and inspirational than packaging.”
“Maybe it’s time for me to move to the nonprofit world,” I said. “Maybe I’ll return to the Peace Corps and take over for Don when he retires. Or maybe Lane, you can find me something at CRS.”
“Mark, you’d be great in nonprofit but I think you’d be frustrated. Change is incremental and slow and it can be very political,” Lane said. “With your background and experience I think you can make a bigger impact in the private sector.”
I thought back to my Peace Corps experience as a small business development consultant in Costa Rica. No doubt, I helped change a few lives but on a frustratingly small scale. I had always struggled with how to reconcile my belief in making a social impact with my interest in business. My dad was a nuclear physicist and my mom a counselor, artist and teacher. Morality, spiritual purpose, social responsibility and even war and poverty in El Salvador were regular dinner table conversations in our Italian/Irish Catholic family. My parents also practiced what they preached, taking us to swim at the all-black public pool in town, bringing an unwed-teenage mother to live with us and adopting a Bosnian refugee family.
In college at Marquette University, I found myself drawn to study business after meeting friends with entrepreneurial parents, intrigued by their dynamic world full of challenging opportunities to shape the future and frankly to make a lot of money. This was the era of Gordon Gekko in the movie Wall Street and “greed is good” was the maxim of the day. I struggled with how to reconcile what appeared to be disparate worlds. On the one hand I wanted to become a young master of the universe. On the other, I was pulled toward my family’s value of social activism and a desire to give something to the world.
After the Peace Corps, I continued to wrestle with these issues in graduate school at Duke University while pursuing dual degrees in business administration and environmental management. One class would focus on profit maximization and the importance of shareholder value. In the next, I’d learn how businesses could have a devastating impact on poor communities and sensitive environments. While there I met Maura, who was pursuing her Master’s in Public Health at neighboring UNC Chapel Hill, and we soon started dating. She came from a like-minded family and held similar values but also had a magnetic and near uncontainable joie de vivre. Her enthusiasm added a whole new dimension to the equation: that of having pure fun and enjoying life.
Because Maura and I were in serious debt from grad school, I decided to take whatever job paid well and gave me the fastest chance to actually run a business. That turned out to be old, industrial International Paper. After two years of strategy and business development in their corporate headquarters and traveling to Europe, Latin America and Asia, I was offered an opportunity to run a business in El Salvador and we jumped at it.
Now, three years later we had “made it” by most traditional standards. We were happily married and building a family. My salary allowed us to pay down all of our debt, have a big house and a staff of three. I ran a multi-national business with three hundred employees and was meeting with presidents, ambassadors and dignitaries of various countries. I was on the fast track to the highest executive ranks of a Fortune 50 company. Maura consulted with public-health nonprofits and supported rural community projects. We dined in the finest restaurants, vacationed in exotic spots, contributed to worthy charities. I also considered myself (and believe others did, too) a good and ethical businessperson. We had it all. Or did we?
Sometimes, the closer you get to your goals, the more you realize they’re not really your goals.
As I talked with our friends that day I knew clearly that something was missing. I was beginning to see the limitations of achieving “success’ in business—at least how success had been traditionally defined. I noticed many others who had achieved success sacrifice their personal health and destroy relationships with friends and family or make decisions that negatively affected the lives of dozens or hundreds of people. Most businesspeople I knew were passionately competitive, but very few I met could give me a compelling answer why they were playing the game in the first place.
“Don’t worry about it, amor. We’ll figure it out,” Maura reassured me. “Instead can we focus on what’s really important? May I have another agua de coco with a little limón, por favor? The bebecita and I are parched. What in the world will we do without coconut water when we move back to the States some day?”
Of course at the time, we had no idea that we were holding the literal seed of a great idea right there in our hands. I certainly had no idea I would quit my lucrative job, we would move to New York, launch Zico, and struggle for years just to survive without knowing if we had risked it all for nothing. In that moment, we couldn’t have imagined that we would help to catalyze a $7 billion global industry that would revolutionize the beverage industry, contribute to the health and wellness of millions of consumers, lead to billions of dollars of investment in developing countries and the employment of hundreds of thousands of people. We didn’t know we would build a great team and engage yogis, nutritionists, celebrities and athletes to help tell our story. And we certainly had no idea that in addition to achieving conventional success and greater financial freedom than we could have imagined, this whole process would strengthen our marriage and family, improve my health, help us to become more spiritual and realize what was truly important in life. Yet, when I think about how it all started, my mind goes back to the memory of watching Maura, six months pregnant, drink down the water from those freshly harvested coconuts that day by the pool.
The idea was right there over our heads. We just had to reach a little higher.
My journey from Peace Corps volunteer to corporate executive to becoming an entrepreneur was fundamentally motivated and guided by the pursuit of something higher. It was about more than money, more than conventional success. We achieved those, too, but they were the low-hanging fruit. Not to say they were at all easy, but they were more obvious goals. Right there, in front of us. Fortunately, by reaching higher we achieved so much more. Building Zico and pursuing these higher goals wasn’t easy and the path was never straight or clear. Maura and I navigated through the heart-wrenching pains of start-up mode, the all-consuming intensity of building a new brand, brutal competition and all the physical, mental, emotional and moral challenges that the modern business world could throw at us. Yet we survived and in fact achieved more than we ever could have dreamed well beyond the typical entrepreneurial success story.
In that often told story, an entrepreneur finds some brilliant way to do something ten times better, faster or cheaper than what is on the market today. They launch a risky new business with the goal of capturing a big chunk of some huge market dominated by a corporate behemoth. They face many challenges along the way but power through with brute force and determination to capture the hearts and minds of their customers. They go on to build a hugely profitable business, take their company public, sell to a corporate buyer or stay at the helm for a lifetime. They amass a personal fortune, buy the big house on the hill and a ranch in Montana and fill them with art and all the toys. They vacation on yachts in the French Riviera or in rural eco-lodges in Cambodia or just “hang” with their celebrity friends in the Swiss Alps. They’re interviewed by Fast Company, Wired and Fortune, and get invited to speak at TED, Aspen, Davos or Summit Series to share their secrets to success. To “give back,” they start a foundation, fund a new building for their college, support worthy causes and commit to give away 50 percent of their wealth before they die. What more could a businessperson want?
We often celebrate entrepreneurs who are willing to lay it all on the line for success. Yet all too often you can “win” by the conventional measures while betraying your personal values and some deep human needs like your desire to experience joy, creativity, fun, spirituality, beauty and love on a daily basis. It’s possible to cruise off into the sunset after damaging the health of your consumers, profiting unfairly from the work of employees or suppliers, burning through precious resources, leaving a wake of environmental devastation and leading a life utterly lacking in awareness and contemplation and filled instead with an obsessive pursuit of “just a little more.”
Maura and I count ourselves among a generation of entrepreneurs and business leaders who are reaching for something higher. We reject the old adage, “Nothing personal. It’s just business.” In fact, we put our hearts and souls into making our businesses fundamentally and deeply personal. Success requires that our ventures reflect our individual values, personal priorities, and passions. Entrepreneurs who are guided by a reliable internal compass are those who produce the products and services that make the world a better place while simultaneously minimizing their negative impact. They build businesses that have an uplifting positive impact on everyone—including the founder(s), employees, families, suppliers, business partners and investors—not just in some distant future but throughout the journey.
Not only are we not willing to sacrifice our marriages, families, friendships, passions, health and values for business success, we expect our ventures to enhance our families, strengthen our relationships, and align with our dreams, passions and life ambitions. We are convinced our professional life must nourish us on a level far deeper than simply putting food on the table and money in the bank. We view our ventures as an opportunity to learn about ourselves; our strengths, weaknesses, values and priorities. The idea of success for us is not a distant, hoped-for payout but something we work to experience continuously. In fact, if the daily journey of creating your business is a meaningful, challenging and personal quest, it becomes an endeavor where you literally cannot lose. Regardless of the business’s eventual success or failure by conventional measures, the adventure will have been worth it and the world will be a better place because you set and worked toward your intention. This is what I mean by reaching higher.
Seem like high-minded goals that might make starting or succeeding in business even more difficult than it already is? I argue—and here is the key counterintuitive argument of this book—that your chances of “winning” by conventional measures are far more likely if you reach higher from day one. Passion is a magnet for the best and brightest talent. Great employees want to work for bosses who are driven by high personal standards and have the enthusiasm of being on a personal mission. Investors are looking for these entrepreneurs as well, seeking to make an impact with their investments while they generate strong returns. Most importantly, today’s informed and engaged consumer is tired of being pandered and talked down to. They are scouring the marketplace for products and services that offer something meaningful. All these factors make this new breed of entrepreneurs dangerous to the established corporate order. They are poised to overhaul whole industries—from energy, transportation, financial services and health care to apparel, technology, media and food and beverage.
The old guard will fight back and they won’t always fight fair. They’ll deploy advertising designed to manipulate the consumer, promote unfair regulations, attempt to control routes to market, and employ armies of lawyers to defend their turf. But all these tactics will only delay the inevitable. Major corporations will either lose fighting these insurgent players or be forced to assimilate their values and mission.
High-hanging fruit is not just an incremental change to the old way of doing business. While social responsibility was an important step for major corporations to adopt, it is often used to justify, ameliorate or offset the negative consequences of regular business practices, with profit remaining the true bottom line. Social entrepreneurship generally attempts to use business to achieve social objectives, and expands the concept of the bottom line to include people and the planet. But the entrepreneurs I’m talking about set out as a given that their businesses must contribute to larger social goals and minimize environmental impact, and also add a new dimension to the triple bottom line: that of finding deeper meaning through business by pursuing one’s highest and best use and helping others do the same.
This revolution is poised to change the world by combining the power of entrepreneurship with deep, personal values, purpose and mission. Since we launched Zico in 2004 we have witnessed hundreds and know there are thousands of other entrepreneurs following a similar path. No longer do the winners have to be Harvard dropouts or serial entrepreneurs who can trace their business genius back to their days of franchising lemonade stands around the neighborhood. They might begin as teachers, backwoods craftsmen, social activists, environmentalists, small farmers, anthropologists, Jesuit priests or cancer-surviving moms. I believe that most of our shared social problems, from the economic boom and bust cycles to income and development inequalities to environmental degradation, can best be addressed through this new style of entrepreneurship. This is capitalism 2.0 and we’re only at the beginning.
High-Hanging Fruit is not a how-to book or a step-by-step instructional manual. It is not a rigorously scientific study across multiple test cases. This story is my personal reflection on the journey of attempting to build a business with these higher goals in mind. It’s about one person, one couple’s, one team’s attempt to reach higher. I will offer lessons, thoughts, and insights I’ve gained to take on an industry ruled by a few dominant players. I’ll share our intentions and triumphs, as well as my doubts, fears, and mistakes along the way as we tried to change the way business is done.
People talk a lot about the importance of being true to your values and seeking something beyond material rewards in other areas like art, music, writing, science, teaching and drama. We must apply this maxim to business: to see business as an equally noble pursuit measured by more than just a single dimension. That’s what this movement is about. If you choose to join us your life, the lives of those around you, and the legacy of capitalism will never be the same and the next generation will thank you for it. Good luck and reach higher.
Excerpted from High-Hanging Fruit: Build Something Great by Going Where No One Else Will in agreement with Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Mark Rampolla, 2016. Order it here.