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by Dee Sangi, Laura Vasquez, Olalekan Olaniyi, and Jason Acevedo
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On November 28, about 60  members of the Montgomery College community–including a dozen Hillman Entrepreneurs–attended a presidential dialogue series with Seth Goldman, the co-founder and CEO of Honest Tea. Goldman earned his bachelor’s degree at Harvard University and his master’s degree at the Yale School of Management and now focuses on his successful business, Honest Tea, out of Bethesda, MD even as he explores new business concepts related to healthy and ethical foods.  As reported by Hillman student Jason Acevedo, “Goldman was proud to announce that Honest Tea is the top selling organic tea in the United States in just the last year, selling over 700 million servings.” Here is a review of this informative and thought-provoking talk as experienced by four of the Hillman students who attended.

Vision of a Social Entrepreneur

Before engaging in a dialogue with MC President, Dr. DeRionne Pollard, Goldman commented on what the American dream means for entrepreneurs. As pointed out by Acevedo, “Goldman’s vision is focused on how to help through business, bring intention to every decision, and to never stop challenging yourself.  Honest Tea reinforces his vision by joining the Fair-Trade Movement, and by giving back to the communities from which Honest Tea sources its products. Honest Tea has paid over $1.5 million in premiums since they joined the Fair-Trade Movement in 2003.” 

Honest Tea: A Product Reflecting Health and Human Connection

During the presidential dialogue, Dr. Pollard asked Goldman questions about the start-up, goals, and difficulties of his business. Hillman student Laura Vasquez reports, “Years ago, he saw that there were many sugary drinks with lots of calories that were being sold to the public. He wanted to create something healthier, not only for human beings, but for the planet as well. The need he saw for healthier drinks opened new doors for him to start his business idea. However, he wanted to make his products available for everyone, not just the wealthiest people who could afford it. Mr. Goldman shared that on a trip to Russia and China, he noticed people drank a lot of tea. He learned that through drinking tea with other people, ‘friendships are formed, and sorrows are shared.’ It connects people to people and people to nature.”
Vasquez continues: “Mr. Goldman also stressed the importance of how our purchases are basically a “vote” for what we, as the consumers, want. If we want to live a certain way, we must vote for it with our purchases because companies see where our money goes, and they will be producing what we vote for. Mr. Goldman is currently working on expanding his company by creating a sports and kids drink.”
Hillman student Olalekan Olaniyi was focused on Goldman’s perception of “himself as an activist embodied in a businessman.” Olaniyi recalls, “He talked about the consequences of purchasing certain products from certain geographic regions, and how sales of these products affect those regions in term of healthcare and infrastructure. For example, Mr. Goldman went to South Central China in search of tea-bush for his business. There he discovered that to reach the land where the tea-bush was cultivated, a boat ride was required as the place was secluded from the mainland. He suggested a bridge be built but experts soon found out that though a bridge would make access to the tea-bush easier, the tea-bush itself would suffer as a bridge would attract more people to the tea-bush, and civilization would occur in the region, which is not good for farming.”

Fair Trade Equals Good Business

Olaniyi also shared that “Mr. Goldman talked about the importance of fair trade as it relates to his values as a business owner and the values of the customer. He mentioned that fair trade is important to his brand even though promoting and supporting it came at a cost. According to him, practicing fair trade keeps the integrity of his business, but at a cost as he has paid over $1.5 million in premium. These funds in turn help fair trade communities with projects like schools, industrial farming, ambulances etc.” 

Advice to Aspiring Entrepreneurs

Goldman also took questions from the audience where he gave meaningful advice to entrepreneurs. Two Hillman entrepreneurs, Sena Linsoussi and Olalekan Olaniyi, took advantage of this opportunity to ask Goldman about how he got started and if there was a limit to what he would invest in his business. Olaniyi asked Goldman about the biggest obstacle he ever faced as a businessman and at what cost was he willing to go to preserve his allegiance to fair trade which he deemed “the right thing to do.” Goldman responded by telling a story about his family and how he handled the sickness of his son. In other words, he treats his customers like he would his own family.
Students were also impressed to hear Goldman’s formula for starting a business in response to another question from the audience.  He responded with 3 important things for new start-up ventures. 1) The need for a vision to identify what you want to build. 2) creating a team and communicating your vision to them, so they can assemble it. 3) Giving your team the resources they need to do the job and carry out the vision. As Vasquez pointed out, “I’ve spoken to different entrepreneurs before, and they all had different formulas for starting a business. However, I thought this particular formula was distinct because it is like a step-by-step instruction on how to improve chances of succeeding in the business world. This was my favorite formula an entrepreneur has given, so I will be using it for when I am ready to start-up my venture.”  

Final Impressions and Lessons Learned

Vasquez was impressed that “Honest Tea still upheld its values of encouraging sustainability within communities and the planet even though they are now owned by Coca-Cola. Mr. Goldman said it’s very different working with people who now own the company, but he says Coca-Cola is aware of what he stands for, so they try not to go against the values of the business. . . .  After attending this event, I will not be buying sugary drinks any longer and start supporting those companies that share similar values with me. I learned that one little action or baby step can make a huge difference, and I’m here for it.”
Furthermore, Dee Sangi reflected on these lessons Goldman shared, stating that he “encouraged entrepreneurs to come up a vision, communicate with people to find the right people to work with, and to find investors. He also taught me that it is okay not to know what you want to do yet, as long as you keep searching. He encouraged entrepreneurs to get  comfortable in an unfamiliar situations or places.  Although he has always wanted to launch something, he thought it was a scary idea. However, before starting Honest Tea, he had no idea doing business would be this fun!  Goldman looks  happy and excited talking about his job and product. This really excites me about owning my own business. I hope to be as positive as him one day.”
Jason Acevedo also learned a lot from Seth Goldman, pointing out “Something that was remarkable for me was his concept of vision. Honest Tea has a great vision by taking care of the planet and their consumers and that is how Goldman passed this vision to his employees and made a successful product and company. I also learned from Goldman that we should be self-dependent and resourceful to succeed. I will apply this advice on my daily life in order to be successful. Seth Goldman had a smile on his face all the time and it made me realize that he loves what he does and that is why I will apply his advice to my life.”
If you missed this fascinating discussion, you can catch it here on YouTube: Presidential Dialogue with Seth Goldman.

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