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Commentary

Blair Kellison is CEO of Sonoma County-based tea producer Traditional Medicinals.

On May 19, the School of Business and Economics at Sonoma State University held a commencement ceremony for 550 graduating business and economics students. The event speaker was Blair Kellison, CEO of Sebastopol-based Traditional Medicinals, an herbal tea company which is a Certified B Corporation and California Certified Green Business. Here are his remarks.


I’d like to thank Sonoma State for this opportunity to speak to you. I’ve enjoyed a long and meaningful relationship with the university over the years. Bill Silver (former dean of Sonoma State University’s School of Business and Economics) and I moved to Sonoma County the same month 10 years ago and became fast friends.

For the undergraduates, I majored in accounting and then went on to work at E&Y. For the MBA students, I got my MBA from University of Chicago MBA program and then moved to Los Angeles to work as a brand manager for the Nestle Food Company.

My best career move was made while working at Nestle, when I joined the 19th Street Natural Foods coop in Santa Monica. I discovered a whole new world of healthy, organic, fair-trade products from mission-driven companies. My Nestle peers started calling me the MBA granola head. I took a 70 percent pay cut and went to work for an organic, vegetarian food company in Petaluma.

What really happened was I finally found a job that I really loved with products I really believed in. And it was so much more than a job. I had found my purpose and my people. These natural foods companies are doing so much more than making food — they are changing agricultural practices, cooling the planet, paying fair wages, connecting people to where their food comes from and creating a new sustainable business model. I wanted to be part of that.

I am currently CEO of Traditional Medicinals, an herbal tea company here in Sonoma County. In 1974 our founder pioneered a new social business model where we take into account all our stakeholders, from herb growers to our employees to our investors. The people growing our herbs are just as much a stakeholder as our investors. Over 1,000 kids in India, mostly children whose parents grow herbs for us, attend one of our five owned and operated primary schools.

We’re not making tea, we’re changing lives. We believe that we all rise together.

The two greatest issues you will hear discussed in your lifetime are climate change and income inequality.

Business can be a vehicle for addressing both issues and making real change.

With your degrees today you are now equipped to participate in this paradigm shift in business models. Companies need courageous, transparent leaders who are willing to tackle the tough issues and push their organizations to do more good. This is where you come in.

When you are interviewing for jobs, ask about sustainability. Ask about their supply chain and where things come from and ask how they value their employees. Ask these questions of each person you interview with and see if you get consistent answers.

At my company, part of an employee’s annual review is based on their adherence to our company’s values. If you’re not embracing our values-like respect and assuming positive intent you can’t work for us. We call it the “no jerk rule.” Donald Trump may be president of the United States but he couldn’t get a job at Traditional Medicinals.

Commentary

Blair Kellison is CEO of Sonoma County-based tea producer Traditional Medicinals.

Over the years I’ve seen a lot of what makes people successful and happy in their careers — so here is my collection of thoughts on what I’ve learned…

How do you get from your seat here today to where you are going?

If we all knew our futures we wouldn’t even get out of bed in the morning.

No one has it all figured out at any age and you surely don’t need to today. Just get started collecting experience. Remember each week you get two paychecks — one is money and one is experience. Always take the job with the biggest experience paycheck. You can lose all your money but you can never lose any of your experience.

Way leads to way. Each step leads you down a path and each path leads to another path. This is exactly how both life and careers work. Be mindful of your choices and choose wisely. It is your choices that reveal who you are and determine where you are going.

Life is short, yes, but careers are long. Find something you like to do.

Take time to get to know yourself. Pay attention to things and events that really make you happy and evoke passion. Get yourself into an organization that is aligned with those passions — a place that allows for you to be your true self. If you can’t be yourself you will never be authentic, and authenticity is essential to good leadership.

To the female graduates — don’t go to work for a company that would pay a woman less than a man for the same job. That nonsensical inequality has to stop.

Never underestimate your ability to make an ordinary job extraordinary by expanding and changing it and making it a reflection of you. Do the tasks no one else wants to do because they are too hard or too risky of failure. No task should ever be too big or too small for you.

Leaders exist at all levels of all organizations. You don’t need to be a CEO to be a leader. There is a need everywhere for leadership, in the workplace, in our communities and our families.

As you go forward it’s not going to be about you anymore. Your success will be measured by what you can get done with others. Leadership and strong character will get you farther than subject matter expertise ever will.

Happiness leads to success — it is not the other way around. Don’t spend your entire career trying to be successful only to find out it did not lead to happiness.

Among the keys to success, purpose is most important. Do you know your purpose? I sure didn’t at your age but you will find it over time.

Have one speed: full tilt. Give it all you’ve got every day. If you’re at a job and not getting paid well enough or don’t like your work, don’t pull back on the throttle – find another place to apply your talents full tilt.

Transparency: Live your life and your career in such a way that if others were to read all your emails and text messages they would only trust and believe in you more.

More than ever be kind, be grateful, be humble.

Life, luck and love are always out there hiding in plain sight. The more you look for them the more you will find them.

I met my wife 23 years ago at the Los Angeles airport on an Avis rental car bus. That conversation led to the source of the single greatest joy in my life. Don’t miss these moments — they can be monumental. She still loves me enough to get up at 7 a.m. today to be here.

No one is going to give you a permission slip to change the world — just go do it.

When I told my dad I was quitting Nestle to sell veggie burgers, I asked him for his advice. He said, “Son you’ve just quit a better job than your dad ever had — you’re on your own now.” I was on my own — and I’ve never looked back.

But being true to oneself is not easy. Oftentimes it is really hard and requires complete conviction. Especially when loved ones are advising you differently than what you want to do.

Your values and your dreams are your anchors. They are a pole you can never let go of — the rains will come and the winds will blow you sideways, but never let go — eventually the sun will shine and you’ll still be holding onto your values and have been true to yourself.

Your learning does not stop at this graduation. Life is an exercise in continuous learning. Never lose your enthusiasm or curiosity for learning new things or you will become stale — personally and professionally. Continuous learners are the happiest people on earth.

My last advice — You have everything you need inside you today to achieve all your dreams.

These things I’ve talked about today are what really matter. You really matter.

And what you do with your life really matters. Put your talents to use making positive social change through the businesses you work for.

The rewards of living a purposeful life are amazing. At the end of the day I’m just an over achieving B student from Indiana who followed my heart and found my purpose. You’re all a lot smarter than me and can surely accomplish a lot more than me.

Please feel free to contact me for advice — you can find me on LinkedIn. I would enjoy helping you align your passions with your career. Take me up on that.

Speaking to you today has been one of the great honors of my life. Thank you for this opportunity to be part of your special day!

Congratulations to each of you — you’re awesome!