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