Happy Family’s Shazi Visram and Danone’s Lorna Davis on How Going Big Doesn’t Have to Mean Selling Out

After Danone Acquired Happy Family, Both Companies Work Together to Foster a Culture of Social Responsibility

Shazi Visram of Happy Family Brands and Lorna Davis of Danone at the 2016 B Inspired talks in Philadelphia.

Shazi Visram of Happy Family Brands and Lorna Davis of Danone at the 2016 B Inspired talks in Philadelphia.

Each year, leaders of B Corporations gather from around the world to share successes, brainstorm struggles, and create a stronger community of people using business as a force for good. In 2016, the gathering was focused on the theme “Towards an Inclusive Economy.”

Business leaders discussed what an inclusive economy is and why it matters. They shared ways to create opportunity for all people, to make it possible for all people to live with dignity, support themselves and their families, and to make a contribution to their communities. Leaders promoted the ways business can do this most effectively and the role of business in creating an economy that is more inclusive.

Several leaders of B Corps took the stage during the event to give a “B Inspired” talk on the theme of inclusion. Below is an interview done by Rebecca Rosen of The Atlantic, with Shazi Visram of Happy Family Brands and Lorna Davis of Danone on the importance of scaling and transforming your company — big or small — with integrity. Prefer to watch? You can watch a recorded video of the interview at the end of this story. To see the other 2016 B Inspired videos, head over to our B Inspired Video hub page. Plus, learn more about Visram’s shift from social-enterprise founder to funder in the profile from B Magazine.


Rebecca Rosen: I’m so excited to have this opportunity to speak with Shazi Visram and Lorna Davis. We’re going to be talking about how small B Corps can scale up and have a bigger impact on the world, and we’re going to be speaking specifically to the relationship between Happy Family and Danone.

Why don’t we just start with Shazi? Happy Family’s having its 10-year anniversary now. Can you just give us a little bit of the story of how you built Happy Family?

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Shazi Visram: Actually, it started as Happy Baby. Thirteen years ago, I had this idea which was to kind of change the world with organic baby food. I know it sounds cheesy, but it’s real. The dream was that if we could, in our country, really focus on nutrition in those very, very early stages of life, we could actually make an impact that lasts with the child their whole life because the first couple of years are really critical in terms of building that blueprint for life. I don’t know how this all came to me, but I realized that if I could focus on helping children, the business could also be really wonderful. Modern, warm brand, also support sustainable agriculture, and really talk about organics and why it’s so important to avoid all these pesticides and toxins as our babies’ bodies are developing.

I had this big dream, and I was at business school at the time actually. I just started really small, started in my kitchen, a tiny, little, galley kitchen in Brooklyn, and made five recipes from the beginning. Well, actually, 10 recipes, but five products. We launched on Mother’s Day 2006. It took me a little while to kind of get started and raise $550,000 to get the company started. There were investors as big as $50,000 and as small as $2,500. I don’t come from a really wealthy background. You know, it was a stretch for me, but we raised the money. We launched in five stores in Manhattan in 2006. That year we did about $115,000 in sales, which was not going to be the impactful business that I had imagined. I wanted to create this nationally impactful brand that would change the way our children were eating, and we started with this frozen product that wasn’t immediately received. Retailers would buy it and moms loved it when they could find it back in the freezer, but it was the beginning of something.

Throughout it all, I kind of kept this true north of what we were trying to do with our mission. This year, I think we’re going to hit $150 million in sales … or close.

We have a number of wonderful products and so much innovation, and so much love and heart and soul has really gone into building this business of 10 years that it really does feel like my child.

Three years ago, oddly enough, also on Mother’s Day, seven years to the day that we launched, we did a deal with Groupe Danone. We were growing so fast that I knew we needed a partner, and I had this really huge vision of everything. You know, as you’re building something, sometimes you realize … you climb a little higher and you can see a brighter horizon and then your mission evolves and expands. It kind of happened with me. I started seeing that not only was there an opportunity to change the way children were fed in our country, there was this opportunity to change the way children were fed around the world. We needed a partner to do that.

It’s really scary, actually, scaling a business that fast when you’re servicing a vulnerable population like babies. Out of every big, consumer-packaged goods kind of powerhouse in the world, there was only one that I ever really truly considered selling to and partnering with, and that was Groupe Danone. That was because these guys are the real deal. When they talk about social responsibility, they really are that. Nowadays, there’s a lot of bigger food brands who acquire these little guys to build credibility, especially with millennials, especially as we’re all changing and demanding to know what’s in our food. We have the time and the ability to research every little thing, and we make the choices that we believe in for our families with our wallets. A lot of the older, kind of old-school companies have recognized that these smaller brands are actually taking away from their bigger business, and so it’s commonplace for them to grab up little brands and try to use those little brands in a way to tell this story of how they’re so innovative and amazing.

It was 1972 where the founder of Groupe Danone, who had grown this company, said, “You know what? Anything in our portfolio that doesn’t actually support health, we’re going to get rid of it.” That is a big, big, bold move. It really impressed me. Even in business school when I was writing the first business plan, I wrote about how one day a dream of mine would be to partner with Groupe Danone. It’s a little bit crazy because, literally, seven years to the day, we sealed this partnership.

I think you guys know this, but when I first moved to America, I grew up in a motel room for like seven, eight years, with my family. Anything I’ve ever wanted has happened for me, and it’s because I think if you go out there with a pure heart and think about what you want and what you want to build, you end up starting to build it.

Anyway, I’m here to share parts of those stories but also to share the story of me and Lorna because Lorna is like my soulmate within Danone. It’s just been really cool to see this happen, to create that partnership, and now, in my wildest dreams, my vision and my mission for what Happy can do has become so much bigger as a result of this relationship.

Your company can become a force for good when you download our FREE Special Report, Changemakers like John Replogle and Mandy Cabot Reveal B Corporation Benefits for Their Businesses.

Rosen: Lorna, can you tell us from Danone’s perspective: How did you look at this partnership? What did you see in Happy Family, and what was the strategy behind that decision?

Lorna Davis: Danone has a mission to bring health through food to as many people as possible. As Shazi said, we’ve been on that mission for a long time. We are also very passionate about the early years of life because if you can give the right nutrition from the moment of conception to eight years old, you’re really setting a human on their way mentally, emotionally and physically in the best possible way. We have been refining that mission over the years, and we have four major business streams: the dairy business, the water business, the early-life nutrition business, and a medical business, all of them obviously in that sort of framework.

When we met Shazi … I think you can see for yourself why we thought this was such an amazing business. Not only was it a terrific business, exactly in the territory that we’re passionate about, but we got Shazi. It’s difficult for me to explain what Shazi does in our company, but I think maybe the best way to describe it is that if you had a really big glass of water and you just put a spoon of sugar in it, it changes the whole glass of water, right? Only a small spoon of sugar changes the entire system. Shazi’s impact on the way that she thinks has impacted us enormously and impacts me every time we interact. I think to say that where we are on this B Corp journey now has been deeply affected, influenced by Shazi.

Today we have made, inside our company, a commitment to become a B Corp at the same time as we’ve made our goals that are in line with the Sustainable Development Goals of 2030. We have partnered with B Corps and are taking 14 of our business units through the B Impact Assessment.

Visram: Just so you guys know, so much of this has come from Lorna and from Emmanuel [Faber], our fearless leader at Danone. He wants to change the world, and he’s always looking for the right people to come and make a difference. The first time I met you was … I think it was two years ago, and I shared so many ideas and some frustrations because, of course, that’s going to be the case, but mostly just ideas and vision. I can’t tell you, but every single time I see Lorna, get an email from her or hear about her, she has moved mountains. There’s something so exciting about that because, you know, those of us who are in smaller businesses, B Corps who are fighting the good fight every day … I could fight for the rest of my life to make the impact that Lorna’s been able to make with her wherewithal in the two years that I’ve known her.

That’s the beauty of trading up. It’s not selling out, it’s selling up. It gets me so excited. I can’t even tell you all the things that this woman has done. Meanwhile, you know, from a big-company standpoint, this is a human being that I’ve grown to love and respect as a friend. I’d always imagined big company, big corporation kind of … I don’t know, cold: It’s all business; it’s all process, but it’s not like that. I think there’s something that I’ve learned from this experience that has shown me that there are a lot of big companies out there that need to make change to catch up to the demands that we as enlightened consumers are requesting, but the people within those corporations, they’re inherently good. It’s easier to approach them with an open heart than with that skepticism that comes with sometimes thinking about … you know, like a big company.

I’ll tell you, I just had a baby, and we almost lost our baby. My water broke at 16 weeks, which shouldn’t happen. It was terrifying. Joe — my husband’s here — we went through a lot to try to get pregnant and have this baby. It was just one of the lowest lows, and we thought it wasn’t going to happen. I live pretty far away from where Lorna was when she was flying all around the world doing all of the crazy stuff that she does, and she found her way to my house to sit with me while I was on bed rest.

Your company can become a force for good when you download our FREE Special Report, Changemakers like John Replogle and Mandy Cabot Reveal B Corporation Benefits for Their Businesses.

Davis: One of the reasons I really wanted to do it was I wanted to see what Shazi was like still.

Rosen: You obviously share this deep affection and such closeness, and the relationship between Happy Family and Danone is clearly so mutually positive. I imagine going into it you really had some inhibitions or fears about what it would mean for Happy Family to link up with such a big company. Can you talk about what you were concerned about going into the partnership and any insights or advice you would have for other people facing a similar decision?

Visram: I was certainly nervous. I’ve never really been part of a big company or a corporation. There’s a different language, and it takes a while to learn that language. I was kind of worried that I wasn’t going to fit in. Well, I knew I wasn’t going to fit in, obviously, but how was I going to become articulate in that style of speaking in order to get the alignment and advance our goals and our needs? Especially within a company like Danone, because you’ve got literally people from all around the world.

Another thing is just on alignment. With us entrepreneurs, you think one thing one day is the way for the future, and nine things happen, and the good entrepreneurs are able to quickly sit back, assimilate, make a decision, pivot, and go in a different direction. That’s how we’re able to accomplish so much so fast. But with bigger corporations, part of what you’re getting is this process, is this discipline, is a structure. How do you keep that fast-paced ability to make your own decisions, make moves, change your strategy quickly, but also do it within a big corporation? Those were definitely challenges. I’m not going to pretend it’s always been like sunshine-and-rainbows easy, but the point I wanted to make is that when you have alignment with the people and there’s a shared vision for what you can do, all of that stuff gets worked out.

Rosen: Similarly, for you, Lorna, I think that being this kind of bridge between some of the B Corps and other social impact businesses and a big company like Danone, you’re bridging two worlds, as well. What has that been like for you to navigate and what’s your role in that?

Davis: It’s interesting how this translation process is very important for big companies on this journey, because our dream is that in 10 years’ time that people will say, “Wow, you know, imagine. There was a time when corporations didn’t care about people and the planet. Imagine.” You know? We want it to be like that, and to get from here to there means we have to think differently and then use our scale for good. We have 100,000 people. We’re a $25 billion business.

The people we hang out with is basically very important, and one of the things that we’re inspired by with the whole B Corp movement is that we believe that the people that you spend your time with are the people you become like. I don’t know the people in this room, but I’m sure I want to hang out with them.

It’s one of the reasons that we are committed to social business. We have social businesses all over the world that don’t make money particularly, and some of them lose a lot of money, but we learn things about how to deal with governments, how to deal with non-governmental organizations and how to really care about the planet and the people around us.

I think bridging that gap’s really important. We’ve just bought WhiteWave Corporation in the United States that makes Silk, Horizon, Earthbound Farms, Vega, So Delicious, International Delight. We’re going to join the Danone North American business to the WhiteWave business in North America and become a public benefit corporation, which is very cool.

Visram: It’s also really cool because it makes Danone the biggest organic food company in the world, which to me is, like, bar none, we made the right choice.

Your company can become a force for good when you download our FREE Special Report, Changemakers like John Replogle and Mandy Cabot Reveal B Corporation Benefits for Their Businesses.

Davis: What’s cool is, that backstage, before coming in here, Shazi and I were talking about, “How do we integrate that business with grace and protect it and maintain its integrity?” You know, Shazi’s obviously got a strong point of view about that, and I’m listening, trying to work out how are we going to bring it into the organization enough so that it doesn’t get rejected by the antibodies of our big company because we do speak another language? How do we use it to make an enormous impact on the rest of the organization, just like Shazi has already? This is a translation job that I think is the job of all of us in this room as we try and bridge many different stakeholders in this game that we’re all part of.

Rosen: You were telling me earlier a story that I think our audience would probably really enjoy hearing about — your early interactions with the B Corp movement.

Davis: When I was at a B Corp convention a couple of months ago and I was talking about Danone’s point of view. I could tell that there were some people in the audience that were enthusiastic to welcome big companies like us into the movement and there were other people in the audience who were wary about us and wondering if we were cynical and doing this for the wrong reasons. Pedro Tarak — who I’m sure many of you know is the co-founder of Sistema B [B Lab South America] and is in many ways one of the big symbols of B Corp-ness for us — made an extremely important gesture. He welcomed me onto the stage, and he gave me a bag of maté and one of those fabulous maté cups and sent a strong message to everybody in the room that we were welcomed.

One of the things that we find difficult is — we think we should be perfect before we’re allowed to be part of the game, and we’re a big company — we’re not perfect. We’ve got a long way to go, but the generosity of that gesture was really important to me. I have actually told that story a couple of times inside Danone to make the point that we are welcome, and so many of the people inside our company have been deeply touched by that because we want to be part of this movement. I think those kinds of gestures are really important in both directions because, just as B Corp is needing to scale with integrity, we’re needing to move and change and transform with integrity, too. I was very grateful to Pedro, and I’m sad he’s not here today, but please tell him I say, “Thank you.”

Visram: I think everyone knows that Lorna is one of us and you’re just bigger. You represent something bigger, but you’re one of us. It’s always good to be with like-minded people. We’ve learned so much from Danone. It’s a two-way street. In life you get to different phases in your life where you accomplish something or have gotten really close to meeting your goals, and then you start thinking about what’s next. I actually feel like I learned from you and the way you handle situations and your communication style and so many things that inspire me to broaden my horizons and develop. With the right intentions, it’s a really nice two-way street to travel on.

 

Learn more about Happy Family Brand’s sale to Danone and the company’s commitment to impact investing in Shazi Visram’s Journey From Impact Entrepreneur to Impact InvestorTo watch more B Inspired talks by business leaders sharing top ideas for a more inclusive economy, head over to our B Inspired Video hub page.

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